14/03/2014 - 05:34

The Buswell bombshell

14/03/2014 - 05:34

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Troy Buswell has left the political stage to face his personal issues, but he’s left the government with a few problems of its own.

The Buswell bombshell
TROUBLE: The government will struggle to cut through on economic issues without Troy Buswell.

Troy Buswell’s first implosion as state treasurer in 2010 proved a major challenge for the Liberal-National alliance, but the government was able to get back on track and score a convincing election win just 12 months ago.

It could be a different story this time. Not only is the patience of voters being tested, slowing revenue growth means the government must trim its spending. Explaining to voters that they must swallow some unpleasant medicine is not easy, and Mr Buswell was some of the few MPs able to do it.

One factor that helped Premier Colin Barnett the first time around was the presence of the youthful Christian Porter, the then attorney general. After almost eight months as interim treasurer and having presented the 2010 budget, Mr Barnett handed over to Mr Porter, who had sound qualifications for the job.

Mr Porter presented the 2011 and 2012 budgets before standing down after deciding his future lay in the federal arena. Mr Barnett again filled the breach – for a month this time – before recalling Mr Buswell for a second chance in the job in July 2012.

This latest indiscretion represents a severe blow to Mr Barnett and his team. It also sheds light on the wisdom of giving politicians a second chance after they have messed up.

Some politicians do not believe in second chances. In fact my experience of the NSW Labor Party’s right wing faction was that one indiscretion was one indiscretion too many.

I remember discussing the fate of a former senior official of the NSW branch with the then state secretary Graham Richardson in the late 1970s in Sydney. By the way, Mr Richardson’s definition of a ‘friend’ in Labor politics was ‘someone who’ll vote for you, even though they know you’re wrong’.

When I told Mr Richardson the treatment of the official seemed unduly harsh – although he was shunted into a cushy government job – his reply was revealing.

Looking me in the eye he said simply: ‘Mate, if they can rat on you once they can rat on you twice’. End of discussion.

Some ministers take heed of a narrow scrape and mend their ways. Two who did were Labor’s Alannah MacTiernan and the Liberals’ Bill Grayden, a minister in the government of Sir Charles Court.

Ms MacTiernan had several drink driving penalties come to light when Geoff Gallop named her minister for infrastructure, with reponsibility for transport and road safety, in 2001. There were immediate calls for her to be sacked from the ministry.

It’s history how the calls were resisted, and responsibility for road safety transferred to Michelle Roberts, who was also police minister; an example of a good fit.

And it’s just as well Ms MacTiernan was retained, as she drove through the Perth-Mandurah railway project on the freeway route, which is seen as a massive public transport achievement. 

Mr Grayden was one of the Court government’s more popular ministers. He initially held the challenging labour and industry portfolio during a period of considerable industrial unrest. I occasionally enjoyed a late afternoon drink with other colleagues in his ministerial office in the Old Treasury building.

In 1978 he was involved in an evening incident at the Sheraton Hotel in which the police were called. There was damage to a two-way radio in a police car and Mr Grayden was stood down from the ministry – until the 1980 election. Then Sir Charles welcomed his old WWII army colleague back into the cabinet as minister for education, cultural affairs and recreation. There were no more controversies.

The challenge for Mr Barnett now is how to get both his government and the budget process back on track.

That won’t be easy. Without Mr Buswell’s sharp wit, it will be harder to deflect Labor Party attacks in the Legislative Assembly.

Opposition leader Mark McGowan will smell blood and Labor treasury spokesman Ben Wyatt will have an ideal opportunity for some point scoring on the budget front.

The absence of both Mr Buswell and the former under-treasurer Tim Marney removes considerable experience from the budget preparation stage.

That, of course, occurs behind closed doors. Selling the budget after it has been unveiled is always a major public challenge for any government. Paul Keating and Peter Costello were seasoned performers on the federal stage, while at the state level Labor’s Eric Ripper was more than capable, helped by the turbo-charged economy of the day.

The Buswell experience is a stark reminder of the uncertainties of politics. Only last month, Political Perspective noted that the (now former) treasurer was on top of his game when he spoke to 650 business guests at a forum hosted by the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia. Those present were impressed by his grasp of the issues. I also canvassed his leadership credentials at the forum.

That’s all in the past. Third chances in politics are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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