21/01/2010 - 00:00

Sleepwalking through government

21/01/2010 - 00:00


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The Barnett government is running out of time to make a mark.

WHY does the Barnett government continue conveying the impression that, not only do several of its ministers appear to be out of their depth, but that it lacks collegial confidence and farsightedness?

The answer to the first of these questions is … that several ministers are simply out of their depth.

Hopefully imaginative replacements are being groomed.

But the apparent absence of collegial confidence and farsightedness requires markedly more consideration.

One possible explanation is that the Barnett team is still relatively new.

That, however, is a far-from-convincing explanation.

None of the Burke government of the 1980s, the Court government of the 1990s, or the Gallop government of the 2000s, took this long to get into full stride.

All three, whatever your political leanings or opinion of them, to use that old cliché: “Hit the road with their wheels spinning”.

Why hasn’t the Barnett government done the same?

Mr Barnett came to power in September 2008, 10 months after Kevin Rudd ousted John Howard, whom many voters decided a year earlier had become unimaginative and staid.

September 2008 is a long time ago. Mr Barnett is, therefore, nearing the halfway mark to the next election.

Just how long do he and his ministers need to settle in?

Clearly something more than blaming the media needs to be done to capture voter imagination.

Another view sometimes expressed is that many ministers don’t seem to have truly competent and farsighted advisory staffers.

Departmental advisers are one thing – but having ones with whom you’re in daily contact is quite another.

The Barnett team seems not to have attracted a diverse core of qualified younger men and women with sufficient imagination.

The reason isn’t immediately clear.Is it because that second ring of individuals that surrounds government doesn’t exist due to a belief that Mr Barnett won’t be returned at the next election due in late 2012 or by early 2013?

Perhaps the WA Liberal Party lacks a cohort of ambitious younger individuals with credentials of the type required.

There may, of course, be another explanation, one never highlighted.

A scan of WA’s Lobbyists’ Register shows a sizeable number of names of likely Liberal recruits now working either as, or for, lobbyists.

Perhaps the draw of big lobbyists’ fees has consequently diminished the size of the potential ministerial staffers’ pool.

Another possible explanation is that Mr Barnett may not be the right man for the job; maybe he simply doesn’t or cannot inspire his party room and cabinet colleagues.

If that’s so, there’s still time to replace him.

Labor has been good at doing this and it’s possibly time the Liberals learned from Labor.

It’s been suggested to State Scene that Mr Barnett is so fixated with being re-elected for a second term before retiring that there would be utter fear of proceeding with imaginative and far-sighted policies if ones were ever suggested.

That’s quite possible.

It’s worth recalling he just fell over the finishing tape in September 2008, by a mere 33 votes in the Riverton seat, to topple Labor’s far-from-tactically-competent Alan Carpenter.

Moreover, if his treasurer, Troy Buswell, hadn’t had a silly party prank leaked to the media during 2008, Mr Barnett wouldn’t have been called upon to again become leader.

Mr Barnett was the last desperate throw of the dice by Liberal powerbrokers aiming to help ensure they performed somewhere near credibly in September 2008.

He was preceded by four failures – himself at the ‘Kimberley Canal’ 2005 election, Matt Birney, Paul Omodei and Mr Buswell.

Moreover, none of his belated backers believed he’d win.

All that was asked of him in August 2008 was to ensure the Liberals won about 20 seats, after which he could retire as leader so his now displaced chief-of-staff, Diedre Willmott, who’d been preselected for his Cottesloe seat, could contest it at an early 2009 by-election.

Until Mr Buswell resigned in those last desperate days, Liberal polling showed the party would win fewer than 10 seats.

Things were that desperate.

Fortunately for the Liberals there was even greater incompetence and a series of bigger blunders within the Carpenter-led camp that handed Mr Barnett government by 33 votes, which meant once that Royalties for Regions deal was finalised with the Nationals executive, power was his.

As elated as every Liberal undoubtedly was, the fact is that neither Mr Barnett nor his front and back benches were truly ready for government.

State Scene is often asked by Barnett well-wishers how I believe he and his team are performing.

My response has been: “Not a very imaginative lot”.

I’ve tended to ignore the ongoing faux pas and regularly highlighted ministerial bungles.

Sometimes the same well-wishers ask of the Barnett decision to give the go-ahead for uranium mining, knowing State Scene has long-backed worldwide usage of clean-green nuclear energy.

So, yes, that gets an elephant stamp.

If Mr Carpenter had been returned he intended to lock up WA’s uranium reserves below ground forever, a decision that gained him Greens preferences.

Another Barnett move that shouldn’t be discounted was the early start on identifying a precinct near Broome to base the second hub for WA’s rapidly growing and crucial offshore gas sector.

Both, however, were rather obvious moves and needed only miniscule willpower, which Mr Carpenter so evidently lacked.

What’s therefore lacking on the Liberal side?

In a few words, courage and imagination.

We’re living in exciting times, ones calling for far-sighted programs and new ideas. Instead, Mr Barnett appears to have opted for something resembling sleepwalking.

Sleepwalkers, he should be told, tend to trip, stumble and fall.

His government’s somnambulism is understandably not impressing people.

State Scene can only find one imaginative policy launched over the past 17 months; the move to begin transforming education department controlled schools into independent public institutions.

This was not only farsighted but a brave and worthwhile initiative, one stemming from considerable work and idealism by Mr Barnett’s energy minister, Peter Collier, who aspired to the job of education minister.

At the other end of the spectrum, a case of a dismal unimaginative policy is Mr Barnett’s announcement that the Swan River at Perth CBD’s foreshore doorstep is to be excavated to construct a phoney waterfront.

Not only is that a straight lift from the unimaginative sleepwalking Carpenter government, but it will be enormously expensive and is unnecessary; money wantonly wasted.

Just because other cities have gone waterfront development crazy doesn’t mean Perth must.

Those hundreds of millions of dollars could be spent on construction of a long-needed network of bridges across the Perth metropolitan area’s growing number of major arterial intersections and railway crossings.

The Perth metropolitan area desperately needs about 100 such intersectional bridges, not an artificial intrusion into the Swan.

Why can’t Mr Barnett and his ministers see this?

Come on Mr Barnett, stop the somnambulism.

Spring out of bed tomorrow, put on a big smile, don your thinking cap, and start giving heavily taxed Western Australians imaginative governance.

If you don’t, you’ll go down the Carpenter path in about 36 months.

The only person Mr Barnett appears to be pleasing at the moment is opposition leader Eric Ripper, whose smile, understandably, is ever more pronounced.



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