Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Don't take it personally...

A personal insight today - words are very important to me.

Below is a photo I took and the words that followed while I was in the Czech Republic:

In Prague, the Jewish Quarter as it is now known, was preserved by the invading Nazi rulers in 1942 with the intention to use it as a “museum of an extinct race”. The cemetery contains around 20,000 gravestones and the remains of many, many more victims of the attempted genocide.

As a visitor to the memorial, I was not only confronted by the horror of the depths of human behaviour but also inspired by examples of the very best. Upon many of the gravestones, those who had walked before me left prayers written on small folded pieces of paper weighed down with rocks from the crumbling ruins.

While words on pieces of paper seemed futile at the time, in retrospect I realise we have no greater weapon in our fight for peace, justice and freedom.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sherpa's revolt

As pointed out by the (hardly) ever insightful “Inside Cover” in Saturday’s West Australian newspaper, I’ve had my fair share of life experiences. And while I’ve never been a mountaineering guide like those colloquially named after the noble Sherpa people of Nepal, I certainly get the feeling that I have some insight into their daily lives – and it would appear, other politically aware Western Australians do too.

You see, a stereotypical “Sherpa” according to many of us western lounge-lizards, is a pretty ordinary guy who pays his bills by doing what he does best - thinking for other people who don’t have his specialist knowledge. We rarely hear their names because it’s their job to quietly help rich men in suits climb mountains, update their Facebook pages and document their self-proclaimed heroism with cameras that cost more then the annual GDP of the Sherpa’s entire village. Sometimes the men in suits choose to outright ignore their Sherpa’s advice and no doubt also blame them for not fore-warning of an imminent danger obvious to everyone other than the moody guy with the money. But still, by all accounts, they put their heads down and keep trying to do what they do in a professional manner.

Now, I’m sure that’s not a fair representation of all climber/Sherpa relationships, but I reckon QBF readers are smart enough to see the analogy I’m trying to draw. However, for those Robin Williams fans who like it s-p-e-l-l-e-d out for you at the end of the movie: some of our Ministers are just like the precious, Facebooking men in suits trampling over everything in order to get to their own personal summit - and the Sherpa’s are sometimes like their hard-working, highly skilled advisers.

But the analogy can’t stop there – I haven’t yet been able to bring donkeys into the story…

After listening to Professor D'Arcy Holman, the Chairman of the State’s Road Safety Council, talking to Paul Murray on radio 6PR this morning, our State’s public sherpas, umm servants, appear to have learned another secret of their Nepalese associates: When you’re dealing with donkey’s (or Asses because it’s more fun to call them that in this context), you first try to move them with a carrot and if that doesn’t work, you bring out a mighty big stick!

Professor Holman talked extensively to the doyen of Western Australian current affairs about how the Government might spend the $80 million a year it expects to receive from red light and speed camera fines starting this July. The Professor, who is obviously well versed in the art of making asses move against their will, cleverly used the opportunity to ensure that the public knows he and his council are trying to use a carrot in the first instance:

“I, like you and everyone else, am waiting to see what the government does in response to our recommendations… but in the interests of good governance it is necessary to allow the government some time to consider our recommendations and to formulate its response before it makes its public statement about where it stands.”
Giddyup… move forward… here boy… Sounds like the Road Safety Council enjoys a pleasant and mutually respectful relationship with their political asses (told you it was fun to say).

But then the truth - Mr Holman doesn’t have much faith that the Government will voluntarily do what he wants it too. In true Sherpa style, he humbly pointed to the big stick in his back pocket:

“I am concerned about the possibility that these funds could be misspent in a way that is not consistent with the priorities to reducing deaths and saving injuries on our roads… money could be whittled away in cost shifting or really just funding the wrong things because they are popular… I will make certain that you (the media) know what we recommended… I would be more than happy to enable a comparison between the government’s final position and what we recommended.”
Yar mule!!!  Them’s fightin’ words for sure.

Unfortunately for the Government, the Road Safety Minister, who should be putting on the gloves to jump into the ring with a committee that sounds just a little too big for its boots probably doesn’t have the strength to win yet another bloody bout. And it’s not just strength Minister Johnson is short of. It’s support too. There’s no doubt it’s possible for a tired boxer to perk up with the crowd behind him in the final rounds, but sadly for the kind-hearted Member for Hillarys, the public and according to Federal Liberal Member Don Randall, some of his State colleagues have started cheering for someone else.

That leaves the Premier with only two rather ugly choices: contradict what he said last December with another reshuffle and move Mr Johnson aside before next year’s election; or do what he absolutely detests and let public servants (I know Mr Holman thinks he’s not, but in this role he really is) dictate government policy by just rolling over and funding everything the Council has asked for.

My best guess is the former, but he won’t bring it on unless he absolutely has to.

He said last week from Singapore that Mr Johnson had his “full confidence and support” – seemingly overlooking the fact that he stripped Minister Johnson of the FESA portfolio only 3 months ago without as much as a courtesy phone call.

The truth is, Mr Barnett does not have full confidence in Minister Johnson, plain and simple.

However, he knows reshuffles cause tension within the Party and uncertainty within the public so he will mull over it trying to avoid any sign of weakness or the appearance of a damaging scandal. He really doesn’t want any more change in the Cabinet, but slowly the Premier will carry out his unique, hands-off curing process and Minister Johnson will eventually be hung out and dry. When the Premier is finally forced to act his economically-minded travel buddy Mike Nahan or very capable (and female) Liza Harvey will receive a new title and pay rise. This move will create other problems for the Premier primarily because there’s a line of other backbenchers who think they others should go to make room for them – but we’ll save that insight for another day.

In the meantime, Mr Barnett will huff and puff about public servants not setting government policy, while secretly hoping the distraction is enough to keep the ropes strong and able to hold Minister Johnson up - just for the last round or two.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Response to the West Australian Inside Cover

Dear Mr Quekett c/o The West Australian Inside Cover,

Just a short reply to your little piece today:

Yes, I've been around politics for a long time and have also had my fair share of business and broader life experiences. And yes, I currently provide a uniquely frank and fearless style of political commentary via my Quick Brown Fox blog as well as political insight and strategy privately to paying clients of my business Squeaky Wheel.

However, I thought I would just provide a quick brown response to your advice regarding how my current open style of commentary might jeopardize my former aspirations to become an elected representative of the people. Sadly, I think you are right - our current political culture does not reward people with the courage to stand up to the mindless machine that is sometimes our parliament. Given that is the case, I'm proud to no longer qualify for the club.

And Malcolm, a little advice in return - shame on you for wasting your precious column space reinforcing the ethos of mediocrity we currently find ourselves drowning in. I had hoped you might have the balls to help me change the paradigm, not just join the conga-line and condone it.

Yours sincerely,

Darren Brown

Friday, March 16, 2012

Where has the money gone?

I had a coffee with an educated, right-leaning mining executive yesterday who asked one very simple question no-one in his position should need to ask. On reflection, the very fact that he didn’t know the answer demonstrates what I think is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Barnett Government as it careers toward the next election.

The question he genuinely asked me was: “I keep hearing that the state has more debt than ever, but where has the money gone?”

If you’ve just paused and wondered how you would answer, my next observation will come as no surprise - Premier Colin Barnett and Treasurer Christian Porter have become expert bearers of bad news and proletarian professors of good.

Have a think about it. How many times have you heard these men explain with crystal clarity that our great state can’t afford this or that because of our burgeoning levels of debt?

To some extent, lowering expectations is a well-trodden political path – you tell people things are tough and you probably can’t afford hand outs, then miraculously just before an election, you pull the rabbit out of the hat and take a bow while the appreciative audience cast their votes.

But sadly for those members of the audience holding their breath, this is no magic trick and there is no rabbit.

If you didn’t know already (because Mr Barnett and Mr Porter have said it ad nauseam) net state debt has risen from $3.6 billion in 2008 when Premier Barnett took the reigns to an expected level around $22 billion in 2014-15. To non-economists like me, those numbers look terrible and sadly for the Liberal-National government, the respectable Mr Barnett (who is an economist) has told the public over and over again, that indeed they are!

However, other reputable commentators such as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry say for a State with WA’s capacity to generate income, that level of debt is not a problem. In fact, the CCI has on occasion, urged the Government to even increase its spending a bit and invest more now to help achieve a better growth curve for the future. So if the State’s very reputable peak industry body is comfortable with our short-term debt forecast, why do Mr and Mrs Brown feel so uneasy about it?

It’s not that we know better than the bean-counters at the CCI, because we obviously don’t. They are truly experts in this field. However, a lot of Mums and Dads don’t get to hear from the CCI – because they simply can’t get the same opportunity to talk to the public as the Premier and his Treasurer do.  When my wife and I plonk down in front of the nightly news eating our microwave dinners from the stable-tables on our laps, we, like our neighbours, see a lot of our esteemed Premier and his anointed in full HD on our energy-sucking 50 inch plasma TV’s. We don’t get to see much of James Pearson’s handsome head, nor do we get to hear from anyone else impartial or even remotely rational on the issue. We, the watchers, increasingly demand something punchy, scary or outrageous from our media and simply lose interest when a credible guy in a suit is saying something sensible.

OK, that isn’t news. Politicians and their advisers have known for decades that the public can’t get enough controversy and just hate the boring stuff.

But that - the fact we all know controversy gets attention – is the point of insight regarding the current WA government.

My observation is that Premier Barnett and his Treasurer have very successfully sold the story that debt is exploding and that’s why we can’t all get presents from the government this Christmas. We’ve been told debt is one of the reasons for the enormous cost-of-living increases this government has forced upon us. We believe police, nurses and teachers aren’t going to get the pay rises they want primarily because of state debt. We know the Perth arena has cost more than expected and we know the solar feed-in-tariff was more popular than our boffins predicted.

But what the government hasn’t explained very well, at least to the well-connected and highly educated mining exec I met yesterday, is why?

OK, let's have a go.

The Government currently employs somewhere around 25,000 more public sector workers than former Treasurer Troy Buswell promised when they first took office – and that adds to state debt. The Fiona Stanley Hospital will cost us a fortune to run. The Perth waterfront is going to get dug up soon, that’s another cost, yep. The government wants to settle native title with the noongar people, ok, a billion there. Speaking of happy aboriginal people, we shouldn’t forget the cost of the enormously successful (cough) James Price Point development. Oh yeah, we’re getting a stadium at Burswood that James Packer isn’t paying for, we think, maybe…  The Oakajee Port is going to cost… oh no, that was going to cost the Government but not any more – cross that one off… umm… err… struggling now…. Western Power wants $10 billion over the next 5 years, no, wait, that’s not in the budget yet….hmmm

You get the picture. Most people couldn’t point to things to justify the extra $18 billion the government has spent so far under Mr Barnett’s leadership. That is an enormous problem for any government which, because of the debt, really doesn't have money to promise anything new in this election year.

And the most uncomfortable truth is that regardless of the number of very well-paid alleged political geniuses in the Premier's office, this amounts to nothing other than a colossal strategic error.

The Premier has used his valuable airtime over the past few years to drum home the message that we need to cap state debt at $20 billion and then scared the living bejesus out of us by having to break the news that not only did he set that number arbitarily, he we will soon take us beyond it by at least 10%. Neither he or his Treasurer have yet to use any of that precious space on my TV to explain to the people who thought Liberal governments were good with money exactly why we’re beginning to think otherwise.

Note: There's a pile of evidence that this administration likes to let one person hang out to dry when failures like this are publicly recognised, so I’ll pre-empt the inevitable finger pointing by defending Dixie Marshall on this issue. She simply hasn’t been the government’s chief bugle for even one budget yet, so it’s clearly not her fault. Nor can the blame be entirely laid at the feet of any of her predecessors.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Breaking news: Randall vs Johnson in Fed Parliament

There’s been blood lost within the broad church of the Liberal Party today and it’s just another thing to make life difficult for Colin Barnett and his nervous nannies.

Don Randall, the Liberal Member for Canning today launched a damaging attack on one of his State colleagues in Federal Parliament. The scathing assessment of Police Minister Rob Johnson below might well be an indication that Mr Randall, who is still on the backbench after serving 5 terms in Parliament, may be considering retirement. Although the 59 year old is known for his gruff manner, the kind of public honesty below typically only comes when a Member of Parliament has given up on dreams of being promoted and no longer needs friends in the Party.

Take a read of my transcript of his extraordinary speech below and watch this space…

It is with a heavy heart that I feel compelled to outline why I have no confidence in Rob Johnson MLA, the member for Hillarys and the Minister for Police in the West Australian government. I have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to represent the views of my constituents and Western Australians generally but, alas, his response and outcomes to these representations leave me no other alternative but to question minister Johnson's ability to do his job. I have made representations to this minister on a range of law and order issues for which he is responsible. A strong cabinet minister would be able to deliver more police and resourcing to an electorate like mine. Because he cannot, combating crime and antisocial behaviour and hooning in Canning is underresourced. One of the most recent issues is that of WA police targeting motorists leaving Canning Highway onto the Kwinana Freeway. It is on this road that police have been quite unfairly targeting motorists from behind bushes where the speed changes are confusing to drivers. This has received much media attention so I will not say any more than that this is wanton opportunistic use of police resources, particularly when double demerit points apply. It is unconscionable and should cease. This road is not a traffic blackspot as main road statistics will confirm. Minister Johnson has yet again abrogated any responsibility and leadership on this issue. The electorate would prefer these police resources to be better addressed against hooning and other antisocial behaviour in the community. In fact, as is his way, the minister has tried to shift the responsibility of this issue to Commissioner of Police Karl O'Callaghan and then to transport minister Troy Buswell.
The incompetent maladministration by this minister was demonstrated during the Kelmscott Roleystone bushfires in my electorate. He blamed everyone else and took no responsibility for any dysfunction. This is not how the Westminster system works. Others were sacked. Even the police commissioner is in a cloud now over this issue. Johnson's bumbling behaviour has seen him labelled 'Inspector Clouseau' by the state opposition. As an opposition MP he expressed his desire to bring back the noose when in government and to introduce the 'birch' to lawbreakers. As a government minister he has ditched those populist fantasies.
The minister is so weak and ineffective that the Labor appointed police commissioner is given a free rein. There is obviously no respect or authority shown by the commissioner, who at times chooses to stray into other occupations such as part-time FM radio host and rockstar. He can do all this and stare down the minister because the minister is weak and ineffective in giving leadership and direction to the commissioner in both policy and policing areas. Johnson and his office contend that he is unable to direct the commissioner or convey a strident point of view to the Commissioner of Police. This is not true; he has the powers to do so under the Constitution. One can only suspect that Johnson's silly and incompetent behaviour is due to an emerging health condition. Mr Johnson has made it known that at the age of 68 he intends to continue as a member for Hillarys. He wants to be Speaker in the next state parliament. He is often telling others that he wants to retire but he has no other hobbies or interests so he may as well keep going because he has nothing to do in retirement. It beggars belief that his pre-selectors could allow him to stand again, given his incompetence as an MLA and minister. I have friends and associates living in his electorate who tell me they feel offended that he is the Liberal's choice, and cannot bring themselves to vote for him. I share their aggravation.

CCC issue showcases WA’s great planner, err Premier

I don’t blame Leader of the Nationals Brendon Grylls for his decision to risk everything and run against a popular Mayor in the Labor-held seat of Pilbara at the next election. I mean, just imagine how frustrating it is being him – or for that matter, any other ambitious subordinate of our hyper-cautious, slow-moving statesman Colin Barnett.

A case-in-point is the growing furore around whether or not Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan lied or indeed just honestly stuffed up when by incorrectly recalling the precise time of when he first learned of last year’s Roleystone fires. I get the “integrity” issue – our top cop shouldn’t lie to a formal inquiry - but even in the unlikely event that it was intentional and not just flawed memory, is this really a matter that should occupy the resources of the State’s Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC)?

Speaking from Singapore with Paul Murray on Perth radio 6PR today, the integrity-focussed Premier confirmed he didn’t think it was worthy of a CCC investigation:

“However, I’m staying out of it… Allegations have been made and in my opinion the CCC has no choice but to enquire into them. I just hope they can do so as quickly as possible.”
And why does the CCC still have “no choice” but to waste its precious time on yet another nonsensical witch-hunt that will do little other than cast a shadow over the reputation of our hard-working emergency services?

The uncomfortable, yet true answer to this question is unfortunately the same for so many other points of inertia that is causing damaging internal conflict and frustration as well as external reputational issues to the WA Government – and it is quite simply, Colin Barnett.

Let me justify that claim.

As I demonstrated in “Humpty Dumpty fell – do something about it or stop whining and get over it!”, the Premier’s tendency to clumsily think out loud before shoring up a plan of action has caused more than a little uncertainty within government and industry regarding the future of WA’s energy sector. Although in that case, the Energy Minister hasn’t helped by insensitively “napalming” the State’s corporate knowledge in the area, the one guy who genuinely could have made things happen 3 years ago, is still just talking about it.

