Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Premier needs better political advice

A little over a year ago on an otherwise normal Sunday afternoon, wildfires raged through the hills of Kelmscott, south-east of Perth.

When the flames were finally extinguished, 71 homes had been destroyed and 39 others had been damaged. 517 families had been evacuated, some to three different locations.

For the people directly involved, that traumatic day will never be forgotten. But unfortunately, due to nothing other than poor political strategy, the damage caused by that fire was not limited to the people directly involved.

I’ve talked about it before – Premier Colin Barnett is quite likeable up close, very smart and an astute politician. However, nowadays, that’s just not enough. In our modern 24/7 media-driven world, politicians who enjoy longevity at the top say and do things that endear themselves to their constituency and perhaps more importantly, their immediate colleagues. And that’s often where the wheels fall off for Mr Barnett.

In some cases, the wheels wobble as a result of his own silly comments – and to his credit, Mr Barnett openly admits that himself. So be it. He is after-all, the Premier and is certainly big enough and experienced enough to wear the consequences of his own words.

But a source of growing trouble for the Premier is the feeling among his Cabinet colleagues, their senior staff and other government backbench members that their chances of victory at the March election are being seriously eroded by the dearth of good political strategy emanating from the Premier’s office and wider department, even when it’s handed to them on a plate.

As an example, I’m doing some pro-bono work for FreeForACause.org at the moment, representing the people who lost their homes in the Kelmscott wildfires last year. The letter to the Premier below explains the issue, but before I leave you with it, there’s a point to make.

As you will see in the letter, the Premier’s office and department were openly engaged for about 6 weeks prior. During this time, they failed to recognise either the political benefit in proactively addressing the problem and selling the government as compassionate, as well as potential for political problems in not addressing the problem and having the government look even more heartless than one that curses people for turning on their air-conditioning.

Given the Opposition today exposed the fact that the number of Officers in the Premier’s department on a salary of more than $180,000 increased by 270% this year, it is no surprise that the backbenchers who are paid only $140,000 to defend this kind of political ineptness are questioning whether or not they should intervene to change the culture - from the top down.


Dear Premier,

I have been contracted by a group of residents who were directly impacted by the devastating fire on 6 February 2011 in the Roleystone-Kelmscott area of the Perth Hills.

This group has asked me to urgently seek your commitment to provide a financial assistance package identical in nature to that offered to victims of the Toodyay and Margaret River fires.

As you have seen first-hand, the Roleystone-Kelmscott fire destroyed 71 homes and damaged a further 39. As you and I can only imagine, this traumatic event has taken a great toll on both the financial and emotional well-being of many of the families involved.

It is the fragility of some of those families that prompts me to re-state the urgency of this request.

Before writing to you formally or progressing a more public campaign, I advised my clients that it would be both courteous and wise to first explain the request to your staff – just in case you were already in the process of delivering the desired outcome. As such, I initiated a number of mutually respectful conversations with various officers, and principally with Mr Stephen Home from the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

I was unable to convince Mr Home that a facsimile of the Toodyay and Margaret River support packages for the Kelmscott victims would not only be a compassionate and consistent application of what has essentially become government policy, but also ultimately benefit the government in terms of its leadership and public standing.

Mr Home’s view is perhaps best explained in his own words:
“The situation with respect to the Roleystone fire is, however, quite different to that at Toodyay and Margaret River.  While the financial assistance schemes put in place after those fires do not constitute and are not represented as compensation schemes they have been instituted by the Government in the context of the causes of the fires… There is no claim of which I am aware that the Roleystone fire was caused by any action of the Government or any of its agencies and therefore there is no basis for a similar scheme to be put in place for people affected by that fire.  Nor is it the place of the Government to provide financial assistance or compensation for everyone or anyone impacted by an event such as this, otherwise no-one would fully insure themself and a huge financial burden would fall to the taxpayer.”
While I appreciate and understand this explanation, I believe it does not serve you or your government well, specifically on two fronts.

Firstly, if the support offered to Margaret River and Toodyay victims was genuinely in the form of “ex-gratia, goodwill, financial assistance packages” that “placed no limitation on the right of people to pursue legal action if they so choose,” (as you have said on many occasions) Mr Home’s view that the same package can not be offered to Kelmscott residents because the government did not start that fire appears to suggest that the previous payments were indeed offered as compensation.

If you are comfortable with Mr Home’s proposition that ex-gratia financial assistance packages are only available when damage is linked to an error on behalf of a government agency, the Keelty report more than adequately infers that failures in the way the disaster was managed significantly contributed to a greater loss of assets.

However, if I have totally misinterpreted Mr Home’s comments and there is absolutely no link between government error and the eligibility criteria of the assistance package, I respectfully ask you to make clear your intent to offer a financial assistance package to those who lost property in the Roleystone-Kelmscott fires as soon as possible.

The second front on which I believe Mr Home’s email to be problematic for you is on a much less legalistic issue – political perception.

The line, “Nor is it the place of the Government to provide financial assistance or compensation for everyone or anyone impacted by an event such as this, otherwise no-one would fully insure themself and a huge financial burden would fall to the taxpayer,” would be seen by the public as heartless and mean-spirited.

“An event such as this” happens very rarely indeed. It was a genuine disaster and when genuine disasters occur, the public at large need to have confidence that it can turn to its government when all else fails. As you said when announcing the assistance package for those impacted by the Margaret River fires, the support isn’t to relieve people of the burden of insurance, it was to provide that little bit of extra help that everybody needs when a freak event dents their confidence and hard-earned assets.

Mr Barnett, should you require it, I am more than willing to further demonstrate why the residents who lost their homes, possessions and confidence in Kelmscott last year need your compassion and practical assistance more than ever.

However, many of these people are suffering more and more each day and with that in mind, I urge you to respond positively to this request as soon as possible to help them close this traumatic chapter and not have to cope with more painful headlines about their loss.

Yours sincerely,

Darren Brown
On behalf of residents impacted by the Roleystone-Kelmscott fire of 2011

Darren Brown
Squeaky Wheel Strategy and Communications
Telephone: 0413 403 245
PO Box 2812
Malaga WA 6944

Darren Brown abides by the Western Australian lobbyist code of conduct

1 comment:

  1. Collin Barnett: a poem for equality

    On the sixth of February 2011,
    73 families lost their possessions.
    It was a day like no other,
    With fire and smoke framing horror.
    On that day, no one was hurt,
    But the aftermath has broken our hearts.
    The road to recovery is long and grand,
    However, Barnett refuses to lend a hand.
    All we ask is for some assistance –
    All we receive is bitter resistance.
    And now we ask, Mr Barnett,
    Why is your support so hard to get?
    Toodyay and Margaret River have received support
    But we are different, in your report…
    Where is the equality?
    Equality Kelmscott.

    By Sky O'Brien