Monday, May 28, 2012

Max and the other cut snakes

I’ve thought a lot about how I think over the years. One thing I’ve worked out about what happens in the big old round thing on the top of my shoulders is that in the most part, words get translated into pictures before I can process them.

So when I think of Parliament my heart sinks, because the image that follows is a fuzzy big grey blob.

It’s not quite as boring as that. It moves around, almost spinning on its axis – but it’s not that controlled either. Every now and then I see little bursts of colour, but they are either sucked into the centre of the blob and assimilated or wildly spun out to the edge and discarded…

Which brings me to the way Nationals’ stalwart Max Trenordan was treated by his party over the weekend - spun to the edge and discarded.

I’ve known Mr Trenordan for a long time and it’s been an honour.

I remember one particular occasion when he invited me to dinner at his house in Northam with the then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer. It was nothing like what I expected. There were no silver spoons, no real formalities and not even very much in the way of politics. My memory of the evening includes images of a fire in a 44 gallon drum, lots of laughter, a few cowboy hats and a dog that had a rather unhealthy interest in my leg. It was honest, friendly, down to earth and very… Max.

The truth is Mr Trenordan has been one of those rare colourful bursts in Parliament - and he’s paid his dues by serving both his electorate and Party with vigour for 26 years.

Now, I’m not suggesting a statue for Max. He’s done a job and he’s been paid for it. Everyone knows that particular job comes with some perks and many, many risks - one of which is the very real possibility of losing it at least once every 4 years. And regardless of the vocation, there’s probably some wisdom in prompting change, or “renewal”, after a quarter of a century. So with all that in mind, it’s not the discolouration of the National Party I’m lamenting. I accept that the public’s growing hunger for the salacious means all political parties will probably respond with candidates who are less colourful and more likely to blend into the big grey blob that is our current Parliament.

My issue is the lack of courage, respect and courtesy inherent in the way Max was dumped. Frankly, he deserved better. He deserved the chance to step aside on his own terms, with a little bit of time to plan a somewhat more graceful departure. If it was inevitable (and sometimes in politics, that’s just the way it is), his retirement as a National Party Member should have been negotiated, not thrust upon him.

But some heartless individuals might propose, “C'est la vie,” “Live by the sword, die by the sword” or even “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” as justifications for this kind of bastardry.  And I might even get a vitriolic email from someone who claims to be a political genius suggesting that this is merely an example of “beautiful Machiavelli” in practice...

I say the clichés are fine, from afar - and just because there’s a fancy Italian name for stabbing people in the back doesn’t mean it’s smart politics. Indeed, it’s probably the opposite. There is really only one absolute rule in modern Australian politics: to succeed, you need more friends than enemies on election day, and it really does help if they stay friends for longer than a day.

This stuff – knifing loyal servants without doing enough damage to ensure they don’t fight back - is possibly the most foolish political manoeuvre possible. In vernacular perhaps more familiar to traditional Nationals’ voters, don’t just cut a snake. Either coax it away, leave it alone or behead it.

But injuring people - foolishly turning friends into enemies - isn’t the exclusive domain of the National Party.

In July 2010, around five months before the second of the Premier’s ‘John Farnham’ (the last one, I promise) reshuffles, Mr Barnett’s Chief of Staff (CoS) asked me to stay back after a weekly joint CoS meeting.  In an alcove of the 24th floor meeting room, he quietly and delicately asked me if I thought my Minister at the time, the Hon Graham Jacobs, would be “amenable” to a discussion about his future as a Minister.

Knowing Mr Jacobs was, at that time, a very loyal supporter of the Premier, I responded, “Yes, however this is not a discussion you and I should be having. Graham is a very strong supporter of the Premier. If Colin takes the time to speak with Graham one on one, I’m sure they would be able to plan a win-win outcome.”

Sadly, the very next discussion regarding that occurred was when the Premier walked up the hallway to the Minister’s office on that day in December 2010 when the very decent, very loyal Minister Jacobs learnt that his Ministerial career would come to an end in a few days time. In retrospect, the Premier’s arrogance was kind of funny – I received a phone call from his diary secretary who told me “the Premier is on his way up to see your Minister.” The funny thing is that the Minister was out of the office at an official event and was going to be for some time. Apparently the Premier’s car was promptly turned around and the ugly 5 minute meeting happened later in that day, when the always busy Minister Jacobs could fit it in.

So there you have it.

We are soon to inherit a new generation of political hopefuls who think this kind of disrepect is not only acceptable, but the norm.

And Graham Jacobs and Max Trenordan share a lot more than just being honourable, loyal conservatives. They also share some of the colour we desperately need in our ever-greying Parliament and because their respective Parties didn’t have the political wisdom to treat them with the respect they deserve, they both have at least 9 months to brighten the walls of Parliament with the many tones of blue blood.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The trouble with lobbyists…

The trouble with lobbyists is that the Government is too afraid to admit it needs them and the community benefits greatly from their expertise and work.

The controversy this week about the $25,000 per annum Liberal “Leaders Forum” highlighted a couple of really disappointing things;
  • The Premier is still so afraid of public perception issues that when he had an opportunity to educate everybody about the truth of what happens in politics, he ran away at top speed; and
  • Neither the media nor wider public understand just how valuable lobbyists are to everyday Australians.
This is a hard post to pen because I’m not sure my non-staff readers will understand, let alone support it. Right now, I guess I’m feeling what the Premier felt just before he denied those who pay $25,000 a year to be part of the somewhat secretive “Leaders Forum” do so to allow them to directly lobby him and his colleagues.

