Brian Burke has emerged to become WA’s premier lobbyist and Labor’s pre-eminent right-wing factional power broker, reports Joseph Poprzeczny.
Although Western Australian Liberals are presently being given little chance of winning the still long-way-off February 2009 election, some within their ranks sense what may be the first sign of victory.
A key ingredient in their 1993 victory that ended a full decade of Labor rule was constantly reminding voters of two crucial features of later disgraced Labor leader Brian Burke’s 1983-88 premiership.
Central to those years was the ongoing parachuting of Labor loyalists into key government jobs and astute media management, which the Richard Court-led Liberals dubbed “jobs for the boys and girls” and “Burke’s propaganda machine”.
Although Burke’s successors, Peter Dowding, and later Carmen Lawrence, somewhat trimmed both practices, Court in the lead-up to the 1993 election successfully highlighted the ongoing hiring of party, union and academic loyalists plus journalists.
Sensitive to criticisms
Both slogans struck a welcome chord across the electorate, something that made Labor’s next premier, Geoff Gallop, who toppled the Court Government in February 2001, sensitive to such criticisms.
Gallop was particularly touchy about being associated with anything linked to Burke or his approach to governing. So sensitive was he that he instructed his ministers several times not to have official contact with Burke.
Despite this, Burke proved too elusive and has emerged to become WA’s premier lobbyist and Labor’s pre-eminent right-wing factional power broker with intricate party, union and business links.
Growing recognition of this prompted one reporter, Ean Higgins, to claim that Gallop’s decision in January to vacate the premiership was due to Burke’s growing power.
“Political sources said the struggle of dealing with Burke’s continuing presence in the halls of power was a factor in the depression that led the factionally-unaligned Gallop to resign,” says Higgins. (Weekend Australian, May 27–28, 2006).
Assisted by Burke
Another report, by Brad Norington, claims the recent emergence of Canberra-bound Australian Workers’ Union national secretary, Bill Shorten, is being assisted by Burke.
“Former WA premier Brian Burke has emerged as an unlikely force behind union leader Bill Shorten’s campaign to be a future Labor prime minister,” Norington writes.
“The rehabilitation of Mr Burke inside the ALP has been so successful that he is once again regarded as one of its most influential figures.
“As WA premier, Mr Burke met Mr Shorten in 1987 when the union leader was a Monash University law student and active in Young Labor. …
“From his base in Perth, Mr Burke, a journalist before he entered politics, has revived his fortunes through his consultancy business and is regarded as a sage figure by many in Labor Party politics.
“Besides Mr Shorten, Labor foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd is also known to have sought his counsel, even travelling to Perth to see Mr Burke on several occasions.” (Weekend Australian, May 27–28, 2006).
It’s therefore hardly surprising that Gallop’s successor, Alan Carpenter, also a former journalist, promptly reversed Gallop’s policy of WA Labor shying clear of Brian Burke.
Carpenter’s first public pronouncement as premier was that the Burke ban no longer applied.
To add meaning to his forgive-all pro-Burke approach Carpenter made long-time Burke loyalist, Norm Marlborough, Minister for Small Business – something Gallop refused to do and even told Marlborough so during a heated telephone conversation.
New Liberal leader, Paul Omodei, who replaced the politically inexperienced Matt Birney in late March, has begun linking several seemingly unrelated dots.
The Burke years
Omodei – a former Court Government minister, unlike Birney – vividly recalls the Burke years and Labor’s decade-long modus operandi, even though he entered parliament in 1989, Burke’s second year as ambassador to Ireland and the Vatican.
The discovery that sparked the new Liberal spirit of inquiry on what is happening within Labor was the surprise find that Carpenter’s department is employing WA Labor’s state president, Sharryn Jackson, as head of something called the Community Cabinet Liaison Unit.
The unit apparently prepares media statements from Labor backbenchers, so is seen as a return to the Burke years with their heavy reliance on media.
Jackson, a former federal MP and chief-of-staff for ex-minister Bob Kucera, whom Gallop dumped before Christmas, is drawing the equivalent to a state MP’s salary – well over $100,000.
Further Liberal investigations have revealed that this is only the tip of a far larger media iceberg that resembles much that happened during the Burke years.
Omodei has been stunned to find that the number of government journalists and media advisers has nearly doubled under Gallop and Carpenter.
“The number of spin-doctors employed by the Labor Government has blown out by a massive 87 per cent over the past four years,” Omodei says.
“Conservative estimates suggest the increase is costing WA taxpayers an extra $15 million a year.
“They follow revelations that Labor Party state president Sharryn Jackson is being paid more than $100,000 to run a propaganda unit within the premier’s office to help Labor Party marginal seat-holders.
“These latest figures showed that there were now 503.5 full-time equivalents working in communications, marketing, speech-writing or media relations for ministerial offices, government departments and agencies.
“This compared with 269.2 for 2001-02.
“The increase in staff, solely in the area of public relations, was indicative of the bloated bureaucracy the Government had created and its real priorities.
“Labor has nearly doubled the number of its public relations operatives to paint a rosy picture about the Government’s performance in key areas.
“This is another example of Labor largesse and government waste.
“Spin-doctors do not cut the waiting-time in our hospitals’ emergency departments, they do not save children from being abused and they do not help better educate our children.
“They are being swallowed up by a burgeoning bureaucracy and an increasing number of fat cats and spin-doctors.”
Not surprisingly Omodei has dubbed this as “Labor’s blatant misuse of taxpayers’ money”.
On the jobs-for-the-boys-and-girls front, the Liberals have found that no fewer than seven former Labor ministers have served on a range of boards and committees since leaving parliament.
On top of that, 13 former Labor MPs and half a dozen unsuccessful Labor candidates and party officials have also been appointed to various public posts.
Little has therefore changed since the state’s hectic Burke-initiated WA Inc. years.
Even Burke is there in the wings, something that’s pleasing the Liberals greatly, since they intend to highlight it in the hope of repeating their 1993 victory on the back of his ubiquitous presence.
- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher.