Brittle alliance frays in regions

The West Australian
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The relationship between Agriculture Minister Ken Baston and the WA Nationals hit a new low this week when he came under attack from two Government backbenchers. But it could be about to get much worse.

Mr Baston, the first Liberal Minister for Agriculture in 30 years, copped a double blast over fruit imports and delays in loading ships for live exports.

The attacks came as Mr Baston and Nationals leader Brendon Grylls try to thrash out the best way to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Royalties for Regions funds to build up agriculture over the next five years.

A senior Liberal dismissed the criticism of Mr Baston as sour grapes and a sign of the Nationals' frustration at having lost control of their prized portfolio after Premier Colin Barnett's election victory in March.

The Nationals campaigned on what Mr Grylls spruiked as WA's biggest and best-ever agriculture policy, a $300 million Royalties for Regions-funded blueprint called Seizing the Opportunity, which dwarfed the Liberals' $40 million policy.

It was Mr Barnett who seized the opportunity to install a Liberal to replace Terry Redman in the agriculture post after his crushing victory. That left the Nationals holding the purse strings and the policy but not the portfolio.

It is no secret that the move was, in part, aimed at pegging back voter support for the Nationals in the bush where Royalties for Regions projects have bought a lot of goodwill for Mr Grylls, the Minister for Regional Development and Lands.

Mr Baston has spent plenty of his first eight months as Minister visiting the regions and managed to tread on a few Nationals' toes along the way.

The former station owner weighed into the crucial issue of pastoral lease renewals, which has become embarrassing for Mr Grylls. Mr Baston said he would not sign the draft lease proffered by the Department of Lands if he was still in the industry.

Mr Baston copped a blast from North West Central MLA Vince Catania when he visited Carnarvon on Tuesday.

Mr Catania focused his attack on a Department of Agriculture and Food WA policy decision to allow imported table grapes and stone fruit into the State. He called on Mr Baston to "reconsider the importation of fruit and protect the local industry from bio-security threats".

He went on to list all the good things the Nationals had done for Carnarvon growers through Royalties for Regions.

On the same day, Agricultural Region MLC Paul Brown had Mr Baston and Transport Minister Troy Buswell in his sights over delays in berthing and loading live export ships at Fremantle, Port Hedland and Broome ports.

"Ministers Baston and Buswell need to address queuing issues at WA ports in light of an expected spike in live export volumes - before it impacts on our capacity to deliver to markets," he said.

Mr Grylls, Mr Brown and other National MPs will meet exporters this month for port talks.

Mr Catania denied the Nationals had an axe to grind with Mr Baston, but acknowledged rivalry between the two parties in the bush.

"There will always be tension and that is why it is an alliance and not a coalition," he said.

"It is healthy as long as the community doesn't suffer and we provide a stable Government. We are taking votes off the big parties, they want to win seats and we want to keep seats."

Mr Grylls and Mr Baston opted to hold fire on public comments.

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