And I really empathise.

It can’t be easy for Colin Barnett. While he sulked on the backbench during most of the last government, he saw those doing the hard yards bring down a number of ALP Ministers by systematically attaching them to the stink of corruption. In some cases, former Ministers were ultimately cleared of any corrupt behaviour but what Mr Barnett and the rest of us in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition knew was that perception is sometimes just as powerful as evidence.

In politics, casting doubt can be enough to turn a Minister’s shiny armour coating into a rusty old death trap overnight.

But even so, I’m disappointed in Colin. I really thought he would oversee an accountable executive and be strong enough to push back against our society’s growing desire to prosecute on perception rather than fact. But it appears even someone as wise and principled as he hasn’t been able to reverse the public’s self-fulfilling prophecy of political incompetence, fuelled by our constant over-scrutiny of our political system and the people who interact with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating anything less that proper accountability, but the feigned horror many expressed when talking about the Liberal Leader’s forum this week was simply too much for me to stomach. The thing that really irked me was the way Mr Barnett backed away from the truth and missed a prime opportunity to educate us all about the genuine value of lobbying.

The simple fact is that without lobbyists, we would all be bound up in unworkable legislation and other public policy, written and enacted by people who have absolutely no understanding of the real-world impact of their decisions.

As an example of this, one of my first jobs in a political office was as a researcher. In that role, I helped the man I worked for prepare responses to parliamentary debates and speeches. I distinctly recall this occasion because of the utter fear I felt when the Member came to me and asked me to prepare some notes for his contribution to writing a piece of legislation regarding the services provided by gynaecologists in Western Australia – that’s right, a 30-something, childless, unmarried man writing notes for the male member of the Opposition who would next week be leading his side’s debate on, umm, gynaecologists. Fortunately, the Member I worked for at the time is a good man and not egocentric or foolish enough to believe he could just stand up and “wing it” off the cuff.

So how valuable do you think the contribution of the Opposition would have been to that debate if it wasn’t for my ability to pick up the phone and talk to some representatives of both the doctors and patients of the people who would have had to work within the resulting legislation?

And as a Ministerial Chief of Staff, I have sat through no end of meetings with individuals who simply have no understanding of the process of government. Some of these people had great ideas but the only reason they were able to make a meaningful contribution was because they were accompanied by someone who understood both sides of fence – you guessed it, a lobbyist.

Indeed lobbyists provide an incredibly valuable service to the community.

Without them, Ministers who were Bus Drivers and School Teachers in their former lives would have no choice but to take the word of their departmental staff every time on every decision – sometimes regarding billions of dollars of public expenditure or the direction of legislation that impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of every day people.

And while I am a staunch defender of the professionalism of the majority of our public service, it is not too unkind to point out that sometimes they simply aren’t aware of the practical implications of their policy recommendations. That’s a for no other reason than the fact that they are not necessarily at the coalface every day – unlike those who represent individuals and industry, such as lobbyists and CEO’s of companies.

So why didn’t Colin just say that the Leader’s Forum provides a unique opportunity to hear the truth directly from people at the coalface about the direction the Government is taking? It’s obviously the perception that the money buys that guaranteed access – and I’m not going to insult QBF readers by suggesting it doesn’t. Of course it does.

Let’s stop the crap.

It’s messy, it smells a bit and it’s easy to pretend we didn’t know this happens while jumping up and down about how the wealthy get special favours, but the hard facts are that every cent is publicly declared as required by OUR law and both sides of politics do exactly the same thing.

And as unpopular as it might make me, I for one have the courage to publicly say thank goodness our political parties are being well funded (as long as it’s declared) and thank goodness business leaders are speaking directly to our political leaders.

But perhaps the ugliest truth of all is that even if the Western Australian public were given a chance to talk to the Premier about policy, most wouldn’t know where to start and many others would prefer to stay at home drinking their beer and watching football on their plasma TV’s than genuinely try to make our State a better place.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

With friends like these…

Fatigue does a lot of strange things to people, but then again so does being shafted by slippery cowards. With that in mind, it’s hard to tell what was driving Upper House Liberal Liz Behjat late last night when she stood up to, um, “support” the Minister for Energy.

At 9:45pm, after a very long day in the comfy red chairs, the first termer chose to make a statement on Western Power and specifically in response to the committee report “Unassisted Failure” that had been discussed earlier in the day.

No big deal, just a backbencher supporting her ministerial colleague and self-declared friend. Yep, if only that was the end result. However, what Ms Behjat did do, was demonstrate some excellent research skills by dredging up comments made in the House by former ALP members and, well, end with this somewhat awkward point:
“He spoke those words 40 years ago, and nothing has changed! Western Power is still a law unto itself.”
Doh! That didn't come out right, or did it?

Whether it was a botched attempt to support the Minister or a very clever shot across his bow for his part in Ms Behjat’s recent pre-selection trauma, we may never know – but one thing is for sure… with friends like these, one probably doesn’t need half the enemies one has created for himself.

Monday, May 21, 2012

RfR 4 all (unless you’re a Liberal)

I got an email from another lovely anonymous person (I love those kind of emails) the other day who wanted to “correct” me on a number of assertions I have made in previous posts.

The core of this person’s grizzle was that I apparently had “no f#%^ing idea of the relationship between the Liberals and Nationals in Western Australia.”

