Premier Mark McGowan had better make the most of his winter break because the number of vexing issues awaiting his return are mounting and they are steadily becoming challenges of his Government’s own making.
It’s hardly a revelation that being in power poses the kinds of problems which to those in opposition are nothing more than cannon fodder to exploit.
Before winning the election WA Labor was gifted some gold-plated material to work with. The water contamination sagas at the Elizabeth Quay playground and Perth Children’s Hospital to name a couple.
During its first six months, the McGowan Government has enjoyed the political honeymooner’s luxury of continuing to focus on the past.
It’s been easy, for example, to blame Colin Barnett’s regime for the financial mismanagement that must now be put right.
But as the days and weeks have rolled by, McGowan has started to accumulate self-made problems that will seriously test his authority and ability to negotiate a way through.
As The West Australian reports today, the Police Union is shifting to phase two of its industrial campaign for a minimum 1.5 per cent pay increase for its members.
The looming showdown with one of the State’s most potent unions — with its 6000-plus members and their ability to cause grief even to a new government still four years out from the next election — lies squarely at the feet of the Premier.
He signed off on the decision to cap public sector pay rises to a maximum of $1000 a year for the next four years and in doing so broke an election promise to maintain the Barnett government’s wages policy of 1.5 per cent increases.
Regardless of whether or not the public believes the Government was right to restrict wages growth in the public service even further, the Police Union — and other unions — will stand up for its members and demand what it believes was on the table from both sides of politics during the election campaign.
“The Premier has made it clear that his Government has not negotiated in good faith, so from this point on, officers will only do what is required,” Police Union president George Tilbury said last month when announcing a work to rule.
“I know our members have all had a gutful of the treatment they’ve received from the State Government, with their pleas for assistance, protection and a fair pay increase falling on deaf ears.”
The $1000 take-it-or-leave-it offer from McGowan also angered the State School Teachers’ Union, which released a statement saying it was seeking urgent talks with the Government.
“Principals, teachers, lecturers and other public servants should not be pay-packet punching bags in the fight to balance the State’s Budget,” the union’s president Pat Byrne said in a statement.
Add to the mix an escalation in rhetoric from the union that represents tens of thousands of public sector workers — the CPSU/CSA — and McGowan could be returning to a perfect storm of industrial unrest before his first Budget.
The fight, McGowan and his Treasurer Ben Wyatt might argue, is worth having because it will save the State $520 million over four years.
But the Premier’s strong language in defence of the tough wages policy has also painted him into a corner.
In response to the Police Union’s demands, he delivered an emphatic statement during an interview with The West Australian before beginning his family holiday.
“I can’t make an exemption to our wages policy for one group,” McGowan said.
“Every group will say we deserve an exemption. Police officers get all sorts of allowances for difficult hours and so forth, as it should be, but I can’t exempt them from the pay policy.
“The State’s finances will go down the drain if I give in.”
McGowan left himself no wriggle room with that comment.
Today, the union announced it will start issuing cautions rather than fines for some traffic offences and perform “welfare checks” on speed camera operators, which ensures motorists will avoid being pinged by the revenue raisers.
Voters won’t be complaining about either forms of industrial action and so the question is what can the Government do about it?
Alongside the demand for the 1.5 per cent pay increase police believe they were promised, is the union’s call for 1000 extra officers.
Again, under his Government’s rigid stance around reducing the number of public servants, the Premier cannot yield.
If the union ructions aren’t enough, McGowan will also come home to the seemingly unresolvable issue of lead contamination at the $1.2 billion Perth Children’s Hospital.
Back in April, the McGowan Government declared it was “taking control” of the hospital from builders John Holland, arguing it was the only way to “make sure we get this hospital ready for patients”.
Making that declaration adds another problem to the Premier’s growing list.