TALES FROM BOOMTOWN:
Western Australian Premiers from Brand to Barnett
by Peter Kennedy
(Perth, WA: UWA Publishing)
Paperback: 352 pages
(available from publisher)
Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch
Political journalist Peter Kennedy has set out to tell the story of the governance of Western Australia during the hectic days of “WA Inc.” and the development of the state’s iron-ore industry.
The book was launched jointly by former WA Liberal Premier Richard Court and former Labor Premier Geoff Gallop, suggesting neither found it overly biased or its sometimes cheeky anecdotes too far out of the court.
The book depends largely on gossip and anecdote, but it is hard to see how else such a theme could have been handled. The book will be particularly useful to newcomers to the state who want a reasonably comprehensive and accurate introduction to its recent history. It contains more than a few real nuggets of information not previously known.
Native sandgropers too will find it packed with information which has never previously been assembled between two book-covers, and some of which is quite new. Kennedy plainly won the trust of figures on all sides of politics that he would report them fairly.
The book will certainly be a valuable primary source for future West Australian historians and journalists trying to make sense of those turbulent times. Kennedy’s knowledge and contacts are wide-ranging, and he has produced an important handbook of WA history.
Sometimes the reader may feel that more explanation is warranted. For instance, we are told that long-standing ALP state secretary F.E. “Joe” Chamberlain hated Brian Burke’s father Tom, but not why. (It was over the two men’s respective attitudes towards communist influence in the trade unions and linked with the 1955 ALP-DLP split).
Why was there a feud between mining magnate Lang Hancock and two Liberal premiers, the normally mild-mannered Sir David Brand and his successor Sir Charles Court?
We are told that, as a result of “adverse findings” in the 1,900-page report of the Royal Commission into WA Inc., former Labor Premier Brian Burke, former Liberal Premier Ray O’Connor and former Labor minister and far-leftist student activist David (“I’m ruthless”) Parker went to jail, but not what those adverse findings were, the nuts-and-bolts of the trial process or the length of the sentences, all of which seem central to the story.
For this not-completely-detached reviewer, Western Australian politics over the last generation have — to simplify a great deal — fallen into three more-or-less distinct main periods.
The period encompassing the governments of Brand (1959-71) and Court (1974-82) saw the development of the state’s massive iron-ore industry, despite opposition from Canberra, which had, astonishingly, embargoed the export of iron ore.
Other significant developments, as Kennedy reminds us, included the discovery of commercial quantities of oil at Barrow Island and natural gas at Dongara; bauxite mining; contracts signed to export wood-chips; the standardising of the interstate railway-track gauge for the east-west trans-continental connection; and the completion of the colossal Ord Dam in 1972. All this transformed Western Australia.
The intervening Labor government of John Tonkin, between Brand and Court, was socially conservative. The Minister for Police, John “Jerry” Dolan, formerly famous as an Australian Rules footballer, took a hard line with leftist demonstrators.
Though Premier Tonkin and his Minister for Industrial Development, Herbert Graham, lacked Court’s flair and the Brand-Court governments’ great achievements, there was no doubt about Tonkin’s genuine desire for transparency in government. (From the start he held a daily media conference).
He took environmental conservation very seriously, setting up a Department of Environmental Protection with “big teeth” and bringing in the outstanding NASA scientist Dr Brian J. O’Brien to head it. While some of his ideas were cranky — regarding public dental health and cancer treatment, for example, they were cranky in a generous way. His nickname “Honest John” was not given sarcastically.
After the defeat of the government of Liberal premier Ray O’Connor in 1983, an unbroken decade of Labor governments followed under premiers Brian Burke, Peter Dowding and Carmen Lawrence.
The first one, led by the ex-journalist and political apparatchik par excellence, Brian Burke, saw WA’s governance descend into a miasma of “crony capitalism”, accompanied by the disappearance of vast sums of public money and the emergence of a corporate-state-type blending of big government, big business, big unions and the media. WA was resembling not merely a misgoverned Australian state but something a great deal worse from the Third World.
