16/12/2010 - 00:00

Policy debate to heat up in 2011

16/12/2010 - 00:00


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Labor’s hoping to open a few cracks in the government’s defences and zero in on problem areas for the premier and his team.

BOTH major parties have been laying the groundwork for a tussle in key policy areas that will have vital implications for their prospects at the next election, a little more than two years away.

In Labor’s case, the results will also be crucial in deciding who leads the party into the election.

Eric Ripper is hoping his decision to promote 11 backbenchers by giving them specific areas of responsibility will effectively zero-in on problem areas for the government.

For example, when work started on the $43 billion Gorgon LNG project, the premier, Colin Barnett, boldly predicted that fabrication workshops south of Perth would have bulging order books.

That hasn’t been the case. In fact many workshops that invested heavily in new plant in anticipation of an upsurge are only operating at about 50 per cent capacity.

That’s why Mr Ripper has appointed former army officer Peter Tinley as the spokesman for local jobs. And it will give Mr Tinley, who replaced former premier Alan Carpenter in the seat of Willagee, the chance to show whether he’s got what it takes to push the government in a sensitive area.

Mr Barnett must be thankful that despite the disappointing story of the fabrication shops, Western Australia still has the lowest unemployment of all the states.

Otherwise there would be much more focus on whether the resources boom is delivering the spin-off jobs in manufacturing.

It’s Mr Tinley’s task to make sure that, unless the record improves substantially, every Western Australian knows by this time next year that a key section of the state’s industry is missing out. And the finger will be pointed at the premier.

Former state Labor secretary Bill Johnston will be responsible for ‘emerging industries’.

The resources sector is very much the government’s comfort zone. But diversification is also crucial, and Mr Johnston’s challenge will be to identify areas with the potential to create new jobs, new industries, or both.

Rita Saffioti, who was a key economics adviser to both Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter, will be spokeswoman for budget management; an area she knows backwards.

Her challenge will be to point out shortcomings in the government’s programs. If she can successfully challenge the economic management strategy, especially if $1 billion surpluses return, Labor could be back in the electoral hunt.

And former WA Conservation Council director Chris Tallentire will be responsible for ‘sustainable living’, an issue that’s starting to gain wider significance thanks to the dry winter and escalating water and power charges.

All four Labor MPs are ambitious. They’ve come into parliament with high expectations. Mr Ripper has given them something to ponder over the summer break, so that they resume next year ready to score points for Labor, and themselves as well.

The cabinet reshuffle is just as important for Mr Barnett and the Liberals.

The premier has conceded that the government’s performance in the last few weeks of the parliamentary session was “scratchy”. There were two reasons for that. One was that the premier himself appeared to tire. His heavy workload, thanks to him also being the stand-in treasurer, appeared to take its toll.

The second was that Labor lifted its game. It was almost as if the opposition MPs were energised. Certainly they exhibited more enthusiasm in tackling issues – and focusing on ministers – than earlier in the year. And some of the government’s less-confident ministers found it hard going.

It was in this environment that Mr Barnett dropped his guard on electricity prices during an early hot spell, when the opposition was claiming the power bills of some consumers were so high they were too scared to turn on the air-conditioning.

“When did it become a necessity to have air-conditioning?” the premier snorted, adding: “it’s not a necessity in the Mediterranean climate Perth has.”

Labor fired back that, while that might be the case in leafy Claremont, well placed to catch the sea breeze, the premier might spare a thought for those living in the eastern suburbs, which are well removed from the coast.

The reaction was similar to that made by former federal Liberal leader John Hewson, about rented houses. He said in the early 1990s it was easy to identify which houses in a street were rented. They were generally the ones with unkempt gardens.

There might be more than a grain of truth in that. But for a politician trying to win over voters, such things are better left unsaid.

Troy Buswell’s return to the front bench, despite opinion poll warnings that it could produce a backlash against the government, is a calculated risk by the premier.

Mr Buswell was sacked as treasurer earlier this year, not because he admitted to an affair with the then Fremantle Greens MP Adele Carles, but because he may have used his allowances inappropriately in the process.

A subsequent inquiry found that was not the case. But by then the die was cast, and Mr Buswell has been forced to cool his heels on the backbench.

It was probably wise not to return the accident-prone Vasse MP to the Treasury portfolio. Given the opinion polls, that would be interpreted as an arrogant and provocative move.

On the other hand, housing is an area he knows well. And providing affordable housing throughout the state promises to be a major challenge over the next few years.

Mr Buswell’s undoubted energy will be needed in that area, but transport will be no less important. Labor loves to ridicule the Liberal record on public transport, frequently pointing to the decision of Sir Charles Court’s government to close the Perth-Fremantle railway 30 years ago.

Brian Burke’s Labor government reopened the line, and Peter Dowding’s administration committed to building the northern railway. The Liberal record claims the credit for committing to the Perth-Mandurah line, although it was Labor that decided the line should enter the city via the Narrows Bridge.

So Mr Buswell’s job will be to get the runs on the board over the next two years to enable the Liberals to boast a strong performance in transport and housing, and blunt the Labor assaults.

He will also need to acknowledge the concerns of motorists who want a better road network to ease congestion. The recent peak hour incident on the freeway showed how vulnerable the system is.

If Mr Buswell can demonstrate he has a public transport and roads strategy that works, he will have gone a long way towards rehabilitating himself among voters, and enhancing the government’s stocks.

Alternatively, if Mr Ripper’s new team of spokespeople can identify important shortcomings, they will boost both Labor’s electoral stocks and Mr Ripper’s grip on the leadership.

Both sides will be hoping their Christmas stocking has the right stuff.



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