17/09/2008 - 22:00

Premier Barnett bloods newcomers

17/09/2008 - 22:00


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COLIN Barnett's surprise leadership success has left him with a largely blank canvas to work with when it comes to composing a state cabinet.

COLIN Barnett's surprise leadership success has left him with a largely blank canvas to work with when it comes to composing a state cabinet.

Thanks to his last-minute election to the leadership by the then desperate Liberals, Mr Barnett owes few favours. In addition, he has a swathe of new faces to choose from after several years of infighting culled the ranks of experience before this week's tight and unexpected victory.

Even though Mr Barnett's deal with Nationals WA to give him the premiership is expected to include cabinet roles for several of the regional party's parliamentarians, he is believed to have plenty of room to manoeuvre when it comes to establishing his power base.

The Nationals positions are likely to be regionally focused, with its leader, Brendon Grylls, expected to oversee regional funding, giving the new premier plenty of scope to develop the major portfolios in the way he wants.

Of course, like any new winner, the Liberals have a lot of untested talent; but at least Mr Barnett has a small pool of significant achievers that he can use to achieve his early aims while developing his cabinet.

Churchlands MLA Liz Constable is one of the Western Australian parliament's longest serving members and is seen as a likely strong focal point in the new cabinet, even though she is technically an independent.

Unless Dr Constable takes on the position of speaker in the lower house, she is expected to play a role in government accountability, the public sector and indigenous health and education issues.

"She is the big winner from this election," one source said, pointing out that she had survived the factional wars by staying out of the Liberal Party tent for much of her 17-year parliamentary career.

Another woman expected to play a key role in Mr Barnett's leadership is Deirdre Willmott, who has been speculatively named a cabinet minister even though she doesn't hold a seat.

Ms Willmott was preselected for Cottesloe before Mr Barnett decided to contest the seat again.

But this has not diminished her chances of playing a major part in government, with Liberal insiders expecting to see her drafted in, possibly as Mr Barnett's chief of staff, which is effectively a chief executive officer position administering cabinet.

This is likely to be part of an expanded and stronger Office of Premier and Cabinet which some suggest Mr Barnett, who is expected to take on a state development portfolio, will create along the prime ministerial model.

There is a sense that such a move may be necessary in the initial stages of the new conservative government because it has so many parliamentary newcomers, many in marginal seats.

"Outside the core four or five people, discipline could be an issue," one source said.

"Barnett could centralise things and make Premier and Cabinet more powerful and usurp the power of Treasury and DoIR (Department of Industry and Resources)."

Curtin University political observer Professor David Black believes this is likely given Mr Barnett has already stated that he plans to focus on being premier and not have too many specialist portfolios as recent Labor leaders have done.

"I think Colin is likely to put himself slightly above the more individual members and be an over-riding general," Professor Black said.

He also noted that the Liberal party was light on experience in the Legislative Assembly, with just 11 MLAs, or less than half its members, having served in parliament previously.

Another policy heavyweight likely to play a role in this government is Mike Nahan, who narrowly won the seat of Riverton.

Mr Nahan's background with the Institute for Public Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA places him squarely in the pro-development camp.

Both the housing and resources sectors have been bogged down by layers of approvals required to get developments going and Mr Nahan is seen as someone who might drive policy solutions.

Liberal sources suggest Mr Nahan could become a parliamentary secretary to the premier, a powerful pseudo-cabinet role which will allow him to have influence and learn the inner workings of parliamentary process.

Among the older heads are deputy Kim Hames, who is expected to get health, and Norman Moore, who has been an opponent of Mr Barnett but is an experienced politician, having served in the WA parliament since 1977.

Most sources expected Mr Moore would get a ministerial position in resources.

Liberal upper house leader Peter Collier is expected to take education.

Liberal insiders also expected Troy Buswell to take the position of Treasurer, despite his late departure from the leadership prior to Mr Barnett taking over.

The critical speaker's role in the lower house presents a complex problem for the government.

If Dr Constable doesn't take that role, then it is wide open. One suggestion is that a Nationals member, like Grant Woodhams, could take the post.

Christian Porter is expected to be named attorney-general and is widely regarded as the one to watch among the youth on the Liberal side of the ledger.

Among the up-and-comers on the Labor side is Victoria Park MLA Ben Wyatt who, despite speculation, did not run for the deputy's position under newly-installed opposition leader Eric Ripper.

Political observers place Mr Porter and Mr Wyatt as key opponents in the future.

"In five years' time it will be Christian Porter versus Ben Wyatt," said one.

Former lobbyist Roger Cook, who snatched Kwinana from independent Carol Adams on Sunday, was elected Labor deputy, beating former education minister Mark McGowan to the job.

While Mr Ripper's leadership of Labor was unopposed, the position is not quite the poisoned chalice that many inherit after an election defeat.

The close election result, forcing the Liberals to rely on Nationals WA plus several independents, leaves the possibility for a rematch sooner rather than later in the electoral cycle.


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