After a quick (and I mean literally 5 minutes) search of Hansard, here are some of the things the Premier has thought-out-loud about the CCC during his last 3 years of no public action:
“It is certainly my hope, and I think most members would agree, that the resources of the Corruption and Crime Commission and the very extensive powers of the CCC should increasingly focus on dealing with organised crime. That is certainly the intent of the government.” - Thursday, 28 May 2009

“The Liberal–National government will also target organised crime, with the introduction of anti-association legislation aimed at groups who come together to engage in criminal behaviour. We will also broaden the powers of the Corruption and Crime Commission in this area.” - Tuesday, 23 February 2010

“We have also seen the issue… of what might be seen to be normal disciplinary processes dragged into the Corruption and Crime Commission and gain a level of public and media interest that is perhaps unwarranted. Again, that is another area of full reform that we will be entering into as a government; that is, the role of the CCC will be more related to organised crime, and there will be a balancing out of the matters that should go to the CCC—presumably, criminal or serious corruption issues—and the matters that are more of a disciplinary nature and should be dealt with by the Public Sector Commissioner.” - Tuesday, 22 June 2010

“The government’s legislative agenda also includes legislation to allow the Corruption and Crime Commission to focus more on organised crime…” - Tuesday, 15 February 2011

“The Liberal–National government makes no apologies for its tough law and order agenda… As promised, the government will target organised crime this year… The government will also introduce amendments to the Corruption and Crime Commission Act to extend the CCC’s powers to investigate organised crime.” - Tuesday, 21 February 2012
In the Premier’s defence, some might argue that he’s busy and three years simply isn’t long enough for anyone to work out about how to modify the parameters of such a complex issue.  Hmm… that argument might float if it wasn’t for yet another awkward truth – Mr Barnett started thinking about these issues at least 9 years ago, when as Leader of the Opposition, he said this during the second reading of the enabling Bill:
“The Opposition is supportive of the Government’s measures to build a more effective mechanism to fight corruption and crime. This Bill establishes a particularly powerful body… In that sense we must be conscious as legislators to examine and find the correct balance between the powers needed to control corruption and the potential threat those powers may in turn mean for the rights of individuals to maintain their livelihoods, their freedoms and their reputations… We should also be conscious that the CCC will have wide-ranging powers that will extend not only to police and public servants but also to judges, ministers, members of Parliament, public officers and police officers. That is acceptable, but in this business we all know how easy it is to make allegations. Allegations can be made by people outside this House, and sometimes they are made by people from within this House. If an allegation is made against a public figure, particularly in Australia, it is very hard to defend. Great damage can be done to people in public office and to their families by scurrilous and unfounded allegations…” - Wednesday, 4 June 2003
For me, the most frustrating part of drawing all this together is that I know the Premier is a good bloke. I also know he’s smart and considered, and I for one want those qualities in the guy representing our great State domestically and particularly abroad, as he is today.

But Colin Barnett has another good quality that unfortunately compromises his ability to get things done as Premier – a paralysing fear of having his personal integrity questioned. This is indeed a double-edged sword for him, especially with regard to the CCC issue.

Every rational person would agree that we need a strong, independent body to ensure corruption at crime does not pervade our community. I’m certain most of those people would also agree with the Premier – that the CCC should focus its limited resources on the most serious end of the spectrum. But alas, in our adversarial system of government, the Premier knows that as soon as he stands up to commit to the changes he has talked about for 9 years, he will be accused of compromising his integrity and that is an inevitability he has not yet been able to personally reconcile.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More unimpressed on repressed imprest...

Since yesterday’s post MP’s not impressed by repressed imprest, I’ve had a couple of grumpy insiders let me know that the Premier’s no-travel rule seems to only apply to some of the Liberal team – check this out from nice guy Mike Nahan’s twitter account and public Facebook page this morning:

Mike Nahan @MikeNahanMLA
Off to Singapore today with Premier Colin Barnett in my role of helping to make WA's links with Singapore even closer and stronger.

I was told another MP has apparently jet-setted off since Col Pot enforced his "rule", but I haven’t found any other evidence of it, so I’ll listen to my legal advice and not name him, yet.

More to come on this, I’m sure of it…

Approvals reform failure (Part 1)

Two extraordinary public statements have been made in the last month and while those making them were fairly polite about it, their comments point to a massive and inexcusable failing of the Barnett Government to deliver on a key election commitment – reform of the State’s embarrassingly bureaucratic approvals process.

Around a month ago, the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) released what they called a “Blueprint for Approvals Reform in Western Australia”. This document, masterfully crafted to not offend the sensitive types on the 24th floor, explains that the 300 or so junior mining companies that form AMEC are happy with the work of Mines Minister Norman Moore, but deeply “concerned” about a number of approvals issues that still require "immediate attention". The 20-page document is thorough in its endorsement of the work that has been done within Minister Moore’s remit and polite but clear in its condemnation of the lack of outcome across all other relevant agencies.

But perhaps even more telling is the article on page 14 of the ‘Property’ section in today’s West Australian newspaper titled “Landcorp calls for streamlined approvals process”. While Landcorp’s focus isn’t on mining approvals, the message is fundamentally the same as that in AMEC’s polite slap across the face – in 3 years, the Barnett Government has failed to deliver the approvals process reforms it promised in order to win industry support before winning the 2008 election. Landcorp’s Chief Executive Ross Holt, is quoted in the article explaining that the State’s cumbersome environmental and aboriginal heritage approvals processes are to blame for the slow release of new land in WA.

This subtle but pin-pointed attack on the Government’s failure to make more progress in this regard is extraordinary for two reasons – when in opposition, the Barnett Government explicitly claimed that high housing prices in WA were a direct result of the Government’s failure to release new land quickly enough to keep up with demand; and Landcorp, for those who don’t already know, is just the trading name of the Western Australian Land Authority – i.e. one of the Government’s own agencies.

Hmm… when a mining lobby group claims the Government has failed to deliver on a key election promise, it’s easy for the Premier’s people to dismiss as nothing but greed, but when one of the Government’s own agencies like Landcorp publicly agrees… well, where there’s smoke…

And smoke there should be - coming out of the ears of Minister Grylls and Minister Moore who have consistently tried without success to convince their recalcitrant Leader and many ignorant Ministerial colleagues of the one thing they know to be true – fix this core issue and the Government will win many powerful friends in property development and mining (as well as the public who would probably enjoy cheaper land and more infrastructure from mining royalties).

But alas, the Premier’s bureaucratic mindset and somewhat anti-liberal ‘protect-public-servants-at-all-cost’ dogma has ensured the openly maligned leadership of the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) has not only stayed in place, but continued to snub the desperate calls from industry for meaningful improvements to its approvals process efficiency and transparency.

In the three years since the election, Minister Moore’s wisdom and strength has delivered an entirely new Department, a Director General who immediately engaged and won the support of his stakeholders and the creation - from scratch - of a fully transparent, highly efficient online approvals system. In contrast, the Premier’s proud but foolish decision to allocate the equally complex and challenging Environment portfolio to the “youngest female Minister in political history” provided the hierarchy of DEC with the opportunity to dig in and lead the overwhelmed new Minister down the garden path. Desperate to placate her fawning Premier’s obvious desire for public-sector stability at all cost, Minister Faragher did her best to reform her intractable Department with carrots, not having the experience or influence to wield the dirty big stick that was actually required.

After a couple of years of reform inertia, the young Minister’s pregnancy opened the door for the Premier to cordially replace her with someone willing and able to finally jump on top of the wild brumby that the DEC had become and break its spirit…and with an analogy like that, wouldn’t you think it would have been a perfect job for pragmatic, rough and tumble country-boys like Terry Redman or even Troy Buswell#? So who did the Premier choose to throw down the gauntlet and go head to head with the bolshie DEC leadership forcing them to the reverse the entrenched anti-reform culture within? Hmmm, the well-dressed and affable Mr Bill Marmion, from Nedlands, of course.

[Clink! - the sound of the western suburbs chardonnay set toasting the ascent of yet another]

Oh, environment… never an easy portfolio for a conservative Minister – but with a Premier who would rather throw ideology out the window than upset a public servant, it would take someone truly extraordinary to oversee the changes required in that portfolio. (Premier: see not-so-subtle suggestions above).

The other area Landcorp head Ross Holt and the membership of AMEC said needed attention was the process around protecting Aboriginal Heritage in our State. And my goodness, does it ever.
As I conceded in “Stolen Wages outcome illuminates deeper issues” the Indigenous Affairs portfolio has also been a bit of a poison chalice for Minister Peter Collier. However, with regard to the approvals reform issue the lack of ability of the Department of Indigenous Affairs (DIA) to follow the DMP and get its online approvals system running is entirely a result of Minister Collier’s lack of willingness or ability to use his alleged power-broker status to influence his Cabinet colleagues.

