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April 21, 2005

WA State Election: Barnett's Wet Dream

A surprise canal proposal from WA premier aspirant Colin Barnett has proven a spectacular piece of poor strategy, challenging what previously looked like an indomitable position for the state's Coalition.

Barnett's response to Western Australia's water supply problem centres on the construction of a 3700 km canal, similar to one currently used in California, designed to channel water from the state's Kimberly region to Perth. Logistically breathtaking, Barnett's proposal is significantly more dramatic, more expensive and less researched than current Labor premier Geoff Gallop's industrial suggestion. Gallop proposed the construction of a desalination plant in the area of Kwinana, an industrial suburb straddling Perth.

Whilst Labor's proposal has been criticised for its pollutant potential -- the Greens refuse to support the idea because of concerns over Greenhouse gas emissions -- the desalination plant remains a much less contested policy than Barnett's canal. Under Gallop's plan, water rates would increase, but only marginally compared to the forecasted increases required to pay for Barnett's project. Secondly, Gallop's idea has undergone substantial independent analysis, a virtue lacking from the Coalition's project.

Nobody likes a loser, and the potential for failure here is huge. Already, the distancing game is on. Answering a nationally piqued media, Prime Minister John Howard reluctantly responded to the canal project with non-committal bleats. Shaped by the context of partisan politics, this lack of federal interest will translate to the cruellest perception of credibility failure. Indeed, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello's remarks crossed necessary party platitude, and read as a veiled vote of no confidence.

This is mildly awkward for Howard, but it will be nothing compared to the shame Barnett will feel if he is forced to explain to corporate party backers why a seemingly unassailable position was surrendered so spectacularly.

Why is his position so threatened? Aside from the questions of credibility, raised by the Federal distancing, Barnett has stamped his face too forcibly upon an electorate previously content to vote for whoever was contesting Gallop. Gallop's unpopularity was such that Barnett's strength lay simply in being his challenger -- now voters must negotiate with Barnett's super-blown and now challenged image.

Prior to the canal proposal, Barnett was quietly and effectively handling the ''drugs issue'', the clearest example of wedge politics in this campaign. Barnett claimed the moral authority, charging that Gallop's decriminalisation of marijuana was disastrous, and hinting at WA youths' vulnerability to physical and moral atrophy through lax drug laws. Barnett took a hard right, peddling a conservative approach to drug use, distancing himself cleverly from Gallop and corralling the large pockets of fashionable conservatism.

In fact the drugs issue was such a divider that there was the slim chance WA would face an enlightened public discussion on the topic. The canal, and the questions it raises, will, for the time being at least, ensure that no such thing happens.

The media occupy an enhanced power here. Voters have short memories, and if the media drop this right now, it's possible Barnett will recover. But this seems unlikely, considering the frenzy the canal proposal has already whipped up. Barnett's next move will be the magician's Sleight of Policy -- a thick and sustained course of conservative policy announcements to divert attention. All of this while registering unwavering confidence in his canal dream. Barnett faces a very difficult juggling exercise that now gives Gallop a chance at this election. Stay tuned.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at April 21, 2005 12:34 PM