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.


  1. Darren, it seems the only person to napalm bridges is you. Good luck getting a job anywhere. There is a special place in hell for former staff who rat like you.

  2. Hello Anonymous.

    Thanks for reading the blog and for your nasty comment.

    It's clear that you don't know much about me (or my circumstance) and it's a shame you couldn't gather the courage to leave your name so we could chat and clarify a few things.

    I realise there are risks putting your name to opinion and your lack of willingness to do so simply comfirms one of the most terrible truths in today's political world - the rise of the faceless men (in both major parties).

    For the record, I'd rather put my name to my opinion and sleep well than take pot shots from afar and hide behind your pathetic anonymity.

    Grow some balls.