Well, given the content of one of today’s wonderful anonymous tips, it looks like I will have to wear that criticism. It turns out that I didn’t know as much about the current state of the relationship as I thought. However, unfortunately for the author of last week’s “passionate” rant, today’s best anonymous email has suggested I actually don’t know how bad things are between the Government partners.

It seems there is a fair bit of Royalties for Regions “good news” (aka Nationals’ electioneering) being celebrated in the bush at the moment and not everyone is being invited to the ribbon cutting parties.

Actually, it might be more accurate to say that everyone other than Liberals are being invited…

I won’t go much further today, but let’s just say that the next few days might be very, very interesting in State politics – and depending on how it’s handled by those at the “highest levels of government” (sorry Peter but again, since this great interview, I just can’t stop using that wonderful phrase) we could have another independent Member of Parliament well before the next election.

If the brown stuff does hit the fan over this, it is nothing more than yet another consequence of this Government unnecessarily creating enemies from their former friends.

Watch this space.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The 3 C’s of Perth’s power problem (3xC+1=3P)

(I know you think I’ll say Colin, Collier and Cock-ups but since I can’t seem to get off this topic, I wanted to prove that I’m really not that predictable! Read on for 3 C’s I’m talking about. :-))

So here it is. None of us want higher power bills. And regardless of what anyone may think, not even the energy providers want it to rise arbitrarily. They want people to feel relaxed about turning their plasma TV's on and certainly don't like to see daily news stories that speak of their product as if it is some sort of flesh eating bacteria. 

But why is the Western Australian public so angry about the price of their utilities?

The answer is sadly about message management - or to use more popular vernacular, spin. That might sound like an opening line to attack the current government, but in this case I’m suggesting the Government should have given us more.

Settle down! I know that doesn’t sound sensible. Just bear with me…

The harsh reality is the cost of electricity production, transmission and safety has dramatically increased over the last decade or so. The south-west of WA (SWIS) is covered by a huge, and consequently somewhat inefficient, network. The rest of the state is powered by a disparate mix of even less efficient small isolated systems, often located in very remote (and therefore expensive to service) areas. The power in these isolated systems generally costs a lot more to produce than that in the consolidated SWIS but because all governments support the idea that country people shouldn't be punished for living in regional WA, city power users subsidise these tariffs so everyone pays the same for power, regardless of where they live.

In short, WA really does have some very unique challenges and they unequivocally add to the pure cost of power. That’s not the Government’s fault.

And the Barnett Government has been desperately trying to get that message out, but because they only started in earnest up after people got huge increases to their power bills, many voters thought it was just cynical spin. When people think governments say something only to justify their bad decisions, they get angry and stop listening: "Sweetheart, I know what you think you saw, but I only touched her there because I was giving her CPR..." - sometimes, even if there's a good explanation, it's just too late to be heard.

So, the Government probably should have had little or no tariff increases in 2009 and spent A LOT of time in their first year educating the public about the need to increase tariffs in future years, perhaps even offering big incentives for people to upgrade their inefficient appliances and change wasteful habits in advance of the inevitable price hikes. They probably should have also tried to explain that the biggest power users are in the most wealthy suburbs and that means honest tax-paying mums and dads are actually subsidising millionaires to run 5 plasma TV’s and a filter for a lagoon in the backyard of their 12 bed Dalkeith mansions.

That’s a simple fact and while it would have irritated the millionaires, it could have been a pretty easy sell to most mums and dads – if it came before the increases. Indeed, if they had done all that in 2009, the Barnett Government MIGHT have been able to win the public over in their current Keating-esque “increases the public needed to have” campaign.

But of course hindsight is a wonderful thing and to be fair, the Barnett Government's first budget was framed in very uncertain global financial times. They were rightfully nervous about future income, had to start saving for some big election promises (eg Stadium, Waterfront, permanent payroll tax cuts – oops, never mind) and had to try to do all that while handing over great wads of cash to their new minority “partners” via the Royalties for Regions scheme.

So another self-question that would make KRudd proud: Given we are where we are right now, what can the government do to reduce pressure on electricity tariffs?

Ah, the first C - Control. And to be a bit more specific – genuinely putting one person in control and making them fully accountable for it.

This is management 101 stuff – when an individual is given genuine responsibility and autonomy for something, they are far more likely to deliver results - or at least be the only person to performance manage (or napalm if you’re Minister Collier) when things go wrong. The theory is sound, easy and really self-explanatory.

But alas, this simple management practise just doesn’t seem achievable within the “highest levels of government” (Sorry Peter, you cracked me up when you said that on 6PR the other day). We already know the Minister for Energy and Premier barely speak, let alone genuinely collaborate on anything in the energy portfolio.

I really don’t know how to fix that. They simply hate each other and the wounds run deep. Peter is still grumpy because he didn’t get the education portfolio almost 4 years ago and to rub salt in that wound, the Premier didn’t stay very long at his 50th birthday party. Colin, well Colin is generally grumpy with most people but he especially despises unintelligent, political forg.. err, power-brokers.

Anyhow, that relationship is not going to get any better, but beside those two pushing and pulling the levers of control to spite each other, the situation has been made worse with the emergence of a third dysfunctional relationship – the government’s own “independent” economic regulator, the ERA.

