Dean Nalder’s elevation to state cabinet may have surprised some, but Mike Nahan has the runs on the board to perform as treasurer.
Colin Barnett’s first 12 months of his government’s second term, culminating in the implosion of star treasurer and heir apparent, Troy Buswell, could not have been worse. But the premier has moved swiftly to try and steady the ship.
Mike Nahan is the fourth Liberal to hold the treasurer’s portfolio since the election of the Liberal-National alliance in 2008, bearing in mind that both Mr Buswell and the premier have had two stints in the job.
The fourth man is Christian Porter, who was initially seen as heir apparent ahead of Mr Buswell. However he is now in Canberra as the member for Pearce, and his attention is fixed on climbing the greasy pole within the Abbott government and gaining a ministerial position at the first available opportunity.
So while Dr Nahan might not have been in the mix for the key treasurer’s role at the change of government more than five years ago, he has strong credentials for the job, holding a doctorate in economics from the Australian National University.
His role with the Institute of Public Affairs also meant he has been a regular commentator on economic issues.
Similarly, Dean Nalder was not even in the mix for the ministry 12 months ago when elected in Alfred Cove. His broadly based credentials singled him out as one to watch, but it was never envisaged he would be in the cabinet so quickly, let alone holding down the key finance portfolio and politically sensitive transport role.
Dr Nahan’s promotion has been accompanied by commentary that, as a one-time executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, he will be a strong advocate for smaller government, lower taxes, privatisation and contracting out of government services. In fact on the issue of privatisation, one government source told me: “Privatisation? Nahan would want to sell everything”.
Perhaps that’s why the premier, at his news conference to announce the new cabinet positions, was at pains to point out that he would have a hands-on role regarding any decisions about public-owned assets to be sold-off during the next 12 months.
The new treasurer’s immediate challenge will be to put the finishing touches to the state budget to be delivered in May, with most of the hard work having already been done. All the signs are that spending on programs believed to have served their useful purpose will be reined in.
However the medium term strategy is to win back the state’s triple-A credit rating. If Dr Nahan can do that before the next election in 2017 he will have more than earned his spurs.
Dr Nahan indicated he was well aware of the significance of healthy government revenue when he wrote about the importance of a growing population to maximise the benefits of what he referred to as Western Australia’s ‘boom’. That was in 2007, before he became an MP and had to fall into line with Mr Barnett, who was a boom denier.
“The main task is to ensure that as many long-term resource projects get built and are operating, so that when commodity prices do fall and investment slows, we have a large stock of working mines and processing facilities to keep the economy growing and the government coffers full,” he wrote.
“We also need to use the boom to build Perth as a resource hub for the region and beyond. This is a real opportunity and challenge which offers the potential to both diversify the state’s economic base and strengthen the mining and energy sector.”
Investment is certainly now slowing and iron ore prices in particular, have fallen. Unemployment is also rising, meaning population growth will almost certainly slow down, as will revenue growth.
Mr Barnett responded cautiously when asked whether he saw Mr Nalder as a future leader. The member for Alfred Cove has a sound political pedigree and is the state’s first third-generation politician – his Country Party grandfather was deputy premier to Sir David Brand, and his National Party father was the member for Narrogin.
Perhaps Mr Barnett was reminded of the chequered leadership experiences of Matt Birney and Mr Buswell between 2005 and 2008. Both had talent but were ill equipped for such a senior role so early.
The premier eventually offered that his new transport minister did indeed have “leadership qualities”.
Mr Nalder’s first challenge, however, is to adapt to the new responsibilities of overseeing two sensitive portfolios so early in his career.
The premier needs his new look team to settle quickly.
Another bad year could make recovery before the 2017 poll very difficult indeed.