08/04/2016 - 14:04

Pressure point for new cabinet

08/04/2016 - 14:04

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Colin Barnett has made some strategic ministerial changes ahead of next year’s poll.

SURPRISE MOVE: Despite being accident-prone, Dean Nalder was given responsibility for agriculture and food, even though the Nationals had wanted the portfolio back. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Colin Barnett has made some strategic ministerial changes ahead of next year’s poll.

When Colin Barnett announced his new-look cabinet he did more than introduce three new faces on to his frontbench; he also aimed to reposition his government in the race to next year’s March election.

He made plenty of references to ‘broadening the economy’ as the last puffs of steam come out of the resources sector. That’s not a new line about the economy, but this time the government’s performance will be carefully monitored.

Can it actually deliver in the short to medium term?

Coincidentally, the Labor opposition has been an early mover on the ‘new economy’. Opposition leader Mark McGowan has promised an injection of $5 million to boost promotion of the business events market, and $14.5 million in a ‘new industries fund’ to stimulate activity in the startup and gaming sector.

There were three significant shifts in the new line up. One involved the premier himself, with his decision to take on tourism (considered over the years to be a ‘soft’ portfolio). He also gave agriculture and food to the accident-prone Dean Nalder, and placed new minister Sean L'Estrange in charge of mines and petroleum, as well as small business.

Mr Barnett conceded that tourism had not fared well during the resources boom, but the outlook was bright.

“Perth is now rapidly becoming an attractive destination for tourism,” he said. “It was not that eight years ago. It was seen as dullsville, lacked character and lacked vitality. That has completely changed.”

It was a bold claim by Mr Barnett that is not borne out by recent figures based on the growth of not only visitors to Western Australia, but how much they spent while they were here.

For instance the number of foreign visitors to WA last year was only 2.7 per cent more than in 2014, compared with the national growth of 7.9 per cent. And they spent 4.7 per cent less in the state last year when, overall, the national growth was 19.1 per cent.

And while Chinese tourists, who represent a rapidly growing sector of the market, increased their spending around the state last year by a healthy 25 per cent, their national increase was an even more impressive 46.6 per cent jump.

An optimistic premier believes cashed-up Chinese tourists, encouraged by a lower Australian dollar and their own new-found wealth, will be attracted to the state in growing numbers, assisted by accommodation in new five-star hotels to be completed over the next few years.

Mr Barnett says tourism is central to the campaign for a new approach. But the Australian Hotels Association believes the state has yet to realise the full potential offered by the weaker dollar, urging promotional campaigns in the Chinese, Japanese and American markets.

AHA boss Bradley Woods said the rest of Australia had realised double the spending by Chinese visitors, and he called on Mr Barnett to put his words into action.

With more than 2,000 interstate and overseas visitors expected to attend the LNG 18 conference in Perth, into which the government has injected $2 million, Mr Barnett’s tenure as tourism minister will be getting off to a flying start.

The decision to add agriculture and food to Mr Nalder’s transport responsibilities raised eyebrows, especially when the National Party signalled it would like its traditional portfolio back. But the premier is all about market development, and he believes Mr Nalder’s commercial experience before entering politics, combined with his farming background, will be a potent combination.

Sure, Mr Nalder is not a farmer, but he has strong rural links, having been raised on the family farm at Wagin. And his grandfather, Sir Crawford Nalder, was the long-term Country Party leader and deputy premier in the Brand government in the 1960s.

Mr Barnett described the mines and petroleum ministry, which he handed to rookie MP Sean L’Estrange, as an important and prestigious portfolio. It has always been thus. Mr L’Estrange, along with Mr Nalder, has been considered one of the more promising of the new crop of Liberal MPs elected in 2013. Now he has his chance.

The premier is shooting for a record third four-year term in power; whether he achieves his goal will depend on the effectiveness of his repositioning.


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