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State Scene

GEOFF Gallop probably recalls from his university student and teaching days that an often used disparaging term, when referring to politicians, was to allege they were being authoritarian.

Whenever uttered its users no doubt felt they’d inflicted a mortal blow upon the criticised public figure.

Students, of course, saw themselves as being on the side of tolerance, reasonableness and moderation, notwithstanding that so many in WA’s various left-of-centre campus political clubs held blatantly dogmatic views on most issues.

In light of this it’s interesting to note that Dr Gallop and his cabinet are being increasingly seen as authoritarian, including by many in business.

What’s brought about this change in perceptions?

The answer, it must be said, is not easy to pinpoint.

Perhaps those holding the perception are simply wrong. Perhaps they’re biased. Perhaps they’re closet Liberals.

But perhaps they’ve correctly assessed the cabinet.

Perhaps it’s not insignificant that 10 of Dr Gallop’s ministers shared his campus experience. In other words the dogmatic environment that impacted upon so many undergraduates also impacted upon them.

State Scene has been urged to decide which of these perhapses is perhaps correct because several readers have highlighted the issue of an emerging Gallop cabinet authoritarianism.

When raised it’s generally put thus – “Don’t you get the feeling that Gallop and his crew are becoming somewhat dictatorial?”

Or: “Don’t you think Gallop’s team is getting a bit authoritarian?”

For more than two years it’s been a view that I have never held. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to disagree with those highlighting it.

That said, my contact with several who now sit in cabinet showed that they were generally quite reasonable individuals when in opposition.

But being in opposition can be a humbling experience with everything seemingly happening all around and you’re never part of the action because the ministers, who hail from the other side of politics, tightly hold the tiller of power.

This, of course, suddenly changes on the morning after election day, when you find yourself on the winning side.

Suddenly you’re bestowed with a huge staff, big jarrah-topped desk, comfortable leather chair, a chauffeur at your beck and call, a golden plastic expense card, at least one overseas or interstate trip annually, and lots of that “yes, minister; no, minister” stuff.

A year or two of that and it’s damn difficult to recall what it was like being a mere mortal who took, rather than constantly issued, orders.

It’s now well over two years since Dr Gallop led his 14-strong band of merry men and women into Government House to be sworn in as ministers.

In other words, it’s probably just about the time one could expect authoritarian proclivities that they may have individually had to emerge collectively.

For those who have perhaps not noticed, let’s consider a few decisions they’ve collectively taken. The one I certainly noted and wrote about early in the government’s life was its dogged determination to enforce compulsory student unionism at WA’s tertiary campus, believing then that was perhaps an exception.

Former Liberal Education Minister Norman Moore had outlawed this compulsion in 1993 yet the Gallop Government couldn’t leave this order alone. Instead, it introduced an unnecessary annual compulsory student union levy upon all tertiary students thereby inflicting campus life with authoritarian controls over students by other students.

More recently cabinet collectively resolved to ostracise former Labor Premier, Brian Burke, who had been working as a lobbyist. And that authoritarian blackballing was extended to former Labor Minister Julian Grill, meaning it can now more easily be extended to others.

Another case of opting for authoritarianism was Dr Gallop’s April 2000 election promise to hold a referendum so Western Australians could democratically decide on how State Governors would be chosen – elected by the people or selected by the Premier. When it came to honouring that promise Parliament was told by a Gallop minister: “In April 2000 the Premier did flag the idea of a new system to elect the Governor. However, it is clear that the public believed this was not a priority issue and, as such, the Government has no plans to hold a referendum.”

In other words, when it came to the crunch Dr Gallop would not risk losing the authority to choose who’ll be Governor.

There are other examples, including the sacking of a senior public servant over the mishandling of a waste dump whereas the relevant minister was left seated in her place.

On March 22 Dr Gallop delivered a speech that began: “I feel privileged at having been invited to deliver the inaugural John Forrest Lecture. Forrest has been the most impressive of our state’s 27 Premiers. His life and work teaches us a good deal about politics and WA. Or, as [history professor] Geoff Bolton once said to me: ‘He is the benchmark upon which you should judge your performance’.”

Let’s hope he and his ministers heed Professor Bolton’s advice before the next election.

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