Brian Burke should send an invoice to the WA Liberal Party for services rendered.

Indeed, don’t be surprised if the next voice you hear on a bugged Burke conversation is that of Opposition Leader Paul Omodei, discussing with the leprous lobbyist how much he owes.

Perhaps $500 for every backbencher named, $2000 for each Cabinet minister destroyed and a $250,000 success fee in the event he actually brings down the Carpenter Labor government?

The Corruption and Crime Commission hearings into the effect of lobbyists on public officials are the only show in town right now. We’ve been riding a euphoric economic wave in WA, but the revelations at the CCC have brought us back to earth with a thump.

We remember the early 1980s was a boom-that-will-never-end too – until it did and we were left with a billion-dollar government debt, courtesy of Burke and Co’s mismanagement and dodgy business deals.

We’ve spent 20 years trying to forget those days and those responsible for them. But here they are once again, the same people, similar shadowy deals… harbingers of an economic doom around the corner and a reminder that our Government infrastructure remains woefully open to corruption.

Four State Labor ministers sacked and one demoted for a range of offences over the past year, senior public servants, backbench MPs and mayors outed as sycophants and abusers of public office and – let’s not forget leaders of reputable corporations revealed to be scheming liars.

The list goes on, with each revelation as nauseating as the last but impossible to ignore. Through it all Premier Alan Carpenter has emerged as both jape and hero: rightfully pilloried for his decision to overturn Geoff Gallop’s ban on Burke and henchman Julian Grill lobbying Labor ministers, he has since screeched a complete U-ey and all but declared jihad on the pair.

However, sacking Norm Marlborough, Tony McRae and John Bowler (and, earlier, John D’Orazio) – and warning any other minister outed at the CCC faces the same fate – isn’t enough.

The Premier owes it to all of us to root out the systemic problems in the WA ALP that led to this corruption, even if it costs him his job and Labor government.
The central problem with WA Labor is not Brian Burke; it’s that WA Labor nurtures people like him and the way he does business. The systemic reform required will be extraordinarily difficult and fiercely resisted by vested interests, but it must be undertaken.

At the heart of reforming the political process in WA – and the Liberals need a shakeup too – is to give the WA Electoral Commission much more power and to make it answerable to parliament, not a minister.

The WAEC should administer all memberships and adjudicate all ballots for party positions, including preselections (I’d argue it should do so for all parties but at the very least those represented in the State Parliament).

Further, ministers should be compelled to provide to the WAEC a list of all lobbyists (and those lobbyists’ clients) that they meet, whether on a professional or personal basis, and that list should be publicly available. No appeals for commercial or legal confidentiality should be countenanced: the message, loud and clear, should be that if you want to meet with a Minister of the Crown, you don’t get to do it in secret.

Labor should also abandon the preferential weighting it gives to union representation. Authority should be shared equally amongst all members, not gerrymandered so union leaders can cement themselves into powerful lay-party positions.

The trouble for Carpenter is he will face significant – even overwhelming – internal opposition to any meaningful reform. Already we’ve had multi-millionaire CFMEU boss Kevin Reynolds – the undisputed warlord of the Centre faction – declaring the CCC revelations are a conspiracy by the Left faction.

His wife – backbencher Shelly Archer (named for handing Burke a confidential document) has also moaned about the CCC, as have sacked ministers McRae and Bowler. The public utterances of these people – made despite the overwhelming evidence presented to the CCC – reflect a bloody battle being waged behind the scenes for the future of the WA ALP.

The subtext from Reynolds – a long-time friend of Burke’s – is that he’ll fight any reform that dilutes his powerbase, even if it means Labor losing the next election.
Carpenter is in an invidious position. He’ll move quickly to reshuffle his ministerial deck – again – with some new faces and hope and pray he won’t have to do it again any time soon.

If the CCC doesn’t name any more Government ministers Carpenter will sigh relief and get on with the job, knowing that in two years voters will be thinking about other things. However, if more ministers are implicated – especially if they’re senior ministers – his Government will be terminal, despite his personal popularity with the public.

One or two more ministers getting the chop should compel Carpenter to go to the polls in order to restore public faith in Government. It would go against his grain to do so and certainly his political svengalis such as Jim McGinty would advise against it. But he should take the higher ground and remember he is not just the Leader of the Labor Party; he is the Premier of Western Australia and has a higher duty to the public than he does to his own party.

If during the re-election campaign he manages to oust Burke- and Reynolds-aligned candidates and present his team as cleanskins, it’s not even beyond reason he could be re-elected.

Disclosure: Brian Mitchell has resigned from the Herald, effective March 30, and starts work for Tasmanian Labor MHR Duncan Kerr in April.

Peter Fray

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