23/10/2015 - 06:07

Reconstructing the Economic Narrative

23/10/2015 - 06:07


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Relentless optimism is a positive quality, as long as it’s based upon the evidence at hand.

UNDER WATER: The government’s infrastructure spend has added to state debt. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Western Australian governments are expected to exude optimism about the state’s economy, through thick and thin. And the economy, thanks to world demand for our key resources, has generally delivered.

True to form, Premier Colin Barnett has remained upbeat about the state’s prospects as the construction boom in the resources sector has come off the boil, and thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Many outside that sector have had to accept shorter hours or lower rates of pay, too.

And the signs of the slowdown are only too obvious in Perth, particularly in the resources office area of West Perth where ‘office space for lease’ signs fill the streets. Companies are either bailing out or reducing the size of their offices.

The premier has explained these changes as being part of an economy in transition, moving from the construction to the production phase, especially in the liquefied natural gas sector.

That’s true, and as an explanation for the current woes seems to have kept community concerns at bay while Mr Barnett and Treasurer Mike Nahan grappled to get the budget under control.

Of course there has been less explanation about the recent years of big spending on their watch that has added significantly to state debt.

Obviously they have been hoping to buy time in the hope that their optimism would be vindicated; but current signs aren’t so good.

First, in a state light on for medium to big manufacturing operations, Smith’s Snackfood Company decided to close its Canning Vale operation by next year, throwing more than 300 people out of work.

Then new job figures revealed that the number of full-time jobs in WA has shrunk by 10,000, and that the unemployment rate is now marginally higher than Tasmania, whose economic performance has previously been treated with derision.

Adding to the problems, Dr Nahan revealed that WA’s payments from the GST redistribution formula, which hit rock bottom last year, would not rise as quickly as expected. A federal top up, similar to the almost $500 million granted earlier this year, will be sought and, presumably, granted.

Moody’s Investor Services warned even more must be done to cut spending, singling out the politically sensitive areas of health and social areas for special attention. 

In addition, Chevron is now seeking a two-year deferral in starting work on its planned national headquarters tower, designed to be a focal point at Elizabeth Quay.

It goes on. What about the state’s overdue list of infrastructure projects to the national body setting priorities for the next 15 years? No appearance.

And following much public debate as to where future jobs will come from after the resources boom, the premier conceded his administration had been a ‘bit slow’ throwing its support behind innovation in the technology sector.

It’s one thing to be continually optimistic, but another entirely to actually be on the front foot and not only leading, but being seen to be leading. And this is where the government is falling down.

Take the Smith’s Snackfood decision. Opposition leader Mark McGowan asked Mr Barnett in the Legislative Assembly what action the government had taken to try and keep the operation going.

Probably ‘not much’ was the answer. But presumably profitability was a key issue, so the premier could have broadened his response to include labour and potato costs, for example. Could efficiencies or a wage freeze have saved the day? Was the Potato Marketing Corporation a help or a hindrance?

Mr Barnett usually gives such questions a serious response. Not this time. Instead he questioned whether the opposition wanted a potato chip subsidy adding: “What a great measure for dietary standards that would be’”.

Bad luck about the jobs.

But the optimism remains. “I expect to see a strengthening in employment over the next 12 months,” he said.

Open and accountable

Lisa Scaffidi was always going to top the ballot and win a third term as Perth’s lord mayor, if for no other reason than the controversy over her non-disclosure of generous corporate gifts did not surface until after the postal voting period had started.

Coincidentally, the latest copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests was tabled in the Legislative Assembly during the council election campaign. The return of Bunbury MP and former local government minister, John Castrilli, is required reading.

Mr Castrilli, a former mayor of Bunbury, revealed he had won the lucky door prize – an economy plane ticket to Vietnam – at a Vietnamese National Day Reception.

In an accompanying letter, Mr Castrilli said: “There is only a small window of time to be able to use this ticket, and it is unlikely I will be able to utilise it. However I would like to include this as Discretionary Disclosure on my annual return and I would very much appreciate it if you could add this letter to my file.”

All MPs and councillors, and lord mayor, please note.


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