Australia — West Australian Premier Colin Barnett may have basked in the warm glow of a royal visit in 2011 but he also felt political heat from destructive bushfires that burnt two of his ministers.
The capable premier has had a full year, with more ups than downs for his government, and looks a fair prospect to gain a second term in alliance with the WA Nationals at the next election, due in March 2013.
It’s Barnett’s ministerial team that’s the worry for him – a few able performers mixed with not-so-sharp operators who appear past their use-by date and ready to bumble.
The Liberal premier is fortunate the Labor opposition has been struggling to make headway in the public opinion polls under leader Eric Ripper, an experienced parliamentary performer who has failed to swing voters with his style.
But the opposition has made hits on the Barnett government, constantly highlighting its increasing of utility prices, which strikes a chord in many WA households.
And two damaging bushfires that between them destroyed more than 100 houses in 2011 have opened the government to harsh criticism over fire management and prescribed burning.
The Perth Hills bushfire in February destroyed 72 houses and sparked a government inquiry by former Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Mick Keelty.
Keelty uncovered a lack of cooperation between WA’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) and other agencies and a failure to follow correct procedures.
His report cost FESA’s CEO Jo Harrison-Ward her job but Emergency Services Minister Rob Johnson escaped direct censure in the report, although the opposition called for him to be sacked.
It took a second fire that destroyed 32 houses and nine holiday chalets in the Margaret River region in late November to prompt Barnett into action.
On December 5 he stripped Johnson of his emergency services portfolio, even though Environment Minister Bill Marmion was copping the blame over that blaze.
Ripper called for Marmion to lose his job over the Margaret River blaze, saying he was not up to the portfolio and was causing the public to lose confidence in the government’s prescribed burning regime.
The blaze spread from a prescribed burn by the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) that got out of control.
The government has reappointed Keelty to examine that fire and whether DEC officials made the right call in reigniting the burn when hot and windy conditions were forecast.
Whether Marmion cops criticism in Keelty’s report remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Johnson remains police minister and Barnett insists his loss of the emergency services portfolio was not due to criticism of his performance but because a fresh start was needed with a “proven” minister.
That minister is the able but accident-prone Troy Buswell, who gained notoriety in 2008 when it was revealed he had sniffed the chair of a female Liberal Party staffer.
That and other indiscretions and mistakes cost Buswell the Liberal Party leadership to the benefit of Barnett, who became in effect an accidental premier.
Buswell was accident-prone again in 2010, losing his post as treasurer after saying he had misused government hotel and car entitlements during his exposed affair with Greens MP Adele Carles.
Buswell and Carles were later cleared of any misuse of government entitlements.
Announcing on December 5 that Buswell would add emergency services to his transport and housing portfolios, Barnett said he was “an extremely intelligent and capable minister”.
Young Liberal frontbencher Christian Porter is another beneficiary of Buswell’s indiscretions, having been given the chance to prove himself as treasurer, which puts him in strong contention for future Liberal leadership.
As attorney-general he has worked with Johnson on a series of tough new crime laws, with votes undoubtedly in mind.
The new laws include sweeping changes to prostitution laws that will ban brothels from suburban areas, a controversial public register for child sex offenders, name and shame laws for repeat offenders and tougher penalties for cannabis possession.
The Labor opposition has its up-and-coming young guns too, most notably in Ben Wyatt and Mark McGowan, who constantly score points against their government counterparts in their portfolios.
But a fumbled and aborted leadership challenge by Wyatt against Ripper in January appears to have put off any change at the top before the next election.
That’s a problem for the party, given that the affable and experienced Ripper has been unable to twist the public opinion polls his way.
The Barnett government ably hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth in October and the premier and his wife glowed with pride as they hosted a massive public barbecue on Perth’s foreshore attended by the Queen and Prince Philip.
Royalties of the resources kind will continue to be a focus for the resource-project-loving premier in 2012 as he continues to gear up the state for a prosperous future.
Two pet resource projects Barnett’s been pushing hit trouble in 2011.
A strong protest movement has been doing its best to kill the controversial $30 billion gas hub proposed for James Price Point in the Kimberley, citing expected damage to the environment and Aboriginal heritage sites.
While Woodside Petroleum and its joint venture partners are still to make a final investment decision on the project, Barnett remains confident it will go ahead, given the support from traditional owners for a deal that will see $1.5 billion flow to indigenous communities over 30 years.
Another resource project headache for Barnett was the troubled Oakajee port and rail development in the state’s mid-west, put in jeopardy after Murchison Metals pulled out for lack of funds.
But Japanese joint venture partner Mitsubishi has stepped into t