I witnessed this first hand at a pre-budget meeting where former DIA Director General, Patrick Walker pleaded the case for a measly $400,000 to allow his department to complete a prototype of their online approvals tracking system that would have resulted in a transparent process similar to that of the Department of Mines and Petroleum. Sadly, Minister Moore was unable to attend this meeting and without anyone else wise and courageous enough to point out that this relatively small expenditure would help meet an important election commitment, it was put in the “not to be funded” column for that year’s State budget. While Mr Walker was simply too professional to link his disappointment at being hung out to dry by his own Minister with his soon-to-follow resignation, the bewilderment on his face at the time spoke volumes.

In fairness to the apparently craven Minister Collier, he only had carriage of the portfolio for a few months prior to that meeting. Since budget preparations had begun some time earlier, much of his attention had been appropriately focussed on securing funding for his other long-standing portfolios of Training and Energy. It’s therefore not unreasonable to apportion a large part of the failure to deliver the promised heritage approvals reform to Deputy Premier Kim Hames.

However, regardless of which Ministers have or haven’t had the strength, courage and intellect to fix their patch, the Western Australian approvals process as a whole remains far from the fully transparent, efficient system that this Government promised to deliver. Considering both the Liberal and National parties share a very tenuous hold on government and only managed that with the help of significant campaign contributions by property developers and mining executives, one would think keeping groups like AMEC and Landcorp happy would be top priority for Mr Barnett and his office full of well-paid political geniuses.

[Clink! – the sound of the eastern suburbs beer bottle blokes toasting another nail in the coffin]

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

MP’s not impressed by repressed imprest

Premier Colin Barnett likes details. There is no doubt he wants to let his bean-counting days go and spend his last years in public office pondering the big issues, but it appears that our lonely leopard just can’t change his spots.

After watching him prematurely cut the heads off a number of people such as former Treasurer Troy Buswell and most recently, one of his best performing personal advisers, for what turned out to be very minor transgressions, we know that Colin Barnett learnt something from his sulky time on the backbenches of the Birney/Omodei/Buswell Oppositions – corruption sinks governments. And he certainly does not want his government to go the same way as that of his processor.

As an informed tax-payer I say, “yep, he’s right. We shouldn’t tolerate corruption in government.” But I hasten to add, “let’s not overreact”. Unfortunately for the Premier, that’s just what a number of his colleagues think he has done in his latest attempt to appear committed to eliminating any perception of misuse of public resources.

One of Mr Barnett’s subordinates called me recently to voice concern about the fact that the Premier has a new no-travel policy and how quickly this and his other no-bad-press memos are raising the ire of a growing number of Liberal Members. Apparently the Premier recently told the entire Liberal Parliamentary team that between now and the election, no one should be using their imprest accounts to fund any travel, even though they are fully entitled to do so.

Just for context, a Member’s Imprest account is credited with $24,534 at the beginning of a new Parliamentary term for the purpose of funding travel over the four years. While some ill-informed cynics consider these trips to be nothing more than junkets, in my experience they provide MP’s with very valuable opportunities to visit other States and Countries and both learn from them and act as an ambassador to us. Most MP’s who use this entitlement come back with new ideas, stronger international relationships and at the very least, a broader appreciation of how other people live and Western Australia’s place in a very big world.

I don’t know about you, but if these people are going to represent me and write our laws, I for one think $6,000 a year is a very small price to pay for them to get that broader understanding of life.

However, it is a fact that there are those in our community who vehemently disagree. They think it’s a rort and our elected representatives should sit at home with a beer and learn about the world via Foxtel – which, of course, they should pay for from their own pockets.

Anyway, enough context, back to the current issue:

While my deepthroat seemed to accept that the Premier is just trying to avoid feeding these fools with a plethora of “snouts in the trough” tabloid stories months before an election, the informant said the thing that has really irritated the voiceless sods in the Party room is that this comes on top of his latest decree to no longer allow unused imprest funds to be rolled over to a new term.

Apparently, there are a number of members who have done the right thing by not travelling extensively over the last few terms and in doing so, saved up close to $40,000 in their imprest account. Some of them were evidently hoping to fund a decent overseas study trip early next term if they were lucky enough to get re-elected for another 4 years. However, when the Premier stood up in Parliament during the final sitting days of 2010 and declared that unspent imprest credits would not be rolled over in the future, some of the backbenchers who had savings thought they might be able to squeeze in a trip during the winter break of 2012 before the election campaign really ramped up.

Alas, these plans have been dashed by the Premier’s newest strategy to minimise public disquiet, but he might not have foreseen the unrest his move is creating in his own backyard.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Power shake-up imminent… I think… well, probably

The article on the front page of today’s West Australian newspaper is hilarious. Not for its journalistic qualities mind you, it’s the message that’s funny.

The headline is “Energy shake-up imminent: Collier”. However, to paraphrase what the courageous Minister for Energy says in the body of the story – “I am strong and in control. Now that the Premier has talked incessantly about how he wants the disaggregation of the State’s energy utilities re-aggregated, I agree… I think. No plans yet, but I’m sure it will happen.”

Is this a commitment? Has Treasurer Christian Porter agreed? If so, what did he agree to? When? How? Is this is anything more than a kneejerk reaction to the Premier’s moaning? If this was in any way planned, why did the Government allow both Verve and Synergy to sign off on separate multi-million dollar gas contracts just a few months ago?

The truth is WA’s government energy sector IS under pressure, but it probably has more to do with the way it is being managed than issues of disaggregation.

Let me explain.

To be fair, there are genuinely some costs and processes that do increase as a result of the former Government’s decision to split Western Power into four separate utilities. Obviously, there are three more Boards of management and three more groups of reasonably paid executives. There are also the issues all corporations with a single shareholder face such as reduced buying power because under competition policy, they all have to negotiate fuel and service contracts independently – without colluding on prices.

However, that is probably where the real issues of disaggregation end.

Beyond that, the big problems are well and truly within Premier Barnett’s remit. As I wrote in this article last week, it is bewildering to most taxpayers that the Premier has consistently claimed it would be better for the public to re-merge some of the Government’s energy corporations but have no plans to do it.

But the revelation by the Sunday Times yesterday that the last of the State’s energy executives has decided to quit offers an insight to another problem damaging our energy market - and it’s a problem that Mr Barnett knows was not caused by anything other than his own hand.

The problem is of course, Peter Collier - not his staff, not his policies… him, plain and simple.

  1. Verve
  2. Western Power
  3. Synergy
  4. Horizon
  5. Office of Energy
  6. Department of Indigenous Affairs…

Actually it’s far quicker to just name agencies under the control of Minster Collier that haven’t had at least one change of its chief executive during his short reign so far:

  1. Department of Training and Workforce Development

“So what?” Western suburbs folks might say. “It’s good to see a politician rolling up his sleaves and cleaning out the dead wood,” they might naively add.

As a conservative voter growing more and more desperate for some truly conservative leadership, I would wholeheartedly support such a move… if only it was a calculated one.

But the truth is these losses are not the result of some Machiavellian master plan by a fearless powerbroker ridding the bureaucracy of under-performers. On the contrary, the fact is that most of these people have voluntarily walked away from their prestigious and lucrative roles as highly respected long-term members of the public service. The problem for all of us is that when they walked, they took with them many years of valuable experience and a great deal of corporate knowledge the State needs now more than ever.

But they, as well as a number of highly experienced Board Members, are gone – bridges burnt. And when I say bridges burnt, I mean to the ground. Indeed, one of Minister Collier’s own favourite (yet culturally insensitive) clichés when talking about relationships he has destroyed is that he "napalmed” it.

Oh the irony.

Now for the record, it’s important for me to acknowledge that being any Minister in the current WA State Government isn’t easy. The Premier is a lone wolf and often informs his Cabinet and Party Room colleagues of his thinking via talkback radio. No one, other than the jelly-backs and sycophantic kiss-ups, would argue this point. The Premier himself publicly acknowledged his tendency to shoot from the hip during an exclusive one-on-one puff piece recently aired on Channel 9. However, Cantankerous Col Pot and his nervous nannies proves that I don't think this is the worst quality you could have in a leader - at least he does have his own ideas.

It’s the impact of his leadership style on the rest of his team that causes the biggest problems for the state. At the end of the day, Ministers are just people and like all of us, they want to feel respected and valued. Some of them are very self-confident, intelligent individuals who are able to just put the frustrations aside and get on with doing the best they can with what they have. Ministers Waldron, Redman, Porter and Buswell are a few who seem to have that magic ability.

However others, like Peter Collier, don’t. But please, I really don't envy Mr Collier. In fact my feelings toward him are currently much closer to pity.

Imagine being a devotee of a political party for 35 years, since you were 16 years old. You do your best to repress all your other urges and pursue a 20 year teaching career. During that time you manoeuvre yourself into a position of being admired as somewhat of an expert in politics and eventually get the ego-stroking title of ‘powerbroker’ within the party. After doing what you have to do for almost four decades, imagine then being slapped in the face by the bloke you helped to become Premier.

It’s no secret that as a former teacher, Peter Collier was desperate to take on the Education Ministry when the Liberal-National government was formed in late 2008. And I'm sure that I am one of many who would say that he was a highly effective Shadow Education Minister and therefore probably deserved to get the nod from the Premier.

But the fact is; he didn’t.

At the very first public test of their relationship, the Premier chose to tell the world that he simply didn’t trust Peter Collier enough to get the Ministry of his choice. Instead, Colin Barnett set about persuading someone else to take on the role – even though that person didn’t ask for it.

Having received that very public slap from a guy you thought was a friend, imagine how it would feel to then come to the personal realisation that you are 100% incapable of using the power people think you have to influence that or any decision of the Premier since.

At a human level, realising you’re impotent before you have a chance to conceive is nothing short of heartbreaking. I really do feel for him, but the biggest issue here isn’t personal – it’s the impact this has on the effectiveness of our State Government.

Situations like this cause problems for all of us because Ministers are just people - and when people get resentful, it sometimes manifests in anger and bitterness. We all know people who in spite of tragic misfortune, can manage these feelings and turn the energy into positive outcomes. But there are also those who try to repress every uncomfortable feeling they come across until they eventually explode and spray everyone around them with their offensive bile. People in this situation - those living a lie - are often highly anxious control freaks prone to angry, irrational outbursts when things don’t go precisely to plan.

Clearly, this would dent anyone’s ability to maintain mutually respectful, productive relationships on any level. And it has. The very real public interest in this is that during his three short years as Minister so far, Peter Collier has ‘napalmed’ many relationships important to the efficient operation and future of the government. Under his watch, a number of powerful former friends have unnecessarily become powerful threats – the head of almost every agency reporting to him has taken his or her knowledge and expertise to the private sector, numerous high profile Board members of government trading enterprises are now gone and he has had more than 35 staff in his Ministerial office of just 12.

As well as the public sector’s loss of expertise and wisdom, turnover of senior officers costs the taxpayer dearly. There are real dollars required to recruit and train replacements and the confidence and efficiency of all the other people working in the agencies plummets every time there is an extraordinary change of leadership.

Regardless of what lies at the core of Minister Collier’s tendency to destroy relationships, he needs urgent coaching to help him stop burning the government’s valuable bridges. Interestingly, the latest in the long line of executives to vote with their feet and walk away from Minister Collier, Verve CEO Shirley In't Veld, is held in quite high regard by the Premier. Hopefully with her new-found independence, she will soon be in a position to personally encourage Colin Barnett to help his Minister value his human resources a little more.

Unfortunately, I think Ms In't Veld might find Minister Collier’s direct line manager is simply too busy spreading his own accelerant on other bridges.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Labor call spells end to cordial Lib-Nat relations

Daniel Emerson’s report in the West Australian Newspaper (McGowan vows no deal with the Nats) marks the beginning of the end for the Royalties for Regions scheme as we know it. Today’s publication of Labor leader Mark McGowan’s pledge that he “would not govern with the Nationals under any circumstance” will kick off a very ugly feud between the WA Liberals and their current “partners” in Government, the Nationals.

Mr McGowan’s courageous declaration will be music to the ears of many Liberal MP’s who have quietly cursed and muttered obscenities under their breath since their leader signed an unconventional partnership agreement with the Nationals in 2008. A number of senior Liberals firmly believe that Colin Barnett conceded far too much in agreeing to the quantum and autonomous nature of the Royalties for Regions scheme.

Basically, Liberal Ministers and backbenchers alike have spent the last three years trying to sell the difficult message that they can’t afford to spend money in their local electorates because of our burgeoning state debt liability. Meanwhile their Nationals colleagues have been traversing the State in the comfy leather seats of the Government jet, handing out RfR branded t-shirts and balloons and granting wishes to anyone who was prepared to hail King Brendon and his royal guard.

Now that Mr McGowan has publicly doused the bridge to the Nationals with fuel and thrown a lit match, the Premier will come under extremely strong pressure from his parched Liberal subordinates to radically reduce the RfR commitment and loosen the purse strings for some Liberal-led initiatives.

At the same time, the Nationals’ bargaining power has been all but decimated by Mr McGowan’s promise to not negotiate with them to form a Government. The guts of it is that the Nationals’ Leader Brendan Grylls had everyone over a barrel at the last election – no one could form a Government without the support of the Nationals and under Mr Grylls’ leadership, no one was going to get their support without agreeing to the currently unsustainable and somewhat irresponsible partisan political cash-cow known as Royalties for Regions. This time around, he won't have the ability to coax the Liberals into a bidding war against Labor - the Nationals will have no alternative but to agree to whatever is offered.

So what will happen now?

Metropolitan Liberal MP’s will think this is a golden opportunity to claw back some money for election promises in their local areas and as of today, start vigorously vocalising that view to the Premier and his bumbling bureaucratic office.

The brash and brave Mr Grylls I described in a previous blog (Pilbara play proof Lib-Nat partnership a mistake) will be loudly banging his RfR drum in the Pilbara using any suggestion by Colin Barnett to change the scheme as the principal reason country voters - including those in the other Labor-held seats of Kimberley, Albany and Collie-Preston  - have only one choice in 2013 if they want the regional spending spree to continue. And for those country voters, it’s a compelling case.

Regardless of Colin Barnett’s newest arbitrary and bizarre morale high-ground of “not campaigning during this election year”, he is going to have to. On the back of the Labor Party’s clever declaration for all-or-nothing, the Premier will be either drawn into a head-to-head fight with Brendan Grylls on regional funding or eventually get rolled by his increasingly frustrated Party room colleagues who will be desperately hoping the new guy will listen to the concerns of Mr Barnett’s under-appreciated and repressed backbench soldiers.

The only possible way out this inevitable mess for Mr Barnett is some very unlikely charm and nimble negotiating to stitch up a formal coalition with the Nationals right now.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Murray for Murray-Welington? Maybe...

Hearts raced and beads of warm perspiration formed on foreheads yesterday at Liberal Party HQ as the process to assemble the committees to select Lower House candidates for next year's State election got underway.

Yeah ok. I over-cooked that one. It really wasn't anywhere nearly as exciting as that.

However, among the staplers, Australian flags and sun-faded photos of the Queen, there was one observation that QBF readers might be interested to hear - the delegates chosen were only to form selection committees "for incumbent seats where there is a single nomination."

Translation: Every current Lower House Liberal MP will be officially endorsed as a Liberal Party candidate within a month - except the second-term Member for Murray-Wellington, Murray Cowper.
As reported in the West Australian newspaper in February, Mr Cowper will be the only sitting Liberal MP to face a challenger for pre-selection in the lead-up to the March 2013 election.

While challenges of this kind aren't completely foreign to Australian politics, they are fraught with danger and because of that, usually made to go away in a quiet backroom deal before they get out of hand. That very real risk is why it's interesting that the Liberal Party Executive has chosen to delay the pre-selection for the seat of Murray-Wellington to some as yet undefined future date.

I appreciate that it's a dangerous time for Members to speak to the QBF, but a particularly courageous and somewhat concerned Liberal Member told me this week that he thought this delay would end in tears. To paraphrase him: the longer an incumbent and his challenger are left in a boxing ring without a referee; the more likely it is to get bloody.

As a keen student of human behaviour, my guess is that anyone who has to wait around without knowing if they have a job for the next four years while everyone around him gets a royal ascent would be thinking hard about, if not developing a "plan B". While Mr Cowper is in Parliament biting his tongue and trying to play it cool, his challenger will be spending his time pointing out why he is a better bet for the Liberal Party than the incumbent. It’s pretty difficult for someone singing their own praises to not be critical of their opponent at some point.

In politics, lying on the ground while you’re being kicked in the head is not a good strategy if you’re trying to sell your worthiness as a tough community leader. If this pre-selection drags on, Mr Cowper will soon be in the unenviable position of having to decide whether or not to respond to his challenger's criticisms and be seen to start a messy public brawl.

