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State Scene - Joe Poprzeczny: Barnett needs team talk

WITH the next State election likely in mid-2004 rather than early 2005, and set to be a close encounter, it’s worth asking what kind of premier Opposition leader Colin Barnett would make.

The first thing to note is that, like most recent Liberal leaders, he’s from Perth’s western suburbs, the wealthier part of town.

Nedlands-raised Mr Barnett attended Hollywood High School and the University of WA.

He worked in the Federal public service, Curtin University, the Confederation of WA Industry and Perth Chamber of Commerce before gaining Opposition leader Bill Hassell’s blue ribbon seat of Cottesloe.

His CV is rather like Geoff Gallop’s, indicating a white-collar background with an academic economics emphasis.

Not widely known is that he became deputy Liberal leader in 1992 on the toss of a coin, after tying in a ballot against frontbencher Cheryl Edwardes.

That’s pertinent because Mr Barnett’s political career to date shows he’s had difficulties keeping party colleagues on side.

So unsuccessful has he been that, a short time after the most recent election, several MPs moved to rid State Parliament of him.

Their complex ousting plan involved Curtin’s MHR Julie Bishop leaving Canberra to become WA Liberal leader, with Mr Barnett going the other way, out of the State scene.

Although the MPs’ complex plot quickly degenerated into a bizarre miscalculation, it’s a measure of the dislike Mr Barnett generated among some who could have been allies.

A year after realising his dream of leading the Liberals – which most say he only gained because Liberal parliamentary ranks were so badly decimated at the 2001 election – it was being widely tipped he’d soon be toppled.

The main reason given was that he had difficulty being a team player.

Many Liberal MPs were so peeved that they simply wanted change.

However for a variety of reasons no challenge eventuated, so he’s still leading, despite polls showing Premier Gallop comfortably ahead as preferred premier.

But there’s also been some good news.

Labor’s constant kowtowing to the Greens, its penchant for boosting taxes and the steady withering away of One Nation in polls have led to a rebounding of Liberal ratings from last election’s slump.

Mr Barnett has also made some amends.

One insider recently told State Scene the Opposition leader has been seen with a book titled Seventeen Essential Qualities of a Team Player.

Perhaps he’s read and digested it.

If so, that probably explains why he’s more accepted by colleagues in 2003 than during 2001, 2002 and earlier.

That said, his major advantage is that he understands economics.

Unfortunately he has not always used this to full advantage.

Still not fully explained is his role in the exorbitant price – $2.4 billion – gained from the sale of the Dampier-to-Bunbury gas pipeline to Epic Energy, which now threatens WA’s business sector with higher-than-necessary energy costs beyond the foreseeable future.

A former private sector economist, Mr Barnett has also been extremely slow in appreciating the benefits of a competitive electricity generating market.

Instead he’s doggedly defended Western Power’s monopoly status, even though it has failed to deliver cheap electricity.

It’s not clear if he was captive to energy department boffins while their minister or that he simply doesn’t believe in competitive enterprise, preferring political commands to dictate economic decisions and development now that he’s a politician.

If the latter, that’s a serious drawback in a potential premier.

Both crucial energy issues are major drawbacks, ones that many say WA simply cannot longer afford if it’s to remain internationally competitive.

That said, not being a team man will probably remain his major drawback in government or opposition.

But he’s certainly no Robinson Crusoe in this regard for it was the same with one-time Labor Premier Peter Dowding, whose ministers finally plotted to dislodge him from the premiership to make way for Carmen Lawrence.

The Dowding experience showed that taking a party into government doesn’t necessarily ensure one retains the leadership.

The team ultimately decides who’ll lead, something Mr Barnett shouldn’t forget.

Few realise that Mr Dowding only gained Labor’s leadership after his predecessor, Premier Brian Burke, and his deputy Mal Bryce interviewed several Labor frontbenchers and opted for him since he was deemed as most likely to win an election.

Once deciding that they met him privately to convey their decision plus a few home truths.

At that meeting Mr Burke gave Mr Dowding as candid a lecture (as you can imagine) after which Mr Burke reinforced it by warning Mr Dowding that if he didn’t take heed of points highlighted he’d be ousted.

Both Mr Dowding and Mr Barnett have been recipients of complex party plots from which a woman was to be the beneficiary.

The Liberal move to parachute Ms Bishop into State politics and simultaneously replace Mr Barnett failed only because it was too complicated since she, unlike Dr Lawrence, sat in another parliament.

Mr Barnett should give thought to Mr Dowding’s fate, and the fact that he’s twice faced challenges from women and only narrowly won out each time.

If he does that and draws the correct lessons from an objective assessment of WA’s need for cheaper energy, which a monopoly has been incapable of supplying, there’s nothing stopping him being a relatively successful premier.

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