THE BOX SEAT: The political takeout from Burke and Grill

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, April 2007.

NATIONAL: As the body count grows from the West Australian corruption inquiries,* wonders where it’s all going to end.

Brian Burke.

Brian Burke.

When the Hawke Labor Government came to power in 1983 it promised to introduce national uniform land rights legislation.

It was the main plank of the Australian Labor Party’s official policy platform in Aboriginal Affairs.

It never happened.

A Burke effectively killed it off.

The then Premier of Western Australia Brian Burke, that is.

Burke led the charge against the policy ably supported by a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign from the Australian Mining Industry Council.

The Hawke Government caved in, abandoning both platform and principle, when Burke made it clear he would not comply with the policy or proposed legislation.

If forced to do so he would resign.

Aboriginal activists around the country were outraged but the deal had been done.

It was a shameful backdown to Burke and powerful vested mining interests in the West. But in those days Burke was a big wheel in the factional and patronage politics of the ALP, having tapped into a rich vein of political donors.

It was a lamentable victory for donocracy over democracy.

The chubby former television journalist became the WA Premier in 1983 and kept the job for five years before resigning in Australia’s bicentennial year to become Australia’s Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See – at about the same time Hawke was promising a treaty, which was never delivered.

But Burke had a spectacular public fall from political grace when a Royal Commission into influence peddling known as WA Inc began in 1990.

The Commission unearthed a dubious trail of electoral donations with Burke front and centre.

It found the manner in which the electoral contributions were obtained “could only create the public perception that favour could be bought”.

Burke did two terms of imprisonment in the fallout.

He served seven months in prison in 1994 when found guilty of false pretences and rorting his travel expenses and did another stretch of six months of a three year sentence in 1997 when convicted of stealing more than $120,000 in campaign donations from the Australian Labor Party, before those convictions were quashed on appeal.

Burke briefly disappeared from public view but clearly retained enormous influence within the ALP at both the state and federal levels.

He finally popped up again in 2000 as an election commentator for a Perth radio station and as a political lobbyist.

Former WA Labor Premier Geoff Gallop was smart enough to recognise Burke’s corrupting influence on his Government.
He banned his Ministers from dealing with Burke the lobbyist and political hot potato and his business partner Julian Grill.

His successor Alan Carpenter, another former television journalist, decided to lift it when he became Premier in January last year.

However long he remains Premier he’s unlikely to make a more atrocious error.

Thanks to the WA Government’s Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) – a standing Royal Commission – Burke, the political hot potato, has become radioactive.

Just have a look at the fallout.

The disgraced bodies of Cabinet Ministers are strewn from Perth to Canberra in a blaze of sensational headlines… and there is clearly no end in sight as more damaging revelations are expected to emerge in the CCC about how Burke and Grill manipulated the multi-million dollar approval process in the “gold-en” west to their benefit.

Four WA Ministers have been sacked or stood down in six months as secret phone taps and bugs revealed how Burke and Grill had used the lure of big bucks from fundraising events and other means to get a succession of ministers and backbenchers to do their bidding for their clients.

One story that particularly caught my eye claimed they were paid at least $1 million for their role in corrupting a parliamentary committee report that secured their clients a $20 million payout from mining giant Xstrata over a disputed vanadium mine.

Resources Minister John Bowler was sacked after admitting he had allowed the company Precious Mines Australia to rewrite key findings of the committee report which was delivered after Burke and Grill organised the parliamentary inquiry into the mine.

The report was used by PMA to force Xstrata to drop a legal action in the NSW Supreme Court and pay PMA $20 million in a settlement over the vanadium mine.

Burke and Grill reportedly negotiated a 10 percent success fee to represent PMA in the dispute.
When questioned about the PMA deal before the CCC last week, Grill said he was “not certain” he had been paid such a fee.

The CCC’s lawyers produced a congratulatory letter to the lobbyist pair from PMA executives Roderick Smith and Guy Warwick.