With that in mind, perhaps the Liberal powerbrokers’ strategy is to lock away all the uncontroversial seats in an attempt to shield them from stray friendly fire during the inevitable showdown for Murray-Wellington. Or maybe it's nothing more than a plain old-fashioned error of judgement along the lines of "let's just deal with the easy stuff first".

But probably not. I reckon there's been some thinking done about this one.

Given the Premier's incessant devotion to the avoidance of bad media, I wonder what could possibly motivate him to not overrule the decision to delay the Murray-Wellington pre-selection and thereby give his tacit acceptance of the risks floated above.

Having increased his majority at his second successful election in 2008, Murray Cowper is by most measures, a successful local member. However, the Premier evidently doesn't think much of him. As a former Dan Barron-Sullivan devotee, there's still not much love shared between the Member for Murray-Wellington and the Premier. This animosity was hoisted up in lights when Colin Barnett overlooked Mr Cowper and chose to promote the first-term Bill Marmion into Cabinet after Troy Buswell’s temporary fall from grace in 2010.

And it's not only the Premier who isn’t super-cosy with Mr Cowper - there's a fair few members within the wider Parliamentary Liberal Party who see him as a bit, umm, how can I be delicate, clumsy. I know there are others on the front bench befitting this description but in the seven years but since he left his job as a police officer, Murray's enthusiasm has regularly overtaken his intelligence. He's not alone in that regard either but partly because of his imposing externalities and partly because of the speed at which he usually runs into brick walls, when he crashes shrapnel tends to spray widely.

Don't get me wrong, I actually think that he's a genuinely nice guy with some really valuable experience. We've had a couple of conversations over the years that have uncovered a thoughtful, dedicated and principled man - just what I want in my Parliamentarians. But we've also had some dooseys that have shaken my confidence to the core.

One such conversation was just after he had fed an unnecessarily nasty Labor attack on one of his Ministerial colleagues in Parliament. I clearly remember our very heated conversation at the fern garden end of the ground floor corridor in Parliament House. I challenged him to stop and think about what he had just done by facilitating the public bludgeoning of one of his own. I guess the upside to this story is that he proved his local member credentials by telling me his willingness to damage the Government was "because it was in the best interests" of one of his constituents. He argued that he was a strong local member and that meant he would do all he could to help the people who voted for him. When I snapped back with the rhetorical point that he might find it easier to help his constituents if his Party remains in power, he looked a little bewildered and genuinely remorseful.

To see such a physically large, angry guy stop in his tracks and realise the folly of his actions was I must say, a little endearing. Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to give him a hug or anything, but I reckon that was an example of nothing more than a good intention poorly executed - and to me, that's not a hanging offence.

But sadly for Mr Cowper, his over-zealous desire to do good has been far from endearing to many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is somewhat famous for his many attempts to break a big story under Parliamentary privilege during his time as Shadow Minister for Police only to find out sometime later that his untested source wasn't quite on the money.

Speaking of money, there's also the little issue of the $30,000 that his Parliamentary colleagues lost when they agreed to personally chip in and help him defend his reputation in a he-said-she-said legal fight against one our local newspapers. After much debate and deliberation, the Party Room agreed to help fund the case out of their own pockets and it's an understatement to say many were extremely upset when something happened to convince Mr Cowper to drop the case and cut his losses, or those of his colleagues as it were.

Then there's the little things like this recent email interaction with a constituent over his lobbying to increase the speed limit on the Forest Highway (I replaced details that could identify the constituent with 'X'):

To Minister Buswell & Murray Cowper MP

I remember when on large roadside billboards in meter high black letters there were two words SPEED KILLS sponsored by the Government in the interests of road safety.
Both of you are no brainers as your research shows most people drove just under 110 km/h so when it goes to 110 km/h they will then be travelling at just under 120 km/h.
The rate of survival in a smash at that speed is about 5% & for the sake of vote catching by you two morons peoples lives are going to be at risk.

[some irrelevant ranting removed]

The faster one drives the more likely one will be killed in a smash basic laws of physics.

All of you three fools should have to be on the FESA meat waggon for 6 months seeing the horrors they endure cutting mangled & dead bodies out from smashed vehicles & perhaps you would then lower the freeway limit to 90 km/h.

[some irrelevant ranting removed]

From: "Cowper, Murray" <Murray.Cowper@mp.wa.gov.au>
To: X
Sent: Sunday, 4 March 2012 3:14 PM

Dear mister X
How many fatal and serious crashes have you attended over the past 30 years.
If you can beat 113 don't bother responding,
Murray Cowper
Senior sergeant 6141
Sent from my iPhone
Hmmm, I wonder just how genuine Mr Barnett was when he said he would support Mr Cowper's tilt at re-nominating.

My advice to the Party - bring on this pre-selection and make sure Murray Cowper wins or you will endure a messy public fight and may well end up having to negotiate the next hung Parliament with angry Nationals and a vengeful “Liberal Independent” Member for Murray-Wellington.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stolen Wages outcome illuminates deeper issues

In politics they say no matter how hard you try, you will never please all of the people all of the time. Arguably, that axiom applies to no portfolio quite as much as it does to that of Indigenous Affairs. The truth is that at times that Minister's job is just plain impossible.

As a political issue, the problems are so messy and complex they aren’t easy to even define, let alone fix. Everybody seems to be an expert and despite the fact that the State Government spends around $2 billion each year on trying to help WA’s 76,000 aboriginal people, more than half of those experts think the solution is more money for programs and infrastructure.

Many people with European heritage claim to understand the issues, but the best I can honestly do is offer a pretty simplistic observation. Evidently the pain of watching their ancient culture being eroded away is very personal and very raw for many of today’s aboriginal Australians. I’m really not sure how I would feel in the same situation, but I guess I would teeter somewhere between confusion and anger. If I had to live with emotions like those bubbling away inside, I’m sure I would struggle to excel at anything and ultimately probably not live very long.

Sadly, that is the stark reality for most aboriginal Australians. Very few of our country’s highest achievers have aboriginal heritage and the average life expectancy of an indigenous Australian is still around 19 years less than that of their non-indigenous countrymen. Aboriginal people are grossly over-represented in our prisons, the educational outcomes for indigenous kids are markedly lower than their peers and a number live with alcohol and other drug addictions in devastating poverty.

As only a 5th generation Australian I’m far from an expert on indigenous culture or history. However, one thing I do know is that as government spending increases in any particular portfolio, the return on each dollar reduces drastically. Bearing that in mind, I am therefore of the firm belief that the answer to the challenges facing today’s aboriginal people isn’t more money. The pain of such enormous social and economic dysfunction is far too personal to be quashed with something as relatively meaningless as cash.

So when aboriginal leaders yesterday criticised the Barnett Government’s offer of up to $2,000 recompense to those who had their wages withheld (or stolen if you prefer) by pre-1972 governments, they missed yet another opportunity to be truly heard from the heart.

In response to the media release titled Government to act on ‘Stolen Wages’, Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Egginton was quoted on PerthNow.com.au:

"This is a slap in the face and a cruel and heartless offer which offends the very notion of recompense… This State’s economic power was built upon the backs of hard working proud Indigenous men and women who had their hard earned wages withheld. To now offer these people such a paltry amount diminishes the contributions that our people have made."

[Desperate sigh]

Dennis, please let me offer some advice. The amount of cash provided shouldn't be the most insulting part of this debacle. Even if it is for some of your clients, it’s definitely not the best public line to lead with. By taking that angle, you irritate the many proud indigenous people who work hard every day to sooth the pain of the past and lead their peers toward a brighter future. They must be insulted by the over-simplification and embarrassed by the bitter stereotype your comments strengthen.

Importantly, adding to that stereotype also provides extremely unhelpful ammunition to the red-necked, racist zealots among us. You might naively retort that they don’t matter to your cause, but believe me, they really do. Some of these people are filled with irrational hatred and passionately support government decisions like this one which could only be described as foolish at best or mean-spirited at worst. If you choose to talk more about this publicly, please heed the advice and steer clear of words that paint a picture of a short-term cash grab by aboriginal people.

In the true spirit of reconciliation, I offer the following in the hope that it might prove useful when you next talk to a reporter.

For me, yesterday’s media statement by Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier put an ugly full stop at the end of an embarrassing piece of government narrative. Based on the public comments by other indigenous leaders since, the full stop might in fact be so ugly that it has been mistaken for a comma with litigation to come.
At a practical level, the language of the government’s decision is troubling:

“An ex gratia reparation payment of up to $2,000 will be made to those Aboriginal people still living and able to evidence a withholding of entitlements; were born before 1958; and who were residents of a WA Government Native Welfare Settlement. All applicants will need to complete a statutory declaration and have six months to lodge their application with the Department of Indigenous Affairs.”
We’ve already acknowledged that the current life expectancy of an Australian aboriginal man is currently only about 57 years. As per the statement above, the ex-gratia payment is only available to those who were born before 1958 and still alive… do I really need to do the maths? I’m glad these lucky people only have six months to lodge an application because anyone hoping to go through the process and spend the “up to” $2,000 might not have much time to do so.

But the choice of language in the government's policy isn't the most troubling issue.

For background, the Barnett Government inherited this quandary from the previous Labor team when they took office in 2008. In December 2006, almost two years before that election, the Carpenter Government’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs Michelle Roberts received recommendations from a Federal Senate inquiry to re-pay stolen wages.  Even though Minister Roberts told Parliament that her Government was considering its response a number of times, in the end they took no public action.

In fairness to all, the 20 or so months prior to an election are very busy and not a good time to rock the boat. But even though the politics of doing so would have been difficult, it's fair to assume indigenous people would be better off today if the Minister had been more courageous and pushed for a decision at that time. “Mea culpa” – a statement made by Minister Hames on this issue in 2010 - may also be an appropriate comment from Ms Roberts.

But that was more than three years ago.

Given that the Barnett Government asked questions about the issue when it was in opposition, it has effectively had more than five years to formulate a policy position on this. Why did it take so long? The truly distressing part of the answer for truly conservative voters is that the delay was not caused by any ideologically-driven debate happening behind the scenes - it is just another symptom of deep relationship tensions within Cabinet.

The truth is that this Government’s first Minister for Indigenous Affairs, current Deputy Premier Kim Hames, was smart enough to realise that this issue was a hot potato and would burn whoever was holding it when a decision was finally made. Interestingly, Minister Hames recently mooted the possibility of not contesting the next election. Perhaps thinking that he might soon semi-retire and pick up a few of his former clients as a consultant on aboriginal heritage, he decided he had too much to lose by holding on to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio. So in rare Machiavellian style, he ‘sold’ the portfolio to Minister Collier who still thinks that move was his idea and a vote of confidence from his uncommunicative Premier.

Alas, the basic but highly effective political strategy of trying to get a subordinate or less intelligent colleague to put their face on your bad news was at play. This isn't speculation - it became very obvious during the first few weeks of Peter Collier’s reign as Minister. I recall that while he was on a short period of annual leave out of the State, our office received the message loud and clear that the Deputy Premier wanted the Stolen Wages submission brought to Cabinet ASAP, and very generously offered to sign it in Minister Collier’s absence.

Knowing that Minister Collier hadn’t even been given the opportunity to read the background of the issue, I insisted that it wait for his return in seven or so days. To his credit, the new Minister has been trying to get the Premier to authorise the progression of a Cabinet submission ever since. However due to the combination of Minister Hames’ politically expedient obfuscation and Minister Collier’s lack of ability to personally influence the Premier, it has taken the threat of this saga being raised during the imminent election campaign for this Government to deliver an outcome.

Minister Hames isn’t the only one cynically maximising his political advantage of associating himself with good news stories that involve indigenous people.  As of today, the Government has published 23 media statements referring to aboriginal people in the last year that do not contain the words “Peter Collier” anywhere - not even the heading.

Take a good long moment to think about that.

Summing up, I propose the main problems facing Western Australian aboriginal people today do not include a lack of inadequate resourcing. The efficiency of the money already spent needs to be evaluated urgently with the view of cutting ineffective or redundant programs and redirecting that money to those that are proving themselves.

However, the willingness of our political leaders to delay symbolically important decisions like Stolen Wages and their apparent eagerness to publish a media statement any time money is thrown at a new scheme, points to a deeply troubling lack of understanding and perhaps even respect for the big issues.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lobbying 101 - Aggressive lobbying tactics

About this series
Squeaky Wheel’s “Lobbying 101” series of posts are designed to provide insightful background and practical advice to individuals, companies and community groups who aim to influence government policy and/or decisions.

The author, Darren Brown, is a Western Australian-focussed political commentator and registered lobbyist who draws on his experiences as a professional advocate and more recently, Ministerial Chief of Staff. Darren’s observations are provided in his trade-mark, but often unpopular with his employers, blunt and quirky style. He always welcomes equally blunt and quirky feedback, but please keep it civil.


How aggressive should a lobbying strategy be?

At the risk of sounding like a politician, this is a complicated question because every situation is different. However there are a few tips I can provide that might help guide you.

Firstly, when developing your lobbying plan it’s important to take a holistic view of the situation – try to think about winning the ‘war’, not just this battle. Depending on the issue, it might be strategically better for you to be passive and sacrifice a small debate in order to win an advantage in a much bigger one. There’s definitely a place for aggressive tactics in lobbying governments, but as with many things in politics, it’s all about the timing.

More practically, when I’m developing a strategy to influence for a client, I apply two golden rules:

  1. ALWAYS start by playing nice, without exception
  2. Constantly evaluate your risk-return ratio

While it’s popular to believe politicians are all over-fed, narcissistic power-mongers, the far less sexy truth is that most of them are actually pretty decent, average people.

This is very important because knowing that most politicians are just normal people means you can appeal to them using the same hopes and fears that we all share. Just like you, many of them enjoy feeling like they are doing something positive and hate being humiliated or trapped in no-win situations. Also be generous; bear in mind that they have a lot on their plates and probably don’t know every detail of the issues that you’ve dedicated your time to – even if you have previously sent them a 400 page letter explaining it.

Golden rule number one - start by putting your frustrations aside, then respectfully and courteously explain to the person (not the position) what your problem is and how they could make it better. Give them an honest chance to get it right well before you show your teeth. Remember, plenty of stray dogs get fed with nothing more than a friendly wag of their tail. If they always approached people with an aggressive growl, they would no doubt eventually starve.

Having said that, there are certainly times when you might be forced to use more aggressive tactics such as prompting the interest of the mass media or parliamentary opposition. But be warned, these types of strategies come with big risks and should be used only after you’ve ‘wagged your tail’ in every possible friendly way.

Hence the second golden rule – before you adopt an aggressive lobbying tactic, make sure you are comfortable with the likely fallout if it all goes terribly wrong. Constantly evaluate whether the possible benefits of a successful outcome are worth the risks if you fail. Your time, energy and reputation are valuable commodities so if this particular issue isn’t really important to you, it could be time to let it go and walk away.

However, if you are sure that you have nothing left to lose or what you do have to lose is so large that the risks of defeat are worth it, plan your attack carefully, brace yourself for a rollercoaster ride like you’ve never had before - then go hard. Whether you win or lose the battle, your willingness to stand up and challenge the status quo will deliver stronger, more relevant public policy for us all.

Thanks for your interest and future participation.


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Friday, March 2, 2012

Humpty Dumpty fell – do something about it or stop whining and get over it!

Yesterday’s piece on the growing circle of frustration between the WA Premier and his Liberal colleagues (Cantankerous Col Pot and his nervous nannies) drew a fair bit of support from unlikely people and places.

I guess it was a bit inevitable that Labor MP’s would use it to assert that our Premier is a kind-of Liberal version of their side’s inflexible and grumpy former dictat… umm, Leader, KRudd. Similarly, it’s not all that surprising that some of the underpaid journo’s who sit through hours and hours of tedious Parliamentary tit-for-tat and punctuation-free narcissistic ramblings expressed their gratitude for the fact that someone publicly acknowledged their place in democracy without spitting or cursing. (Yes, I see the irony in that long sentence!)

I also wasn’t too shocked to hear from a number of current and former government staff who have been burnt or hung out to dry for standing up to the sycophants I mentioned. What I really didn’t expect were the phone calls and messages of support from Liberal Members, land developers and senior industry leaders. The sentiment of those communications ranged from a simple “thank you” to detailed anecdotes about their particular frustrations.

It seems plenty of people are talking, but many of those in direct contact with the Premier and his team are feeling like there is a real reluctance, or perhaps even fear, to act. One CEO told me he thought the Government was “paralysed by risk aversion”. I think the Premier would say he has taken many risks and I agree - the commitments to build a stadium and redevelop the Perth waterfront are big risks. And given what I heard yesterday, perhaps he has actually under-estimated just how risky it is to create the perception that those big-ticket items will be built at the expense of other things that industry actually wants?

