Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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]

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