The note spelled out the Burke/Grill deal and said the company was “comforted by having two such talented people as Brian and you on board”.

Grill has since claimed they were only paid a six figure sum.

Reporters covering the CCC have been astonished by the naivete of those caught up in the corruption scandal.
John Bowler was a case in point.

He initially could see no problem with being used by Burke and Grill to set up the parliamentary inquiry and then manipulate the findings. Nor could he see any problem with backgrounding them in clandestine meetings on cabinet discussions and decisions on resource related matters which were not public knowledge and could potentially deliver million of dollars in benefit to the lobbyist’s clients.

It should be noted that a number of those decisions affected finding ways around sensitive Aboriginal ceremonial sites.

The penny finally appeared to drop for Bowler last Tuesday when he broke down and sobbed in the Parliament after being referred to a privileges committee hearing for possible contempt for leaking to Burke and Grill.
Carpenter, who had naively lifted the ban on Burke and Grill to bury the political ghosts of the past (and has now re-imposed the ban on them) is hanging on to government by his fingernails, thanks to an early parliamentary term and an inept opposition.

He knows his government is in peril and has vowed to cleanse his government of the Burke and Grill influence peddling. But he’s operating on a political wing and a prayer.

He ended last week vowing to quit as Premier rather than bend to intimidation amid torrid debate in the Parliament over his decision not to force MP Shelley Archer out of the ALP as he has done earlier with disgraced Ministers.

Archer had earlier been exposed by the CCC as a go-between for Burke and providing him with sensitive information out of unfriendly ministerial offices which benefited his clients.

Carpenter was forced to deny he was powerless to act because Archer was the wife of powerful CFMEU boss Kevin Reynolds. The Union is a major donor to the ALP and Reynolds controls the party’s Centre faction.

He and his wife are close friends of Burke.

She was unrepentant before the CCC, describing Burke as her mentor and repeatedly refusing to admit any wrongdoing in passing on documents and information to the disgraced ex-Premier.

The current Premier told Parliament there could be other matters to be looked into concerning the behaviour of Ms Archer which “could require a different decision”.

The reality is that if forced out of the ALP, she’d remain in Parliament and he’d be handing her – and effectively Burke and Grill – balance of power in the Upper House.

The corruption scandal had largely been contained within Western Australia until last week when – inevitably – all hell broke loose in the Federal Parliament when it was revealed by the Government that Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd had met Burke for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Perth in 2005.

The Labor Party had spent a considerable amount of time during the week trying to establish if Melbourne businessman and former Liberal Party Treasurer Ron Walker and fellow businessmen Hugh Morgan and Robert Champion De Crespigny had told PM Howard and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane of any proposals to build a nuclear power plant in Australia.

Howard denied it but told Parliament Walker had informed him last year of a plan by the three businessmen to set up a nuclear energy company.

The Government hit back with a vengeance at the end of the parliamentary week when Treasurer Peter Costello was asked by a government backbencher about his dealings with the businessmen.

Costello told the Parliament that Walker had told Howard and himself he was forming a nuclear energy company.

It was such a “scandal”, Costello told the Parliament, that Walker had also told Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and his Treasurer.

He then launched into Rudd for meeting Burke, claiming it was to advance his leadership ambitions.

“Mr Brian Burke has now been fingered by the Crime Commission in Western Australia and three ministers have lost their jobs because of their contacts with him,” Costello said. “… Anyone who deals with Brian Burke is morally and politically compromised….”

Howard and company were straight on the airwaves accusing Rudd of, in Howard’s words, “a very serious error of judgment”.
They were careful not to suggest corruption or commercial influence peddling.

It was a case of poor political judgment.

The cleanskin Labor Leader had been supping with the devil.

Rudd copped it on the chin.

He immediately apologised for an error of judgment but it’s fair to say the Government exposed a glass jaw and Labor’s great new hope has been on the backfoot ever since.

