21/04/2011 - 00:00

Cautionary tale of opportunity lost

21/04/2011 - 00:00

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John D’Orazio was a central figure in the turmoil that eventually brought Labor’s reign, under Alan Carpenter to an end.

THE recent sudden death of former Labor cabinet minister-turned independent MP, John D’Orazio, is the end of a disastrous chain of events not only for him, but also for the last Labor government, led by Alan Carpenter.

If Mr D’Orazio’s alleged indiscretions while a Labor MP had been better handled at the time, it’s reasonable to assume he would have stayed in politics – and Mr Carpenter would still be premier.

Mr D’Orazio, who was 55, had served as mayor of Bayswater for 17 years before entering state parliament in 2001 as the MP for Ballajura. That was only after a bruising endorsement contest against a candidate backed by a former premier, Brian Burke.

He quickly became chairman of the Public Accounts Committee – which has been a launching pad for many ambitious young MPs – probing, among other things, alleged questionable financial dealings by senior doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital.

But it was after his promotion to then premier Geoff Gallop’s cabinet in 2005 as minister for justice and small business that the seeds for his subsequent problems were sown. Mr D’Orazio handled the duties confidently in the next 12 months, including the potentially explosive issue of prisoners absconding from the Wooroloo minimum-security institution.

His solution was to order the construction of a new, high perimeter fence to stem the flow. He didn’t flinch when critics said such action was contrary to the spirit of ‘minimum security’, where prisoners were being prepared for returning to the community.

After Geoff Gallop quit through ill health in early 2006, and new premier Alan Carpenter reshuffled the frontbench, it was virtually all downhill.

Mr Carpenter acknowledged the member for Ballajura’s solid first year in the cabinet by giving him the testing police portfolio, in addition to justice. Emergency services and community safety were added. In addition, the new premier took the unusual step of dubbing Mr D’Orazio the government’s ‘rising star’. Based on subsequent events, that turned out to be something of an unwanted endorsement.

It was the first time I had heard a premier being so effusive about a cabinet minister. I thought it unwise at the time. After all, they are all supposed to be equals. And it’s easy to foster – unwittingly of course – petty jealousies, even among match-hardened senior members of parliament.

I was also reminded of an earlier incident in New South Wales. In 1979, then Premier Neville Wran fast-tracked the promotion of a senior police officer after problems emerged virtually at the very top of the force. But Mr Wran appeared restrained in reference to the attributes the newly elevated officer brought to the job. Maybe the wily premier knew something we didn’t, because it wasn’t long before his new high-flier was having to answer some embarrassing questions. Or maybe it said something about the NSW Police at the time.

Nevertheless, Mr Carpenter was effectively chancing his arm by singling out his new police minister with such praise. He also posed for the cameras in a headlock with new minister Norm Marlborough. The risk was that the whole thing could end in tears. And it did.

In May 2006 it emerged after an accident in his ministerial car that Mr D’Orazio had been driving for two months without a licence. Not a good look for a police minister. Mr Carpenter removed him from the portfolio before then dumping him from the cabinet.

But the MP insisted he had never been told about the loss of his licence. He said the Fines Enforcement Agency must have sent the details to the wrong address. The Solicitor General’s Office paid him $15,000 in costs.

But there was more. In August 2006 he was involved in a Corruption and Crime Commission investigation, linked with phone conversations with a Bayswater panel beater. The man was allegedly using his influence with police officers to have speeding fines dropped. Surveillance officers filmed Mr D’Orazio visiting the man, with this vision later released by the CCC.

It seemed sensational stuff, but the MP stood his ground, saying there was nothing sinister. He was later cleared of misconduct.

But there was even more. It was revealed that Mr D’Orazio’s pharmacy had failed to pay the superannuation entitlements of its staff. Not a good look for a Labor MP and something that didn’t go down well with key unions. The MP said it was an oversight. By now he’d been forced to resign from Labor.

The newly independent MP remained in the public spotlight, jointly sponsoring a private members’ bill with a former Liberal leader Matt Birney for an extended daylight saving trial. After a reasonable time in the sin bin, he sought readmission to the party, saying the serious allegations against him had not been sustained.

Mr D’Orazio was eventually reinstated but by this stage Mr Carpenter was compiling his ‘dream team’ of candidates, with television journalist Reece Whitby being earmarked for the new seat of Morley, in place of Ballajura, which was to be abolished. Relations were somewhat tense on the Labor benches, especially when one MP labelled Mr D’Orazio an “ethnic branch stacker”, based on the extraordinarily big numbers in some of his branches.

It’s now history that Mr Whitby won the Labor endorsement. And when the general election was called six months early, Mr D’Orazio ran as an independent, split the Labor vote, and Liberal Ian Britza emerged as the most unlikely of winners in Morley.

But that wasn’t the only reverse for Labor in the lead-up to the poll. Three other ministers had been caught in controversies and forced to quit the cabinet, including goldfields MP John Bowler who was also out of the party. He won Kalgoorlie as an independent.

The electoral consequence of these incidents – and some questionable decision making by the then Labor leadership – were significant. And the Liberal Party was the beneficiary.

Labor emerged from the snap election with 28 seats in the 59-seat parliament, leaving it the biggest party. If Mr D’Orazio had been endorsed for Morley and won, as he surely would have, and Mr Bowler still been in Labor and won, as he would have, the party would have had 30 members and be lining up for a third term in power.

In fairness to Alan Carpenter, the atmosphere around the time of the D’Orazio allegations and other ministerial problems was poisonous. And helping to fuel it was the almost shadowy presence of lobbyists, especially Brian Burke. That was damaging to Labor, and Mr Carpenter obviously wanted to distance himself from Mr Burke after initially dropping a Gallop ban on the then lobbyist – unwisely as it turned out.

But if handled with a more strategic approach, the story could well have had a vastly different ending – for Mr Carpenter and Mr D’Orazio, and Labor.

 

 

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