WA: It wasn’t ‘Time,’ it was profligate spending

Perth has doubled its population to 2 million in the last 30 years, but it hasn’t changed much. The same old families still rule the roost and anyone from across the Nullarbor Plain is known as an ‘Eastern Stater’ or ‘someone from over there.’

The propagandists for the recently defunct Liberal government will say it was a matter of ‘time,’ as in Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign of 1972. This is not true. It was a matter of the monumental stupidity of the government.

I worked in mineral exploration during the last mining boom in WA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then it was mainly nickel the explorers sought. This time it was mainly, though not entirely, iron ore. This time, the resource was already there, thanks to the foresight of Sir Charles Court, former Liberal Premier of WA. They just had to dig up the rocks and put the iron ore on a ship to China. For years, the iron ore mines were marginal propositions supplying mainly the Japanese market. When the China boom began, the miners, mainly BHP and Rio, and later Fortescue, were ready.

Now, I wish to make this clear. The iron ore boom was the most stupendous boom in a century. WA had seen nothing like it since the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century. With the assurance of riches never seen before, Colin Barnett’s government began a massive spending spree: new hospitals (plural), a new football stadium, which neither the Dockers nor the Eagles has as yet called ‘home’ and Elizabeth Quay. Elizabeth Quay scaled new heights of idiocy. Contractors dug a huge hole in the Esplanade, on the Swan River, and eventually, after years of effort, filled it with water. The net result? More passengers take the ferry to South Perth. Not really worth
the effort.

Western Australians are, on the whole, sensible people. For years, WA was known as the ‘Cinderella State.’ Sand
gropers were stunned when they were told, that after the greatest mining boom in a century, the State was $40 billion in debt. The Government wailed that ‘t’other siders’ had stolen WA’s GST payments. That is, to a large extent true, but the WA government signed the deal that divided the GST take between the States. Unbelievably, WA gets 30 cents in the dollar from the GST take and Queensland gets $1.17 from every dollar. Now, West Australians often have a low opinion of Queenslanders, but the banana benders are obviously well ahead of the game.

If one is to sheet home the blame for WA’s plight, one begins at the top. Colin Barnett, the outgoing Premier, was MLA for Cottesloe, one of the most prosperous electorates in the State. The famous beach suburb almost lost Barnett, but he was called back from near oblivion to lead the Liberal Party.

When an organization is down on its luck and looking liquidation in the face, it looks for someone with a plan. The plan might be wacky – or the leader might be hare- brained – but if he can forcefully demonstrate that he is going somewhere and he will take the organization with him, then the organization will follow, gratefully. This applies to all sorts of organizations, including businesses.

West Australians, until recently, haven’t expected much from government. Sir Charles Court’s government splurged on a new State Library and Art Gallery, but Sir Charles watched the pennies. One would have to say the Art Gallery hasn’t done much for WA artists; it’s hard to find much on display by local painters. As for largesse on the scale of the Barnett Government, it’s as though the State had been the dupes of a travelling salesman who promised them everything they had ever wanted, on the never-never. The much-touted Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth’s southern suburbs has been troublesome from day one.

Former State Treasurer Mike Nahan, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne from 1995 to 2005, proposed the partial privatization of Western Power. This proved to be massively unpopular with the electorate. Nahan also pledged to balance the budget, a promise which was widely derided, given the Liberals high-spending record.

The fact is it was more than time that defeated the Liberals. Like the extraneous Elizabeth Quay, the State is in a massive hole of its own construction. The last desperate throw of the dice, the preference deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, rebounded on both parties.

WA now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate. The Western Suburbs in Perth are city’s most prosperous address. There are few areas which are stigmatized like Melbourne’s Western Suburbs. For Perth people, the sun will shine brightly tomorrow, whether you live in Balga or Dalkieth. The days are long and the winters aren’t very cold. And of course, WA doesn’t have that silly daylight saving, like the sun-starved Eastern Staters.

– JRB –
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