The shady linkages between government and the media were especially unsavoury. In 1987, the Perth-based corporate raider Robert Holmes à Court used his flagship company, Bell Group, to buy Perth’s main daily newspaper, The West Australian. After Bell Group’s collapse, precipitated by the 1987 stock market crash, Alan Bond, through his Bond Corporation, gained control of it and hence the paper.
He then proceeded to strip $500 million worth of assets from the re-named Bell Resources in an effort to pay off his Bond Corp’s own debts. This asset-stripping earned Bond a prison sentence.
The late Professor Patrick O’Brien, who coined the term “WA Inc.”, exposed what he called the John Curtin Foundation slush fund, into which selected business tycoons made vast donations to the Labor Party. Kennedy lists the donors and the eye-boggling amounts of money. (How disgusted John Curtin, after whom the foundation was named, would have been by the whole thing!)
Although confined to the state level, WA Inc. was the closest thing Australia has had to a fascist regime in the classical text-book (not the Mussolini) sense of that term.
Requests made to the Burke-appointed state governor, Gordon Reid, a former professor of politics, to intervene, were rejected on the grounds that the governor had no power under the recently passed Commonwealth-initiated Australia Acts of 1986.
I for one disagree with this interpretation; but, even if it was correct, it would open a constitutional can of worms with a potential to create major future problems. It should be remembered that Reid, a very learned and decent man with a heroic war record, was terminally ill at the time.
Again, Patrick O’Brien was a leading light in exposing this, writing or editing several books, such as The Burke Ambush: Corporatism and Society in Western Australia (1986), Burke’s Shambles: Parliamentary Contempt in the Wild West (1987), and The Executive State: WA Inc. and the Constitution (1991).
It is a pity that Kennedy’s book does not acknowledge O’Brien’s, and some others’, brave work in taking on the big battalions of WA Inc., and also in inspiring others to demand a royal commission. Nonetheless, his book makes plain the extent of the scandal.
Among those who played a part in uncovering what was going on and demanding a royal commission were Liberal members of WA’s parliamentary upper house, the Legislative Council, in particular perhaps Max Evans, and others outside parliament, including Associate Professor Leslie Marchant, Professor Emeritus Martyn Webb and lawyer Bevan Lawrence (brother of Labor Premier Carmen Lawrence).
The work done in the Legislative Council shows the indispensable role of upper houses in exposing abuses by over-mighty executive governments.
While many of the facts of WA Inc. were uncovered by dedicated investigation, it would take an enormous amount of work to put them into both comprehensive and readable form. A royal commission was eventually held as the result of a well-organised campaign, including a mass march on Parliament House (with government agents filming the marchers).
Kennedy reveals that one “outsider” who was strongly opposed to the royal commission, and who tried to persuade Carmen Lawrence not to hold it, was none other than Malcolm Turnbull, who had made regular visits from Sydney to advise Lawrence’s predecessor, Peter Dowding.
In an interview with Kennedy on October 28, 2011, Turnbull recalled telling Premier Lawrence that the royal commission was a “big mistake”. He said that her decision to hold one was in response to “heavy political pressure”.
The third phase of WA’s recent history, dating from 1993, might be described as the recovery. There is no doubt that the Liberal Party preselection committee made the right choice when, on Sir Charles Court’s retirement, it chose his son Richard Court for the seat of Nedlands.
The achievements of Richard Court’s government (1993-2001) in pulling WA out of the corporatist disasters of WA Inc., and restoring its international reputation, were as great in their way as those of the Brand-Court governments’ Herculean work in transforming WA from a mendicant state to one of the nation’s greatest powerhouses of development.
After the sordid intrigues that had gone on before, Richard Court proved one of the nation’s outstanding premiers and one who deserved the title of statesman.
Liberal Colin Barnett has been WA premier since 2008. It is too early yet to say how history will judge his government and some of its controversial projects, such as Elizabeth Quay and the proposed local council mergers.
In Tales from Boomtown, Kennedy has achieved a difficult task in telling a complex and controversial story.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.