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.

1 comment:

  1. Beyond the glorified pork-barreling that makes the RfR program so attractive, it has always been an uneasy political narrative for the Government and the Nationals. While much has been made of the substantial budget burden represented by RfR and the resulting difficulty in funding city infrastructure, in the long term it may well be regional communities and therefore the Nationals themselves that pay the greatest price.

    The Nationals are apparently working to support regional communities, however the reality that Brendan Grylls will have to grapple with is that bags of cash cannot buy community and cannot make up for a lack of leadership on critical regional policy issues.

    With the RfR program, the Nationals have firmly hitched their one-wheeled political wagon to WA's resource boom. But the fundamental problem that this creates for the Nationals is that in many cases the very means of generating mining royalties actually tears regional communities apart. Inevitably, where the interests of big mining do not align with the interests of regional communities, this cash-dependence will dictate that it will be the communities will be sold out by the National party. Not only will the Nationals support big mining over local people, but they are already spending large amounts of RfR dollars on actually promoting the very industries that pose the greatest threats to the social and economic fabric of regional communities. How many farmers know that the Nationals RfR program is actively subsidizing exploration for coal-seam and shale gas on their land? With WA’s family farms so dependent on the groundwater that will come under direct threat from gas fracking, the Nationals are setting up a perfect storm that threatens to tear apart the very communities they are supposed to be representing.

    Initial skirmishes have proved the point. In what is bound to become a precedent, Brendan Grylls stood by and did nothing to intervene when the Liberal Minister for Water allocated 80% of the available water from the Mid-West Parmelia aquifer to a single mining company for washing iron ore, against the vocal wishes of the farming communities in the region.

    Bizarrely, the Nationals have also adopted policy positions in other portfolio areas that are fundamentally at odds with the long-term interests of regional communities. For example, the blind embrace of genetically engineered (GE) crops in WA (including the part sale of WA’s plant-breeding research centre to Monsanto) continues to face a groundswell of regional opposition. Beyond the rather narrow debate on GE vs GE-free farming, the embrace of this technology signals that the Nationals have thrown their support fully behind mega-scale industrialized factory farming as the future for WA’s agriculture sector. The problem with this is that communities need people to work, but factory-farms producing GE monocultures do not. In Canada, the farmer-controlled Canadian wheat-board has overwhelmingly rejected GE. The situation could not have been put more clearly than when Canadian farmer Matt Gehl said “GE is a tool to advance the demise of the family farm to provide corporate profits from food production.”

    These policies make their political survival of the RfR Nationals extremely tenuous in the long-term, especially for agriculture Minister Terry Redman who’s new electorate boundaries embrace the Margaret River community. A fascinating mix of well-heeled winemakers, tree-changers and surfers have united in their opposition to the coal and gas fracking industries, recognising the threat posed to their region and community. Again, the RfR nationals either stand by and do nothing to support these people, or actively support the industries they oppose through RfR investment.

    When the flowers wilt in the new RfR planter boxes lining the streets of so many WA country towns, regional voters will discover that their Parliamentary representatives have set in motion a regional agenda that overwhelmingly serves short-term political interest, not long-term regional development.