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Howard woos the wild west

Date

Cortlan Bennett

Comparing the receptions John Howard and Julia Gillard received in Perth in the past fortnight is like comparing titanium to talcum powder.

Mr Howard, the former Liberal prime minister, showed his Labor successor how the west was won.

Addressing a Western Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) luncheon in Perth on Tuesday, Mr Howard received a standing ovation from the same group who had turned up their noses at Ms Gillard two weeks earlier.

The prime minister had been lauded only for her bravery in striding into the same lions' den of insatiable WA dirt diggers who have publicly pilloried her government and her tax regime.

She had set the tone almost as soon as she stepped off the plane in Perth: first laying into the miners' home-town hero, Premier Colin Barnett, then his purse-strings sidekick, Treasurer Christian Porter.

Accusing Mr Barnett of not doing enough to help those overlooked by the mining boom, Ms Gillard then challenged Mr Porter to step down as treasurer if he couldn't balance the state's books with an estimated $800 million hole, due to WA's share of GST revenue being slashed from 72 cents on the dollar to just 55 cents from July 1.

By the time Ms Gillard fronted the CME lunch on April 19 - the last day of her two-day visit - some of the state's most powerful businessmen and women were obviously piqued.

Even her introduction by CME president and Rio Tinto iron ore senior executive Greg Lilleyman was barbed.

"Unfortunately, our industry has been experiencing somewhat of a death by a thousand cuts of late," Mr Lilleyman told the invitation-only audience in reference to the government's mining and carbon taxes.

"As a result, our international competitiveness has been eroded."

Unperturbed, the prime minister attempted what might - in different company - have been a rousing address.

She reminded the assembled that Australia was "one country", forging ahead in the regions to achieve a common goal.

It was far removed from debates over mining and GST revenue. Her words were dismissed out of hand and the looks of contempt on the faces of some of the state's richest were unmistakable.

Two weeks later, John Howard - like Lazarus Rising - received a standing ovation from the same mining magnates.

Mr Howard may have reminded them of simpler times: when iron ore mining companies could bag most of their profits while paying just 5.625 per cent of their sales in state royalties.

Perhaps they also enjoyed the way he twisted the knife into a Labor government that many West Australians accuse of robbing them and their state of its fair share of GST funds.

His many WA supporters also approve of his love of a budgetary surplus.

That approval fails to extend to any praise for the efforts of the Gillard government to achieve its own during the global downturn.

When it comes to "moving forward" with the current government or harking back to John Howard's halcyon days as prime minister, WA's business community showed once again it lives in its own time zone.

AAP

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