Last year’s Western Australian
election was noteworthy for the way that both parties focused on the
opposition leader: arriving at polling booths, voters found that,
confusingly, the name of Liberal leader Colin Barnett was prominently
displayed on both Liberal and ALP posters. What especially drove Labor
to pay him so much attention was Barnett’s surprise plan for a monster
canal to bring water to Perth from the Kimberleys, which Labor painted
as evidence of financial irresponsibility.

Despite the canal,
Barnett was easily the most successful state Liberal leader of recent
times. The Gallop Labor government was the only one of the current
state governments not to be re-elected with a landslide after its first
term: Barnett actually made up ground, although not enough to save his
own position. He was replaced after the election by Matt Birney, who in
turn lost the job to Paul Omodei earlier this year.

Barnett remained in state parliament, and is sometimes accused of harbouring ambitions to return to the leadership. Now we learn that he is writing a book, to be called Black Swan, an “early draft” of which contains criticism of John Howard for failing to back the canal. Speaking on Saturday, Barnett also reminded readers
of the treasurer’s role: “Peter Costello made a visit to the campaign
early on and ended up featuring in Labor Party ads for the remainder
of the campaign. I mean that was his contribution.”

He also
criticises federal intervention into state affairs, including
international relations, and says his chances were damaged by Howard’s
decision to increase troop commitments to Iraq in the week prior to the

Barnett’s blame-shifting is an interesting
counterpoint to the stories circulating at the time, to the effect that
his campaign’s emphasis on the canal was driven not by Barnett but by
Liberal strategists from Canberra. This certainly agrees with the
experience in other states, where the word of the federal secretariat’s
visiting operators is accepted as gospel on the strength of Howard’s
election victories – even though adoption of their tactics in the
states has been uniformly disastrous.

Now this morning’s Australian
brings news that Queensland’s Peter Beattie is contemplating a monster
project of his own: a pipeline to bring water to Brisbane from the
tropical north. Saying “Everybody has to think futuristic”, Beattie
announced a $2 million feasibility study into the idea. But despite the
apparent similarity, “Mr Beattie said there were no comparisons with
the $14.5 billion Kimberley canal proposed by former Western Australia
Opposition leader Colin Barnett”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey