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Opinion: Colin Barnett needs to leave WA politics

The final day of February typified the last gasps of the Barnett Government.

Jandakot MP Joe Francis went on 6PR for his weekly campaign stoush with Labor’s Alannah MacTiernan and immediately got into a blue over one of the key issues, the Roe 8 project and the extended freight link to the Fremantle docks.

MacTiernan had been peddling documents obtained through Freedom of Information on preliminary desktop costings of the Roe 9 tunnel that she admitted during the program knowing were highly inflated.

“For a man whose political career has had spates of petulance as its low points, this was Barnett at his worst”

Paul Murray

“I’ve had a gutful of the lies and the misinformation and the rumours and the bulldust that has been spread by the opponents of this project time and time and time again,” Francis said.

“I’m a ratepayer in the City of Cockburn and they spent $82,000 having Arup do a very professional consultants’ report on traffic modelling in the south metropolitan area.

The city has sat on that Arup report, kept it secret, the impact of not building this road. It will be catastrophic.”

MacTiernan did something unusual. She conceded a point: “You say you are outraged we are using the documents we discovered. Now of course, I think $5-$8 billion probably is overdoing it.”

“But that didn’t stop Mark McGowan and Ben Wyatt coming out and saying ‘this is how much it’s going to cost’,” host Gareth Parker said. “It means there is so much uncertainty,” MacTiernan lamely responded.

Liza Harvey will not lead the Liberals, saying she will support Mike Nahan to become party’s leader

Francis then took on Labor’s “road to nowhere” line, pointing out that “we’ll find a solution that will no doubt probably go underneath the river”.

Within hours, Colin Barnett, who had contradicted himself many times over the past year as he peculiarly resisted Canberra’s attempts to fund a Roe 9 tunnel and have it built contemporaneously with Roe 8 as an economic stimulus, pushed Francis under a bus.

“We’re not going under the river, we’re not going over the river, anything like that,” Barnett said.

“We are not tunnelling under the Swan River — it’s extremely deep. That’s not feasible.”

He then threw petrol on the fire, saying the 40-year-old Stirling Bridge would be “fine for a while” but might have an extra lane added “well into the future”.

In repudiating a Roe 10 tunnel under the river as a potential solution to a scare campaign about congestion at Stirling Highway — when it had been extensively investigated and remained a live government option — Barnett damned the seat of Bicton, a must-hold electorate, and seriously damaged Francis’ chances in Jandakot.

“Barnett’s no tunnel, no bridge, no problem comments got the media attention. Once again the Liberals lost the day”

Paul Murray

For a man whose political career has had spates of petulance as its low points, this was Barnett at his worst.

Francis was shattered. Federal colleagues who had supported Barnett as he reluctantly accepted $1.2 billion in assistance for a Roe 9 tunnel were perplexed.

Throughout last year, the tunnel became confusingly entangled with the challenge to Barnett’s leadership by sacked Transport Minister Dean Nalder, who championed the underground option and was keen to push ahead with the Perth Freight Link project.

But why Barnett would be so reckless in publicly contradicting Francis — who most thought had won the argument with MacTiernan — was puzzling.

One possible reason is that Barnett knew the election was lost and Francis was the emerging challenger to Liza Harvey as his desired replacement to be Liberal leader.

The new Premier told his team Labor’s landslide victory means there are plenty of replacements if they don’t perform well as Ministers.

But he couldn’t in his wildest dreams have suspected that Francis would lose Jandakot and that a group of Liberal heavy-hitters would end up supporting him to replace Barnett in Cottesloe.

Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had also been in the fight on February 28, exposing Scott Ludlam’s featherless arguments in a Senate committee hearing on Roe 8 contrived to affect the WA election result.

Cormann gave the Greens senator a lecture on how trucks work, noting that just because a new tunnel would allow them to get to the port quicker and safer, the same amount of trucks would arrive, causing no more congestion there, but improving it along the way.

He even managed to mention MacTiernan’s role in making the freight link more expensive by selling off the Fremantle eastern bypass land during the Gallop Labor government to try to force more freight on to rail.

“It’s over and he can play no part in what happens as what is left of his colleagues struggle to fashion something like an Opposition from the wreckage of a loss that Barnett has to own”

Paul Murray

It didn’t matter. Barnett’s no tunnel, no bridge, no problem comments got the media attention. Once again the Liberals lost the day.

Francis had worked over one of the PFL’s leading opponents and Cormann had talked one of Roe 8’s biggest antagonists to a standstill. Barnett undermined them both.

The former premier’s colleagues — friends and foes — have many stories like this about his my-way-or-the-highway style.

And that’s why he has to go now. Even if he’s only waiting to wrap things up at a party meeting next week, that’s too long.

It’s over and he can play no part in what happens as what is left of his colleagues struggle to fashion something like an Opposition from the wreckage of a loss that Barnett has to own.

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