Crikey applauds MPs who speak their mind and applauds Carmen Lawrence for speaking out on the ALP’s 60-40 rule and the treatment of asylum seekers. But we’re a broad church at Crikey and this piece by the Rev Cleophus puts Carmen in her historical context.

Her subsequent attendance and address to a similar rally in Canberra, in defiance of direct instructions by her parliamentary leader not to do so, was equally predictable and totally in character.

What does this conduct by Lawrence tell us about her? It tells us that prior to and during the campaign, Lawrence, in the hope and perhaps expectation that it would reward her with a Ministry, was prepared to be bound by a policy of which she was so ashamed that she was subsequently reduced to tears.

In the name of self interest, Carmen Lawrence held herself out to her electorate and the wider community to be supporting a policy which in truth she apparently passionately opposed and personally finds to be repugnant.

However, Lawrence did not disclose her repugnance at her own party’s policy until the prospect of its benefit to her had well passed. Having sought the benefit of one policy position, Carmen Lawrence then maximised whatever virtue there was to be found in a new position by the manner of her abjuration.

Lawrence chose to publicly portray herself as an anguished woman, deeply effected by the plight of the asylum seekers and apparently riddled with guilt for the policy position her party had adopted.

Not satisfied with having created turmoil within the Labor Party and very considerable discomfort for her leader, Lawrence publicly reinforced her new position by addressing a second rally in support of asylum seekers in direct defiance of her leader at which she again expressed views which were in contradiction of the Labor Party’s policy on the issue.

Lawrence’s political selfishness to the point of solipsism, has been previously on show on two unforgettable occasions.

Lawrence’s refusal to look beyond her own interests and to act in the best interests of her party and her colleagues, was vividly displayed in her bloody minded refusal to resign from the Ministry during the Marks Royal Commission of 1995; a Commission which was set up to investigate Lawrence’s conduct during her term as Premier of Western Australia.

As the Keating Labor government entered the second half of 1995, it was in dire trouble and in desperate need of both rejuvenation and a break into clear air. Lawrence put paid to that. She refused to resign or step aside and apparently declined suggestions that she do so.

For months leading up to the 1996 federal election, Minister Lawrence sat pertinaciously on the front bench while day after day Prime Minister Keating was forced to defend her against damning and damaging revelations which flowed incessantly from the Royal Commission.

Keating found himself not only embroiled in Lawrence’s troubles but his government completely consumed by them. Question time in the House of Representatives was reduced to little more than a debate about the debilitating and destructive Lawrence revelations.

The Labor government was neither able to attack Howard who went through the whole period with barely a policy, or to present Labor’s own vision for another term. The last day of parliamentary sittings of the Keating government was occupied with debating legislation to appropriate funds for Lawrence’s legal bills.

In a single stroke, Carmen Lawrence could have given her party and her colleagues an opportunity to compete with the Liberal Party on equal terms. Had she resigned when it was abundantly clear to all that she was doing irreparable damage to her party, the government may not have been saved, however a number of her colleagues would not have had their political careers destroyed.

What caused the 1995 Marks Royal Commission? The Marks Royal Commission was triggered by the suicide of an innocent and vulnerable young woman, Penny Easton, following false allegation having been made against her and which were tabled in the form of a petition by a Labor Member in the Western Australian State parliament. Dr Carmen Lawrence was Premier at the time.

The petition was the product of a bitter divorce settlement between Penny Easton and her ex-husband. It contained allegations by Brian Easton arising from very acrimonious proceedings in the Family Court. Easton’s ex-husband was subsequently jailed as a result of the contents of the petition.

The significance of the petition for the Labor Party was that it contained very damaging but false allegations against Richard Court, then Leader of the Opposition.

Court was accused of improperly providing documents to Penny Easton for her Family Court proceedings and the Labor Party believed he was being investigated by the police.

The documents arose from Mr Easton’s employment by two Labor created quasi government organisations. Equally untruthfully, the Labor Party was putting it about that Court was having an affair with Penny Easton.

On the morning after the petition was tabled in the parliament, Penny Easton stood with her back to camera in the garage of her home in silent response to persistent questions by television reporter Geof Parry. (Parry has been promoted and now reports for Channel 7 in Canberra.)

Penny Easton committed suicide four days after the petition was presented. She left a note saying she felt she had no other way out.

