A mess of unanswered questions


Six days into the Western Australian election campaign, Liberal leader Colin Barnett announced he had struck an agreement with the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) to resolve a long-running industrial dispute between the Government and public hospital nurses.

A week later, he committed the Coalition to deliver water to Perth via an ambitious 3700km covered canal from the State’s far north. While both initiatives have allowed Barnett to set the agenda, they have not been the vote-winners he hoped. The nurses’ deal has already faded from view, while Colin’s Canal is now running its own course, beyond its proponent’s control.

The Olson-Liberal pact

Public hospital nurses have been in negotiations with the Government for almost a year. In December, the Industrial Relations Commission held that ANF secretary Mark Olson had not made a serious attempt to reach agreement and seemed more interested in the State election than a fair deal for his members. It is now clear that this finding was accurate. UnionsWA warned that the Olson-Liberal deal might become the ‘Tasmanian forest’ of the State campaign. The fact that union members are being urged to vote Liberal lends itself to that comparison, but there are three reasons why the pact will not have the same impact.

Firstly, the Tasmanian forestry policy amounted to wholesale sackings, while the nurses are arguing technical details about working conditions. The proposed pay increase matches the Government’s previous (rejected) offer, and apart from that there is a vague ‘commitment to negotiate’ about working conditions up to a limit of $50 million. The ANF hasn’t got a firm deal for its members “ it’s not a clear-cut ‘us and them’ proposition.

Secondly, almost nobody supports this deal. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry won’t support a bidding war on employment contracts, while unions say it is a short-sighted deal with the devil. The Health Services Union and the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, which represent some nurses and other hospital staff, are concerned that the $50 million cap on non-wage benefits will be submerged by the Liberals’ planned $400 million of cuts to the health budget. They have already crashed one Barnett meeting with nurses, and forced Mark Olson to claim that he is not urging ANF members to vote for the Coalition.

Finally, the Olson-Liberal deal was announced much too early. If the Liberals were smart, they would have allowed the nurses to pursue the Government through the media for a few more weeks, before putting their offer on the table and looking like saviours. Instead, they’ve given Labor a whole month to respond. Health Minister Jim McGinty has already suggested Labor’s package will be worth far more than the Liberals’ maximum offer. The Government has so far announced two new teaching hospitals, and further health initiatives are expected in the weeks before polling day. The ANF is standing candidates in several marginal seats, but they will appear as independents on the ballot paper. It looks like the nurses deal will be drowned out by the noise.

Colin’s canal

With his first breath during the leaders’ debate, Barnett promised to begin construction on a 3700km canal from the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley to Perth. It is not surprising that Barnett’s grand promise won approval from the ‘worm’. He conjured an apocalyptic vision of total sprinkler bans in summer (Perth’s urban water consumption is largely wasted on European gardens) and promised swift action to fix the problem. Such debates are little more than a battle of ties and sound-bites, and the Liberal Party’s focus group-tested campaign slogan (‘Decisions, not delays’) proves that a veneer of decisiveness plays well with the electorate.

But like the nurses deal, Colin’s Canal is a broad brush-strokes proposal that will be picked apart over the remainder of the campaign, and like the nurses deal it has found opposition across the political spectrum. The complaint is not that the canal plan will be pursued, but that no independent study has been conducted. Last December, Premier Geoff Gallop committed $5 million to evaluate the proposal by Tenix, as well as other options. Barnett, however, says this feasibility study is a waste of time and is committed to the project no matter what. He hopes that his gung-ho approach will contrast favourably with the dilly-dallying of yet another inquiry.

Barnett obviously did not expect close scrutiny of the plan. His water spokesman Murray Criddle’s performance on talkback radio the following morning was incredibly sketchy. Environmental groups joined forces with the CCI and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs to denounce the untested program, citing concerns about everything from the cost to the environmental impact to the ten year delay before water would flow. Treasury and the Water Corporation both released reports that suggested the true cost of the canal would be at least double the amount quoted by Barnett; a South Australian government report on a similar canal says it would be cheaper to tow icebergs from Antarctica.

Barnett went from saviour to false prophet overnight: the West Australian reported on Thursday that the canal had ‘throw[n]him well in front in the leadership race’, by Friday the front-page headline was, ‘Why canal plan may sink Barnett’. Even his own side wouldn’t support him. First Peter Costello and then John Howard refused to commit Commonwealth funds to the project. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Max Trenorden, tried to offer an exit strategy, saying the canal should not be built if it exceeded a maximum water price, but by then it was too late for Barnett to back down. He was forced to admit, ‘I’ve backed myself into a canal and I’m proud of it.’

Whether Barnett remains proud after 26 February is another question. So far, he has turned a nation-building vision into a mess of unanswered questions, and squandered a potential industrial relations coup. Two weeks is a long time in politics, but it looks increasingly like Labor is headed for a second term, and Barnett an early retirement.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2006. ‘Measures of Australia’s Progress’ Canberra, 31 May 2006 cat . 1370.0.

Hamilton, C (with contributions from Saddler H.) 1997. ‘The Genuine Progress Indicator: A new index of changes in well-being in Australia’ Discussion Paper 14.

Hamilton, C and Dennis, R., 2000. ‘Tracking Well-being in Australia: The Genuine Progress Indicator 2000’, Discussion Paper Number 35, December.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.