Monday, April 30, 2012

Failing to plan is a plan to fail

It sounds like something your father might say as you wave him goodbye and set off on your “gap year” experience in an old Combie Van. “A failure to plan is a plan to fail, son!” you hear him yell as your $1,500 mobile home backfires as it putts down the street and you wonder if you tied your $2,000 surfboard on the roof rack tight enough.

Who knows if that’s good advice for a young person these days. But one thing’s for sure: in politics, it certainly helps to at least look like you have a plan - especially when you are racking up debt at the speed of the current Western Australian Government.

So it is very surprising that when Premier Barnett was last week asked to respond to New Labor’s 20-year State infrastructure strategy, he said:
“This Government doesn’t do that… It’s so much Labor: set up new bodies, new organisations, new committees, lots of plans, lots of glossy documents…”

Now, with my empathetic hat on, I feel for the poor bugger. I mean what can you say when your primary competitor gets the jump on you like that? If they have a 20 year infrastructure plan and you simply don’t, I guess it’s hard to say, “Yeah, great idea – we should have thought of that!”

But quickly ripping that empathy hat off my balding head, I say hell yes Premier, you should have!

In fact, the empathy hat shouldn’t have been used here because the state’s peak business lobby, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry who hosted the New Labor launch last week, have been calling on the Government since its election to do just that. In each of its 2009, 2010 and 2011 “scorecards” on government, the CCI identified the need for a long term infrastructure plan. In fact, this snippet from their 2010 scorecard shows they couldn’t have been more explicit:
“The Government must introduce a state infrastructure plan, to provide greater certainty about future projects and assist with the prioritisation process.”

So back to what I said in Friends, non-friends and enemies - why would the government not only ignore (and therefore probably irritate) their typically conservative friends at the CCI AND provide a massive opportunity for their opposition to wander in a pick some rather influential low hanging fruit?

Arrogance in the belief that Labor won’t win the support of the CCI? Maybe, but that would be stupid in the current political climate that allows the Nationals to propose a government with the ALP…

Poor political judgement? I hope not - Premier Barnett used to work there so I really do hope he knows just how influential the CCI can be…

Fear? I think we’re finally on to something…

I remember as CoS to the Minister for Mental Health, we received an order from the Premier’s office to change the name of a document proposed by the Drug and Alcohol Office before it was allowed to go to Cabinet. The order was to change the word “Plan” to “Framework”.  When I questioned the command, I was told the Premier didn’t like the definitive sounding nature of “plan” – or “strategy” as was my second choice.

Ok, out with the empathy hat again…

I guess I see the point: If you call something a “plan” or even a “strategy”, you set yourself up for questions like “Why didn’t you follow your own plan” at some point in the future. If, like Premier Barnett, your primary goal is to just keep the sailors and sail the ship nice and smoothly, why would you tell anyone where you going – just in case you changed your mind?

Empathy hat gone, for the last time I promise…

The answer Mr Premier is quite simple: at the moment, you are our captain and we sailors do just want to be happy – but since we all own shares in the ship you are steering, we will all work much more efficiently if we know in which direction you plan to sail.

It doesn’t have to be glossy Mr Premier, but people (and lobby groups) find plans very reassuring - and reassurance is not what we take when we hear our captain is steering us toward $23 billion of debt without even consulting a map.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Power Minister’s powerbroking powers broken

“Thank you for your application. Although it was of a very high standard, the Board has decided to extend the deadline and re-advertise to fill the position. To be clear, you are still being considered and are highly competitive - you may be contacted for an interview after applications close.”
Yeah right! If you wanted me for the job, why would you waste time and money re-advertising?

If, like me, you’ve ever received one of these pseudo-rejection letters as a job hunter, you’ve probably got some empathy for those Liberal Party members who nominated for the highly coveted State seat of Churchlands.

You see, on Saturday the WA Liberal Party’s State Council confirmed more candidates to run for various seats at the March 2013 election. However, despite a number of long-term Liberals having already put up their hand for Churchlands, where Independent Liz Constable will retire after 22 years, the Council decided to delay the decision and re-open nominations.

There’s all sorts of spin they can put on a move like this: we want to make the process as competitive as possible and therefore need more time to get (even more) candidates; since there is an incumbent government Minister in that seat it’s not that important to select the candidate early; given one of the candidates is a Ministerial Chief of Staff, we want to delay it as long as possible so he can stay in that position without a perceived conflict of interest…

Whatever the official line, it has to be said that it looks a lot like none of these candidates, who followed due process and nominated within the allowed time, ticked all the boxes required by someone above. It really is hard to argue that the decision to re-open nominations amounts to nothing more than a rejection of those loyal nominees in favour of a preferred latecomer.

And it’s no secret that latecomer is the Premier’s choice - long time critic and recent member of the Liberal Party, Chairman of Tourism WA and promoter of Bali, Sydney and France as holiday destinations, bolshy local restaurateur Kate Lamont. Whether or not this qualifies Ms Lamont to occupy a safe Liberal seat in Parliament is a matter for the State Council in a couple of week’s time, but the way this has happened raises a couple of broader issues worthy of comment from the QBF.
The first is the wisdom of the Premier being tied to the process anomaly.

If it is true that Ms Lamont is being parachuted in by the Premier, it’s probably for two very worthy reasons:

  1. Ms Lamont is a woman and the Liberal Party is very thin on the ground for women in the Lower House; and
  2. Ms Lamont will have the blessing of the outgoing, strong-willed friend of the Premier, Minister Liz Constable.
The gender issue is a no-brainer. The Liberal Party needs to do whatever it can to improve its female voter-base and that’s nearly impossible with so many crusty old men (and bra-snapping younger ones) on the front line.

The second point hasn’t been raised in the public sphere, but Minister Constable’s endorsement of the candidate is absolutely essential to a Liberal victory. If the very highly regarded current local Member Liz Constable (Minister Constable got a whopping 67.30% of the primary vote in 2008) didn’t like the Liberal candidate and decided to throw her support behind another, presumably independent candidate, the seat could very easily remain in the hands of an unaligned Member – and perhaps one that is not as Liberal-friendly as Liz Constable.

Liz Constable is a solid friend of the Premier, so presumably if Kate Lamont is being dropped in with the Premier’s support, she also has the blessing of the current Member.

But the loudest message sent by the State Council on Saturday is that Peter Collier is not the “powerbroker” he is often alleged to be.

Despite Mr Collier’s relentless behind-the-scenes cajoling and conspiring to “control the numbers” required to determine the outcome of pre-selections in all of the western suburbs electorates, what is obvious from this is that he simply doesn’t have the courage to go head-to-head with the Premier.

Mr Collier has his own preferred candidate for Churchlands - and it’s not Kate Lamont. Mr Collier’s choice is a fine young man who is a long-term supporter of the Party, very active and loyal to a fault. He followed due process in nominating for Churchlands within the prescribed time and hasn’t particularly upset any powerful figures within the Party nor has he been involved in any major external controversy. Other than not being a woman, on paper he looks like the perfect Liberal candidate for Churchlands.

And yet on Saturday, the Party snubbed Mr Collier’s preferred candidate to facilitate the late nomination of Mr Barnett’s – even though in theory Mr Collier controls the numbers to stitch-up Churchlands and even overturn Mr Barnett’s pre-selection for Cottesloe.

This, on top of Mr Barnett’s very public humiliation of Peter Collier in 2008 when he inexplicably took the Education portfolio away from him, would make any fan of the Godfather or West Wing think the puppet master would initiate a swift and bloody retaliation.

However, those who know the man behind the “powerbroker” tag also know that payback will consist of little more than a bunch of bitchy text messages to and from his troupe of fine young supporters and if things get really heated, possibly a new nickname for the Premier.

How deeply disappointing that courage isn't a prerequisite for candidacy.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Friends, non-friends and enemies

At its core, winning a democratic election is pretty simple. It can be broken down into 2 basic concepts:
  • You win by getting the votes of the majority
  • Friends are more likely than enemies to vote for you
Next, after years of people-watching and political tomfoolery, I’ve decided that there are three basic relationships in politics:
  • Friends
  • Non-friends
  • Enemies
Clearly that’s pretty simplistic but you get my point. There are people who will actively vote for you (friends), people who might vote for you and have no reason to not support you (non-friends) and those who you can count on to vote against you (enemies).

Putting all that together, political strategy for me has always been a derivative of the following:
  1. Try to keep your existing friends
  2. Try to move people from being non-friends to friends
  3. Don’t waste time trying to please your enemies – and sometimes it pays to purposefully antagonise them so your team has a clearly identified opposition
  4. If you really have to do something that will lose a friend, try not to push them into the 3rd category of becoming enemies
Fairly sound political theory 101, right?

Bewildering it is then, that this first term government that hangs on to power only through a tenuous partnership with the “independent” Nationals would do something as mindless as create new enemies from its group of friends.

There are many sad examples of the Barnett Government doing exactly that but today’s launch of the WA Independent Power Association (IPA) tops the cake. The IPA is a group of big companies (typically very strongly aligned with the conservative side of politics) that was formed to advocate for further competition in the power industry (typically something ONLY conservative governments support).

But why would they need to set up a lobby group against to lobby against the conservative government? The answer is as bizarre as it is disappointing.

Quite simply, Premier Barnett and Minister Collier have been shooting from the hip about re-merging two of the Government’s power utilities - Synergy and Verve and the uncertainty they have created by doing so has really annoyed some of their long-term friends. As I acknowledged above, sometimes in politics you just have to do something that will irritate the best of friends, but in this case the noise around a re-merger is nothing more than that – unnecessary noise.

Neither the Premier or Minister for Energy have done any formal analysis of this plan - it’s just something they think might be good to do. They haven’t confirmed that it’s actually going to happen. Indeed the only thing they have confirmed is that while it is definitely being considered, it’s not currently on the government’s agenda.

It’s kind of like if you were planning to invest in some property and the current owner told you that it was for sale but he might not want to sell it… what the hell are you supposed to do with your money? I suggest it wouldn’t be long before you would take your money elsewhere.

And that is exactly what is at risk here.

I know for a fact that some members of the IPA are actively considering whether or not to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Western Australia’s energy sector.  Their decision to create a new “enemy” lobby group and risk their relationship with the government points to a very real lack of confidence in the way our state’s energy sector is being managed.

Those pesky Sherpa’s!

I distinctly recall it. It was early in 2010 - back in the days when the weekly Chief’s of Staff meetings were content rich and consequently, well attended. In fact back in those days, there weren’t enough comfy leather chairs for everyone who attended. Latecomers had to scavenge the nearby office and sit behind me and the other pinstriped ambitious men (and a couple of bright ladies) who were always early enough to secure a front-row seat at the big oval slab of old-growth forest.

Those days are long gone and so it seems, is the commitment to the Premier’s personal commandment on that day that he would no longer tolerate the State’s Public Sherpa’s, oops, Servants (see Sherpa's Revolt for the background of that) speaking publicly about Government policy. That decree had been provoked by a number of government agency bosses who had recently made public statements regarding the direction government should be taking in the future.

As a fairly new recruit to the big table, I remember being both impressed and fully supportive of the directive. To me, the Premier had it right – the Sherpa shouldn’t lead the expedition… our elected representatives should set the policy agenda and the public service should provide the administrative support required to enact the agenda of the government of the day.

Back then, us Chiefs of Staff were told in no uncertain terms to ensure the heads of our respective agencies understood that the media was not the appropriate forum in which to float policy ideas. That seemed to work, for a while at least.

But check out today’s media:

  • Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan has written an opinion piece for the West Australian Newspaper and appeared live on ABC talkback declaring that juvenile offending is “rapidly spiralling out of control” calling for a higher rate of juvenile detention (and effectively shifting blame to the Courts and Corrective Services for the current juvenile crime rate).

  • And Road Safety Council Chairman D’Arcy Holman is again on the front foot by appearing live on radio 6PR proposing all manner of government policy in the area of road safety.

This comes after a couple of weeks during which a Departmental THIN report ruled out keeping our MP’s in touch with current IT trends (Col Pot: No iPad for you!), the Public Sector Commissioner said the Premier’s dismissal of a senior media adviser was not justified and the Economic Regulation Authority contradicted the Premier and Energy Minister’s declaration that a re-merged Synergy and Verve would reduce upward pressure on electricity tariffs.

I really don’t know what happened to the Premier’s dislike of public sector employees publicly leading the state’s policy agenda but with less than a year before the next election, it will be important for him to clarify with the public whether the dog is indeed in control of its tail.

Friday, April 20, 2012

iPad rage


My post this morning exposing the Department of Premier and Cabinet report constructed to justify Premier Barnett's decision to not provide an iPad as part of the standard kit provided to Members of Parliament has caused a bit of a stir.

Not only have I been flooded with support for bringing the nonsense report to light but I've also had a bunch of people providing names of others who use an iPad - apparently without any of the security risks or technical problems the WA Department forecast.

So, with thanks to the knowledgable readers of QBF, please allow me to include the following names as an addendum to Dixie Marshal, Kim Hames, Pope Benedict and President Obama:

- Prime Minister Gillard (at the dispatch box no less)
- Malcom Turnbull
- The Queensland Cabinet
- The ACT Cabinet
- Joe Francis
- Christian Porter
- British Prime Minister David Cameron
- Sweden's whole Parliament
- The Dutch Senate (and they had a secure App written by local developers to manage their Parliamentary business)
- And while they haven't yet been delivered, every Member of the UK House of Commons

Hmmm, looks like the DPC really did their homework before recommending against the proposal for our local MP's.

To wrap it up, I'll leave you with a quote from Charlie Sorrell in an article he wrote advocating (as I am) for British MP's to to have access to the tool, simply because I can't say it any better:

"Those paper-loving members could of course simply opt out, or give the thing to their secretaries who probably do all their work anyway. But what Boon is missing is that iPads will make the process of government quicker, smoother and more modern.