For example, if all three were on the same page, today’s budget would have included a 6% or $100 a year reduction in people’s power bills by simply following this recommendation from their own expert authority:
“The subsidy to Horizon Power is not a cost that is associated with generating, distributing or retailing electricity in the South West. It is a cost associated with a Government policy decision. Just as the subsidy for Water Corporation’s regional customers is not paid for by Perth customers, neither should the subsidy for regional electricity consumers be paid for by Synergy’s customers. The subsidy should be provided by a Community Service Obligation (CSO), which is funded out of general taxation revenue, as is the case with water customers. The TEC (Tariff Equalisation Contribution) currently accounts for approximately $95 (or 6 per cent) of a residential consumer’s annual electricity bill in 2011/12.” Page IX ERA Inquiry into the Efficiency of Synergy’s Costs and Electricity Tariffs: Draft Report 4 April 2012
The Minister needs to take control and the full responsibility for Energy. I suspect we would see him drop that ball pretty quickly, but to be fair on him, he has been trying to juggle it with 2 other pairs of hands in the mix.

Next is Creativity (in competition).

We’ve heard for three and a half solid years now that competition would reduce power costs. The boffins convinced me at least that if a consumer has a choice of supplier, they will probably buy from the cheapest one. That in turn will force all the competing suppliers in that industry to find ways to bring down their costs so they can remain competitive and perhaps even offer their services cheaper – or simply go out of business.

This would have the dual benefit for the Government of bringing down electricity tariffs and being consistent with the core philosophy of the Liberal Party. However, the problem is that the current retail price of electricity is less than it costs to sell it and it is simply not financially viable for private providers to try to compete with the State-owned utilities. So the Government has been using the blunt instrument of increasing retail prices so it becomes attractive for others to compete which would presumably, um, bring prices down… yeah.

But us plebs who would be assisted by this magical increase-to-get-a-decrease policy have revolted mid way through the government’s grand plan and the poor Minister hasn’t got a clue as to how to calm everybody down. So the best they have come up with is to stop pursuing cost reflectivity, leaving us with higher costs and no extra competition. Bugger!

But what if we had a Minister who spent time trying to find new ways of creating competition?

Here’s an idea: given that the government already subsidises the state-owned providers of electricity, why not just offer that same level of subsidy to private providers on a per kilowatt hour basis? The ERA knows how much it should cost an “efficient” operation to supply power and the government sets the retail tariff. All it needs to do is offer the difference between the ERA’s efficient cost and the current tariff to all and sundry. If a private company can do it cheaper, they would get to keep the difference. Synergy et al would soon become more efficient to try to regain the government subsidy and eventually the cost would be driven down, lowering the “cost reflective” price and eventually competition would thrive without government assistance.

The last C is perhaps what we need the most in our Energy portfolio – Courage.

In politics, you can win votes with policies that make life easier for your constituents and sometimes you can even win people’s support by being genuinely courageous – even if it makes life a little harder.

What doesn’t win support is telling people they have to suffer until you get to a certain point then stopping before you get there.  To the average punter that just feels like you’ve caused them all sorts of pain with absolutely no gain. At that point, they are not only hurting but can’t even respect you for making the hard decisions and sticking to your guns.

This is something else I raised at a Chiefs of Staff meeting before last year’s budget. I explicitly asked the Premier’s Chief of Staff how we would explain our apparent reversal of policy when we decided to slow our pursuit for “cost reflectivity”. He looked bewildered, as though I was speaking in another language and simply said, “I don’t think that will be a problem”.

It turns out, it is a problem. It’s a big one.

Higher prices piss people off for sure. But cowardly retreat in the face of a fight and random policy reversals make people question your competency. And in the case of energy, that’s a fourth “C” the Minister falls desperately short of.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How deeply disappointing

Dear Mr Barnett.

I read Hansard this morning and was deeply disappointed by the tone of one of your interjections in Parliament yesterday:
Mr M. McGOWAN: He [The Premier] was not there, no, but I will get to him.
His most senior, $350 000-plus-a-year staff were at this meeting from which we learn that the program has exceeded its capacity, thereby costing taxpayers many millions of dollars. That became apparent to the Premier‘s staff at that meeting and the Premier is saying that nothing was done. But it gets worse because in the Premier‘s flippancy with his answer, he said that he had been aware of problems with this scheme from the moment he was elected. He then said that he became even more aware from early June when Darren Brown, the former chief of staff to the Minister for Energy, actually said, ―I think this scheme has been exceeded‖ —
Mr C.J. Barnett: Is Darren Brown now your confidant?
Mr M. McGOWAN: I have not spoken to Darren Brown but I can tell the Premier this. Darren Brown gets the sack for bringing these matters to light, but the Minister for Energy loses $400 million and nothing happens to him. What sort of standard is that? His standard is to sack the messenger and protect the failure—sack the messenger and protect the failure. We discovered that the Premier, himself, admitted in what he had to say that he has known for a long time about problems in the scheme. The only reason he acted on 1 August, according to his own admission having known about this issue for some months, is that he got calls from journalists. What we discovered from all the FOIs...
Colin, you are a very smart man. I genuinely admire your political experience and nous. You know I have always said it how it is and while employed by your Government, maintained loyalty to those I served. I desperately tried to improve processes and morale from the inside but as you know, I no longer have that ability.

I know things would be easier for you if I just went away quietly, like all the other people who have been put in my situation.

However, it might be better for the Government and ultimately, people of Western Australia, if rather than blaming the messenger, you take onboard some of the observations being made by the few people who are courageous enough to tell you the truth.

I have not spoken to Mr McGowan since I last saw him in the halls of Parliament – when I told him the truth about how appalling I thought his abuse of Parliamentary privilege was. He is no friend of mine and I am certainly not his “confidant”. However, given that I no longer work for you, if I choose to speak to the Leader of the Opposition at some point in the future I will do so and that should be of no concern to you.

I believe the willingness to stand up for principle in the face of threats, intimidation and unjust reputational damage is a very worthwhile virtue and perhaps one you should embrace a little more yourself.

The unholy fight for Churchlands (part 2)

I wanted to write about something totally different today to prove that I'm more than just a one trick pony.

After all, I was in the room when Troy sniffed the chair, saw and heard all sorts of things that happened near the photocopier in the leader of the opposition’s office, saw a few good liberal women get destroyed, and was present when a number of very honourable people like Graham Jacobs were… well, let's just leave it at that.

But unfortunately, all that will have to wait because sadly I have to again write a post that relates to Peter Collier.

Just a side note: Paul Murray was quite correct in this amazing interview with the Minister – I am looking for work. If you are interested in some bold strategic advice, no-bull political commentary or even a guest writer or panel member who will entertain your audience with politically incorrect anecdotes and insights, I'm just a click away! (thank goodness we are getting those prostitution laws soon huh?) :-)

Anyhow, back to the glossy Peter Collier.

For those who asked me why I said the unholy battle for Churchlands would re-open old, very tender Liberal wounds.... Whulla! I give you this news article from the ABC yesterday.

That article doesn’t explain the whole background, but this Stateline transcript from 2005 certainly does.

After reading those articles, you might be inclined to think the allegations resurfaced because ALP Member Martin Whitely has a long memory.... nope! It was front of mind for him yesterday because the now-energy efficient halls of parliament (they auctioned the old power guzzler chandeliers off yesterday - presumably because the Speaker couldn’t afford his power bills like the rest of us) are abuzz with this old, very tender Liberal wound. We are of course talking about this because of the unholy fight for Churchlands.

After I published the unholy fight for Churchlands (part 1), I received an email from a very nice Liberal member who honestly couldn’t understand why I thought the pre-selection battle would get ugly. This person said they were at the State Council meeting and it was all very cordial and pleasant.
The emailer is of course correct but obviously isn’t much of a chess player. Chess, like any game of influence, requires a player to not only see the current state of play, but think about how all the pieces might look in the future.

The fun bit for those of us who are watching from the sidelines is that both Premier Barnett and Peter Collier are pretty good at this.

Here are some important facts to consider when thinking about what will happen next in this pre-selection.

1. Minister Collier holds the majority of the votes in the Curtin division – certainly enough to play a major role in deciding who will win a usual pre-selection process in Churchlands.

2. He supported his new Chief of Staff, and fairly well regarded Young Liberal Richard Wilson, who nominated in the usual way.

3. After pre-selctions closed, the Premier (and his senior media adviser Dixie Marshall) “suggested” to outspoken business-woman Kate Lamont that she put her hand up for a seat.

4. After learning of the Premier’s desire to install Ms Lamont, Collier clique member Senator Mathias Cormann moved a motion at State Council to re-open nominations to facilitate her nomination.

5. Ms Lamont nominated for Churchlands.

6. Peter Collier’s Chief of Staff withdrew his nomination.

7. From out of nowhere, long-serving Party member Jane Timmermanis took the opportunity to also nominate.

To piece all that together is pretty easy – while Peter Collier is definitely a chess player, he is constantly frustrated by others because his moves are just too transparent.

And here’s another relevant fact: generally, he doesn’t think much of women. I know, politically incorrect of me to put that in writing, but everyone knows it. There is so much evidence of misogynistic behaviour, it’s really just not debatable.

Note to the Collier clique: Be all offended and send me nasty emails by all means, but just think of who was behind the demise of recent sitting Liberal women and what is going on in his head when he says stuff like this:

Hon Sally Talbot: Have you  read the report?
Hon PETER COLLIER: Will you be quiet, woman!
Several members interjected.
[Hansard 19 May 2011]


Peter Collier thought he had a lock in supporting his new Chief of Staff Richard Wilson for the presumed safe seat. When it became clear the Premier (and probably the Honourable Liz Constable) wanted a woman in that seat, Peter Collier saw the writing on the wall for his preferred candidate. As quick as a flash, he burnt Richard Wilson (like he has so many others) and started the chess game.
It’s interesting to note that when Sue Walker was undermined and driven from her seat of Nedlands (led by… guess who), the Collier clique supported a nice chap named Bill Marmion – ahead of at least two other qualified women, one of whom was Jane Timmermanis.

Wow! What goes around really does come around in politics. I’m guessing with a little bit of rationalisation from the non-misogynistic Senator Cormann, Peter Collier was convinced that Ms Timmermanis was the best breasted candidate he could find to support in competition to the Premier’s ‘lock’.

So, I reckon the branch level initial vote will be interesting. If Peter Collier has the balls (which is questionable) and hasn’t burned too much political capital with all the insights we have been given as a result of a bit of media scrutiny this week, Jane Timmermanis should win pre-selection with his support.

But here’s where it gets really ugly.

Imagine for a moment you are Kate Lamont.

You’re a strong-willed, self-made, successful entrepreneur who relies heavily on support from wealthy and influential customers (i.e. her businesses need patronage to survive – nothing untoward there). Since working hard to gain that success, you’ve branched out and been politically active – but in a non-partisan way. You’ve picked up government advisory roles with both Labor and Liberal Governments and you’ve played a straight bat, gaining a fair bit of respect for telling it how it is. Importantly, you’ve managed to influence without having to be painted into any corner of the political spectrum and therefore risk losing the support of half of WA’s business community i.e. her target market.

Then one day the Premier and a straight talking, somewhat charming media personality drop in to your restaurant and suggest that you stand for Parliament.

Would you agree to pin a flag to your mast if the offer wasn’t a “guaranteed” seat in Parliament? And would you agree to piss off half your target market unless that offer came with a promise of something more than a $140,000 a year backbench position that doesn’t allow you to even speak in public, let alone influence Cabinet…

Na, either would I. I’m certain the Premier wouldn’t have promised anything like this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Ms Lamont was left to believe it.

So, if Peter Collier delivers on his alleged powerbroking potential and gets Jane Timmermanis nominated, Kate Lamont will be very, very grumpy that she’s sacrificed so much for so little. And she isn’t shy about expressing her opinion when she’s angry. Nor is Liz Constable, who will no doubt do all she can to ensure any candidate supported by Peter Collier isn’t her replacement.


The only way out of this scenario would be for State Council to over turn Ms Timmermanis’ pre-selection and by then, the Premier will have many, many more reasons to let Peter Collier suffer the consequences of being a powerless powerbroker with a lot of self-made enemies.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Statement regarding FIT closure documents

The West Australian newspaper today published a couple of articles based on internal emails it received from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request regarding the suspension of the State Government’s solar feed-in-tariff scheme.

As QBF readers will know, I was the Chief of Staff to the Minister for Energy at the time and as such, have been identified in some of the emails published in this morning’s paper.

Given that the Opposition and West Australian newspaper appear to have uncovered a number of facts that are likely to embarrass and potentially damage the Minister and Premier, my political experience tells me that some may now turn their energies to retaliation.

In anticipation of that, I hereby make it absolutely clear that at no time, (including at the time of my departure from government) did I knowingly breach the Public Sector Management Act or any other relevant law.

Further, as an employee of government, I have never inappropriately distributed, removed, downloaded or copied ANY emails or other official documents or information.

Other than those legitimately provided to me under FOI, I do not have access to any email (original or duplicate) that I sent or received as Chief of Staff in the Barnett Government and have not endeavoured to access them since my contract expired.


Politicians are a lot like solar panels

Politicians are a lot like solar panels.

They have the potential to do great good, and after a bit of upfront investment, most of them generate their own power and return significant benefits to those who took the gamble to install them.

But unfortunately when they are in the wrong position, they are virtually useless.

And of course, even when the owner realises he has installed them incorrectly and they are not delivering all the power they originally promised, it might cost more to replace them than to just leave them up there in place, even though they rarely contribute anything useful.

Read Gareth Parker's front page of today’s West Australian newspaper to see what happens when you install your investment on a part of the roof that’s simply not bright enough.

Solar fail - the wrong tool in the wrong position means little or no return

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Too little too late - revolt is nigh

Great insight in Gareth Parker’s Inside State column in today’s West Australian newspaper – as he wrote, there is no shortage of government backbenchers who would like the chance to step up into a Ministry before the next election. Among those backbenchers, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the performance of some Ministers and the last thing the Premier can afford right now is a revolt within his own Party Room.

But other than the 'hard' news in the talented Mr Parker’s article, there was this wonderful little jewel:
“Asked about the possibility of a rejig of his ministry before the next election, Mr Barnett told Inside State flatly: ‘There is no planned Cabinet reshuffle.’ ”
Pretty stock standard response from a Premier – nothing in that… unless you contrast this statement against this bold statement by Sunday Times political editor in last weekend’s edition:
“Colin Barnett will have another cabinet reshuffle this year, possibly as early as July. Sources within the Liberal Party say…”
Hmm…. QBF readers might need just a bit of background here.

At around the same time as the Premier hired Dixie Marshal to fill the position of his director of all things media, the Sunday Times started getting LOTS of favours – almost all of the exclusive good news stories and the occasional whisper of a scoop. Simultaneously, the Premier started abusing the rest of WA’s media pack, including the West who were (rightfully so) relentless in trying to get to the bottom of a number of big issues – including the content of Ms Marshall’s email inbox and whether or not she or the Premier’s Chief of Staff had anything to do with Google Earth-gate that saw a media adviser sacrificed.

Having been on the other side of this, I know one of the crude ways governments try to manage their image is to feed the journalists who write the nicest stories about you, ie not necessarily the media outlets that dig deeply to get to the whole truth.

Back to the leak to Joe Spagnolo. Let me make an assertion - “Sources” in this case actually means the Premier’s office. Given the emphatic statement supplied to the West today, it had to be “off the record” because otherwise the Premier would have been accused of a conflicting message.

So why would the Premier’s office tell the Sunday Times off the record that there will be another reshuffle soon?

Easy! The Premier is a smart and politically astute man. He knows that when elections get close, ambitions get put aside for the sake of electoral victory. He also knows that there is so much unrest in the Party Room right now, it could explode at any time.

So in move that many teachers would have used to control a classroom full of screaming kids, he has sent the subtle message that if they all sit down and shut up for a while, the good ones might be rewarded and the bad ones might be punished. In Parliamentary terms, for the backbenchers who are agitating for a Ministry, play nice and you might get one – and for the Ministers who can feel the knives being sharpened behind you, keep your eye and the ball and you won’t lose your Ministerial salary.

Members are losing faith in the Premier, not because he is incompetent, but because he has left so many vital decisions to the last minute.

I like Minister Constable, but how on earth is she going to answer legitimate questions about the direction a future Liberal government might take in education in the lead up to next March?

