IT has been a busy year in State politics which began with the end of the Barnett government’s eight-year reign and the start of a new chapter under Premier Mark McGowan.
The March 11 State election saw the Liberal Party suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of Labor, which claimed 41 of the 59 seats in the Legislative Assembly.
With the Labor government in the driving seat and the State in significant financial turmoil, it was unclear what might be ahead for regional WA and the agriculture sector.
The appointment of Alannah MacTiernan as State Agriculture and Food and Regional Development Minister was seen as a big win for regional WA and largely welcomed by the agriculture industry, while the amalgamation of the Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA) with several other departments to form the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) was another considerable change.
However concerns were raised following an overhaul of the Royalties for Regions (RfR) program outlined in the September State Budget and cuts to regional education announced at the end of the year.
Here’s a look over the main events of the year that was 2017 in State politics.
State election campaign -
The year started in election mode, as Mr McGowan and WA Labor sought to stop the Barnett government from holding power for a third term.
With the State facing dire financial circumstances, returning the budget to surplus was at the forefront of campaign agendas and each party put forward varied reparation measures.
The Labor party planned to slash public sector spending and sell off land, while tensions grew within the coalition as the Liberal Party promised to sell Western Power and cut the RfR program and The Nationals WA proposed an increased tax on iron ore for mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.
The Nationals WA former leader Brendon Grylls slammed Mr Barnett for abandoning the RfR program while Mr Barnett opposed the Nationals’ mining tax proposal, which severed the Liberal-National alliance.
Concerns mounted for the Barnett government in January when Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party entered the race and claimed it could win up to six seats.
Agriculture policy varied significantly from party to party, with Labor focused on developing the State’s horticulture industry in the South West.
Labor pledged “a strong commitment” to growing the State’s agriculture and aquaculture industries and promised to work with the horticulture industry to establish food production precincts in outer metropolitan Perth and in regional WA and to develop a ‘food hub’ at Kemerton.
The party promised to work with local government to find a replacement for the ageing Boyanup Saleyards in the South West and said it would allocate $10 million from RfR to help with a staged development to lift capacity at the Bunbury Port.
Meantime, the Liberals earmarked $110m to relocate live animal exports from Fremantle to Kwinana and promised $2m for land to replace the Boyanup saleyards.
The Nationals’ focus was safeguarding the RfR program and pushing for more agricultural spending, including $277m for its Seizing the Opportunity in Agriculture program.
The Boyanup saleyards were allocated $15m for the construction of a new facility under The Nationals WA agricultural policy.
Grylls out in a landslide Labor victory -
After 16 years with The Nationals WA – including more than eight years as its leader – Mr Grylls was the most high-profile casualty of the March 11 State election.
Following a controversial campaign spruiking the increased mining tax he lost the seat of Pilbara to Labor’s Kevin Michel.
With the loss of Mr Grylls’ seat, The Nationals WA selected party deputy and member for Central Wheatbelt Mia Davies as its new leader.
Ms Davies became the first female leader of The Nationals WA, with Mining and Pastoral Region MLA Jacqui Boydell appointed deputy.
“Brendon’s leadership and contribution to public life is unique, he gave country people a voice when they’d all but lost hope and was always willing to stand up for what was fair and right, no matter the personal consequences,” Ms Davies said.
“As new leader I am firmly committed to continuing this fight to make sure regional WA isn’t left behind under a Labor government.”
Despite suffering the loss of Mr Grylls, The Nationals WA held strong in regional parts of the State, retaining the seats of Central Wheatbelt, Moore, North West Central, Roe and Warren-Blackwood despite the challenge of One Nation.
Ms Hanson’s party won three Upper House seats but failed to secure a seat in the Lower House.
The Liberal’s former Agriculture and Food minister Mark Lewis was another casualty and lost his seat in the Mining and Pastoral Region.
He was joined by several colleagues after the Liberal Party lost 18 seats to Labor.
Mr McGowan was officially sworn in as WA’s 30th premier on March 16 along with his 16 ministers.
Ms MacTiernan was announced as the new Agriculture and Food and Regional Development Minister – a decision largely welcomed by the WA agriculture sector.
Ms MacTiernan set her agenda early, promising to explore the potential for a northern agricultural university research institution and rebuild DAFWA.
Meantime, Ben Wyatt was named State Treasurer, Rita Saffioti took on Transport and Planning and Lands, Fran Logan picked up the Emergency and Corrective Services portfolio and Dave Kelly was selected Water, Fisheries and Forestry Minister.
Department restructure -
Shortly after the election the State government announced it would restructure government departments, cutting the public service by 40 per cent to streamline services and assist in Budget reparation.
The State’s 41 departments were trimmed down to 25 in a move Mr McGowan described as “the most significant reform” of the public sector in many years.