In the weeks and days before the petition was tabled on 5 November 1992, Dr Lawrence was under pressure on a number of matters.

She had a particular worry about the threat of press disclosure of a police investigation concerning $5000 advanced to her for the purposes of an overseas trip which came to be cancelled as a result of her becoming Premier in 1990. (Lawrence had neglected to refund the money.)

A Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly had been considering the circumstances of a grant of land by Dr Lawrence’s government to the University of Notre Dame and whether she had misled Parliament in relation to it.

On 20 October 1992, just days before the petition was tabled, Dr Lawrence found it necessary to apologise to the House for having misled it when speaking about her knowledge of the collapsed Western Women Management Pty Ltd which, under the management of Robyn Greenburg, had, among other things, been the source of loss to investors.

On the same day, 20 October, Part 1 of the Report of the Royal Commission into the Commercial Activities of Government (1992) was tabled in Parliament. Its conclusions were damaging to the government and one Minister and the Cabinet Secretary resigned.

These facts distilled, the Labor government and Premier Lawrence in particular were in great political trouble and they believed that the tabling of the Easton petition would be a major distraction from Lawrence’s problems while causing damage to the Opposition.

The Report of the Royal Commission states that “Dr Lawrence denied that she knew anything about the contents of the petition before the morning of 5 November 1992 (day of tabling) and denied any participation or involvement in the support given by her staff, or in the advice and course suggested to Brian Easton, or about the arrangements for the publicity for the allegations which came to be embodied in the petition.”

“Generally speaking, it is the weight of evidence in contradiction of Dr Lawrence’s version that requires its disbelief.”

“There was, however, other evidence which strongly undermined the credibility of Dr Lawrence. It did not depend on belief or disbelief of another witness, but solely on what she herself said.”

Lawrence was found to have fabricated evidence to the Royal Commission. She was also found to have clearly told an untruth to the Press Club in Canberra when she said that she knew the day before the tabling of the petition that she would be exonerated in regard to the impress account. (Her $5000 travel advance.)

The Royal Commission found that on the day before the tabling of the petition Dr Lawrence could not have been “already aware” that she would be exonerated because the decision not to charge her was not made by the Police Commissioner until the day following the tabling of the petition.

The Royal Commission further found that “the outcome of the issue about her pre-tabling knowledge of the Easton allegations was put beyond doubt by the evidence of what took place on the occasion of a Cabinet meeting on Monday, 2 November 1992.” (3 days before the petition was tabled.)

“There were 16 persons who might have been present. Eight of these persons testified that Dr Lawrence initiated discussion about the sponsoring of the Easton allegations. These eight were unanimous that it was Dr Lawrence who raised the matter.”

Of the balance, one Minister refused to give evidence on the vital questions, three others left early and three others testified that they could not remember. Each of these later three conceded the possibility he or she was not present when the subject was raised.

Fourteen witnesses, all of whom supported Dr Lawrence’s government and/or worked for it, contradicted Dr Lawrence’s claim that she had no involvement or awareness in the tabling of the petition.

The Royal Commission found that

“In the circumstances the conduct of Dr Lawrence in the use of her office as Premier was improper:

(a) in supporting the use of Easton’s grievances and allegations for her own personal interests at the expense of the interests of the parties to the Easton matrimonial dispute and members of their families;

(b) in falsely denying to the public her knowledge of, and participation in, the events and circumstances preceding the presentation of the petition;

(c) in depriving the public of its right and freedom to discuss and judge her participation in the relevant events by untruthfully denying the existence of that participation.”

Dr Lawrence may well cry over the circumstances of asylum seekers, however to the knowledge at least of the writer, Dr Lawrence did not publicly shed a single tear in grief for the death of Penny Easton and nor to the knowledge of the writer has she apologised or said sorry to the family of Penny Easton for her tragic and unnecessary death.

Dr Lawrence was acquitted of three charges of having lied to the Marks Royal Commission after a three week trial. She left the court in tears.

Former Senator Peter Walsh, a senior Minister in both the Hawke and Keating governments, writing in the Financial Review commented: “The jury concluded Lawrence could not remember important events a week after they happened. Respecting that conclusion, the ALP must decide whether, with that acute memory defect, she should be re-endorsed for Fremantle or returned to the front bench.”

Peter Fray

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