Rob Johnson isn’t the only Minister backbenchers believe the Premier has favoured for too long.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I will not take any responsibility…

"I will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government."
(Energy Minister Peter Collier quoted in Daniel Mercer's $100m Synergy billing system blowout, pg 3 The West Australian newspaper 9/05/12)

Fact 1
Peter Collier has been the Minister for Energy for 3 years and 7 months of a nominal 4 year term

Fact 2
Mr Collier was quoted saying this in response to the revelation that Synergy’s new billing system has so far cost $93.4 million, despite the original budget being $38.5 million.

Fact 3
Minister Collier claimed in 2009 that the system would save $75 million over five years

Fact 4
This budgetary mismanagement significantly adds to the cost of electricity and will eventually be recovered from Western Australian energy users through higher tariffs

Fact 5
Blaming the previous government after being the Minister for almost a full term is both insulting and unacceptable to Western Australian tax-payers. Taking responsibility for both the successes and failures of one's portfolio is a fundamental requirement of a Minister of the Crown.

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 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

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Weasel Words

As one who genuinely values our political system, it’s really quite disheartening.

It’s not the mistakes that disappoint me: I’m a very forgiving guy and acknowledge that I too, make plenty of my own. My beef lies with the politicians who play small target, hardly ever commit to anything genuinely bold and spend most of their day trying to avoid personal responsibility at the expense of others.

For the record, I concede that being a politician these days is often the opposite of fun. Frankly, given what they have to tolerate, I’m surprised we have any good people in Parliament – and let me say loud and clear that we do have plenty of good ones.

But there are a few who simply don’t deserve their tax-payer’s salary.

Hang on! Before you get all faux-incensed and curse your iPad (or chunky old computer screen if you’re a Western Australian MP), I’m not one of those tedious talkback callers who say “somebody needs to do something”. I’ve put my money where my mouth is plenty of times, and I’ve definitely paid the price for doing so.

I really don’t want much from my elected leaders – courage, conviction and a sense of personal responsibility is all it takes to keep me happy. And I’m really happy to say some of them tick all these boxes but others, as the young people say, are an epic fail.

A case in point is Western Australian Minister for Energy, Peter Collier.

QBF readers know that I used to work for Minister Collier and some might assume that this is just an unsophisticated “get-back”. There could be some deep dark psychology to it, but I’ll leave that judgement to people who are appropriately qualified. From my perspective, I’ve chosen him simply because I can’t think of a clearer recent example of someone who overwhelmingly fails to embody the qualities of a good leader.

Take a look at these parts of answers the Minister contributed to last Wednesday’s Hansard:

Part of the answer to question 7536:
“…I have expressed my disappointment with Synergy‘s billing system, which was approved for implementation by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7537:
“…In March 2009, I was briefed by the Managing Director and Chairman of Synergy about their business transformation program I expressed concern about aspects of the program and Synergy presented alternative options it could pursue, which foreshadowed savings of $75 million per annum.”
Part of the answer to question 7538:
“…I have repeatedly stated my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, which was approved by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7659:
“…I have repeatedly expressed my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, and will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7661
“…I have repeatedly expressed my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, and will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7662
“…I have repeatedly expressed my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, and will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7663
“…I have repeatedly expressed my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, and will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7664
“…I have repeatedly expressed my dissatisfaction with Synergy‘s billing system, and will not take any responsibility for decisions made by the previous government.”
Part of the answer to question 7668
“…I did not direct Western Power on this matter. However, I spoke directly with the Chair and Managing Director in relation to this matter, and subsequently wrote to the Chair regarding financial restraint.”
Just as some background, when a Minister’s staff draft answers to Parliamentary questions like these, a number of factors are considered. Among them is the need to ensure the Minister looks strong without giving too much away or locking him into a course of action that is either beyond his capacity or willingness to achieve.

While many people are involved in that process, the Minister always signs off on the final draft, sometimes personally editing or even redrafting them from scratch before giving final approval for submission. Irrespective of whether the Minister even sees them, once the answers are published in Hansard, they are considered to be his personal utterances and as such, he has to defend them.

It’s my guess that Minister Collier will be defending these answers right up until he loses the portfolio.

On this occasion, the attempt to balance shifting the blame with the need to look like he was actually doing something has left Minister Collier wedged firmly between a rock and a hard place. By putting on the record that he was dissatisfied, as early as March 2009, with the performance of so many things within his portfolio, the Minister has opened the door VERY widely for a new round of even more difficult questions.

Here’s an example of something I reckon we can expect to see in Hansard soon: “Minister, other than expressing your dissatisfaction in March 2009, what have you actually done to fix these problems over the past 3 years?”

Ouch! Fair question, and really, really difficult to answer!

You can’t constantly bang on about how great things are under your stewardship and cowardly blame everyone else for the things that aren’t perfect.

Constituents (and Minister’s agencies) don’t mind seeing their political leaders cutting ribbons on TV taking credit for the good things on the condition that those leaders are also prepared to cop it on the chin when there’s a problem.

But when they refuse to take responsibility for anything difficult after having stewardship of a portfolio for more than three quarters of a full term of government, questions have to be asked as to their worthiness as an elected leader, let alone Minister of the Crown.

