07/12/2011 - 11:17

Singing from the same song book

07/12/2011 - 11:17


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Eric Ripper’s reception at the federal Labor conference last weekend shows how great his party’s challenge is at home.

Singing from the same song book

Eric Ripper’s reception at the federal Labor conference last weekend shows how great his party’s challenge is at home.

IN a rare show of unity, Premier Colin Barnett and opposition leader Eric Ripper have been caught singing from the same hymn sheet; but the reaction indicates they still have much work to do in getting the Western Australian message understood on the east coast.

For his part, Mr Barnett was promoting the state’s case for a better deal from the reallocation of money collected through the goods and services tax.

Mr Ripper, meanwhile, was explaining WA’s general hostility to any extension of the new mining tax, at the ALP’s national conference in Sydney. Some delegates jeered him for his troubles.

The experience showed that it’s one thing to rail against the shortcomings of projected returns on the GST revenue to a receptive hometown audience and another to do the same in a different state, even when you are among alleged political allies.

The premier’s comments came from his wide-ranging observations about progress on significant issues facing the state to almost 600 guests at last week’s WA Business News breakfast.

Referring to the redistribution of GST revenue, Mr Barnett reiterated that WA was prepared to subsidise other states because of the strength of the local economy. But he added some states could do more to raise their productive capacity.

“Tasmanians could lift their work effort a bit,” he noted, attracting the ire of Tasmania’s premier, Lara Giddings, who described his comments as “hollow, self-serving and untrue”.

“Tasmania has an unemployment rate of 4.9 per cent, which is bettered only by WA but achieved without the mineral wealth that has been gifted to the Barnett Liberal government,” Premier Giddings responded. “It is only recently that WA went from being a net recipient of GST funding to becoming a donor state and their short memory when it comes to this debate is staggering.”

That is true. WA was a net beneficiary for many years, and successive state governments were very grateful for whatever crumbs were thrown to the west when premiers took their begging bowl to Canberra for the annual premiers’ conference. 

But Mr Barnett’s point is that some states seem to lack the development ethic that has been a traditional WA feature, and is now bearing fruit. Despite what he sees as a lack of endeavour on their part, they are still the beneficiaries of the reallocation of GST dollars generated in the west.

Mr Barnett may have been unwise to be seen to having picked on Tasmania, but the facts are stark. According to the Commonwealth Grants Commission, WA can expect almost 72 cents in the dollar from its GST revenue to be returned to boost state revenue.

Tasmanians on the other hand will be getting nearly $1.60 back for each dollar of GST that it generates. Mr Barnett’s point is that, from each extra dollar of state government revenue generated in WA from new developments, money will be reallocated to other states, even if they don’t lift a finger.

In the meantime, WA will still be squeezed by the GST redistribution, and having to meet the infrastructure demands thrown up by new developments, including the improved services required by an expanding population attracted by the projects.

Mr Ripper’s moment of truth came at the ALP’s national conference in Sydney when he was supposedly among friends. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

He entered a debate being led by a NSW senator and former union leader, Doug Cameron, calling for the broadening of the new minerals resource rent tax to more minerals than just iron ore and coal.

Speaking against a background in which the ALP in the west now contributes just seven of the state’s allocation of 27 members and senators in federal parliament, Mr Ripper warned the more than 400 delegates that: “You will kill federal Labor and WA Labor in Western Australia if you support this amendment.”

Mr Ripper also had the temerity to point out some home truths. The first was that WA had a constitutional right to its minerals, and a right to increase royalties. 

That was one in the eye for the popular view in other states – and promoted by political leaders – that the minerals belong to all Australians and they have an inalienable right to share from any benefits that might emerge. In fact some of these would have been critics in the past of WA’s development ethos, as epitomised by Sir Charles Court’s drive and vision. Now they want to ride along on the coat tails of success.

On the second point, Mr Ripper led with his chin. He pointed out that WA subsidised the rest of the country to the tune of $13 billion a year, or $6,000 per person. And remember, during his eight years as state treasurer Mr Ripper had a reputation as a prudent manager of the state’s finances; he could never be guilty of being profligate. 

But for his troubles the WA Labor leader was accused of being a ‘sycophant’ to the miners, and one enlightened delegate suggested WA secede from the Commonwealth. Mr Ripper on the other hand urged delegates to provide some ‘collegiate support’ to the WA party.

It’s at this point that the positions of Mr Barnett and Mr Ripper intersect.

Mr Barnett told the business breakfast that WA’s economic future lies increasingly with Asian economies. He spends more time talking to Asian political and business leaders than he does to those in Canberra. The orientation is to the north, rather than the east.

The inference is that Mr Barnett doesn’t want to get bogged down playing games with the federal government and other states over the carve up of commonwealth grants. He just wants a fair share and WA will do the rest. And talk of secession, which is raised occasionally by some east coast journalists and radio shock jocks, is puerile.

That approach is hard for federal ministers and bureaucrats to appreciate. They have spent their whole lives honing their wheeling and dealing skills, and here’s a leader of a wealthy state urging them to ‘get real’.

The other challenge is for Labor. The state party must represent the aspirations of Western Australians to stay relevant. Those aspirations are essentially linked to the successful management of the state’s resources development, providing essential services at reasonable cost, along with the party’s traditional strength of caring for the disadvantaged. 

Where is the social dividend from resource development? Can the party ensure there will be a dividend, and that it can be evenly spread?

Mr Barnett says that Canberra has lost touch with what is happening in the west. Mr Ripper’s experience at Labor’s conference indicates sections of his party at the national level have too. The question is, what do Mr Ripper and WA Labor do now? They are the ones in opposition and face the challenge of closing the political gap.



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