01/04/2019 - 13:16

Power resides where decisions are made

01/04/2019 - 13:16


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Recent policy disputes have shone a light on political and business influence in WA.

Power resides where decisions are made
Peter Coleman wants to proceed with three big projects. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Recent policy disputes have shone a light on political and business influence in WA.

When the Environmental Protection Authority announced new guidelines last month on carbon emissions it sparked a powerful response from some of Western Australia’s top business leaders.

Woodside Petroleum chief executive Peter Coleman, who is very measured in his public statements, took a forceful stand.

He accused the EPA of making policy on the run in a complex and important area, after its proposal that big industrial projects need to immediately reduce or offset their greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

(view a PDF version of the full special report)

“Australia has struggled to formulate stable climate policy for over a decade and the EPA has added to the uncertainty, which threatens already difficult investment decisions,” Mr Coleman stated.

“The EPA’s proposal significantly oversteps Australia’s Paris emissions reduction targets and sets a standard that is beyond the current capacity of WA’s offset industry to safely and sustainably deliver.”

Premier Mark McGowan responded to the industry concern, convening a meeting with oil and gas leaders including Shell Australia chair Zoe Yujnovich and new Chevron Australia boss Al Williams.

The end result was that EPA chairman Tom Hatton was forced to withdraw his guidelines and promise to consult with industry before coming up with a new package.

The EPA reversal came after the government backed out of another arguably misguided policy announcement, this time affecting the lobster industry.

Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly had proposed an expansion of the lobster catch quota, but in a way that put the government in charge of part of the catch.

The announcement caught major industry players unawares and left the minister open to accusations of trying to nationalise the industry.

It sparked a furious industry response and, like with the EPA issue, the premier was forced to intervene and devise a compromise that appeased the industry.

There is a common link in both cases – the original decisions created uncertainty and threatened future investment and jobs.

In that regard, there are none bigger than Woodside. Over the coming year, it is aiming to approve three giant gas projects collectively worth $36 billion.

That gives it enormous influence with government.

Control over where money is spent is one of three criteria that Business News employs when it compiles its Most Influential feature each year.

The other factors are control over policy decisions and influence over public opinion.

Mark McGowan has influence over all three and is ranked as the most influential person in WA.

Close behind are three state government ministers – Ben Wyatt, Rita Saffioti and Roger Cook – who hold senior portfolios in their own right and are close the premier.

Other senior and influential ministers in the state government include Sue Ellery, Alannah MacTiernan and Dave Kelly, though all three have suffered setbacks this year.

One person who is arguably more influential than most state government ministers is the premier’s chief of staff, Guy Houston.

Business News understands Mr Houston, who spent several years working for Chevron, had a big say over the government’s compromise policy on gas fracking – a policy that upset many in the party who wanted a total ban.

Others among the state’s most influential are senior federal government ministers Mathias Cormann and Christian Porter.

However, their position will change dramatically if Labor wins the federal election in two months’ time, as most polls predict will happen.

In the business community, the chief executives and chairmen of the state’s largest companies are highly influential.

Some, like Mr Coleman, have the ear of government on policy issues.

Others, like Shell’s Ms Yujnovich, have become very public policy advocates. Through multiple speeches and media appearances she has been forcefully advocating policy change on behalf of the industry.

Apart from any policy influence, the ‘captains of industry’ determine where money is invested and where jobs are created.

The livelihoods of numerous contractors and sub-contractors hang on investment and procurement decisions made by companies such as BHP Group, Rio Tinto and Hancock Prospecting.

Andrew Forrest qualifies as highly influential on multiple fronts.

He is the largest shareholder and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, one the biggest investors in WA.

Along with his wife, Nicola, he runs Minderoo Foundation, one of the biggest philanthropic foundations in the country.

And he has the ear of people in government, particularly in Canberra, giving him a unique combination of influence.


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