06/08/2009 - 00:00

What do Barnett’s Libs stand for?

06/08/2009 - 00:00

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Colin Barnett may be an astute premier but is he in the right political party?

What do Barnett’s Libs stand for?

I GREW up with a belief that the Liberal Party was a party of free enterprise and small government.

Labor, conversely, was a party that supported intervention, regulation and a bigger role for government.

Both parties have evolved over the years and notable politicians have sometimes taken them in unexpected directions.

Western Australian wheat farmer and former Hawke government minister Peter Walsh was a famous example.

For a start, he joined Labor instead of following most of his fellow farmers into the National Party.

And as finance minister in the mid 1980s, he was a champion of radical reform, leading big cutbacks in government spending, especially of what has come to be known as middle class welfare.

Former Liberal prime minister, John Howard, proceeded to undo a lot of Peter Walsh's work, lifting spending on middle class welfare to hitherto uncharted levels.

That spending helped to ensure Mr Howard and his long-serving treasurer Peter Costello maintained government spending and taxes at, or near, record levels.

Colin Barnett is another Liberal leader whose policies call into question some of the traditional tenets of his party.

His comments last week on prospective gas developments in the state's north are a prime example.

Mr Barnett, like 1970s premier and Liberal Party legend, the late Sir Charles Court, is heavily focused on promoting big resources projects.

That is seen, quite rightly, as the best way of lifting the state's prospects.

But what is debateable is Mr Barnett's habit of injecting himself, and his government, into a central role in commercial matters.

He justifies this with an almost strident insistence that the state's resources belong to the people, not to private businesses.

His comments surrounding the proposed merger of the Pilbara iron ore operations of BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto is a case in point.

He is factually correct but his rhetoric and policies are akin to an old-school agrarian socialist rather than a progressive free marketeer.

An early signal of Mr Barnett's approach was his decision to invest directly in the Oakajee port development rather than leaving it in the hands of the private consortium that had been intending to proceed on its own.

His advocacy of re-merging energy utilities Verve and Synergy is another example.

Mr Barnett's latest intervention concerns planned gas developments in the Kimberley.

One of his top priorities upon winning office was ensuring that gas companies have a site in the Kimberley - at James Price Point north of Broome - where they can build a liquefied natural gas plant.

But what if some companies don't want to proceed with the James Price Point option?

That seems to be the current reality.

Woodside is keen to proceed with an LNG plant at James Price Point, to process gas from the Browse basin gas fields off the Kimberley coast.

However, its joint venture partners, including Chevron and Shell, appear to have other priorities for the next few years.

These include Australia's largest ever resources development - the $50 billion Gorgon gas project - which is expected to get a formal go-ahead in the next few weeks.

In light of this, it is widely surmised that they would like to keep open the long-term option of piping the Browse gas to the Burrup Peninsula, where it could be used as feedstock for the existing LNG factories.

Last week, Mr Barnett took the extraordinary step of ruling out that option.

"That gas will be developed in the Kimberley," he told reporters outside a Woodside function.

"Take a reality check, recognise the policy position and deal with it."

What is Mr Barnett trying to achieve? For one, he wants to justify the enormous political capital he has invested in James Price Point. He is also itching to see big resources projects proceed.

But his comments go beyond promotion and facilitation; they constitute direct involvement in a commercial matter.

Given the apparent commercial differences within the Browse joint venture, his comments might even be described as interference.

Worryingly, he foreshadowed more of the same.

"You will find governments here and elsewhere will take a far more direct role in policy and development of resources," he said.

Taking a direct role may be okay, if it involves facilitating private sector development.

But if it involves arbitrarily ruling out private sector development opportunities, that is a strange policy stance for the leader of free enterprise party.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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