Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pilbara play proof Lib-Nat partnership a mistake

The Premier’s “take a cold shower” comment to WA Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls this week is symptomatic not only of Mr Barnett’s tendency to highlight his superiority complex on talkback radio but also of a very messy, imminent problem for the wider government.

Of course, Mr Barnett would say that he was just trying to give some well-meaning advice to a valued friend and colleague, but his warning to Mr Grylls’ over his decision to run for the Labor-held seat of Pilbara at the next election runs much deeper than friendly advice. Quite simply, the Liberal Party will do all it can to stop the Nationals getting another seat in the Legislative Assembly, including that of retiring Labor MP Tom Stephens.

The Nationals have a well-earned reputation in Mr Grylls’ current electorate of Central Wheatbelt so they should retain that seat regardless of the candidate – be it current Upper House Member Mia Davies or anyone else. The threat to the Liberal Party is if Mr Grylls wins the seat of Pilbara, the Nationals will extend their size (and influence) in the Lower House and presumably increase their ability to manipulate Government spending in the next term.

Mr Grylls obviously believes his personal star power combined with the bucket loads of money the Government has spent in the Pilbara thanks to “his” Royalties for Regions scheme will deliver the seat to the Nationals. However, given the outright hatred the Labor Party holds toward the Nationals in that part of the world and their desperation to win Fremantle back from the Independent former Green MP Adele Carles, the Labor Party is likely to do a preference deal with the Liberal Party to disadvantage the Nationals in Pilbara. Unless Mr Grylls secures more than 50% of the primary vote, that deal would just about guarantee he will lose his seat in Parliament come 2013 and the Liberal Party will pick up Pilbara from Tom Stephens.

Mr Barnett wasn’t offering friendly advice - he was suggesting a threat to Mr Grylls’ Parliamentary career.

Both the Royalties for Regions program and Brendon Grylls himself have been problematic for Colin Barnett. There is wide discontent among his Liberal Cabinet colleagues who are often forced to go cap-in-hand to the much wealthier Nationals Ministers to effectively beg for money to fund their pet projects. And the current National team play hard-ball politics with who gets what. Consequently, the Premier is under growing pressure to reduce the proportion of Government spending controlled by the Nationals who would undoubtedly argue for the status quo or even more and if they were to secure another Lower House seat in the next Government.

In terms of Brendon Grylls the man, the Premier, who is hell-bent on trying to develop his image as a wise and considered statesman, is often frustrated by the brash impatience and naked ambition of his younger Nationals counterpart. In EERC meetings, where Ministers and their Department heads pitch to a star chamber of senior Ministers for funding, Mr Grylls is vocal, animated and often showers the room with expletives when he perceives a funding request to be poorly considered or not in the political interest of the government.

Conversely Mr Barnett, who as Premier made reinstating a jacket and tie dress code for Parliament one of his first orders of business, likes to play it cool and mull quietly in the corner leaving others to jump up and down in what he considers, an undignified manner.

But the tensions in the Liberal-National partnership are much deeper than dress-codes and unparliamentry langauge.

Mr Grylls has often upstaged Mr Barnett’s life-long ambition to run a professional, moderate bureaucracy. The urgency inherent in 39 year old Mr Grylls means he IS prepared to occasionally throw the baby out with the bathwater if it means reaching his short-term goal. As someone who has come so far aching with ambition to conquer the summit, he is often frustrated to be blocked at the top by someone who must appear to him as a boring father-figure.  His Gen X risk-taking mentality has paid enormous dividends for the kid from the bush with a cruel lisp and the decision to have a stab at the seat of Pilbara underscores his “if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang” approach to politics.

His supposed ally, but true nemesis in his race to the top of the hill is the slow-moving, overly cautious, bureaucratic Colin Barnett. Mr Barnett wants to be remembered as an academic who put good public policy ahead of political ambition. He longs to be remembered as a modern-day Charles Court and with his new-found enthusiasm for the Queen, probably wouldn’t mind following Sir Charles into a knighthood either. Consequently, he tries to keep bad news away from the front page at all cost and is desperate to ensure his leadership is not connected to anything other than full and proper process – something Mr Grylls is happy to at least partially sacrifice in order to get a timely outcome.

Mr Barnett’s philosophical approach to government is diametrically opposed to that of Mr Grylls. And the differences between the men are reflected in the mood of the parties they lead. The National Party has a can-do attitude and is keen to make the changes they want now, even if it inflicts a bit of short-term pain. The Western Australian Parliamentary Liberal Party is defensive and reactive. To use the Premier’s own analogy, his team is batting, not bowling – and it looks like he thinks it’s a test match, not Twenty20.

The fight over the Pilbara will be a high profile and somewhat destructive battle for the Liberal-National partnership but unless someone smart negotiates a formal coalition agreement ASAP, the broader differences between the parties and their respective leaders will cause a much greater chasm in any future alliance.

PS. Paige Talor from the Australian Newspaper followed this up with a great article published on 3 March 2012. You can read that here

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