Are Premier Colin Barnett’s problems exacerbated by a culture in which no one else has full responsibility until there is blame to be shifted.It’s not uncommon to hear passionate political pub talk that includes phrases like “that bloody Premier X” or “I can’t wait to vote out Minister Y”.
And given the long held tradition of government spin doctors crediting good news to the work of one individual and doing all they can to blame bad news on their opposition, who can blame the public for believing that every decision is the sole responsibility of a single person.
While some might argue that it’s simply karma for taking the credit for the work of others, the bad decisions, oversights and good old fashioned stuff ups that we so often blame on our elected representatives are very often the result of someone else’s error.
Take for example the furore that evolved last week over the revelation that the state government plans to build a separate building on the grounds of its soon-to-be completed Midland Health Campus because the Catholic organisation that won the $5 billion contract to operate the hospital refuses to perform certain medical procedures (such as abortions) on religious grounds.
After claiming during an interview on Fairfax radio on Thursday that he was disappointed to have only learned of the issues “a year ago”, the Premier later admitted that he “did not read the contract” when he and his cabinet colleagues accepted the deal more than two years ago.
Although the knowledge that the Premier did not read a contract worth $5 billion before accepting it is more than a little concerning, the fact that his senior advisors – including his chief of staff who is also a lawyer, director of government communications with several decades of experience in the media and the very politically experienced director general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet – apparently failed to bring this clause to Mr Barnett’s attention before that cabinet meeting is symptomatic of an enormous problem for the Barnett administration.
While our state’s constitution lays the responsibility for all decisions squarely at the feet of the elected members of the executive government, the reality is that the Premier and most of the other 16 ministers who sit around that big table every Monday morning are very busy and simply do not have time to read every line of every document they sign.
As scary as that might seem, it’s the truth and also the reason we tax-payers fork out the million dollars plus per year for the salaries of Mr Barnett’s three top advisors. The fact is that these three advisors have access to the cabinet papers long before all the other ministers and should have drawn a big red circle around the clauses that have very predictably become a political issue in recent days.
Indeed, every cabinet submission is adorned with a cover sheet that includes a section compelling the author to identify and explain the media strategy planned to manage any contentious issues within. And it seems Mr Barnett was, perhaps naively, expecting at least one of his million dollar musketeers to have flagged the potential for a perception problem, saying that he “would have wished at the time that it was brought to my attention but it wasn’t.”
But that was the second time last week Colin Barnett found himself lamenting an error as a result of his advisers not paying adequate attention to detail.
In Parliament a few days earlier, opposition frontbencher Ben Wyatt asked the Premier to explain how Mineralology, the mining company formerly chaired by Clive Palmer, was handed a very technical legal decision that confirmed Mr Barnett as Minister for State Development had breached a state agreement and the government was therefore liable “for any damage that the applicants may have suffered as a result of the breach”.
In what was far from a perfectly chivalrous response, the Premier took the responsibility he is formally required to take under the law, saying that the government is “not going to appeal that decision” but didn’t hesitate to also highlight that his failing was only as a result of “the advice I received”.
As discussed earlier, there is some sympathy for the fact that premiers (and ministers) are genuinely very busy people and therefore necessarily trust and rely on the advice provided by their advisers.
It’s therefore somewhat acceptable for the Premier to make mention of the fact that his errors in these two cases could have been avoided if he had received better advice.
However, in Mr Barnett’s case, one can’t help but wonder if the problem is, at the least, exacerbated by the culture he has created in which no one is delegated the full responsibility for anything until something goes wrong and there is blame to be shifted. Follow WAtoday on Twitter
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