01/02/2012 - 11:30

State’s electoral battlelines drawn

01/02/2012 - 11:30

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New Labor leader Mark McGowan wants to paint the government as being out of touch with the electorate.

New Labor leader Mark McGowan wants to paint the government as being out of touch with the electorate.

WITH the announcement of his new-look 18-member shadow cabinet, Labor leader Mark McGowan has laid down his key issue for the state election, now 14 months away. Put simply, he is out to woo families hit by escalating costs and charges in the suburbs.

Mr McGowan also wants to make sure there is no repetition of the policy malaise that has proved to be lead in Labor’s saddlebags for the past three years. The new leader has taken personal responsibility for economic reform. The inference is there will be more decisions, like the commitment to Sunday shopping, aimed at re-establishing WA Labor’s credentials as a contemporary party.

If Mr McGowan can convert his rhetoric into action there is the real prospect of next year’s election turning into a contest, rather than the walk-up start the opinion polls have been suggesting for Premier Colin Barnett and the governing Liberal-National alliance. 

But it is one thing for the Labor leader to claim his team is “streets ahead of Mr Barnett’s”, that it is “hungry for success”, and to brand the government as “tired, dated and in retirement mode” – the challenge is for his team to produce the goods.

Several key match-ups will be crucial in how the political contest plays out through the rest of the year.

Colin Barnett versus Mark McGowan: much has been made of the premier’s earlier reference to Labor’s new leader as “wonder boy”. Mr McGowan has responded by criticising the refurbished office for the premier and his staff on the old Hale School site adjacent to Parliament House as the “emperor’s palace”. 

A new personal factor now comes into play with Mr McGowan presenting himself as a family man from the outer suburbs and pointing to Mr Barnett being comfortably ensconced in the leafy western suburbs. 

And don’t think you have heard the last of the premier’s comment that he doesn’t believe home air-conditioning is essential, even though he now has second thoughts. Mr McGowan believes that is a winner for Labor, especially on sweltering afternoons in the inland eastern suburbs.

Christian Porter versus Ben Wyatt: Mr Wyatt has been restored as treasurery spokesman after being demoted 12 months ago for his (failed) challenge to (then) leader Eric Ripper. Mr McGowan has stressed that Mr Wyatt is a graduate of the London School of Economics, inferring he is well credentialed for the portfolio. Both Mr Wyatt and Mr Porter are considered rising stars by their respective sides, which means Mr Porter’s economic management, and his pre-election budget in May, will come under even closer scrutiny. One of Mr Wyatt’s areas of responsibility has been listed, very pointedly as ‘cost of living’.

Troy Buswell versus Peter Tinley: A former senior SAS officer, Mr Tinley has been brought onto the front bench with responsibility for planning, housing and local jobs. In the sensitive area of housing he will go head to head with Troy Buswell, who is rebuilding his credentials as one of the government’s most versatile ministers. Sections of the Labor Party, especially some unions, see Mr Tinley as a future leader (should Mr McGowan stumble). He will need to be able to match it with Mr Buswell to enhance his prospects.

Liz Constable versus Paul Papalia: Mr Papalia was demoted by Mr Ripper last year but now has been elevated to responsibility for education, agriculture and food. In the big spending and sensitive education area he is directly opposed to Dr Constable. Mr Papalia is generally well prepared in the parliament and will seek to get the better of the minister in a portfolio Labor considers to be one of its traditional strengths. A former naval officer, Mr Papalia has been an MP for five years and his leader will now be expecting him to deliver.   

Rob Johnson versus Michelle Roberts: Two of the state’s most experienced MPs will be pitted against each other in the high-profile police portfolio. Ms Roberts is a former police minister and knows her way around the issue. She also has had good links with the Police Union and is an uncompromising debater. Both will be responsible for their own side’s tactics in the parliament, which is important in earning the respect of their colleagues. 

The new Labor line up also contains several strategic appointments. For example, upper house member Ken Travers will have general responsibility for the ‘suburbs’. When pressed, Mr McGowan said the premier was obsessed with big-ticket items in the CBD, and the suburbs – where the voters live – were being neglected.

Another Labor MP was keen to add that, when it comes to finding extra funds for special projects in their electorates, the government’s regional MPs have had access to the pot of gold called Royalties for Regions, thus boosting their popularity. But it’s tougher for their city counterparts and Labor believes the suburbs are missing out. If the electricity and water utilities again impose big increases in their charges, many voters might agree enough is enough and switch allegiances.

However the ultimate responsibility for Labor’s rise or fall will rest with the leader. 

Mr McGowan hit the ground running with his announcements on support for Sunday trading and changes to Labor’s uranium policy, and he wants to keep that going in the area of economic reform.

Pressed as to just what he had in mind, the Labor leader was reluctant to show his hand. But he did point to his record in government, which included liquor reforms paving the way for small bars, liquor stores opening on Sundays and relaxed laws for liquor sales by restaurants. He believes these changes have helped add to Perth’s vitality and energy.

As environment minister, Mr McGowan approved such major operations as the Gorgon LNG, Worsley alumina and FMG iron ore projects, saying duplication in decision-making can be eliminated without threatening rigorous environmental assessments. 

Mr McGowan also has set views about the role of government in the decision-making processes of major resources companies. For example he is critical of Mr Barnett over the speculation regarding Woodside’s possible reduction of its share in the Browse LNG project, saying, “Unlike the premier I am not a 1970s interventionist. Business needs to get on with business.

“Government must set the policy framework but not interfere in individual investment decisions. You can see that in the Browse development – it has held it up. Interference has caused uncertainty and that is not appreciated by investors.” 

So, the battle lines have been drawn. Mr McGowan has done his best to allocate his heavy hitters into areas where he hopes they can make the most impact. 

Rising costs, and the resultant pressure on the budgets of ordinary families, will continue to be an issue during 2012. That should help close the long lead Mr Barnett currently enjoys in the opinion polls; but nobody knows by how much.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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