07/11/2014 - 05:00

Carmen under pressure

07/11/2014 - 05:00


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The third instalment from Peter Kennedy’s new book on WA’s recent political past examines the pressure on Carmen Lawrence to set up a royal commission into what became known as WA Inc.

Carmen under pressure
JUST SAY NO: Malcolm Turnbull, who was advising Peter Dowding, opposed the royal commission and said it was a response to political pressure on Carmen Lawrence.

Carmen Lawrence was elected Labor Party leader and premier in January 1990 after her parliamentary colleagues decided to dump Peter Dowding. She was under immediate pressure to call a royal commission into the business dealings of governments led by Dowding and his predecessor, Brian Burke.

Leading the campaign for an inquiry was the opposition, led by Barry MacKinnon, and the lobby group People for Fair and Open Government, in which her lawyer brother Bevan (Lawrence) was prominent.

Calls for the commission were growing louder, and Bevan locked himself in his office over Easter 1990 to draft proposed terms of reference, dating back to the government's purchase from Alan Bond of Northern Mining early in Burke's first term.

He delivered his terms of reference to his sister, the premier, on April 30 (1990). The pressure for a top level inquiry was not going away and Carmen conceded it was starting to interfere with the government.

"I resisted the calls initially but changed my mind as more material became public," she said. "It was not as straightforward as it seemed and, in the conduct of government, it was a continual distraction as information emerged on the level of impropriety. But the extent was not certain ... And people needed to be asked about it in an environment in which they had to tell the truth.

"Some ministers thought that calling the royal commission was a terrible decision. But they did not have any real alternative. I made it clear I did not have the political skills to make the issue go away.

"I am sure phone calls came from Dublin (where Brian Burke was Australia's ambassador) about the decision. I certainly got some relayed messages (from him) and they weren't supportive."

Bevan said he was in his office later that year when Carmen phoned and said she would call a royal commission.

"She had drawn up terms of references, was happy to send them down, and was interested in my comments which I provided," he said. "I'm not sure if she intended to modify them at all. She did add a few things because I don't think the government of the day would have let her do it (appoint the commission) otherwise."

Senior minister Bob Pearce was far from happy about the commission decision, adding that he had been supported by the attorney-general, Joe Berinson.

One 'outsider' strongly opposed to the royal commission was Malcolm Turnbull, who had made regular visits from Sydney to advise Dowding while premier. He recalled telling Lawrence that it was a "big mistake". He said the decision was really her response to "heavy political pressure".

"The view I had was ... 'look, there may be some great political strategy here but I think what Western Australia needs to do is rigorously investigate and prosecute the people that have committed crimes, and lock them up'. Which is what the Yanks do. They don't muck around. There's a crash, they get in, get to the heart of it, throw people in jail and so forth," Turnbull said.

"I said, 'if you have a royal commission it will drag on for years and years. It has been a bad episode in Western Australia, it doesn't reflect well on anyone very much, and I think you want to let the police do their work, lock up the guilty and then move on because you have got a public interest to worry about."

The opposition, which had been relentless in its prosecution of the case for an inquiry, had not expected the green light.

"I felt that they probably would not bite the bullet," MacKinnon said. "We were surprised and pleased when it happened. But it was the right thing to do, and we were on the right track."

The commission process took almost two years, and cost more than $30 million.

The 1,900-page report was tabled in parliament on 19 October 1992 and immediately set off shock waves. There were adverse findings against former premiers Burke and Ray O'Connor, for which both served jail terms, becoming the first WA leaders to do time. The action of senior minister David Parker – who kept $25,000 in a leather satchel in his office and also went to jail – was described as "on any footing, extraordinary."

Lawrence, who was intent on staying on the front foot over the issue, said Western Australians were entitled to be outraged by the findings. Cabinet minister Bob Pearce and cabinet secretary Bill Thomas resigned following adverse findings, although Pearce believed his transgression to be trivial – "a rap over the knuckles".

"Bill Thomas was furious about his reference," Pearce said. "I told him she would want him to resign and I said 'stand your ground'. She sent then ALP secretary Chris Evans to work on Bill. She wanted a couple of scalps, and preferably mine."


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