However, I do have some sympathy for the Premier. I’ve recently learnt what he has probably known for many years: it really is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. He must feel very disappointed that his dream of being the next Sir Charles Court – remembered fondly as the guy who made bold decisions to prepare WA for “periods of sustained growth” - is just not that easy when you have to appease the Nationals and other colleagues who would like to spend some money in their electorates to help them get re-elected in 12 months.

But if I’m being truly objective, I can’t be too generous to the man.

The whole truth is that Mr Barnett has a rather bizarre habit of arbitrarily making rods and strapping them to his own back – and this is a major source of frustration among his Cabinet colleagues. I’m no economist and I respect that he certainly is, but his decision to make it a “government objective to retain debt below $20 billion” has been both a broken promise and a heavy noose around his own neck. He has talked up the need to maintain the State’s credit rating so much that Mum and Dad think the sky will fall in if we jeopardise one of Standard and Poor’s “A’s”.

Again, being only halfway through my MBA, I don’t claim to be an expert but other highly respected commentators have outright said the State can cope with a significantly higher debt level than $20b. They say for the sake of building infrastructure to meet the short to medium term needs of industry, the government should release the brakes and spend some of tomorrow’s money now.

But if Mr Barnett has already over-played the debt card and can't increase the limit without looking like, well, Julia Gillard, what other choice do he and his nervous nannies have?

Well, if it was a truly conservative government – that is, true to its roots - it would have absolutely no trouble privatising one of its businesses and in doing so, cut the Premier free from the noose of his own words. I’m sure this would be music to the ears of both voters who are longing for the return of a properly conservative party. I also reckon it might help the myriad of so-called Liberal backbenchers who find themselves having an identity crisis talking up an $800m gift to the social services sector while slowly admitting to their electorate that they have no ability to get $50,000 to help local small businesses.

But the real question remains - is their bold, visionary leader too risk averse to contemplate this? You bet.

As Chief of Staff to the Energy Minister, I agreed to help my guy in the Premier’s office by letting him call it “The P word” whenever we discussed the pros and cons of privatising one of the Government’s most commercially successful businesses – Western Power. From Dumas House in West Perth where the Premier put the Nationals and other Ministers he didn’t want to bump into while riding the lift, it seemed that privatisation was just too unpopular for the jellybacks on the 24th floor of the Premier’s St George’s Terrace office to say out loud.

It has already been reported that Western Power is currently seeking approval to spend nearly $10 billion over the next 5 years. While the ERA will undoubtedly recommend a reduction to that figure, most of whatever is spent will add to State debt. The Premier and his nervous nannies might do what they did last time and chop it up into bite-sized chunks to make the debt figures look a bit better. This will help him by keeping the debt lower before the next election but in the long run, probably cost tax-payers more due to the inefficiencies caused by Western Power not being able to lock in long-term resourcing and infrastructure plans.

Sheesh, no wonder the CEO and Chairman have walked away…

Anyway, it’s a widely held belief that there would be very strong interest in the shares of a company with such an enormous existing asset-base and strong market dominance, operated in the tightly controlled regulatory environment in which a monopoly supplier of energy to the State would have to operate. But has there been any formal work done to test the viability of this win-win proposition? Nope. The reason is primarily because the Premier thinks the public doesn’t like privatisation and no-one has the balls to argue the case for a strong decision that at the end of the day, would relieve the government of its silly debt noose and return the Liberal Party its traditional place on the political spectrum - right of centre.

Meanwhile, the Premier still regularly talks to the media (not the energy Minister) about the need to put some of the energy utilities back together. But in true contemplative Colin fashion, rather than doing something about it, he chooses to sit on his hands while they get all pins-and-needly under the weight of his own frustrating inertia.

Premier, you are the Leader. Find some people strong enough to tell you the truth to your face, have a little think about their advice, then make a decision and lead, please. All the Kings Horses and all the Kings Men are waiting…

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cantankerous Col Pot and his nervous nannies

They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Alas, there’s good reason some of the more bitchy, ‘precious’ members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party refer to Premier Barnett as ‘Col Pot’ behind his back.

I’m not sure if it’s any kind of revelation or just confirmation of what many already suspect, but it’s fair to say my time as a Chief of Staff in his Government taught me that our frustrated Premier has issues with playground etiquette. The problem for the tax-payer is that very few people are prepared to tell him that to his face.

As I explained in “Pilbara play proof Lib-Nat partnership a mistake”, Mr Barnett’s long-held ambition to oversee a professional, polished and uncontroversial government isn’t quite going to plan. And his frustration is really beginning to show.

Former Premier Alan Carpenter introduced the Western Australian public to a new grumpy, tell-it-how-it-is style of leadership. And it worked… for a while. At first, many people thought it was refreshing to hear a leader just blurt out apparently unrefined, unrehearsed morsels of “truth”. But sadly for Mr Carpenter, the uncomfortable fact is that most people really don’t like being told how to suck eggs so bluntly. His revolutionary style soon wore very thin on everyone around him, including the media and his constituents. The rest, as they say, is now history.

Surprising it is then, that a politically astute man and self-proclaimed student of history such as Colin Barnett would publicly utter phrases like this in yesterday’s parliament:

“…the member for Cannington rushed out the door to try to confuse the media, which is not a difficult task in this town!”

Some might say that insulting the small group of people you rely on to tell the public that you’re a nice guy worthy of their vote is a risky political strategy. But surely the Premier deserves a more generous explanation? Perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue from a frustrated man in the heat of Parliamentary battle? Well if so, he’s a slow because he’s done it a number of times before… Remember this beauty during a packed media conference a few weeks ago?
“Sometimes I think World War III could break out and you guys wouldn’t notice.”
Ok, ok, surely someone in his office or one of his trusted Ministerial confidants has taken the time to explain the pitfalls of his strategy? Umm… I don’t think so.

Firstly, he’s not the most approachable man in the universe. Ministers and a number of his personal staff have confirmed that in order to persuade Mr Barnett on an issue, “there’s a process involved”. He likes to be presented with the facts and left to stew on it. And stew on it, he does… sometimes for weeks, months or even years before anyone can get any kind of reading on his preferred way forward.

But being a thoughtful, considered leader isn’t necessarily all bad. Heck, the other extreme would be equally problematic. However, the big difficulty is that while issues sit on the Premier’s desk, he tends to not provide much feedback to those waiting for an answer - and over time, many of them become frustrated. While the 'precious' ones wait they think up nicknames, bitch to each other about his "process" and the few that only take a couple of meetings a day and have far too much time on their hands, plot his demise.

I personally explained the consequences of his "process" and asked the Premier to improve his communication during the consideration phase at the first weekly Chiefs of Staff meeting in 2011. To his credit, he told the meeting that he thought the criticism was fair and would endeavour to provide more feedback along the way. However, being the lone leopard that he is deep down, it’s obvious he isn’t likely to change his spots any time soon.

But in the interests of disclosing the full truth, it needs to be said that Mr Barnett isn’t in a particularly enviable place.

In fairness to him, he has had enormous trouble finding people he can fully trust to give frank advice in a way that respects his genuine wealth of knowledge and experience. He deserves that, but sadly most of the people around him are either jelly-backed sycophants or scared they will be left to hang out to dry if their advice isn’t received in the spirit in which it was given.

With the exception of a very small group, including his principal adviser and preferred choice for Chief of Staff Narelle Cant, the Premier’s staff and Cabinet colleagues largely prefer to stay within the safe confines of the trench than charge over the top alone. And they know that if they do decide to go OTT, it WILL be alone - because they’ve seen many others before them jump up and just as quickly get shot down. As a result of nothing other than outright poor management, it’s simply not safe to provide frank and fearless advice to the Premier.

While this is a huge issue for the morale of those routinely working 15 hour days for the Premier and his Ministers, it’s a far bigger issue for everyone else.

“Air conditioning is a luxury,” said the man who sent his first email just 3 years ago and has only owned a mobile phone since he became Premier. Let’s face it, Colin Barnett is not a man of the people. But arguably, after sitting in those comfy blue leather chairs on the hill for 22 years and being lauded by the obsequious western suburbs party-faithful while being criticised by everyone else for the same amount of time, no-one would be truly in touch with ordinary Western Australians.

So given that the Premier’s common-man radar is understandably a little askew, the need for frank and fearless has never been more important for the longevity of this leader or his government and the implementation of robust, sensible public policy. Sadly, very few Ministers or staff have the intestinal fortitude to truly confront this reality and those who are charged with the great responsibility of creating a culture that supports courageous honesty have simply dropped the ball.

Update (6/3/12): I've been reminded by someone who was at the meeting that I raised the issue with the Premier at the second Chiefs of Staff meeting in 2011, not the first as I incorrectly assert above.