Besides, who would you prefer running your country? A gaggle of old men and women who scoff at this passing fad called “the Internet” and pass laws to break it, or a bunch of tech-savvy politicians who are living and working with the very tools that will shape the future?"

PS. I wrote and uploaded this on my iPad while enjoying a quiet moment in Kings Park this afternoon.

Told you so: RfR bandwagon heading East soon

Check this out from today’s West Australian Newspaper – Windsor calls for mine tax cash for bush.

It looks like future MHR Brendon Grylls might have the rug pulled from his plan to lead a Royalties for Regions balance-of-power block vote after the next Federal election.

In Run Brendon, run (not for Forrest), I predicted that Mr Grylls will take his bold, “I’ll form government with any majority party as long as they promise to adopt our RfR policy” attitude to Federal Parliament as the Member for Pearce next year after losing his bid for the State seat of Pilbara.

However, given that the current balance-of-power Member for New England Tony Windsor reportedly said yesterday, "Why shouldn't a bit of the MRRT go to regional areas," Mr Grylls might find a version of his Royalties for Regions plan already in place before he has a chance to get to Canberra and take the credit he personally deserves.

Watch this space...

Col Pot: No iPad for you!

It’s the classic shock-jock stunt and has been repeated over and over again: sit silently for 30 painful seconds after dropping the question live on air, “Mr Premier, do you know the price of a litre of milk and loaf of bread?”

As brutal and nasty as it is, this age-old circus act does serve some legitimate value in highlighting exactly how out of touch some of our long-serving political leaders can become. It’s a fairly blunt instrument, but the fear of being humiliated on live radio or TV probably serves us well by at least reminding our elected representatives to try to “keep it real” (thanks JR).  However, it might be time to update the question to better reflect the world in which we - and our children – now live.

Given the letter sent to Members of the Western Australian Parliament yesterday, I suggest a far more relevant question to catch our leaders out today could be, “Mr Premier, do you know what an App is?”

To be fair, the letter that anonymously landed in my inbox was signed by the Director General of the Premier’s Department, not actually the Premier – but given his self-proclaimed conservative outlook and overt lack of enthusiasm for technology, the content had Mr Barnett’s fingerprints all over it.

If you haven’t already guessed, the letter and accompanying 8-page report was the Department’s formal response to a push by many MP’s over the past couple of years to make a tablet computer (such as an iPad) part of their standard issue equipment.

Disappointingly, the letter basically says the Department doesn’t support the move and both the Premier and Presiding Officers have already accepted its recommendations. But as is often the case in politics, the devil is in the detail and the biggest disappointments are in the way the full report attempts to justify the recalcitrant decision.

Here are some salient points I picked out this morning and my quick responses below them:


15 Members of Parliament trialled iPads for 5 months last year. Over the next 8 months, the DPC produced its 8-page report. (page2)

QBF response: I don’t want to put too finer point on this, but in the time it took our government to produce an 8 page report that basically says “no”, Apple launched 2 generations of the iPad - and reportedly sold upward of 55 million of them in more than 25 countries.


Of the MP’s in the trial (page 4): 
  • 93% reported that the iPad met their business needs
  • 100% were satisfied with the simplicity of use
  • 85% were satisfied the iPad would reduce dependency on paper
  • 93% were satisfied with using the iPad to access their email and calendars
QBF response: Ummm, yes – these devices are very convenient and that’s why MP’s have been advocating for them to be provided.

In fact within 90 days of its release, the iPad is reported to have penetrated more than 50% of Fortune 100 companies in the U.S. Research in 2011 by Frost & Sullivan shows that iPad usage in workplaces increases employee productivity, reduces paperwork, and increases revenue. It continues, estimating "The mobile-office application market in North America may reach $6.85 billion in 2015.”


“Documents in iPad Apps are not generally compatible with PC applications (such as Microsoft Office)” (page 6)

QBF response: This is simply incorrect and damages the credibility of the whole document. There are a number of very well-used Apps that create, read and write Microsoft Office documents.


The iPad is very good for reading and marking up documents…but is not generally suited to creating large or complex documents. (page 6)

QBF response: It IS very good for reading – and that is presumably why our Premier and Education Minister launched a state government program to fund 900 iPads for 1st and 2nd year school kids 6 weeks ago – read the media statement.

Even the US Federal Aviation Administration has approved the iPad for in-cockpit use which resulted Alaska Airlines becoming the first airline to replace pilots' paper manuals with iPads, weighing 0.68 kg compared to 11 kg for the printed flight manuals.


Corporate documents that are created or modified on an iPad may be lost or inadequately managed if not transferred to a server. (page 6)

QBF response: Every MP has a laptop for which the same threat exists: Many of them use these machines at Parliament House, which operates its own network and offers no connectivity to Member’s electorate offices. This forces them to save documents they use at Parliament (or working remotely without any connectivity to either network) locally on the laptop. To further complicate things, Ministers have a 3rd, independent network they must also use. This is an education issue, not hardware.


MPs could adopt lower levels of security and usage behaviour which could place themselves and information at risk.

QBF response: Good grief! We are talking about the people WE elect to write our laws for goodness sake! If we can’t trust their “usage behaviour” on a device that every second 16 year old kid has in their school bag, our State is in dire trouble.


An iPad and cover costs $1,000 (page 7)

QBF response: Rubbish! Pick up the phone and ask for a volume deal – just like the State Government Education Department did to get their 40% discount.


“Most State and Federal jurisdictions are trialling iPads and some have rolled them out. More detailed information on this status could be obtained if required” (page 8)

QBF response: What on earth did you guys do for 8 months? This is another blatently incorrect assertion. I’ve personally sat through a number of Ministerial Council meetings where EVERY Minister from every other State referred to the reams of paper that my boss had on one multi-purpose 1 cm thick device – a government issued iPad.


And my favourite…

iPad’s create the potential for “security risks; including: loss or leakage of sensitive information, identity theft…” (page 6)

QBF response: If this is true, the bad news for the Government is there are already thousands of risks out there in the iPads being used by its own agencies and departments. But before the security police kick down the doors of Synergy or the Department of Health, perhaps they should look a little closer to home at  a few people with lot of secrets including Director of Government Media, Dixie Marshall and by the looks of this incredibly ironic piece of Hansard from 30 November 2011, our Deputy Premier, Dr Kim Hames:
“Luckily I have my iPad to help me define the term — Hypocrisy is the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie.”

To really illustrate the point that this report is not about any real threat to security, the Pope sending his first Tweet from his iPad:

And President Obama about to board Marine One with his iPad under his left arm:


Come on Premier, how can the people who write our laws possibly have a good understanding of their constituents if you won’t provide them with the tools most of us in the real world use every day?

WA – Wait Awhile indeed. :-(

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The double-edged sword of public opinion

As an overweight person, I’ve always been fairly self-conscious about eating in public.

My partner regularly (and somewhat unhelpfully) tells me I have “food issues” and on reflection, I guess I do.

I simply can’t eat while walking and feel nauseous if someone stares at me while I chew. Even when I’m really hungry in a restaurant, including a buffet restaurant where everyone else is gorging themselves stupid, I consciously choose my food partly in terms of how it might be judged by those around me.

Stupid huh? Everyone eats, right? I’m intelligent and somewhat accomplished – why can’t I just ignore the judgement of others?

The answer of course, is as simple as it is complex: human nature.

The truth is we are all at least a little bit nervous about what others think of us – for better or worse, we are very social animals and need acceptance as part of our recipe for survival.

This need to be accepted is one of many normal human traits that are often exaggerated in our politicians. That’s not meant to be a personal attack, mind you. In this case, I’m just talking about the fundamental fact that the survival or extinction of the current government quite literally depends on how well it is accepted by the public at large. This process arguably forces political decisions to stay relevant and popular with the majority, but it also limits the boldness and creativity of our political leaders.

That necessary evil - that razor sharp double-edged sword - is at the core of why sometimes I find our political system so deeply disappointing.

A case in point is the imminent move of the Premier’s office from St George’s Terrace in Perth to Hale House in West Perth. 

As most QBF readers would already know, the Premier and Cabinet Services will soon move from their current, privately-owned St Georges Tce offices to the government-owned Hale House in West Perth. At the same time, 4 Ministers, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Public Sector Commission are also moving from the same Perth building to the government-owned 14 storey Dumas House, which forms one corner of a virtual triangle that would be completed by Parliament House and the Premier’s new Hale House office. Both Dumas House and Hale House have undergone significant refurbishments and re-fits at a total cost of around $100 million.

The Opposition has condemned the move suggesting the expiry of the lease on the St George’s Tce property could have been handled in a way that would cost the tax-payers less. The Government has responded by trying to sell the move as a cost saving measure – apparently reducing the over-all government accommodation bill by $11 million per year.

No real surprises there – fairly standard politics at play. The Opposition did what it is paid to do and questioned the cost and impacts of government decisions. And the Government has defended the move with what we have all come to expect from our governments of both colours - justifications, explanations, clarifications and just a hint of obfuscation.

Personally, I disagree with the Opposition on this one. Even though I don’t believe we will see the annual savings the government is projecting, I would still support the move if it cost twice as much upfront and didn’t save a cent on rent.

In fact, as a Chief of Staff sitting in a 2011 briefing on the project, I explicitly argued to the Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet that the government should actually increase the budget.

While I wholeheartedly believe it serves every Western Australian well for the executive government (regardless of which Party holds power) to work in attractive, professional offices that are in close proximity, I wasn’t suggesting extra expenditure for nicer furniture or the latest cappuccino machines. Indeed my suggestion for a larger project budget was about something far less trivial – the security of our Ministers and the secrets they hold.

Let me explain the concern I raised.

It is common knowledge (and often even publicly broadcast) that the Western Australian Premier leads a meeting of all his Ministers at the same time on the same day of each week. It is also widely known that this meeting occurs in the St George’s Tce building that currently houses the Premier’s office. Ministers who currently also have offices in that secure building simply ride the lift to those meetings. Ministers who work from Dumas House get driven from the secure basement in that building to the secure basement of the St George’s Tce building - from where they catch an exclusive (not accessible to the public) lift to the meeting room.

Other than the small waste inherent in nine V6 Holden Statesmans carrying 1 or 2 people from the same location at the same time to the same destination a little over 1 km away, I don’t see any major risk to either the reputation or security of our executive government.

Interestingly, the media knows this well-oiled process means they probably won’t see any Minister either before or after a Cabinet meeting, but still a sizable press pack gathers in the foyer of the Premier’s building whenever a hot story is brewing - even when the Premier is not scheduled to do a post-cabinet media conference. This reliable and easy access to a group of influential journalists means the weekly Cabinet meeting is fertile ground for protestors and others who might like to make their point in a very public way.

At the moment, the process doesn’t constitute much of a threat to anyone - mostly because Ministers come and go via car in the secure basement and the minimal footpath space in front of the building makes it fairly easy for police and security guards to manage any groups of troublesome people that might try to rally.

However, given that a number of the Government’s own publicly available documents tell us that those Cabinet meetings will move to Hale House when the renovations are completed, I forecast a very different outcome.

Take a look at this image from Google Earth adorned with some of my Photoshop handy work:

To help orient you: the Perth CBD is off the top of the picture, Hay Street in West Perth runs along the left edge and Kings Park Road runs up from the bottom right bending left toward St George’s Terrace off to the top. That big flat building with the square shadow on the lower right is Dumas House where almost all the Ministers offices will soon be. The red-roofed building in the top-left corner is Parliament House and Hale House (aka the Premier’s Palace) is the smaller red-roofed building in almost the centre of the image.

Now, back to the weekly Cabinet meetings that will soon be held in Hale House:

The 223 metre long blue line shows how a normal person could be expected to walk from the front doors of Dumas House to the new Cabinet entrance of Hale House – right through the middle of a very open parking lot. Presumably, at least when it’s not raining, all but a few of our Ministers will that path at the same time on the same day every week - 10 minutes before the widely publicised Cabinet meeting.

Beside the obvious security risk, imagine the embarrassing images that will happen every week as some of our dogged local journalists chase each Minister across that car park with a camera and microphone in their face… think the closing credits of the Benny Hill show minus the big-bosomed ladies. (Gen-y’s will have to Youtube “Benny Hill Show” to understand what I mean).

So after the first hilarious episode of “Ministers run the gauntlet” hits our TV’s, what are they likely to do?

Well, my guess is some of them will get in their individual V6 cars in the secure basement of Dumas House and be driven via the 318 metre red line. This will no-doubt result in at least one episode of “Lazy Ministers cars are slower that our reporter crawling” on TV and the final response will probably be a line of security guards being employed every time there is a Cabinet meeting to keep journalists and protestors away from Ministers as they scurry across the car park to and from Hale House.

The same dilemma will exist for the Premier, who will no doubt be encouraged to walk the 159 metre yellow line to Parliament when required but end up being driven the long way around.

If it’s just the media chasing Ministers across a car park every week, it will result in somewhat humiliating, but funny images that at the end of the day cause no real harm. However, the belief that our Ministers or their staff will never be the target of something more sinister is naive in the extreme.

And it was that sad realisation that prompted me during that briefing to argue for a larger budget that would allow for the construction of a secure tunnel linking Parliament House, Dumas House and the Premier’s office (the green line). Needless to say, the double-edged sword of public opinion – that force that ensures government decisions are moderate but increasingly disables sound, long-term planning was wielded. My idea was cut down on the basis that we couldn’t spend any more on this project without losing significant public acceptance.

And they were right. The costs of this project have become a matter of significant public disquiet.

But for me, it’s not disquiet that disappoints me about our modern political process - it is the growing tendency for our leaders to follow.

