Despite WA’s outstanding economic and social growth of the past half-century, there has been no shortage of controversy to bring our premiers undone.
Despite their political differences, all Western Australian premiers must dream of leading the state at a time of strong economic growth and major investment, especially in the resources sector. The goal was established by David Brand’s government in the 1960s, and has continued unabated.
But strong growth, or even boom conditions, can have fatal consequences. Expectations become inflated and governments can struggle to ensure that the provision of essential services keeps pace with the accompanying population surge.
That, plus a dose of growth fatigue, was a factor in the Brand government’s defeat in 1971 after his record 12-year term as premier. Now it’s a problem for Colin Barnett in 2013, particularly in Perth, where public transport and the city’s road system struggle to cope with escalating demand.
Mr Barnett knows that unless he can get on top of this challenge, he and his team could experience the same fate as that of the Brand government.
Researching the state’s premiers since I entered journalism at The West Australian in 1970 has been an enlightening experience. There has been a significant change in the backgrounds of the holders of the state’s senior political office. And there have been a number of firsts as well, some good, others not so good.
There have been 11 premiers in all. The first, David Brand, was coming to the end of a remarkable run. The former Dongara shopkeeper had been the first MP elected in Australia under the new Liberal Party banner when he won the seat of Greenough in 1945.
He quickly learned the significance of development for the ‘Cinderella state’, and, as minister for works, played a key role in bringing the oil refinery to Kwinana, which then attracted other industries to the area in the 1950s.
He was joined by Charles Court, a St Georges Terrace chartered accountant and fellow ex-serviceman, who became the driving force in the opening up of the Pilbara iron ore province in the 1960s. WA became ‘the state on the move’, ‘the great state’, and ‘the state of excitement’.
Schools were bulging, hospitals were under pressure and workers fled the government sector to get higher pay elsewhere. Land prices for housing took off, too, and became a major factor behind the coalition government’s narrow defeat in 1971.
Labor’s John Tonkin was premier, aged 69. The former schoolteacher had been an MP for 38 years, and led a middle-of-the-road government. The first Middle-East oil shock, which pushed up oil prices, took the steam out of the state’s growth. And Mr Tonkin wasn’t helped by some controversial decisions by the Whitlam Labor government in Canberra.
These contributed to his loss in 1974 to Charles Court, who was Liberal leader after 15 years as deputy. Times had changed and he found it hard to repeat the economic miracle of the 1960s. There were some domestic blunders too, such as the closure of the Fremantle-Perth railway line, and the clash over land rights and exploration at Noonkanbah in the Kimberley.
But he did lay the groundwork for more spectacular growth by opening up the oil and gas-rich North West Shelf, and planning the Dampier to Bunbury gas pipeline, which brought much needed competition to the South West’s power supplies.
Another ex-serviceman, Ray O’Connor, became premier with 12 months to the 1983 election. But he was swept away by a seemingly irresistible Labor force in the youthful form of Brian Burke, 35, who scored an emphatic victory.
Mr Burke set about tapping fresh sources of revenue by forming close alliances with a new breed of ‘goers’ in the business sector. He chased the new money – Alan Bond, Laurie Connell, John Roberts, Dallas Dempster and Robert Holmes a Court. They were very generous party donors too.
Burke surprisingly, and unwisely as it turned out, resigned in February 1988 to become Ambassador to Ireland and the Vatican. His successor, lawyer Peter Dowding – the first university graduate in the job – was overwhelmed by the problems he had inherited. These included the demands of the ‘four on the floor’ business types who struck financial trouble.
Enter Carmen Lawrence, Australia’s first female premier. Within a year she had triggered the WA Inc royal commission, much to the horror of some of her party colleagues and independent Sydney-based advice.
It was the most sensational period in WA’s political history. As a result of its findings, Mr Burke was jailed twice – although cleared on one of the convictions on appeal – Mr O’Connor also did time, as did a deputy premier, David Parker.
When Richard Court won the 1993 election more history was created. The state had its first father-and-son premiers. His successors, Geoff Gallop, Alan Carpenter and Colin Barnett, have also left their mark.
And that’s only scratching the surface.
Peter Kennedy’s book on the past 11 premiers will be available through UWA Publishing (www.uwap.com.au) next March.