February 24, 2007
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Here is a good story. Back in the fog of yesteryear, when John Howard was still a nobody minister in Malcolm Fraser’s government, the Labor Party held one of its national policymaking conferences in Perth. The debate this particular day was on industrial relations. John Ducker, the right-wing union leader and NSW ALP president with a speech impediment as fierce as his reputation, got upset after a local delegate moved a series of amendments to Ducker’s conference report. Years later, Ducker’s political protege at the time, Graham Richardson, would write: “After the amendments had been defeated, Ducker returned to his seat muttering dark things about ‘that f—ing lunatic’ from the West Australian delegation.”
The “f—ing lunatic” was Brian Burke.
The year was 1977. The incident was Richardson’s introduction to Burke, then a state MP only four years into political life. Six years on, Burke would become premier, a measure of his hustle, but on that day of “dark muttering” he was just another face whom Richardson, “after some furtive asides” with Kim Beazley (still three years away from beginning his political career in Canberra), arranged to have lunch with. It was the beginning of their political “love” affair.
By 1984, with Labor in government in Perth and Canberra, Richardson was unstinting in publicly eulogising Burke as a “future prime minister”. Fortunately for the rest of us, Richardson was wrong.
What Burke became was a convicted thief, liar and political debaucher, and the architect, across five years as premier of his state, of that blackly infected period of greed in the 1980s known as the WA Inc years. Now he is just another disgraced huckster in dark glasses and a thick hide but one with a lot of misguided cronies.
Just as Richardson, ever the loyalist, would write in 1994: “So that no one can be in any doubt about my views of Brian Burke, I am proud to count him among my friends. He is a great politician and I believe him to be incapable of stealing from anyone.”
The royal commission into WA Inc disagreed.
Set up in January 1991 by Carmen Lawrence to try to save the unsaveable state government that Burke quit in early 1988, the commission cost West Australian taxpayers $30 million. This was a pittance alongside the almost $600 million squandered during the Burke years’ string of ill-judged deals with grateful corporate sponsors, Alan Bond chief among them, who did so much to bankroll Burke’s local political empire.