The restructure signalled the end of an era for DAFWA, which after 123 years would no longer be as a stand-alone department.
Departmental changes were initiated on July 1 and DAFWA merged with Fisheries, Regional Development and the nine regional development commissions to become the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).
Former Regional Development director general Ralph Addis was named acting director general of the interim executive DPIRD, while Mark Sweetingham became deputy director general of Agriculture and Food.
Mr Addis said the department amalgamation would increase collaboration and efficiency.
“The new department is committed to all its stakeholders and will continue to play a pivotal role in supporting the growth and prosperity of the agriculture and fisheries industries, as well as regional communities,” Mr Addis said in July.
“While the name has changed and all staff are now working for the one department, the transition process to fully integrate the systems and services will take a phased approach over the next 12 months or so.
“This process provides us the unique opportunity to build a new modern, innovative and relevant public service agency that both meets the needs of current clients, as well as opens up opportunities to pursue greater benefits for the State in the future.” Royalties for Regions overhaul -
The release of the McGowan government’s much-anticipated first budget in September was not well received by regional Western Australians, after a major overhaul of the RfR fund.
In a bid to repair the State’s finances and save the State’s net debt $861m over four years, RfR was reviewed and funding redirected towards several projects previously funded through consolidated revenue.
Mandurah was redefined as regional and allocated funds to develop the Mandurah train station, while the Patient Assisted Travel Scheme and the regional water subsidy were changed to be funded through RfR.
The budget dedicated $463m to regional rail, roads and ports, $1.25 billion for vital community infrastructure and $826m was allocated to improve regional health care.
“The Royalties for Regions fund, framework and legislation will continue, as we have made clear, however we are ensuring funding is spent wisely on projects that people really want,” Mr McGowan said.
Ms Davies hit back at the decision to restructure RfR, labelling it as a “declaration of war on regional West Australians”.
She criticised Labor’s excessive election promises, including the Perth-based Metronet public transport system which was allocated $1.34b over four years.
“It’s incredibly disappointing and the fact that they came into government, they say the books are in a bad way and everyone needs to tighten their belts, but we’re going to deliver $5b worth of election commitments and we’re going to break all of our promises to do that,” Ms Davies said after the budget was released.
“Royalties for Regions was created by The Nationals to fund regional development projects and diversify regional economies on top of usual government spending.
“Instead, (WA Treasurer) Ben Wyatt is raiding the program to plug holes in his budget and pay for ongoing government services and infrastructure projects in transport, health, water and education – it’s incredibly disappointing.”
Ms MacTiernan hit back at The Nationals WA and blamed the former coalition government for the State’s dire financial circumstances.
She said there were several big wins for the agriculture sector in the budget, including investments in research and development, telecommunications and funds to combat the State’s wild dog problem.
However, the State’s agricultural lobby groups expressed disappointment with the budget outcomes and criticised the government’s attitude towards RfR.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said money made in the regions should stay in the regions and that instead of making expensive election promises the Labor government should have cut back on spending.
WAFarmers president Tony York said the agriculture sector had hoped for more in the budget, but understood the difficult situation the government had with the State’s finances.
Education cuts -
Education cuts announced towards the end of the year led to the most significant backlash from regional Western Australians against the new State government.
The cuts began in late September when the McGowan government revealed it would cut the Boarding Away from Home Allowance (BAHA) by 30pc over four years.
Education Minister Sue Ellery confirmed the allowance would be reduced to $1477, meaning families will pay an extra $628 per child per year for boarding school fees after 2021.
The BAHA reduction was just the tip of the iceberg and in December further cuts were announced to education as the McGowan government turned to alternative savings measures after failing to pass its gold mining tax.
Ms Ellery revealed the State planned to save $64m by closing all five WA Schools of the Air, shutting residential colleges in Northam and Moora and cutting 170 education positions.
Several scholarship programs and four regional camp schools were also placed on the chopping block.
Changes affecting WA’s five agricultural colleges and the Esperance Farm School were announced, which will see the Education Department retain an annual 20pc dividend from funds remitted to the Agricultural Education Provisions Trust from 2019 from income generated through selling produce on the college farms.
“I understand this process is a difficult and challenging time, particularly for staff and our biggest priority is to minimise any impact on students,” Ms Ellery said.
The cuts have been met with widespread criticism from regional communities, the agricultural sector, opposition parties and various other groups with protests staged in Karratha, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie late last year.
Isolated Children’s Parent’s Association president Tash Johns said further action was planned for 2018 to overturn the education cuts.
“We all want to see a reversal of these decisions – there’s a lot of anger out here and all throughout the State – it’s not just the families that have been affected, it’s everybody,” Ms Johns said.