The Howard Government’s attack momentarily backfired by week’s end when it was revealed Human Services Minister Ian Campbell had met for 20 minutes with Burke in June last year in his electorate office in Perth to discuss an Aboriginal cultural centre which was planned as part of a massive racecourse redevelopment.

The local Labor MP, Ben Wyatt, a young Aboriginal man, and WA Turf Club officials also attended the meeting.
Campbell, who came into the Parliament when Senator Fred Chaney retired, had no option but to resign.

Howard and company could not sustain its attack on Rudd unless Campbell, a poor ministerial performer, played the fall guy.

Some newspapers even editorialised that it allowed Howard to maintain the high moral ground.

I’d respectfully suggest our Prime Minister would find it a bit dizzy up there.

Who knows where all this will end but clearly Burke’s caustic karma is certain to result in further casualties and may even have done so by the time you have read this column.

One thing is clear in this a federal election year; if you are a politician, no matter which colour, or creed, and you now meet and greet Burke or Grill, you are dead meat.

Be sure the political mud will continue to fly and frankly who knows where it will stick next.

It’s hard to cut through all the media frenzy but one sobering question keeps nagging me.

How far does one take Costello’s, admittedly overblown, claim that “anyone who deals with Brian Burke is morally and politically compromised”.

It’s an interesting question.

Especially in light of a story which appeared in the London Evening Standard in early 2005, under the byline of journalist Bill Condie.

Condie reported that Xstrata Chief Executive Mick Davis was in Australia fighting to keep alive a bid of A$7.4 billion for miner WMC Resources and “must wonder what he has got himself into”.

“Instead of the foreign investment friendly economy that Australia promotes itself as, he finds himself at the centre of a frenzy of nationalism and jingoistic abuse that would not be far out of place in Castro’s Cuba,” Condie wrote.

“With politician’s from the country’s ruling – and avowedly freemarket – Liberal Party joining a bandwagon set in motion by Xstrata’s bitter former partner Roderick Smith, the question of the takeover has moved from one of price, to one of whether Australian chief Finance Minister Peter Costello will bow to pressure to block it.

“Smith, a former partner in Xstrata’s now-closed Western Australian vanadium mine, has spearheaded the campaign with the help of former Western Australia Premier Brian Burke.

“But he was quickly joined by mining magnate Robert De Crespigny and Liberal Party grandee Ron Walker, who even suggested nationalising the country’s uranium mines to block Xstrata.”

Costello did in fact give the Swiss mining giant Xstrata the green light to proceed with the takeover, but BHP Billiton stepped in and gobbled up WMC and its rich uranium resources.

But it is interesting that Mr Smith and his lobbyist Mr Burke were reportedly joining forces at the time with Mr.Walker and Mr DeCrespigny in the fight over WMC.

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Aboriginal Affairs will know that a notable previous and politically vocal CEO of WMC was Hugh Morgan.

Mr Morgan used that position to constantly rail against the Mabo decision and native title and a whole host of right wing causes.

One wonders if any of these gentlemen felt morally compromised by their reported association in a campaign spearheaded by Mr Smith and Mr Burke.

After all, Burke had done his time at the time for rorting travelling allowances.

It should also be remembered that Howard lost a number of Ministers early in his prime ministership over alleged travel rorts.
More interesting, perhaps, in terms of the current debate is the fact that Mr Smith, who is managing director of Precious Minerals Australia, the company which won the $20 million payout from Xstrata with help from Burke and Grill and naïve Minister Bowler, and the co-author of the congratulatory note to the lobbyists, is a recipient of an award from the Prime Minister.

According to the PMA website Mr Smith was an elected member of local government for nine years including the last two as Shire President and was awarded an Australian Centennial Medal in 2001 by the Prime Minister for services to the community.

Can a Prime Minister on the high moral ground ask for it back?

* Brian Johnstone is a Walkley Award-winning writer and columnist for NIT.


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