Please note: the image is from Google Earth and I have not identified any landmark or feature that isn’t already publicly identified. I also took care to not give details of the current day, time or location of Cabinet meetings. This post is intended to discuss the problems associated with cutting costs to appease the public and will hopefully prompt a re-think about the tunnel idea.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hamish, Hilary and Mark do it… but Col’s crew is still not connected

My 40-something year old sister is in Phuket with her family at the moment (I wouldn’t usually disclose a lady’s age like that, but it’s important to the message). They arrived at their coastal resort a day before last week’s undersea earthquake off Sumatra. As we know, that event triggered a tsunami warning for the whole Indian Ocean area but fortunately didn’t cause any damaging waves.

Anyway, the relevance of this is that after unsuccessfully trying to telephone them on both their mobile phones and hotel landline for 6 hours, my first communication with my sister was when she sent a Facebook message. It consisted of only a few words to let us know that “everything is ok” – but the accompanying grainy picture showing hundreds of people huddling together on the edge of a dark hillside, was worth a thousand more.

The point is, for many everyday Australians speaking to a friend or relative is now a lot less common than sending a Facebook message, SMSing or Tweeting them - regardless of where they are at the time. Social networking applications provide a fast, relatively unobtrusive method of providing or retrieving information from one or many people simultaneously – and that makes it very powerful.

Indeed the winner of last night’s Golden Logie award, radio comedian Hamish Blake, is reported to have won the prize ahead of two of Australia’s most visible daily television personalities only due to a strategic social networking campaign.

You might ask why these two facts relate to the world of a political commentator - easy;

  1. It’s not just young people using social media as their primary communication and information source (my sister is 40-something), and
  2. The Logies are decided by a popular vote – just like our governments.
No doubt you now see the point – but sadly, the Western Australian State government still doesn’t.

US President Barack Obama often personally uses Twitter to make a political point, Federal Liberal Leader Tony Abbott takes questions without notice via social media whenever he has a free 15 minutes and many members of the Western Australian opposition are gaining both confidence and skill in using the propinquity offered by social media to score political points and build positive relationships with their stakeholders – including the growing number of journalists who spend much of their day sharing their insights via their mobile phones, oops devices.

And yet, computers and mobile phones issued to Ministers and their staff are to this day fitted standard with filters that block access to all social media applications. Consequently, other than a couple of eager backbench members who have been instructed to limit their use, there is only one Government member using social media regularly – and this Minister’s messages are far from strategic, providing much greater insight to the man than any policies or plans of his government.

This obvious lack of enthusiasm (or perhaps even understanding) for social media within the government will be a distinct disadvantage to the government between now and the March 2013 election – not only because Mark McGowan’s opposition will be speaking to a growing number of voters only accessible through this medium, but also because those voters are likely to be speaking exclusively back.

* Previous blog posts mention this issue, but after a Radio personality surprised everyone by winning TV’s biggest award last night, I thought I’d dedicate a post to it.

Run Brendon, run (not for Forrest)

Yesterday in the second part of the curse of imminent influence, I forecasted the end of the Federal Coalition and said WA Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls would be happy to lose in his run for the state seat of Pilbara next year's poll.

Predictably, I received a few “poo poo” emails overnight that argued with various levels of passion that the federal coalition will never be threatened and Mr Grylls was “totally committed to improving the lives of regional Western Australians.”

In response to the first point: the Federal Coalition has already been threatened - in 2010.

Admittedly, the Member for O’Connor’s one-man attempt to re-engineer the Nationals brand in 2010 failed, but he certainly made his intentions known. If Mr Crook had only a few others supporting him at the time, the remaining elected Nationals would have been faced with the difficult choice of joining the “Crook Nationals” in Government (as a partner to Labor) or holding on to the coalition in Opposition. I reckon we all know what would have happened in those circumstances.

With regard to the second comment, I agree - Mr Grylls is a passionate supporter of regional Western Australia. I just think he reckons he’s done all he can in State Parliament and wants to put his advocacy for the regions on a bigger stage. Don’t get me wrong, I think he would be very happy to win Pilbara and do another term in State Parliament. After all, if he did manage to pull that off, he’d be immortalised in the Nationals hall of fame and get to lead a bigger Parliamentary team with an even greater amount of power over their government partners (whoever that may be).

I laid out some arguments for that yesterday but I didn’t include Mr Grylls’ curious and early declaration that he doesn’t plan to live in the Pilbara electorate – even if he wins. Now, I’ve already credited him with being a fairly shrewd politician and even an average political mouth could have delivered a line like “I have a young family. If I win the seat of Pilbara, my wife and I will re-evaluate our living circumstances then.”

But he didn’t provide that easy answer.

Instead, he chose to give his competitors the opportunity to claim home-town knowledge and start their campaign with the corresponding home-town advantage. He is going to give his run a red-hot go, but his plan is to lose and then head off to Canberra as the new Member for Durack or my best guess, Pearce.

It won’t be O’Connor because Mr Grylls wants to increase the number of Nationals in Parliament and knows that an incumbent Member has the best chance of retaining a seat. The Nationals will put a candidate up in Forrest, but given Mr Grylls’ strongest connections are in the Wheatbelt and another high-profile person should be easy to find with the help of local State Ministers Redman and Waldron, Forrest is out too.

So other than city-based electorates, that leaves Durack and the much closer to Perth, very family friendly, Pearce.

Mr Grylls’ family currently lives in Merredin which is in the very southern part of the electorate of Durack - currently held by Liberal Barry Haase. Mr Haase is a colourful character who will, by then have been in Parliament for 14 years. Some voters think a change is as good as a holiday and given Mr Grylls will come with the promise of cash for infrastructure in Durack’s vast mining and pastoral areas, he should have a pretty good chance if he chooses to run in that electorate.

But Mr Grylls is a loving dad to two young children. A big electorate like Durack combined with the travel time to and from Canberra would be hard for him and his close-knit family. Interestingly, Mr Grylls recently bought a house in Northam, which is not only in the much smaller Liberal-held seat of Pearce, but also only 45 minutes drive from the commuter plane to and from Canberra. Northam itself is one of several areas Mr Grylls has declared a future "super-town" - and that means bucket-loads of Royalties for Regions money is set to pour in over the next few years (perfectly timed to make him a very popular man in the late 2013 federal election). Better still, the current MP for the electorate, Judi Moylan has already declared that she is not going to run again, so that adds the appeal of not having to campaign against a sitting member of the coalition.

Brendon Grylls was born in 1973. His stellar political career to date has already earned him the respect of many who came before him and a great number more of those waiting in the wings. He believes in his cause – and that is transparently more about advocacy for those in regional Australia than any particular tradition or ideology. He will turn 40 next year, a perfect point in a man's life to make a change in his career path, presumably in an upward direction.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

coii (Part 2 - the end of the coalition)

In Part 1, I introduced and justified my so-called curse of imminent influence (coii) – basically what human nature does to 90% of political parties when they try to make the jump from a small ‘balance of power’ party to one capable of holding a majority.

Click here to read all about the coii.

Part 2 is actually a bit of a warning to the party that, like the Greens, is at grave risk of the coii because I think they are planning to declare themselves the next, next “third force in Australian politics”. That Party is of course, the Nationals. And if I’m correct, what will happen immediately before the coii hits them will be the end of the formal federal coalition.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Let me justify my claim.

