16/12/2013 - 14:31

Work ahead of new-look cabinet

16/12/2013 - 14:31

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Colin Barnett needs his new-look cabinet to hit the ground running in the New Year.

Work ahead of new-look cabinet
TOUGH TASK: With the forward estimates predicting a modest deficit for 2014-15, Mr Buswell has a big job ahead of him. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Premier Colin Barnett has grabbed the opportunity offered by the surprise resignation from cabinet of former Nationals leader, Brendon Grylls, to make small but strategic changes to the portfolio responsibilities of three key ministers.

The most important is the easing of the workload for his right-hand man, Troy Buswell. In fact, next year could prove to be make or break in Mr Buswell’s chequered political career. If he delivers, his standing will be enhanced and he could again be seen as a future leader.

The premier has relieved the member for the Busselton-based seat of Vasse of responsibility for the fisheries portfolio and handed it to Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston; that’s a good fit.

Fisheries hasn’t been a high-profile portfolio, until now. The experienced Norman Moore handled it in the government’s first term, before his retirement. He made some tough decisions regarding the preservation of fishing stocks, but the role was generally considered low key.

Then we had the spate of fatal shark attacks along the vast Western Australian coastline. The pressure went on for a government response. A highly emotional issue, it often demands the relevant minister’s full-time attention.

The big issues next year are the prudent management of the state’s finances – quickly regaining the AAA credit rating is a high priority – and coherent action to get on top of traffic congestion in the metropolitan area.

Mr Buswell, as treasurer and transport, has direct responsibility for both.

The federal government’s confirmation that it will commit $2.4 billion to key WA infrastructure over the next four years – in both the metropolitan and regional areas – is confirmation of the significance of efficient transport for the state’s continued economic growth. Mr Buswell will gain kudos if the program is implemented smoothly and effectively.

Delivering on the budget is crucial for Mr Barnett. He has placed great store in not presiding over a deficit budget. In the 2008 election campaign his message was that a deficit budget would be a sign of failure. With the forward estimates predicting a modest deficit for 2014-15, Mr Buswell has the job ahead of him.

That partly explains the appointment of The West Australian’s former political editor, the experienced Robert Taylor, as a consultant to help shape the messages taxpayers will get over the next five months up to budget day. Mr Taylor won the $106,250 tender to provide “business and corporate management consultation services” through to mid-May when the budget is due.

Mr Taylor has a nice turn of phrase, as was evident in 2001 when he was media secretary to then National Party leader, Max Trenorden. It was during the campaign for the Merredin by-election, caused by the retirement of former deputy premier Hendy Cowan, that Mr Taylor produced a celebrated news release headed ‘Trenorden blasts Barnett over country record’.

Mr Barnett was Liberal leader at the time and took a big squad of frontbenchers to Merredin to campaign in a bid to wrest the seat off the Nationals.

The first paragraph of the statement said: “The Leader of the WA National Party, Max Trenorden, has accused Liberal leader Colin Barnett of miraculously discovering country WA, just two weeks out from the Merredin by-election.”

Mr Trenorden was also quoted as saying “it was well known Mr Barnett had never shown any interest in issues affecting rural Western Australia …”

The statement concluded with the Nationals leader accusing Mr Barnett of being a “Johnny-come-lately” on rural matters.

“Mr Barnett suddenly trying to be a friend of the bush is an absolute joke,” Mr Trenorden said. “In his days as a cabinet minister he hardly ever went near the country areas, even though he was minister for energy, a vital portfolio for country WA.”

The statement was great material for print journalists, but there was a snag for colleagues in the electronic sector. At his news conference, Mr Trenorden resisted all efforts by reporters, me included, to repeat the colourful criticism of the Liberal leader, apparently in the belief that it might have gone too far.

But it did the job. The Nationals polled strongly in the by-election, launching the political career of a young Brendon Grylls.

Mr Buswell will obviously be hoping that Mr Taylor can help in the presentation of what promises to be a most challenging year. Just wait for the screams when the scheduled $2 a day parking fee is introduced at suburban railway stations.

The new Nationals leader, Terry Redman, inherits Mr Grylls’ portfolios of regional development, lands, and assisting in state development, but loses training and workforce development, which adds to Deputy Premier Kim Hames’ workload.

Central Wheatbelt MP Mia Davies will be eased into the cabinet with the water and forestry portfolios, and will have the Christmas-New Year break to get up to speed in readiness for the resumption of parliament next year.

In fact the break represents an opportunity for Mr Barnett and his new-look team to regroup, learn from the lessons of the past nine months and start 2014 with a clear sense of purpose.

It will be crucial in this regard that Mr Buswell comes out firing in the areas of treasury and transport.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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