Features Australia

Thick as bricks

The intertwined nature of business, media and politics built the corrupt edifice of WA Inc

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

Besides the climate, nothing so reminded me of besieged Rhodesia in the mid-1960s, with its sanctions busting business culture and its paranoiac settler society, than my first few days in Perth in 1986, the high noon for buccaneering pirates like Alan Bond and Laurie Connell, working in close communion with a new type of Labor government led by one Brian Burke, with its own distinctive version of ‘public private partnerships’ in dodgy deals as the government’s preferred route to increased union power and continued political dominance.

The necessary ingredients for WA Inc were all in place and it soon blossomed into arguably the most systemic and scandalous example of sustained government corruption since federation.

The death of Alan Bond and the near simultaneous ‘coming out’ of Brian Burke in an interview in the Weekend Australian, have all served to highlight the reach of WA Inc. One aspect of that saga that has received almost no mention is the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria under a Victorian Labor government, triggered by the issuing of massive unsound loans to its fraternal WA Labor government, all piloted by the CEO of its investment arm Tricontinental, Ian Johns; recipient of the Bulletin’s ‘Young Executive of the Year’ award in 1986 and later jailed.

In Rhodesia’s small white society life on the surface was laid-back, almost somnolent, but under the surface were frenzied deals, negotiated mainly in secret and alluded to in whispered gossip by ordinary folk during backyard barbies. A similar atmosphere took hold in Perth during that remarkable time.

In 1986 I travelled to Perth at the invitation of some of WA’s leading figures, distraught at what they saw as the depredation of their state under Burke and their disgust at the failure of the local media to truthfully report what was going on (at one stage the state’s only major daily, the West Australian, was owed by Bond). I was told that they wanted a journalist, an ‘Easterner’, a term quaintly reflective of WA’s then lingering sense of isolation, someone who wasn’t part of WA Labor’s culture, to convey something of their reality to the rest of the country. At the time I was a fairly prominent conservative journalist writing for the Bulletin, Melbourne Herald, Quadrant, and with a regular gig on Ten’s Face to Face. I remember I was described as a ‘ring in’, an outsider who couldn’t easily be ‘got at’.

None of the media coverage that I’ve seen since Bond’s death gets even close to capturing the generalised fear and anxiety, least of all the pathetic desperation of the ‘little people’ I came across who had been threatened or ruined for opposing one or another of the government’s many dubious deals. Very little appreciation, if any, of this murky underworld of coercion and threats, of blatant abuse of power and illegality, found its way East, the Nullarbor seemingly as formidable a barrier as the Rockies were for California during its wild Gold Rush days in the mid-1800s. But this was the late 20th century and it was WA.

My first Bulletin piece from WA (Sept 2, 1986) focused on probably the most outrageous of the many outrageous deals, known at the time as ‘the Midland Brick affair’. The Burke government had backed a highly dubious businessman who wanted to buy a major property in the suburb of Midland in order to build a brickworks (declared ‘unviable’ by a UWA report), designed to be in direct competition with (and hopefully ruin) Ric New, the most successful brick maker in the state who just happened to be the largest financial backer of the WA Liberal Party. Ric was also mainly responsible for WA then having the lowest cost housing in the country, even though mostly made of bricks, not least because he trained tradesmen and effectively kept the then powerful Builders Labourers’ Union, a stalwart Burke supporter, out of the market. In short, he was probably the Burke government’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’. Ian Johns offered the funding.

Ric was a colourful 19th century character, always chuckling and he loved a bit of the old subterfuge. He once told me that his favourite novelist was Zane Gray, ‘a better philosophical guide to a life of action than Jean-Paul Sartre’.

The scandal played out in the most extraordinary way, there were two parliamentary committees investigating it simultaneously; a Council enquiry, with a Liberal majority, and an Assembly enquiry (called to counter the other), dominated by Labor. The unsung hero of the story was the chairman of the Council committee, Neil Oliver, a formidable ex-colonel and Vietnam veteran, who held his ground in the face of incredible harassment, including having his phones tapped. The Assembly committee was outrageous from the beginning, breaking almost every rule in the Westminster tradition, such as using in camera rulings to effectively deny entry and transcripts; interestingly, that committee included two future Labor premiers.

At the behest of concerned businessmen, I teamed up with a maveric, longstanding critic of the government, the late professor Paddy O’Brien, and we produced a book with an in-built protection against injunctions or defamation attack (we were threatened with both) titled Burke’s Shambles: Parliamentary Contempt in the Wild West. Our technique was to have all really contentious evidence read into the parliamentary record; thus privileged. It turned out to be very useful to the subsequent Royal Commission.

Shortly after my first article, I got a call from the Bulletin’s Sydney office: Burke’s office have called and are furious. Shortly afterwards my retainer was stopped. In contrast most everything the Bulletin carried on WA Inc at this time was positively sycophantic. I deduced that this was probably not unrelated to the interests of the magazine’s owner, Kerry Packer, particularly his ‘once in a lifetime’ deal with Bond. I saw it as yet another example of how everything seemed to be related to everything else in the strange world created by Burke and Bond.

The moral to be drawn from the WA Inc saga was eloquently summed up in the words of another Burke, Edmund, the great Irish parliamentarian, which we used as the epigram for the book:

‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle’.

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