16/09/2010 - 00:00

Pressure point for Labor ministers

16/09/2010 - 00:00


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The WA ministers in Julia Gillard’s new government will have their hands full juggling the competing interests of their state and federal responsibilities.

Pressure point for Labor ministers

The three West Australian Labor MPs in Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s new ministerial line up will be expected to do more than just perform in their new portfolios.

They will also have the eyes of the state's business sector focused very closely on what they are able to deliver for WA, which firmly rebuffed Labor's policies at last month's poll.

And there will also be an expectation, especially within Labor ranks, that they will help rebuild the party’s battered reputation in the west.

The heaviest load will be placed on the member for Perth, Stephen Smith. As the minister for foreign affairs he spent much of the first term out of the country. His activities were largely below the radar of domestic politics.

Not so in his new role as defence minister. He will have to juggle the competing interests of the influential military establishment with the expectations of voters, especially with increased questioning of Australia’s role in Afghanistan as casualties steadily mount.

But in stepping into the big shoes left by his close friend Kim Beazley, widely acknowledged as one of the country's best defence ministers, Mr Smith will also be under pressure to provide for WA on two fronts.

Just as Mr Beazley developed the ‘two oceans’ defence policy, which ensured a significant naval presence on the west coast, operating out of HMAS Stirling, Mr Smith will be expected to oversee greater security for the resource projects off WA’s northwest coast.

The defence expansion in the west, which started in the later 1980s, was also accompanied by increased industry support. Until then about the only defence contracts let in WA were for crockery. Now there’s a substantial operation, mainly south of Fremantle and linked with Garden Island. And industry will be expecting more contracts, leading to more jobs.

Senator Chris Evans moves from immigration to simply ‘jobs’. In one sense it is an area partly linked with his old portfolio. But it is also a role with which WA business has an interest.

Even if only half the expected development projects get off the ground in the next 10 years, thousands of extra skilled jobs will be created. One of Mr Evans’ challenges will be to ensure that the skilled workers are available, to prevent a shortage, which only escalates labour costs.

And with Ms Gillard’s vague pre-election talk of a “sustainable Australia”, which was seen as code for a slowdown in the population increase, the pressure will be on Mr Evans to ensure that the labour supply to WA is not adversely affected. What’s increasingly apparent is that policies designed to win votes in western Sydney aren’t necessarily in WA’s best interests.

This could be translated to the national economy, with the state’s export performance being crucial to the balance of payments.

The member for Brand, Gary Gray, has had regional responsibilities in his previous role as a parliamentary secretary. Now he has been promoted to the ministry with the impressive title of ‘special minister of state’.

The official responsibilities of the portfolio are generally vague. But unofficially, and among insiders, the portfolio is known as ‘minister for re-election’. And as a former national secretary of the Labor Party, Mr Gray is well suited to the job.

While in the ALP’s national office, Mr Gray was closely associated with several winning federal election campaigns during the Hawke and Keating years. In fact as the ALP national secretary, he was the campaign director for the winning strategy in 1993, as well as the failure in 1996.

It was in the latter campaign that relations between then prime minister Paul Keating and Mr Gray became rather strained. It was not helped when it emerged that in the party's head office, the PM was increasingly referred to as ‘Captain Wacky’, linked with his behaviour, as the campaign seemed to be sliding towards John Howard and the Liberals.

Mr Gray’s appointment is clearly a slap in the face for some of the leading lights from the NSW branch of the Labor Party; seen to be responsible for the party’s near death experience at the recent poll. Based on past experience, he will have no qualms in advising them to get their own house in order before again thinking they can dictate the party's federal strategy.

But Mr Gray also has a problem in his own backyard. Labor's vote in WA last month hit what surely must be regarded as rock bottom, dropping below 30 per cent for the Senate election. And Labor won only three of the state’s 15 House of Representatives seats.

It wasn't helped by Labor’s politically absurd attempt to introduce a new tax on mining, the state’s major industry, or its woolly plans to deal with asylum seekers.

The WA party’s critics in the east have branded the local branch as dysfunctional and out of touch because of its poor local vote.

But some senior members in the west are seething at the lack of consultation during the lead up to the campaign, and the campaign itself. In essence, they believe the party’s national strategy contained policies that were so unacceptable in the west that ground was lost even trying to defend them.

And some of Labor’s first term achievements, such as completing the Perth-Bunbury Highway, the commitments to the Ord, Oakajee and sinking the railway in Perth, let alone new school facilities, were believed to be grossly undersold.

What’s surprising is that no senior WA Labor figure has publicly blasted the federal party for its ineptness, especially relating to the local campaign. The consequences could be dire.

‘Honest’ John Tonkin was a widely respected Labor premier between 1971 and 1974. Normally he would have expected to win a second term, but timing didn't favour him. Unfortunately for him, Gough Whitlam led federal Labor out of the wilderness in 1972. And among some of his federal initiatives were some, such as abolition of the superphosphate bounty, seen as against WA's best interests.

Ever the loyal Labor man, Mr Tonkin declined to criticise his federal counterpart, and paid the price at the ballot box in 1974.

The difference now is that WA is an economic powerhouse, a shining light in a national economy struggling to adjust in a changing economic climate.

Not only Labor supporters, but also businesses will expect the three WA ministers to ensure the state’s voice is heard loud and clear in the national capital, and that defence and workforce needs receive proper attention.

If not, the party’s local vote will continue to languish, and Premier Colin Barnett’s grin will only widen.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.




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