The decision to ditch an overhaul of WA’s lobster industry the Government spent two months defending adds to a pattern of policy reversals that is proving increasingly hard to ignore.
The pattern goes something like this:
- Stage 1: A policy is established, with the Government strongly confident any wave of discontent can easily be seen off.
- Stage 2: Controversy and public backlash grow, as the Government vehemently defends its plans against mounting criticism and campaigns led by prominent West Australians.
- Stage 3: The issue continues to drag on, to the point where frustration grows about it sucking oxygen away from the Government’s other activities.
- Stage 4: Finally, a line is drawn and the policy is consigned to the dustbin of history.
Those words are written with the scrapping of the Government’s proposed nationalisation of 17 per cent of WA’s lobster industry fresh in mind, but there are plenty of other backdowns which fit that pattern almost perfectly.
The pre-election decision to open up Perth Modern School as a local intake school and create an academically-selective institution in Perth’s CBD was the first example, with that move scrapped after a backlash which took Labor by surprise.
A similar sequence followed when the Government decided to close down the Schools of the Air, before apologising and admitting to a mistake just a few weeks later as public discontent grew.
Then it happened again when cuts to regional-based Community Resource Centres were reversed and once more, just a few days later, when a trial of SMART shark drum lines — previously ridiculed by the Government — was announced.
A problematic precedent
The pattern has prompted questioning of the Government about whether it has set a problematic precedent — that it is a government willing to cave on any difficult or contentious decision if the complaints grow loud enough.
But that was a suggestion Premier Mark McGowan dismissed as he announced the new lobster stance, insisting his aims had been met through the revised policy.
“There is a big increase in local supply here, which was my intention from the very beginning,” he said.
“I am very pleased we have reached this outcome.”
Both Mr McGowan and Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly portrayed the outcome as a victory, saying they had got the industry to agree to a plan they believed would make more lobsters available for locals at a cheaper price.
But the final outcome is a far cry from the position the Government announced, and then spent weeks vehemently defending.
Gone are the proposed state-owned units, and the associated revenue which would have come with them, while the 315-tonne rise in the quota is a fraction of the 1,700-tonne increase originally proposed.
A little pain for a bigger gain
But whether or not the announcement is a victory on a policy front, plenty within the Government will see the apparent removal of a long-running headache as something to breathe a sigh of relief over.
State Parliament returns from its summer break on Tuesday and the lobster issue loomed as strong ground for attack for both the Liberals and Nationals.
Instead, that issue has largely been neutralised and attacks will now have to be focused elsewhere.
There is still plenty of fodder for the Government’s critics to focus on — from a continued lacklustre job market to the growing headache that is the Public Transport Authority’s $200 million contract with embattled Chinese telco Huawei — but the reversal over crustaceans leaves one fewer fish to fry.
The lingering question is, how much will another backdown embolden critics next time a controversial decision comes along?