The Nationals’ Member for the Federal electorate of O’Connor Tony Crook, aggressively took the seat from long-term Liberal Wilson Tuckey at the 2010 election. As we all know, this election resulted in a messy hung parliament. During the first few weeks of that parliament, Mr Crook tried to use his self-declared “independence” from the federal National Party to help the Labor Party form Government – on the condition it created a national “Royalties for Regions” (RfR) scheme.

However, Prime Minister Gillard found the votes she needed in a few slightly more independent independents and the national RfR scheme hasn’t eventuated… yet.

Royalties for Regions was the brainchild of Mr Crook’s Western Australian colleagues, lead by current Minister for Regional Development Brendon Grylls. It isn't overstating it to say RfR has been an absolute political boon for the Nationals in WA.

In short, the policy quarantines big wads of cash (the equivalent of 25% of WA’s mining and onshore petroleum royalties - around $6b) for the Nationals to spend at their discretion on things in regional parts of the State. I say “things” because the criteria for spending is, well fairly flexible and “at their discretion” because this money really is not linked to the State budget at all. In fact, I recall being in a Chiefs of Staff meeting in 2011 during which Brendon Grylls’ representative reported that, “The Royalties for Regions budget process is going very well”. I’m not sure it was meant to antagonise, but it certainly highlighted the very uncomfortable fact that 3 Nationals Ministers were deciding how to spend 25% of the Government’s money totally independently of the mainstream State budget that our 14 non-Nationals Ministers were wrestling over at the time.

Notably, this situation only came about because the WA Nationals chose to not enter into a traditional coalition with the Liberals prior to the 2008 State election. When the result was a hung Parliament, the Nationals did something quite extraordinary - threatened to form a government with the Labor Party. During a week of tense negotiations, the bold young Nationals Leader Brendon Grylls stood his ground, declaring that his Party would only form a government with a major Party if it would honour the terms of the Nationals’ pre-election RfR policy. There was some attempted horse-trading but in the end, Liberal Leader Colin Barnett extended his right hand and became the Premier of Western Australia – governed by an unorthodox Liberal-National “partnership” (not coalition).

Since then, Mr Grylls and his team have travelled around regional Western Australia throwing cash at projects that the government as a whole simply can’t afford – ironically because of the drain RfR is to the State’s wider budget. Virtually everything that gets built in a Western Australian country town now carries the “Royalties for Regions” logo and the Nationals have once again become the undisputed champions (and heroes) of the bush.

RfR has probably been good for country-based Western Australians, but it’s also been the best campaign fund the Nationals could have ever hoped for. And that is precisely why Queensland’s new Premier Campbell Newman has adopted the policy for new government  – and why it will be part of a federal National’s policy platform in either 2013 or at the latest, three years after.

But for the Nationals to have enough weight in Canberra to force a majority Party to hand over what would be an absolutely enormous slush fund, they will have to have more than just Tony Crook’s vote to offer the Labor Party, or perhaps the Liberals as a “partnership, not coalition”.

Re-enter, Brendon Grylls and his youthful bullishness.

In the next WA State poll due in March next year, Mr Grylls will vacate his safe Nationals wheatbelt seat and stand for the currently safe Labor seat of Pilbara, in the heat of WA’s booming mining sector. By all accounts, he’s not likely to win it.

But as we’ve seen, Brendon Grylls isn’t as silly as he is courageous. He is fully aware of the potential to lose his seat in State Parliament and my hypothesis is that he actually wouldn’t mind if he did.

A few things lead me to that theory.

  1. Mr Grylls is the Leader of his Party. There’s no higher position unless the Nat’s form a coalition with the Libs and he became Deputy Premier of WA – but that has already been ruled out, and Mr Grylls likes the freedom he gets by not sharing a Party room.
  2. He is already a hero within the National party, personally credited with reviving it from near-death. The ballsy gamble Mr Grylls took in holding out until he secured a promise from Colin Barnett to implement RfR has been a huge political coup and now seen as the way forward for the National Party all around the country.
  3. He’s young, but already been in State Parliament for 11 years. It must be pretty boring to sit on comfy blue chairs all day listening to others waffling on about things that simply fail to hold the attention of a successful and ambitious gen-xer like Mr Grylls.
So if he loses Pilbara as widely predicted, Mr Grylls will be fairly happy to bow out of State politics.

But I suggest Brendon Grylls is willing to lose in such circumstances is because he is planning to use his new high-profile martyr status to embark on something even more ambitious - become the lead advocate for a national RfR scheme and become a candidate for a Federal House of Reps seat at the soon-to-follow federal election.

If successful in that quest, he will be joined in Canberra on the big green comfy chairs by another ambitious and high-profile RfR supporter and friend, Barnaby Joyce - who is himself, planning to move to the lower house where he can use his vote to directly influence government spending.

Assuming Tony Crook can get re-elected in O’Connor and Premier Campbell Newman does some good politics with the Queensland RfR scheme, there will be at least three Nationals in the next House of Reps bold enough to cross the floor to squeeze a Royalties for Regions commitment from Prime Minister Abbott – or perhaps even Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her new Labor-National government…

Either way, the word “coalition” will be replaced by “partnership” before the 2016 election – mark my words.

The growth of the Nationals’ influence as a result of the Royalties for Regions scheme in WA and Qld will provide the adrenalin required for a whole new bunch of ambitious Nationals to stand, win and declare that they too will soon become the next, next third force in Australian politics - starting with Messer’s Grylls, Crook and Joyce.

My only advice to the “new Nationals” - beware of the coii!!

PS. There’s another piece of this puzzle that I didn’t get to include in the main body of my post. The Nationals’ recently appointed a new Federal Director – a politically astute guy who was integral to the successful implementation and operation of the WA Royalties for Regions scheme and takes with him all the knowledge and support required to replicate RfR in every state (and even federally)….

Friday, April 13, 2012

The curse of imminent influence (Part 1 - Greens)

Well, in yesterday’s Cost reflective, defective? post I said being green was probably easier than being blue… hmm…  Soon-to-be former Senator Bob Brown might disagree with me right now.

But if it’s any consolation to Bob and his fans, I don’t think it has much to do with him - or even his interesting theory about why we don’t have any intergalactic friends.

I believe the problem is what I’m hereby coining as the curse of imminent influence (coii).

Now, just for the record I don’t believe in curses and just to prove it, I even took a photo of Marie Laveau's tomb in New Orleans and didn’t suffer any bad luck. Oh… hang on… was that before I lost my job, had a massive water leak at home and broke my tooth?

Anyway, as I was saying I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in curses and only chose that word because it sounds more exciting than “the self-destruction that groups of humans tend to undertake when they get a little taste for power and have a bit of extra time on their hands.”

The first one sounds better right? OK, we’re settled. The curse of imminent influence it is!

So just to back up my little theory, let’s think about the Australian Democrats. Remember them? They started off as the little group who were going to “keep the bastards honest”. It turns out they were very good at doing exactly that and became quite popular - eventually growing to the point of holding the balance of power in the Federal Parliament.

In retrospect, what happened next was sadly the almost inevitable result of one of the most frustrating flaws of human nature – ambition beyond our competency.

If you don’t believe me, watch any 12 month old baby next time you have the chance. Their internal narrative goes something like this:
“OK, I’ve been grovelling around on the floor long enough watching these big people walk around me. If they can do it, so can I. In fact, I reckon I’m smart enough to even run!’ [plonk!]
To summarise the Democrats’ internal narrative at the time:

“We’ve been a tiny minority for ages watching the big parties walk around us. If they can do it, so can we. Let’s declare that we are going to be the third force in Australian politics!” [plonk!]

How about “One Nation”? Had some luck in Queensland, decided that they could be the new third force in Australian politics… oh oh [plonk!]

Bob Katter’s power in the hung Federal Parliament made him think he could get a big Party going in last month’s Queensland elections… [plonk-er!]

Enough proof? Darn that human nature!

But the Greens are different, right? They won’t fall victim to the curse of imminent influence and plonk in the same way, surely?

Dom Dom! Did you hear what Christine Milne, the new Leader of the Greens, said this morning after Gillarding poor old Bob?
“My role is to advance the Greens, to give the community a very clear signal about where the Greens want to take this country… Under Bob's wise leadership, the Greens have grown into the undisputed third force in Australian politics…”
Oh oh… I feel another coii coming on…

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cost reflective, defective?

We keep hearing it: “cost of living increases will be the downfall of the current State Government.”

This really isn't news - the Opposition and numerous media outlets in Western Australia have been suggesting it for sometime. Indeed, the Premier himself even agreed with the premise this morning when he spoke with Geoff Hutchinson on 720 ABC Perth radio.

But if this proposition has merit and everyone including the Premier knows it, why doesn’t the government just stop increasing the price of water and energy?

The solution isn’t quite that easy - unless we had a Labor government that is.

In fact, one of the truths in Premier Barnett’s explanation of why his government has savagely raised water and electricity tariffs over the past 3 years is because the previous government did what only a Labor Government can - subsidised utility charges.

As a former Chief of Staff to both a Water and an Energy Minister in this government, I’m only too aware that this is a genuine problem for Mr Barnett and his (small L) liberal colleagues. The previous Labor government’s decision to repeatedly freeze tariffs and let the gap between the true cost of supplying our utilities and what we all pay for them increase was political genius. Regardless of whether it was done strategically or not, this move was destined to become a mighty large thorn in the side of any conservative government that followed them – and it has.

The key to this quandary is that any Labor government is acting well within the realm of its core ideology to take money from one part of the budget and use it to subsidise utility charges - or education, health, police - whatever. That's exactly what die-hard Labor voters want their governments to do.

In contrast, a pure liberalist view is that each element of the budget should be cost neutral. In a perfect liberal world, school fees would fund teacher's salaries, police would carry a mobile eftpos machine to charge anyone they help, people would pay the full cost of any health services they might use and yep, you guessed it – we would all pay the true cost of every drop of water and watt of power we use. In short, blue-blooded liberals believe in a “user-pays” system.

But the problem is that neither theory works in its pure form. To the average voter, too much government cross-subsidisation smells a bit too much like communism and on the other extreme, the public would simply refuse to pay $25 for a bus ticket to work just to ensure the public transport service breaks even.

So over time, both sides of the political divide have compromised their core values a little in order to appeal to the increasing number of voters who sit somewhere in the middle of each school of thought. For example, successive Liberal governments in WA have ruled out introducing toll roads (which should theoretically be OK with their supporters) and Labor governments have implemented various user-pays policies (that normally wouldn't be supported by its supporters).

So given that the voting public seems fairly comfortable with this fuzzy grey blob between the red and blue edges, why does the Barnett government keep telling us that we should all pay a true cost for our utilities?

Hmmm… to start with, our Economist-turned-Premier and his very (small L) liberal Treasurer Troy Buswell started their term with very big plans. The then Treasurer was eager to prove his economic credentials by lowering taxes and duties and our statesman-like new Premier had grand visions of an infrastructure boom under his watch. They knew that to achieve these goals, they would have to keep recurrent costs low and reduce any unnecessary drains on the government's coffers. It’s also only fair to recognise that they also knew they had to deliver a truck-load a of cash to their new "partners" every year in the guise of the Nationals’ Royalties for Regions scheme.

So when Mr Barnett and Buswell sat around the big table with treasury geeks and started to frame their first budget, they were somewhat shocked to learn that the former government had made the conscious decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars keeping the prices of water and energy low.

Immediately, the little L liberal in both men came to the fore. The Premier and Treasurer agreed that not only were these subsidies contrary to core liberal philosophy, they were also tying up wads of cash the new government could use to help deliver the big ticket items they had been dreaming about.

As the first budget got closer, the Premier and Treasurer finally took the brave decision to boldly set an agenda of eventually removing all subsidies from utility tariffs – and agreed to big jumps in prices across the board.

So, like any budget decision - positive or negative - a couple of media people bounced it around and soon after, devised the amazing, brilliant, happy, happy "cost reflectivity" plan. As time went by and the budget day media was finalized, this spin was refined to include lines about the need to get tariffs up to cost reflectivity in order to attract more competition, which in turn would put downward pressure on prices (go figure).

Now, I've had a bit of fun with that but in all seriousness I don't think the first decision (or even the resulting spin) was much of a mistake for the current government. Tariffs hadn't increased for a number of years and the government did have some big plans for the extra cash. In any case, the bill shock was only 6 months into a 4 and a half year term and if the government had slowed its increases from then on, I suggest we wouldn't be talking "cost of living issues" now.

But unfortunately old habits die hard.

As we know, every year since, the government has implemented more increases and then reinforced the same old explanation: cost reflectivity is vitally important in order to increase competition - which will eventually reduce costs. The decision to continue to ‘sell’ cost reflectivity as a holy grail has left the government in a very ugly position with only one budget and 11 months before the next election.

An Economic Regulation Authority (ERA) report released only last week confirmed that residential electricity tariffs are still 23% away from being cost reflective. In spite of this, the Premier said on radio this morning, “the big hits in electricity prices are behind us” and went on to reassure the public that there would only be a “modest increase” in this year’s budget.

Old habits do indeed die hard.

This is an ugly problem for the government and creates two very uncomfortable questions that the Premier will no doubt have to try to answer sooner or later:
  1. If the tariffs are raised by only a nominal amount this year, doesn’t that mean we are no longer closing the gap to cost reflectivity - and with further increases in the cost of fuel and labour expected over the 12 months following this year’s budget, isn’t it possible that a small increase could even take us further away from cost reflective prices?
  2. If cost reflectivity is no longer a priority and the government has decided that cross-subsidies are now ok, why do we need to have any price rise at all? In fact, couldn’t we cut tariffs a bit?
Talk about a rock and a hard place.

They say it isn’t easy being green, but I reckon the next 11 months will prove it’s probably tougher being blue.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

McGowan’s ‘New Labor’ kicking goals (and heads)

As a key mentor to Mark McGowan and friend of former British UK PM Tony Blair, ex-Premier Geoff Gallop would undoubtedly be proud of the ‘New Labor’ that is the current Western Australian Opposition.

I know it’s a cliché but a lot can happen in a short period of politics and in Western Australia, indeed it has. In fact, I would go as far as proclaiming the last few weeks a watershed period for the future of the Barnett Government.

During that time the New Labor Opposition proved that its decision to replace their nice guy Leader Eric Ripper with the much more politically ambitious Mark McGowan will serve them well in the lead up to next year’s election. Today’s Newspoll results show Mr McGowan has secured a massive 12 point increase in the “preferred Premier” stakes.

But even worse for Premier Barnett, for the first time since the ALP’s messy and demoralising 2008 defeat, the Opposition has inflicted a 16 point drop in Colin Barnett’s preferred Premier status through the use of genuine political strategy, planning and teamwork.

Having worked in the Office of two Leaders of the Opposition, I know it’s not easy to achieve what Mr McGowan has done since he took the job a couple of months ago.

Indeed in politics, the Opposition is a tough animal for anyone to tame. The Leader has a relatively small staff of only 10 or so, hardly any access to non-public information, no warning of upcoming government announcements and he is typically criticised for not wanting to release details of opposition policy this far out from an election. And all that happens while he tries to keep a handle on a bunch of ambitious backbenchers who are all running their own races at top speed – often in very different directions.

Needless to say with all these challenges facing opposition parties, ‘strategy’ and ‘teamwork’ are words that rarely get used to describe a fortnight of their work. However in this case, those words are most appropriate.

During the last month the Labor Opposition actively targeted disaffected conservative voters by announcing a myriad of right-of-centre policies. Mr McGowan pledged to implement harsher penalties for knife crimes, abolish the Potato Marketing Corporation and promised to streamline planning and housing approvals if they are elected in March. Some commentators dismissed these announcements as merely ‘stunts’, but by making these statements Mr McGowan has committed to substantive policy changes designed to strategically broaden his Party’s voter-base – and encroach on the Liberal-National Government’s core constituency.

And while he was busy aggressively stretching the New Labor net to the right, he didn’t forget his more traditional friends on the left.

McGowan’s team continued its union-supported strong anti-privatisation campaign and in doing so, successfully smeared the brand of the Water Corporation, New Children’s Hospital and Department of Housing. He also stoked a fire under the traditionally left-leaning social services sector by casting doubt over the Government’s critical Mental Health agenda and reminded the Arts sector they were still close by slamming the Royalties for Regions process for not funding a proposal for the Goldfields Arts Centre.

But the Opposition didn’t stop there – proving they are willing to fight the forthcoming election campaign on all fronts, Mark McGowan’s New Labor even threw some bait to those backing their current Parliamentary partners. Green voters might have noticed the Labor Party starting debates on the likely demise of Carnaby's Black Cockatoos under the Government’s plan to extend the Roe Highway and the definition of free-range eggs, as well as promising to ban clear felling of native forests and plastic bags in the future.

However, it wasn’t only the content of the announcements that should be seen as sign of things to come. New Labor also touted its wares in a new way - to a new constituency that is very foreign to this Government and its slow-moving elders.

While Minister Buswell was taunting the Opposition in Parliament for their 'Stop Perth's Sardine Trains' social media campaign, MPs sitting on the comfy couches opposite were busily squirreling away on their mobile phones and ipads strategically Tweeting and Facebooking their way into the hearts and minds of a new generation of voters. The problem for the Government is that apart from one guy who spends a lot of time Facebooking about his cat, no Government Minister is engaging with these very mobile voters – many of whom already resent being told by a fuddy-duddy old Premier they should buy smaller houses and consider air-conditioning a luxury.

As proven by the incredible global response to the Kony 2012 campaign, these voters are not only mobile, they can become spontaneous and potent activists with one click of the “Like” button on a Facebook page or “RT” of a controversial Tweet.  As I disclosed in Cantankerous Col Pot and his nervous nannies, the Premier has only owned a mobile phone since he became Premier and sent his first email just a year before that. The Luddite-like mentality of the Premier and his leadership team is in stark contrast to that of New Labor who have entered the void of social media electioneering with vigour.

Innovative policy and engagement methods aside, perhaps the biggest game-changing success McGowan’s New Labor appears to be closing in on is that of retribution. And if they land what they have hooked, Labor’s fishing expedition will cause serious damage to the Government and Colin Barnett’s leadership.

Mr McGowan and his team of tech-savvy tweeters have done something truly amazing – found a way to make Minister John Day look grubby.

This is indeed a miraculous feat because everyone agrees that Minister Day is one of the nicest, most ethical people in Australian politics. For anyone who has ever met Minister Day, it’s obvious that his failure to declare a potential conflict of interest regarding a planning decision near a property he owns was nothing more than an honest stuff-up.

Because of that, the Opposition’s attacks in Parliament have been fruitless, being all but shrugged off by the Minister and his boss. However, during question time on the last sitting day of the last sitting of Parliament, the Premier opened up some wiggle room and put this on the record:

Colin Barnett: If the minister erred, he erred only in failing to, I guess, question either myself or the Cabinet Secretary whether he should totally exempt himself from that issue.
Tony Buti: Which he should have.
Colin Barnett: He probably should have. It is a technical breach, but that is all it is. In my view it is not a conflict of interest, either perceived or real… It was not on his mind. Yes, he should have sought my advice on whether it was appropriate to make even that administrative decision. He did not do that; that was an error, but that is all it was.

Once again, the problem isn’t Minister Day. No one thinks he has done anything wrong, other than accidentally create a situation that doesn’t look great.

And that is the problem for the Premier.

As a grumpy backbencher planning his retirement while Alan Carpenter presided over the last Government, Colin Barnett watched the Labor Party brand get decimated by claim after claim of Ministerial corruption and mismanagement. The rest is history and Mr Barnett was thrust into Government with the unenviable task of having to reassure Western Australian tax-payers that he would have a zero tolerance to anything that even remotely smelled dodgy. He sacked Treasurer Troy Buswell for actions that were eventually proven to be above-board and he sacked one of his senior media advisers for doing something the Public Sector Commissioner recently said shouldn’t have led to a dismissal.

Deep down, the Premier knows that Minister Day’s actions look just as bad, if not worse, than those that led to a number of others being demoted or sacked. John Day is a good Minister and will be a sad loss to the State if he loses his position but given the Premier’s predicament in the precedents he has set, his choice of words in Parliament last Thursday were truly prophetic. The Premier has form in using language like this to back away when he sees the writing on the wall and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one to notice his change in terminology. New Labor must be very excited to smell the same odour that plagued them in their final years of Government.

I’m no fan of Mark McGowan. But even as a biased political commentator, it’s clear from his first couple of months in the job that the Labor Party has made the right decision and the Barnett Government has a difficult 11 months ahead of them.