06/02/2008 - 22:00

Spotlight dims on Langoulant years

06/02/2008 - 22:00

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After almost four years as one of Western Australian business’s most recognisable faces, John Langoulant last week stepped off the public stage.

After almost four years as one of Western Australian business’s most recognisable faces, John Langoulant last week stepped off the public stage.

The former under-treasurer has been at the forefront of policy debate in the state in his high-profile role as chief executive of the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, often chiding the government to the point of being considered a de facto opposition.

Mr Langoulant was also the very visible chair of the taskforce guiding the state on a major sports stadium initiative.

So visible, in fact, that many viewed him as the next Liberal premier-in-waiting, creating an air of expectation that he would be parachuted in to head the conservative party, which has struggled to find effective leadership.

It was, therefore, quite a surprise when Mr Langoulant announced in December that he would be quitting his job more than a year before his contract expired to join Australian Capital Equity Pty Ltd, the reclusive holding company of media magnate Kerry Stokes.

While West Perth-based ACE has a vast empire – from huge Caterpillar franchises under Westrac, to media holdings in Seven Network Ltd and, indirectly, WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd, and across property such as the defunct Entertainment Centre – the profile of Mr Stokes’ company is very much under the radar.

It is something that Mr Langoulant acknowledges will take some getting used to, after what he describes was his proactive approach to gaining attention for the chamber.

“I actually enjoyed it,” he told WA Business News.

“I have become quite comfortable with it.

“This new role will not have a public profile. I will step out of the public arena.

“I will put my energies into other stuff; policy will always interest me, but I will not be an active player in that.”

Time will tell exactly how low that profile turns out to be.

ACE’s holdings put it at the centre of several public issues, such as media ownership, reporting standards and the delayed CBD-transforming Northbridge Link development.

Despite his penchant for policy and publicity, Mr Langoulant doesn’t expect to get involved on the media side of things, considering that to be more the realm of ACE managing director Peter Gammell, and Mr Stokes.

“We have a blank piece of paper; we’ll sketch out the responsibilities as we move forward,”  Mr Langoulant said.

He hints, though, that the WA-based business operations are more likely to gain his attention. That is probably an obvious route, given CCIWA’s involvement in the CBD development debate and the business organisation’s huge role as an employer of apprentices.

The scale of CCIWA’s business operations, especially in training, is often overlooked. With about 1,000 apprentices on the books, the business side generates significant income for the chamber, providing the financial grunt needed to be a genuine business voice.

“That has actually provided me with a lot of motivation and interest,” Mr Langoulant says of the chamber’s business operations, which include all sorts of advice business can pay for.

But it’s clear the policy side is more than just dominated by the Langoulant public persona.

He can rattle off each of the issues where CCIWA has been at the forefront of debate, and firmly believes the organisation has broadened its policy outlook under his watch – with an army of full-time research-focused employees pumping out position papers to shape the state’s landscape.

It’s an area  CCIWA president Penny Flett agrees is a great legacy – crediting her now ex-CEO with leaving a stronger and more confident organisation.

Ms Flett said Mr Langoulant’s restructuring of the organisation, to separate the policy committees from the overall governance, had been significant. He had  built up the business side to create a strong revenue stream to finance the research side of CCIWA, and had raised CCIWA’s reputation as a source of sound policy, she said.

“He has done that without fear or favour,” Ms Flett said.

That may be the case, but as Mr Langoulant leaves the chamber, an impression remains that he was at war with the government.

A constant critic of the state over the rise in spending and taxes, the chamber has also hit at sensitive spots like the retail trading debate and other areas of WA’s perceived backwardness  the government has struggled to address, or at least gain momentum in terms of change.

The impression of antipathy towards Alan Carpenter’s government was heightened in May last year when Mr Langoulant denounced the state budget, using words such as “unimaginative” and “pedestrian”.

The CCIWA statement read: “The budget is a sign of a government that is affluent and complacent, and happy to continue riding the boom.”

Payroll tax is the classic example. In seven years of Labor it has ballooned by almost double, despite the state’s claims to have restructured the tax take and reduce significantly other areas it says had a greater priority.

While Mr Langoulant believes he’s been consistent in his approach, focusing on the growth of expenditure and taxes, he admits his language at the time might have been too provocative, especially when there was so much speculation that he was really a closet Liberal leader.

“That taught me a lesson,” he said.

“You have to be careful with words, although on reflection it was the right thing to say.”

Mr Langoulant’s role as the high-profile voice of a critical business lobby has certainly grated on some in Labor.

Labor state secretary Bill Johnston felt the CCIWA chief lost credibility when, as a former under-treasurer, he was reported suggesting that treasury conveniently ‘fudged’ the revenue figures on the low side.

Mr Johnston also felt that CCIWA was too partisan with its attacks on state Labor policy, while leaving the federal Liberals alone.

“Not once during the federal election campaign did he criticise federal government taxation,” he said.

Mr Langoulant believes  the state Labor government has been too distant from business – something Mr Carpenter has denied – in failing to create a dialogue with business like its interstate peers, notably Queensland, Victoria and, most recently, South Australia.

“We have not had a premier in eight years talking to our members,” Mr Langoulant said, noting that former Queensland premier Peter Beattie spoke at CCIWA function during a visit to Perth.

Diplomacy, though, had returned to the fourth floor of the CCI’s 180 Hay Street headquarters on Friday last week, his last official day at the helm.

Mr Langoulant was not as quick as many in business to brush off the performance of the current cabinet, citing Treasurer Eric Ripper, Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan and Health Minister Jim McGinty as among those he thought had been effective or generally regarded as competent. He is also complimentary of up-and-coming Education Minister Mark McGowan.

Of Mr Ripper’s treasury skills, Mr Langoulant believes the deputy premier has done well on the balance sheet; it’s just the spending that ought to be reined in – across the board.

“There is largesse generally,” he said.

“When they came into government they had the priority of delivering essential services and cutting back elsewhere.

“They did that for the first few years because they did not have the money.

“Now the money is flowing they have dropped the hard stuff.

“They should bring some discipline back into it.

“Sooner or later this growth will ease and the revenue growth will ease, that is when you need razor gangs.”

Another area of government of which Mr Langoulant is highly critical is long-term planning.

From the regions to infrastructure, he believes the government won’t commit beyond 18 months, leaving those on the supply side – that is business – in the dark and unable to plan ahead.

“Our economy has expanded but our thinking hasn’t,” he said.

“We have an environment where the government has to start thinking at another level.”

It is one of the ironies of Mr Langoulant’s new circumstances that he is calling on the premier to provide some certainty by spelling out his vision for the next decade in public.

At the same time, the ex-CCIWA chief will be rapidly receding from the limelight, working towards a different and very private vision that, unless things change, many of us will never be allowed to fully grasp.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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