Well, it took three years, countless lawyers, acres of newsprint and a witch-hunt Salem’d be proud of, but yesterday WA’s Crime and Corruption Commission finally got a conviction in a court of law.

Pop quiz. In a state where half the nightclubs are run by bikies, drugs use is at an all-time high and the building unions and building developers deserve each other, who did the big bad CCC put away yesterday?

Well, nobody actually.

Former Carpenter government minister Norm Marlborough was fined $12,500 for lying to the commission over his contact with former Premier-turned-lobbyist, Brian Burke. Marlborough was found guilty of misleading the commission when he testified in 2006 that he Burke hadn’t asked him to appoint one Beryl Morgan to a government position (an appointment, more than incidentally, that Marlborough subsequently did not make).

So after three years, unlimited resources, powers that’d make the old Russian NKVD blush and every advantage in the case, not to mention a rather hysterical media campaign, what’s the CCC got to show for it? A $12,500 fine. That’s a pretty pathetic return for a supposed scandal that by the end had cost three ministers and one Parliamentary secretary their jobs, saw two MPs kicked out of the ALP and even reached to the Howard government, where poor old Ian Campbell lost the environment portfolio after meeting with Burke.

In other previous cases, public servants Mike Allen and Paul Frewer and lobbyist Julian Grill were all found not guilty of giving false evidence to the same CCC inquiry. Company director David McKenzie had similar charges dismissed on a technicality.

Woeful.

There’s no winners from this saga. If Burke, his business partner Julian Grill, Marlborough and the rest of the unusual suspects had really been up to no good on the levels alleged, WA must surely have the most incompetent prosecutors in Christendom. On the other hand, if the worst that happened is a minister lied on oath under the impression he was defending his mate, can it really be said that the money, the hysteria and the paranoia was worth it?

The name Burke conjures up all manner of evil visions for a lot of West Australians. Like a real-life Voldemort, Burke has become He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named within the WA ALP and beyond, although why this is so remains a mystery to your humble correspondent. The level of silliness was exposed in Judge Phillip Eaton’s remarks in the Marlborough case, when he said that Marlborough had shown a “misguided sense of loyalty” to Burke and attempted to protect  Burke from “accusations that he had tried to influence the government”.

Well of course Burke tried to influence the government — that’s what lobbyists do. Every pressure group, special-interest campaign and professional association in the country tries to influence any government they come within earshot of, and that’s no cause for shame. Yet it’s a measure of how dirty the name Burke has become, and by association the term lobbyist, that Marlborough knew if he admitted that his mate was simply doing his job there’d be public fallout.

The average punter in Hay St mall, if they were asked, would tell you that Burke, Grill, Marlborough and the rest of the orchestra were corrupt. Yet there have been no findings of corruption in any court of law against anyone. Compare this to another former Premier, Sir Charles Court, who freely volunteered in a newspaper interview a year before his death that after the government in which he was resources minister was defeated, he attempted to influence public servants to resist the policies of his successor, and indeed continue carrying out his instructions!!

Indeed, Sir Charles. Why worry about a pesky thing such as an election?

It is not the job of the legal system to generate and perpetuate rumour and innuendo, much less rely on it for prosecuting public figures. All that occurred in this case, as far as one can ascertain, is that Burke and Grill utilised the mates’ network that is the operating ethos of WA. Did they use it for personal gain? Of course. But there wouldn’t be a business or political figure of note in WA, not to mention a few sporting ones, that haven’t done the same, or worse, in spades.

None of this, of course, excuses Marlborough from lying under oath. And it does not ethically excuse Burke’s masterful manipulation of his friends and acquaintances, or Grill’s for that matter. Handle those two at your own risk. Yet with all the effort that’s gone into the whole affair for a result only $12,500 more than zero, perhaps it’s time that the role and powers of the CCC were thoroughly examined … and perhaps those calling for similar bodies in Victoria and federally might like to take a long, deep breath.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off