PS. It’s worth noting that way the questions were asked in Parliament was both clever and strategic. From an objective point of view, the new Opposition spokesperson for Energy, Bill Johnston, has played one of his first hands very well, and in doing so landed a significant blow to the Minister’s as-yet unblemished armour.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The dixie effect (something light for Friday afternoon)

The West Australian’s Inside State column yesterday focussed on the pre-selection battle for Churchlands, but nestled amongst the ‘hard news’ of the story was this line:
“Inside State was told the impetus for Ms Lamont’s interest came when Mr Barnett and his senior media advisor Dixie Marshall, who served with Ms Lamont on the Tourism WA board for several years, had lunch at her Yallingup restaurant in late March while in town for the Margaret River Pro surfing tournament.”

Hmm, I thought. Having previously been the meat caught between a slice of Collier Pane ticinese (See ref 1 below) and Marshall Bubbleloaf (See ref 2 below) I know the Premier’s most senior bugle can be quite persuasive, so I wondered if she had worked her, umm… let’s call it charm, on Mr Barnett.

And on reflection, I think there’s probably enough evidence for me to confirm that our sometimes crusty old Premier has actually been dixied…

Before the Contract of Dixie (BC) the Premier said: "When did air-conditioning become a necessity of life?"

After being dixied (AD): “That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes…I think I’ve been a pretty straight shooter. I don’t try to spin things and tell it how it is and sometimes that gets me in trouble.”


BC: [To the media] “Sometimes I think World War III could break out and you guys wouldn’t notice.”

AD: Exclusive "puff piece" on Channel Nine News 9 March 2012


BC: "I don't think members of parliament should turn up with jumpers on, and I think it should be a coat and tie for males and suitable business attire for females" (I can vouch for this – I witnessed him do a press conference in Karratha in high humidity and 40 degree heat wearing a full suit)

AD: Premier Barnett appeared at a mid-morning press conference in the Perth CBD on a Parliamentary sitting day (3 May 2012) without a tie OR jacket!!


BC: "Be realistic about your expectations and be prepared to buy a fairly humble property first off and gradually work your way up as you go through life and your income increases.”

AD: “You’re not going to get political correctness out of me, I’ll say it how it is.”


BC: [a former Minister] “…I suggest he give the member for Vasse a kick in the nuts before he hits him in the head! [Mr BARNETT] “Mr Speaker, that is highly inappropriate”

AD: “This email shows the director of media doing her job,” he said. “This is what she is meant to be doing — co-ordinating the government message, communicating with her team. The email proves she goes about her business broadly, positively, and with good humour. OK, she occasionally says a swear word. She was, after all, a journalist for more than 25 years. Dixie has promised me she will never ever, ever, ever swear again in emails.”

A lot of people have been quite critical of Dixie Marshall in her new role, but you have to give her this – she’s managed to exert significant influence over one of the most strong-willed, headstrong men I’ve ever come across.


Ref 1: Pane ticinese is a soft dough Swiss bread that is all white, strengthened by several small sub-loaves or rolls.

Ref 2: Bubbleloaf is a gooey pastry from Africa that sticks to the roof of your mouth, usually served as a treat because it is considered too rich for daily consumption.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The unholy fight for Churchlands (part 1)

As Gary Adshead and Gareth Parker wrote in The West Australian newspaper on Tuesday and today, the Liberal pre-selection process for the much coveted seat of Churchlands has taken some interesting turns.

They were insightful articles but I thought I might be able to put just a bit more meat on the bone for QBF readers.

As we know from Messrs Adshead and Parker, the consequence of delaying the pre-selection so the Premier’s preferred candidate Kate Lamont could join the party and nominate caused two other changes in the line-up. The current Chief of Staff to Minister Peter Collier withdrew his nomination and long-time Party member and - not to put too finer point on it, female - Jane Timmermanis elected to join the contest.

The reference to gender isn’t subtle but sadly, it’s important. I really wish it wasn’t a factor, but as the Premier said on ABC radio yesterday, the WA Parliamentary Liberal Party desperately needs more women and that is why he asked the Party to “bend the rules” to facilitate the late nomination of Kate Lamont. The other reason is of course, whoever wins the Liberal pre-selection will have a much smoother ride if they come with the blessing of pro-women-in-Parliament and close friend of Premier Barnett, outgoing Minister Liz Constable.

Just as an aside, I’m all for equal rights. But my big point here is being elected to Parliament isn’t a right – it’s a privilege. Any attempt to artificially bias the gender balance is in my mind, a corruption of our democratic process. If there aren’t enough women who actually want to stand for so-called “safe” seats like Churchlands, I suggest bending rules and making promises to a celebrity non-member might go someway toward addressing the symptom but only adds to the underlying cause. A much more sustainable solution for the Premier, and one that I suggest would attract bipartisan support, would to be address the family-unfriendly nature of the big house on the hill, but that's fodder for another post on another day.

The saddest thing about what is happening in the pre-selection for Churchlands is that no one will ever be sure that the person who eventually secures the Party’s endorsement did so because they were the best person for the job or if their 'winning edge' was merely their lack of penis. Worse still, other solid potential candidates, such as Mr Bruce Butcher, will probably be asked to withdraw his nomination in the next few days and neither the Liberal Party nor Parliament will ever get a chance to benefit from his unique and valuable skillset.

Anyway, let's move on and just accept that gender is a prerequisite for Liberal pre-selection in Churchlands this time around. The big question - will it be the high-profile, new member and strong-willed businesswoman Kate Lamont or the very long-term, loyal party member and partner of the head of the liberal policy committee, Jane Timmermanis?

My guess is Kate Lamont, but the path the Party will take to eventually arrive at that decision will be bloody and open a number of old, very tender wounds.

Part two soon - gotta go to an antenatal class.