04/11/2010 - 00:00

Straight talk from state Labor

04/11/2010 - 00:00


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Misplaced loyalty can prove costly in politics, and it seems state Labor has finally woken up to the fact when it comes to relations with the federal government.

LOYALTY is considered to be a very valuable characteristic, especially in times of adversity. But politics is strewn with the bodies of those for whom loyalty proved very costly.

It’s an issue that seemed to be weighing down state Labor leader Eric Ripper; until recently.

During Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, there were mutterings in Labor ranks in Western Australia that he seemed to be closer to the Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, than he was to Mr Ripper and his colleagues.

That wasn’t so much a problem when Mr Rudd was riding high. Even though Colin Barnett would refer to the then PM as “my friend Kevin” to get a reaction from Labor, state Labor MPs raised their eyebrows but took the matter no further.

When federal Labor started to go bad, and policies with questionable impacts on WA began to surface, the situation changed.

The policies included burying the concept of a ‘big Australia’, and curbing the immigration intake. That didn’t match expected increases in the demand for skilled workers in WA. The super profits tax on miners was a corker. How could state Labor promote that and hope to win popularity? And opening up more centres for asylum seekers in WA, while other states made only a minimal contribution, was another issue.

These were announced with apparently little consultation with the state party, which was nevertheless supposed to support them; out of loyalty.

That’s what John Tonkin did when he was Labor premier from 1971 to 1974. Despite some of the Whitlam Labor government’s policies, which were clearly not in this state’s best interests, he remained loyal to the cause. And he was dumped in a close result, after just one term.

Labor’s Neville Wran took a different approach in the 1976 NSW elections to win back power in Sydney. He mercilessly bagged the Whitlam record, knowing that to defend it was electoral poison. And it worked.

Eric Ripper held his tongue after the recent federal election debacle for Labor in WA when he was entitled to give the party’s federal campaign strategists both barrels. The Liberals couldn’t believe their luck, winning 11 of WA’s federal seats, with another going to the Nationals.

But Mr Ripper appears to be stirring, after seeing his own approval ratings, as well as support for Labor at the state level, heading south.

According to one Labor source, state MPs and officials were being bypassed by Canberra, with even the basic courtesies being ignored.

So the state leader has started to speak out, including on hospital funding, saying that Canberra must be prepared to negotiate a special deal with the WA government on health. Why? Because WA is ‘different’. He’s also attacked WA’s shrinking share of its GST reimbursements, as set out by the Grants Commission.

Mr Ripper has tended to be seen as a stop-gap leader for Labor, and that eventually he would be replaced. But the party’s strong vote in the Armadale by-election has taken some of the pressure from Mr Ripper, and some of his critics have indicated they are prepared to reassess his performance.

If he continues to speak out against federal government decisions that appear to bypass WA’s best interests, and his ratings improve, Mr Ripper’s position will be enhanced.

It will just go to show that loyalty in politics is a two-way street. And misguided loyalty can be very costly indeed.

Sale or no sale

THE position of premier carries enormous power, prestige and responsibility; and the incumbent is expected to be extraordinarily versatile.

Colin Barnett has done the job well during the past two years, and that assessment is reflected in his approval ratings. Most voters think he’s doing a good job.

But occasionally he chances his arm in comments and responses to reporters’ questions, which is sometimes not so wise.

There was the well-publicised event only days out from the 2005 state election in which he refused to accept a glaring omission in the Liberal Party’s election costings during a tense news conference.

His office was forced to revise the figures, but by then the damage had been done. The Liberals had to endure a second term in opposition in a tight election result.

Mr Barnett chanced his arm again in a recent news conference. And again he was in the wrong.

The topic was energy reform, and criticism by the prime minister, Julia Gillard, that some of the states were being a bit tardy in this area.

Not so WA, said the premier, and he rattled off a list of changes that had been initiated on his watch.

Then the following exchange occurred with this reporter:

PK: Is there any proposal though to put government-owned power stations on the market, such as occurred some years ago with Bunbury and smaller power stations?

CB: Bunbury was closed. It wasn’t put on the market. It was closed. It was a high cost, inefficient operation.

PK: You did seek some bidders for it?

CB: No, we closed it. I closed it as minister.

PK: After no bids came in?

CB: No, it was defunct, too inefficient.

Clearly we had different views of the process, which ended in the demolition of the power station.

So who was right? I immediately started checking to see if I had imagined the attempt to sell it off, or if the premier had totally forgotten about it, for whatever reason.

Fortunately for my sanity – let alone credibility – up popped an advertisement from The West Australian (above) from March 1998 headed ‘Sale of Bunbury Power Station – appointment of commercial and legal advisors’.

A newspaper story on the planned sale reported Mr Barnett, who was then the energy minister, as saying “the station was an attractive proposition for the private sector because it already had all the necessary approvals”.

Mr Barnett also said the coal-fired power station could be reengineered to run on gas, and provide power for some of the bigger users, such as Alcoa.

But apparently the energy market in 1998 agreed with Mr Barnett’s currently expressed views on the profitability of the comparatively small station, and it was eventually demolished, rather than kept in production.

But the advertisement is clear evidence that a buyer was first sought for the station before it was taken out of production and demolished.

Sometimes it’s wise to err on the side of caution.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.




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