Wednesday night’s head-to-head between Geoff Gallop and Colin Barnett could well have been the moment that televised debate fans have been waiting for since Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960 – a debate that decided the outcome of the election. Barnett used the event as a platform for a centrepiece election announcement, an unorthodox tactic for a start. The big idea was that the Coalition would commit to a $2 billion proposal from Tenix to build a 3700 kilometre canal to Perth from Fitzroy River in the state’s far-northern Kimberley region, a project which the Gallop government currently has before an expert panel which is not due to report until September. The announcement made sense of what many had found to be a slightly puzzling Liberal Party campaign slogan, "decisions, not delays". Clearly, Barnett hopes to project a message that he is a leader with the vision to engage long-term challenges such as Perth’s looming water crisis, in contrast to a bureaucratic Labor government hidebound by consultants, panels and committees.
The Poll Bludger did not see the debate and doubts that it rated very well, but by all accounts Barnett’s gambit achieved its immediate objective of catching the Premier off guard. But it also surprised many who should not have been, in some cases unpleasantly. Among those who had no idea were Ron "Sos" Johnston, Liberal candidate for Kimberley, the electorate from which the canal will begin its long journey to Perth. It did not take long for doubts to emerge. The 7:30 Report noted an admission in Tenix’s four-page proposal that "land access, acquisition, heritage protection and native title issues have not yet been examined in detail", raising concerns about the true cost of the project and adding further credence to Labor’s theme that the Coalition is promising more than it can deliver. The West Australian, fresh from Geoff Gallop’s accusations that it was conspiring with the Coalition, ran a front page headline yesterday that read "Why canal plan may sink Barnett". The report began by saying the plan "took just hours to start unravelling yesterday after (Barnett) failed to answer key questions on its cost, environmental impact and the price of the water it would supply … as the criticism grew yesterday, Mr Barnett’s office gagged coalition MPs after he was embarrassed by several MPs who said they did not know about the plan, contradicted him or stumbled over its details".
Terrifyingly for the Coalition, the issue is continuing to snowball. Yesterday morning, Peter Costello directly contradicted Barnett in an interview on Perth station 6PR, in which he said "you would have to sit down and you would have to look at the construction costs, you would have to look at the cost of water, you would have to look at the alternatives, you would have to look at the alternative benefits". The Australian tells us that Treasury has released a report saying:
Tenix’s estimated capital cost of $2 billion is considered to be greatly underestimated. On the basis of available information there is not a convincing case that a channel from the Kimberley region (to Perth) is a viable source of water for Western Australia. It should not be considered further until the independent review is completed.
Today, Barnett has copped an all-round bollocking from The Australian, which has run a front-page headline on friction between the federal and state Coalition, a hostile leading article and – worst of all – a cartoon from "Kudelka" which is funny ’cause it’s true. Despite wimping out in the final paragraph, the Sydney Morning Herald has also run an extraordinarily rare editorial on Western Australian state politics that is highly critical of the plan. The Poll Bludger had been tempted to declare that Colin Barnett had blown it, and that the Gallop government was going to be returned – a report on power shortages in today’s West Australian has been sufficient to remind him of how much can happen in the next three weeks.