Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Even children have depth perception

My father is good man. He has always been kind and loving and also knows a thing or two about human nature. And he used that understanding to teach me some valuable lessons. As a child, I remember sharing dad’s warm and secure canoe in the middle of a serene section of the Collie River during a camping trip in the area. My memory is that at the time, I had swimming skills but wasn’t a particularly confident swimmer - so guess what he did? Yep, unannounced he rolled the canoe onto its side and tumbled us both into the icy cold river. Within seconds I was doggy paddling strongly toward the muddy banks and from that day on, never again doubted my ability to swim.

It might seem a bit brutal, but it worked. Just like mother birds push their chicks out of the nest and horses nudge their foals onto their feet at birth, there really is something to the old theory of sink or swim.

But it seems much of today’s public don’t agree or at least don’t have the generosity to acknowledge that they do. Sadly, in the hours following yesterday’s resignation of WA’s Attorney General and Treasurer, I heard on talkback and read on news websites the same old tired rhetoric about the depth of talent in our parliamentary backbenches.

Rik Oshea’s post on the ABC’s Facebook page was indicative of many:
“My view? Staggering indifference. Had he stayed we'd still have a serious lack of depth problem. John Tonkin & maybe Sir Charles Court were probably our last real statesmen, not sure we have any great legislators at present.”
This is sad partly because it shows the level of cynicism the public maintain toward our Parliament but mostly because it is just so ill-informed.

The truth is it is very, very hard for anyone other than the Premier, Leader of the Opposition and Ministers of controversial portfolios (like Police) to get enough public airtime to be recognisable, let alone fairly judged on their abilities. Thirty minute press conferences are condensed down to a 7 or 8 second “grab” on TV news, newspaper column space has to compete with ever encroaching advertising to pay their bills and there is simply no way talkback radio can give any time to anyone other than the Premier and his direct nemesis.

The ugliest part of this truth is the vast majority of us would prefer to see a pretty blonde girl talking about the weather than watch an unscripted 3 minute address from any one of our political representatives. And because of that, it’s deeply unfair and often wildly inaccurate when people who have never met or even heard more than a 7 second grab from any of our Members of Parliament to judge their talent or lack of.

I know I won’t change many minds with this post, but I think it’s a very important point to make.
Journalists and their editors are often blamed for not providing the public with more opportunities to get to know their representatives in their own words - without truncation. But the fact is, like politicians, one way or another journalists get paid by the public and would therefore alter their content accordingly if there was a stronger demand for more open access to our MP’s.

That perpetual conundrum aside, of greatest disappointment to me as someone who knows there are many competent, hard working people who are invisible only because they are confined to the shadows of their respective Leaders, is that rare opportunities to shine a light on them aren’t being embraced.

I’ve made it very clear before that I respect Colin Barnett for his intellect and historical knowledge of all things politics, but his incompetence as a leader never ceases to amaze me. Yesterday, when a lazy journalist rolled out the cliché that he doesn’t have much choice in choosing a replacement for Christian Porter, he cited Ministers Constable, Hames and Buswell as evidence to the contrary. It is telling and deeply disappointing that Mr Barnett’s first and immediate reaction wasn’t to jump on the chance to talk about how he has too many competent backbenchers to choose from.

As I said above, there are a number of others in the shadows – on both sides - waiting patiently for their time to shine. Like my good old Dad, I have faith that many of them will quickly become strong swimmers if they are ever thrown in the deep end.

With regard to the Premier’s next move, I would love to see him undertake a bold reshuffle that sees 3 or even 4 backbenchers thrown in, but unfortunately I think his aversion to risk will see only one new face and a bit of a rearrangement of the deck chairs.

I hope some day soon our political leaders take the time to realise that blaming the media for missing opportunities is a moot point when so many massive ones float past them, the people we pay to set the agenda, apparently without even being noticed.


  1. Thanks. You make some good points.

  2. i caught you on 720ABC in the afternoon talking about liz constable and her replacement (you and peter kennedy would be a great state politics double act). anyway, with christian porter leaving, will a backbencher get 9 months to show some promise or not? when liz constable goes and assuming barnett wins again at the state election, does the "new member" who may or may not be delivered by parachute get a free ride into cabinet, or again does barnett trust a backbencher? if he continually overlooks the elected members doesn't this just reinforce the opinion that there is no talent, or is it just barnett's "incompetence as leader" at work again?

  3. Hi Wizman.

    Firstly, thanks. I admire PK and would love to work with him (WABN and ABC: Hint! Hint!)

    I honestly hope Mr Barnett takes a bit of a calculated gamble by throwing a couple of backbenchers in the deep end, but I really don’t think he will. He reinforced that yesterday in Parliament in an answer to a question without notice – he made way too much of the fact that he has had a “stable” cabinet, effectively making yet another rod for his back. He is a very conservative man who prioritises stability in the public sector.

    Unfortunately, that causes two big problems:

    1.Retiring Ministers are very problematic at elections. Norman Moore will be in Parliament for a few months after the election (because the LC doesn’t change until May 2013), so that one is not a drama. However, how on earth is the Government going to articulate its Education election promises when their spokesperson can’t speak for the party (because she’s independent) or the future (because she won’t be part of it)? I’m guessing that’s another role the Premier will probably take on in the caretaker period before the election.

    2.The other, which I think is the biggest problem and one that Mr Barnett is not fully cognisant of is the huge morale problem brewing in the back bench. Imagine being a 2nd or 3rd term Liberal backbencher who has played all the games and done as you were told for the last 8 or 12 years and hearing the Premier cite Independent and National MP’s as evidence of his available talent. Good leaders are inclusive and lay out a growth path for their ambitious subordinates – and Colin fails to do that over and over again. He needs to remember what happened to Natasha Stott-Despoja and Kevin Rudd – both very popular with the public, but rolled by their immediate constituents – their subordinates – because they weren’t making them feel valuable.

    Colin’s reluctance to take a punt on anyone new is not evidence of the depth of the talent pool. It is, however absolute evidence of one of Colin’s worst qualities, which will be his downfall in spite of his many good ones.