03/09/2008 - 22:00

The choice: continuity or change

03/09/2008 - 22:00


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When Western Australian voters go to the polling booths on Saturday they have a choice between policy continuity under the Labor Party or the prospect of change under a Liberal government.

The choice: continuity or change

When Western Australian voters go to the polling booths on Saturday they have a choice between policy continuity under the Labor Party or the prospect of change under a Liberal government.

Not just a change in the governing party, but a change in the people running the state and the policy agenda they pursue.

Labor needs to be judged on its track record over the past eight years.

On most of the big policy issues it has taken some action, but there are very few areas where it can point to major, breakthrough achievements.

A lot of work still needs to be done to address issues such as labour shortages, infrastructure planning, project approvals, taxation levels, energy security, public sector efficiency, and housing affordability.

It is simplistic to suggest state governments can control all of these issues, and it must be acknowledged that the resources boom has created both opportunities and challenges.

But there is a widely felt frustration in the business community that Labor has not moved faster or more decisively.

WA has become a high-taxing state under Labor, and there is no sign of that changing.

Government spending has consistently grown faster than even the government wanted, yet there is little sign of structural reform to lift efficiency.

Time consuming, costly and uncertain project approvals are still a big source of frustration.

The possibility of Inpex moving its Ichthys gas project to Darwin, because it cannot get a clear answer on a Kimberley site, is a prime example.

Instead of promoting credible plans to deal with these big issues, Labor has spent the election campaign focused on populist 'green' policies and attacking the Liberals.

Labor's green credentials have always been pretty thin, apart from the halting of logging in old growth forests, which of course cost many jobs.

There have been plenty of policy announcements, not just in this election campaign but over the past eight years, but little substantive change.

Power generation, for instance, still relies overwhelmingly on coal and gas, despite all the talk about renewable energy.

Labor's negative attacks on the Liberals have gone beyond the bounds of credibility.

Alan Carpenter talks repeatedly about uranium shipments passing through residential neighbourhoods and families eating GM foods; at best these claims are technically correct but in practice amount to a mischievous scare campaign.

This negative campaigning adds to the cynicism over the premier's decision to call the election nearly six months early.

The Liberals have not been shy about using negative campaigning as well, but have done so less than Labor.

More substantively, the Liberals have clearly struggled to prepare detailed, budgeted policies.

This is hardly surprising after the leadership turmoil the party has experienced over the past few years.

New leader Colin Barnett has resorted to pulling out some old policy ideas, and in the process has been caught short.

For instance, his support for the long-term development of the Maitland industrial estate near Dampier - an idea he floated early in the campaign - has been judged to be impractical and is not supported by industry.

Mr Barnett had a big opportunity to differentiate the Liberals by advocating large tax cuts, but instead opted for a very modest $250 million worth of cuts.

Mr Barnett has also continued to adopt some curious policy positions for the leader of a private enterprise party.

For instance, he has always opposed Labor's energy reforms, including the four-way break-up of the old Western Power, despite that policy having wide support in the business sector.

And this week he talked about renegotiating iron ore royalties if BHP Billiton succeeds in its takeover offer for Rio Tinto.

Labor, wisely, has been very judicious in its comments on that matter.

Mr Barnett has also been forced to play a lone hand on most policy issues. The Liberals former leader, Troy Buswell, arguably their most capable performer on policy issues, has been kept away from the campaign to minimise controversy over his personal behaviour.

Instead, Christian Porter has emerged as a major player, and could be a future leader, but there have been few other people for Mr Barnett to turn to.

He would face the same problem if he were to win government.

Labor will have an injection of new talent in state parliament after the election but, if it retains power, the government will still be dominated by the same handful of ministers that have run the state for the past eight years.

That makes the choice easier for voters.

They can return a Labor government that will continue on the same path or they can back Colin Barnett's ministerial experience and hope he can mould a cohesive team.


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