Colin Barnett joins Sabra Lane, with his pitch for a third term. Premier Barnett denies allegations the Lib Party will 'gut' the Royalties for Regions program, and says he will retreat quietly to the backbench if he's not voted back in, but is confident it will be a win. He also considers the micro parties to 'game the system' and if the opinion polls are correct, One Nation is 'a reality'.
Source: AM | Duration: 7min 13sec
SABRA LANE: Late yesterday I spoke with the West Australian Premier at his electorate office at Cottesloe.
Colin Barnett, thank you very much for joining AM.
COLIN BARNETT: Very pleased to be on the program, Sabra.
SABRA LANE: Now, you've presided over the loss of the state's AAA credit rating. You've got stubbornly high unemployment and debt approaching $40 billion. Why do you deserve a third term?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, on economic matters this state has grown in real terms by 40 per cent over the last eight years. I bet Australia wish they'd achieved the same.
We've had enormous development during difficult economic times. The reason we've got higher debt - and it's not $40 billion, it's $33 billion...
SABRA LANE: It's approaching...
COLIN BARNETT: No, it's $33 billion. And we announced a very clear plan that will see debt fall to $28 billion in the next term of government.
SABRA LANE: Are you fit enough for the job?
COLIN BARNETT: Of course I am.
SABRA LANE: You've had illness in the last 12 months. You've lost a lot of weight. There is a perception with voters that I've spoken to that you've had your time and it's time for something new?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, I think the time factor is probably the biggest obstacle I face in this election. In terms of my health: that's a personal matter for me. And I'm back playing tennis. I am absolutely fine.
SABRA LANE: The Liberals are now promising to sell off half of Western Power to help pay down the debt. Opposition Leader Mark McGowan is right to say, isn't he, that you cannot promise to keep that out of foreign hands? When you look at what's happened with Alinta Gas and Westrail Freight: they were flogged off. They ended up in foreign hands?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, with Western Power we are only looking at selling 51 per cent. The State Government will retain 49 per cent of ownership, so the State Government will always be the biggest shareholder.
And of that part to be sold, 30 per cent of the total will be sold to Australian superannuation funds. Another 20 per cent will be sold to small - if you like, 'mum and dad' - investors.
So it will be a regulated monopoly, as it is today. And so there will be no impact on price. If anything, prices will fall if the private investment can bring some efficiencies.
SABRA LANE: Past history, though, is a good indicator of what will happen in the future. And isn't he right, with what happened with Alinta Gas and Westrail Freight?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, you know, going back: you're going back over 20 years. You know, 20 years. This is...
SABRA LANE: No, but you cannot promise. Eventually, it may end up in foreign hands, like those entities have?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, it's going to be half Australian State Government-owned, half West Australian Government-owned. So it's not going to go the same way.
SABRA LANE: Many voters are disappointed in you and in the Coalition. You've been in power during a mining boom, as you've pointed out. But you've spent the proceeds, racked up debt and now you're selling the state jewels to help pay down debt.
And they think: if this is what happens during the good times, how are you going to manage this state, now that times are tough?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, I've managed this state during tough times: the Global Financial Crisis and the fall of commodity prices.
And if you look at the last month's data, economic growth in this state has picked up. If you look anecdotally, the mining industry is coming back. We're getting huge investment and growth in agriculture. And in the last month Western Australia had 15,000 more jobs.
SABRA LANE: The Nationals' leader, Brendon Grylls, claims that your former state colleague, Christian Porter, promised to get a better deal when it came to the GST. He hasn't. And Mr Grylls says that if Mr Turnbull doesn't address this, that voters will come for him and the Coalition with baseball bats at the next federal election. Do you agree?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, to an Australian audience, most people may not appreciate: this year the Commonwealth Government will take $4.7 billion off Western Australia and give it to the other states.
SABRA LANE: But you haven't been able to effect change in the past eight years, while you've been Premier. How is that going to change? You haven't been able to change it in the past eight years?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, I've at least got to the point where I've won the argument. I think every economic and political commentator now concedes the GST system is broken.
SABRA LANE: And it hasn't changed.
COLIN BARNETT: No, but the states that will suffer now will be Queensland and New South Wales. And they understand that.
And what I have at least got from Malcolm Turnbull is a commitment that a floor will be put in place. Now, I would have liked him to go further, but as far as he's gone.
So I have fought for this and I don't give up. I do not give up.
SABRA LANE: Do you agree with that sentiment, though, that people in this state will go after Malcolm Turnbull with baseball bats if nothing changes?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, I think the Federal Government needs to address it. I've been saying that for a number of years.
SABRA LANE: You're pretty much at war now, aren't you, with the Nationals' leader, Brendon Grylls? And today he's criticised the Government for taking $800 million out of the Royalties for Regions program for recurrent costs. He says that you're gutting that scheme now?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, that's not true: just not true. The Royalties for Regions program has transformed regional Western Australia: regional cities, small towns, areas that were neglected - totally neglected - by a previous Labor government.
So we've caught up. We've caught up in a short period of time by investing billions of dollars into country areas of this state.
Now, what we've said is that a lot of the infrastructure that's been built - for example, sporting facilities, community centres and the like - the program has funded the capital cost of building them. It hasn't provided for their ongoing operation.
And as I drive around country areas in Western Australia, a lot of local governments are saying: "Thanks for the lovely new facility, but we can't afford to run it. We can't afford to staff it. We can't afford to turn the air conditioning on."
So what we're saying is: Royalties for Regions will pay for the ongoing expenses of running these facilities.
And people are also saying to me: "We don't need more." You know, "That's as much as our town needs. But what we would like you to do is to fix up the roads or employ better conditions into some of our schools."
SABRA LANE: On the Liberal-One Nation preference deal: you've made it quite clear that, personally, you haven't endorsed any One Nation candidates. Could it be that this agreement, nutted out by your executive, brings about your demise? People seem to be quite uncomfortable about it.
COLIN BARNETT: Oh, look, I understand there's a debate about that. But in the Lower House, where Parliament determines the government, Liberal preferences go to the National Party, our colleagues in Government.
In the Upper House, we have six members elected for each region: a bit like a senate system. So there's multiple candidates, multiple parties.
And yes, we have placed - after our own six Liberal candidates, we have preferenced One Nation. But...
SABRA LANE: But you were uncomfortable - I mean, you seemed to be a little bit uncomfortable with the deal that was nutted out?
COLIN BARNETT: Yes, I am personally. But at the same time, can I say: I accept the reality of that. Micro-parties game the system. They game it and trade preferences.
SABRA LANE: But now you're doing a deal with parties that game the system?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, I'm saying that we have to accept the reality. If opinion polls are accurate, One Nation is a reality around Australia, not just in Western Australia...
SABRA LANE: And they might hold the balance of power in the Legislative Council?
COLIN BARNETT: Well, they will only hold the balance of power if they get members elected to the Upper House. And they will only get members elected to the Upper House if they poll strongly in first votes, primary votes.
They will not get there on Liberal preferences. They will get elected if they get a strong personal vote, private vote. That's the reality.
SABRA LANE: In hindsight, do you wish that deal wasn't done.
COLIN BARNETT: No, I don't. It's a mathematical exercise. It will not determine government. And in no way do I or the Liberal Party support any of their candidates or any of their policies.
SABRA LANE: It's just politics?
COLIN BARNETT: No, it's numbers to maximise the Liberal vote. We would be naï¿½ve as a major party not to look after and protect our position.
SABRA LANE: Premier, thank you for your time.
COLIN BARNETT: Thank you, Sabra.
SABRA LANE: The West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett.