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14 August, 2009  

Corporate donations to political parties … What is the problem, asks Procrustes? ... WA Inc showed the way … Others have followed … It’s democracy – sort of

imageWe exist in a world of exchange and barter, so if people want political answers to their problems then, of course, they pay for the solution.

Sometimes this is done after delivery of the answer, but that is said to look tacky with its lack of emphasis on the general public interest.

The time honoured approach in the Australian system is for money to be stumped up in advance, usually by way of a campaign donation, either to the party of one’s preference, but more sensibly to the party that one expects to win the next voterthon.

The Weekend Australian of August 8-9 was waxing indignant at the sums of money being dished out by bizoids to have 15 minutes of fame with cabinet ministers.

Much harrumphing at the present goings on in Queensland, but it was the picture from 1987 that caught my eye: Hawkey, Burkey and most of the four-on-the-floor entrepreneurs from WA Inc.

imageBondy, Last Resort Laurie Connell, John Roberts of Multiplex and the rest, in their prime.

The WA Inc Royal Commission reported in 1991 on the goings-on in general and the political donations in particular.

Ah, what times they were, as Procrustes contemplates them through the cloud from his Montecristo.

The commission noted that John Roberts had given $692,000 to the WA Division of the ALP about the time that the entrepreneurs had been photographed.

No strings attached, of course, but the commission sagely droned on about people tending to want value for money, particularly when they were handing it out in truckloads.

The jolly thing about Roberts’ two-thirds-of-a-mill-plus was that it got him into the slot to be a sandgroper hero, because the Labor government of Peter Dowding (old chum of Mal Turnbull) and his successor Carmen Lawrence had a running sore on their hands in the shape of the Old Swan Brewery site.

This was a prime slice of land by the Swan River a kilometer from the CBD and owned by the Crown.

imageThe worm in the development salad was that the local indigenous claimed that the site had to be dealt with under the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, which would stymie any sensible use for the land.

The State Crown began by telling the uppity boongs that the Act didn’t apply to the Crown, but unfortunately, the Bolshevists at the Mason High Court thought otherwise.

The Crown then moved to Plan B, which involved the relevant minister (who happened to be La Lawrence) exercising a discretion over the use of the land.

As she said in November 1990, crocodile tears streaming:

“The government respects the Aboriginal significance of the area but it is equally important to recognise arguments for the preservation of buildings that are national heritage assets.”

Hey presto, thank heavens John Roberts galloped over the horizon at that point and offered a subsidiary of Multiplex as the saviour to preserve the heritage assets – the white fellas’ assets that is.

Naturally, renovating the ruins on the site to suitable corporate HQ standards would cost a bit, so Johnno wanted a fair deal for the money he was going to lay out on land that was only going to be leased to him.

Bearing in mind that he’d donated 692 large ones only three years before, Carmen, by now the Premier, saw her way clear and leased the prime site to Roberts for a peppercorn – $1 a year.

Good work if you can get it.

No one who mattered was offended. The locals all loathed the Swan River blacks, so having Roberts build all over the site that they wanted kept bare for heritage memorial purposes was just ducky.

imageThis was followed by the WA Inc Royal Commission huffing and puffing to no effect at all, but even more wonderfully, in August 2000, Carmen (seen here) gave a speech that was meant to put her back on the political map after the wilderness of her perjury trial.

It was about how the evil of large corporate political donations must be stopped.

Not a soul noticed the irony.

Procrustes was agog with admiration at this chutzpah.

The spectacle of the ALP as party, the ALP as WA government and John Roberts in an odious, but mutually beneficial triangle, was a treat.

And Carmen’s success in papering over her involvement was really classy.

This business of political donations comes to the surface every decade or so, but fortunately dies away soon enough as the masses get back to beer and footy.

As Procrustes has long understood, the clichés about governing in the public interest are just that: clichés.

If you must you could invite a minister down to the club and ply him with Courvoisier.

If you can’t do that, well, neither can you afford a new Merc, and that’s your lot in life.

As I sink back with a beautifully structured Armagnac, I realise I’m singing, to the annoyance of neighbouring members:

It’s the rich wot get the pleasure
And the poor wot get the blame
It’s the same the ‘ole world over
Isn’t it a bloody shame.