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.

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