Upper House member Shelley Archer was right to characterise the Corruption and Crime Commission as a “circus” on ABC’s Perth TV News last night.

Established by Attorney-General Jim McGinty in 2003, ostensibly to investigate crooked coppers and outlaw motorcycle gangs, the CCC is applying its enormously intrusive powers (arguably more draconian than anti-terrrorism laws) with the apparent intent of destroying McGinty’s factional arch-enemy Brian Burke — and anyone who ever took a call from Burke. The CCC’s adventure into the world of political intrigue didn’t seem to be foreshadowed in McGinty’s Second Reading Speech on the CCC Bill.

Now I don’t suggest that politics is always conducted in the polite and bureaucratic manner that we might expect from a government department.

Democracy involves a fierce contest of ideas between and within organised political parties, and there are times when people behave in ways that might not measure up to official public service standards. Where we need to draw a line is where such conduct is criminal.

Notably, the CCC inquiry has not suggested that Brian Burke has committed any criminal offence. The charge against Burke seems to be that he is very influential, and knows how to play the respective sides of an argument to get an outcome for his client.

Burke is a senior figure in the ALP’s Right Faction, and it’s not surprising that he wields influence within the Labor Party. Senior union officials also exercise considerable (arguably greater) power but they don’t seem to have come under the CCC microscope.

It’s worth noting that, as Attorney-General, McGinty is advised of all phone taps conducted by the CCC.

But all this is more than a witch-hunt against Brian Burke. It has some pretty nasty elements as well.

Publishing the private phone number of Mrs Lesley Grill in a transcript on the CCC’s website, when it might very easily have been suppressed, is one of those. What is the legitimate public interest in knowing Mrs Grill’s private mobile phone number?

And it’s intriguing that the CCC has suppressed the names of certain Cabinet Ministers mentioned in phone taps — but did not suppress the name of the Shadow Minister for Small Business (who got sacked today on account of his mention) — nor of others who are mentioned but who are not suggested to have acted improperly in any way. This must raise the question of whether there is at least unconscious protection of people that the CCC does not want to offend — and reckless disregard for anyone else’s entitlement to due process.

Remember this: the CCC is not a court. Persons called before it have no right to decline to answer questions, they have no right to cross-examine witnesses, and they are forbidden to put their own case either in the CCC hearing or outside the hearing room so that the public can know their side of the story. This interdiction on public comment is backed up by the threat of hefty fines and imprisonment.

Meanwhile the CCC’s media unit works hard to ensure that details of each day’s carefully-selected and salacious evidence and one-sided assertions by counsel are widely reported. Transcripts are made available to the media well before they are publicly available. Mp3 recordings of phone taps are provided promptly to media but are not made available at all to the public on the CCC website — which means that the media may report those extracts they consider most “compelling”, and members of the public have no way of knowing whether the context is accurate.

Let’s turn now to the quality of the CCC’s work. Many of the suppression orders made by the CCC to date are quite ineffective — the identity of the suppressed person is readily ascertainable from the context within the transcript, which is made available for everyone to see on the CCC website.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Transcript Reference: 21/2/07 CRICHTON-BROWNE, N.A. XN 477
    “Noel’s note to me told me that the Liberal Party has put (suppression) in charge of policy.”
    The name of the Shadow Minister responsible for policy is a matter of public record.
  • 21/2/07 BURKE, B.T. XN 529
    MARLBOROUGH: Ah well, he says you know just. The words there are only two new chums in there (suppression) and I. It is very easy to check the date of appointments to Cabinet and find out which were made around the time of Marlborough’s appointment.
  • 21/2/07 BURKE, B.T. XN 534
    But not only that I mean I f-cken got stuff out of (suppression)’s office.
    It is clear from subsequent cross-examination of Burke (see p.556) that this is the Minister responsible for Broome Airport — that’s the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure and the identity of that person is a matter of public record.
  • 21/2/07 BURKE, B.T. XN 551
    Ms (suppression) is the parliamentary secretary to the attorney-general?—Yes.
    The identity of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General is a matter of public record.

I think the media are so titillated by the experience of listening in to the private conversations of “important people” that any angle other than “Here’s-Burke-in-a-Panama-Hat-and-dark-glasses-and-don’t-he-look-a-right-villain” won’t get a run over here any time soon.