19/09/2012 - 10:53

Lines blurred between big business and state

19/09/2012 - 10:53

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Are we seeing a new style of WA Inc as big, sophisticated resources companies influence political life in the state?

Are we seeing a new style of WA Inc as big, sophisticated resources companies influence political life in the state? 

In the dim, dark ages of the mid-1980s, the late UWA associate professor Paddy O’Brien wrote a series of books that have come to characterise Western Australian politics for more than two decades.

I was lectured and tutored by Professor O’Brien and enjoyed a glass of cheap wine at faculty staff and student sundowners where he would hold court.

The colourful and controversial professor wrote two books, ‘The Burke Ambush: Corporatism and Society in Western Australia’ and ‘Burke’s Shambles: Parliamentary Contempt in the Wild West’ that set the scene for the way WA politics would be understood.

These works were written in the days when government was first framing reforms that would see the corporatisation of government agencies like the Water Corporation, Western Power, the creation of development agencies like Landcorp and host of others.

In those days these agencies did not have high paid managing directors and senior executives and ‘independent’ boards, they were run by cardigan-wearing career public servants under direct ministerial control.

Professor O’Brien was principally concerned with the relationship between big business and government and the failed attempt by the Burke Labor government in setting up money-making ventures, including the West Australian Development Corporation (WADC) and the Exim Corporation – both long gone and highly discredited.

He was also concerned about what he regarded was a weakening of the independence of the public sector and an assault on the Westminster conventions of the parliament through an increasing concentration of power by the executive and especially the premier’s department.

The legacy of his concerns was the coining of the phrase ‘WA Inc’, that to this day still caries a political stigma that has politicians from both sides recoiling at its very mention.

Today ‘WA Inc’ has many connotations, especially the east coast media perception that out here in the ‘wild west’ there is a different way of doing business, driven largely by the constant procession of WA’s ‘four-on-the-floor’ entrepreneurs and the boom and bust nature of our resources-dependent economy.

The spectre of ‘WA Inc’ re-emerged during the Corruption and Crime Commission hearings into the activities of lobbyist Brian Burke and his former ministerial sidekick, Julian Grill – both dominant players in the original ‘WA Inc’ saga.

The pair are still battling it out in the courts over whether they and a former senior public servant acted improperly with the exchange of a ‘confidential’ letter. Australia and WA, in particular, are very different to when Paddy O’Brien was railing against the changes in our politic. 

The corporatisation of our public and private institutions today is far more sophisticated and regulated and those that sullied WA’s reputation have either died or gone broke. 

The blurry relationship between our pollies and businessmen schmoozing it up over long, boozy lunches at the Med has passed along with a tightening of the rules of engagement between business and government that imposes far greater accountability than in the past.

But if Professor O’Brien was alive today, it would be interesting and entertaining to get his views on WA’s new style of corporatism that is driven by the big end of town resources businesses and the corporate and political objectives of government.

Today our entrepreneurs have been joined by the rise of sophisticated national and multi-national corporate bureaucracies in the form of Chevron, Fortescue Metals Group, BHP Billiton, Woodside, Rio Tinto and host of others.

As their economic power has grown so has their influence across nearly all facets on WA political life, to the point where other industries and interest groups would be right in thinking they have been pushed to the margins and relegated to the B team.

There is no doubt these companies play an important role in providing jobs and investment for thousands of Western Australians and their families but the public conversation about the future of our state has become dominated by their agenda. These companies and their executives’ ‘vision’ for WA is the subject of endless profile pieces and sponsored corporate luncheon appearances that often include a government minister to round things out and close the circle.

This includes newspapers running big advertisements (once considered unthinkable) by mining companies talking up their corporate and social responsibility. 

There is also a steady ‘cross pollination’ between the state government and these big businesses, as there seems to be a perpetual game of musical executive chairs between the two. 

This has all added to a higher degree of corporate-political legitimacy, especially in relation to their dealings and interaction with government.

But the problems associated with this new form of corporatism is no better highlighted in the controversy surrounding the environmental assessment and approvals process for the Browse LNG plant at James Price Point in the Kimberley.

The government made a series of cabinet appointments to the board of the Environmental Protection Authority with most, if not all, the new faces hopelessly conflicted because of their previous roles with Woodside or others associated with the development.

It was left to the government-appointed chairman of the EPA to make the final call on a project that is being heavily sponsored by those who appointed him – leading to the perception of irresolvable conflicts of interest. 

Things also become increasingly blurry with a news report that Woodside had the government agree to remove Aboriginal heritage references as part of considerations for the project.

Paddy O’Brien was no fan of Brian Burke and would probably say I told you so, with his latest battle in the courts with the CCC.

But, likewise, he would have plenty to say about the rise in the new, more acceptable pin-striped form of corporatism that has emerged in WA politics and business and the constant struggle in resolving the inevitable conflicts of interest between the two.

• Paul Plowman is a former head of the state government’s media office and is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations. Joe Poprzeczny is on assignment overseas.


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