Let’s not get too carried away with the deal that the West Australian Nationals have brokered with the Colin Barnett-led Liberals to form government in what is in effect a loose coalition. The Royalties for Regions scheme has merit, to be sure, but how did the need for such a scheme arise?
At least in part, the Nationals can blame themselves for many of the problems currently being suffered by rural people. Certainly, services and infrastructure are inadequate in many parts of the state but it would be unfair to only blame the last eight years of Labor government.
From 1993 to 2001, the Richard Court government was a coalition between Liberal and the then National Party. For all of this time, deputy premier and Nationals leader Hendy Cowan was in an extremely powerful position to focus the government’s attention on country problems. Sadly, based upon my experience as the MP for the country seat of Vasse, Cowan was more interested in playing party politics than in having the needs of his constituents attended to.
The best (or worst) example is the way that Cowan and the Nationals used (or abused) the regionally-based Development Commissions, of which nine exist around WA. Originally set up as government authorities by the Brian Burke Labor government of the 1980s, in theory these Commissions were designed to assist and encourage economic development within each of their regions. The Burke government quickly realised that the Commissions were very effective as propaganda instruments that could be used for party political purposes by whoever was the Minister for Regional Development at the time. It’s possible that Burke may have set them up with this intention in mind from the beginning but the official line states otherwise.
In 1997, as a newly elected MP for Vasse, I naïvely assumed that local government in WA was largely free of party political shenanigans. Little did I realise that the South West Development Commission was working to assist the National Party’s Beryle Morgan who was at that time president of the Busselton Shire. I can only guess at whether the Commission was following a dictate of regional development minister Hendy Cowan or was responding to a request from Ms Morgan but almost certainly Cowan would have been aware of what was happening within his development commission.
To summarise what happened in 1997, the South West Development Commission commissioned a report investigating the lack of services and infrastructure within the seat of Vasse. The report was provided to the Busselton Shire Council and listed for discussion at a full council meeting. I found out about the report’s existence only when I scanned that meeting’s agenda pages. Upset that such a report should be written without the state MP being asked for input, I was further upset when I had just three days to submit a response to Busselton councillors so that they could have an alternative view to the bland and non-specific concerns raised in the report. For the next few years, as Mrs Morgan stood against me at two subsequent elections as the National Party candidate, this report was trotted out to try and criticise me and the Court government.
As an aside, at a parliamentary Estimates Committee hearing after the election of the Gallop government in 2001, South West Development Commission CEO Don Punch admitted that he was not aware of any other south west electorate for which a similar report had been prepared by the Commission.
A further criticism of the Nationals relates to the very effective election campaign they’d run for almost three years prior to the September 6 election in 2008. Is it any wonder that the Labor government and the Parliament as a whole wasn’t aware of the shortfall in services and infrastructure in the bush when the five (now four) lower house Nationals MPs were out electioneering for most of the last term of government? Rather than representing their constituents and calling on government to allocate more money to the bush, the Nationals spent most of the last three years trying to win votes. That they succeeded in this goal is commendable but they can’t deny the accusation that they must accept some of the blame for the Carpenter government’s focus on Perth.
A final parting shot at Hendy Cowan. After eight years as the deputy premier, he gave his valedictory speech in 2001 prior to resigning and unsuccessfully standing as a candidate at the federal election. The final four years of his deputy premiership were in spite of the Liberals having won enough seats in the Legislative Assembly to govern without the support of the Nationals, yet Richard Court honoured the coalition agreement and retained Cowan and two other Nationals MPs as ministers.
Not once in his final speech did Cowan recognise nor thank Court for his eight years as the premier’s deputy. Not once did he acknowledge the coalition agreement which had allowed the Nationals to be part of the government. Quite a few MPs noted the lack of gratitude and acknowledgement in Cowan’s speech.
Ironically, one of the best rural policy initiatives to come out of the Court government era was the country water supply scheme, whereby subsidies were provided to allow scheme water to be piped to individual farms. What a pity for the Nationals that the idea came from Liberal MP Bill McNee. In contrast, it was former Nationals minister for transport Murray Criddle who pushed through the sell-off of Westrail Freight which owned the thousands of kilometres of rural railway line. The sell-off was opposed in the Coalition party room by a number of Liberal MPs who believed that it would only lead to a reduction in rail services in the country, an outcome that’s now a reality.
Brendon Grylls deserves the accolades he and his party are currently basking in. Just remember, however, he and his predecessors are in part responsible for many of the problems being experienced in rural and regional WA.
Are there any lessons here for incoming premier Colin Barnett? He should either close down the development commissions and fund the appointment of economic development officers within local government bodies, or he should place all development commissions under one Liberal minister and make it difficult for the commissions to be used for party political purposes.