06/06/2012 - 10:50

Money & power ... who would have thought?

06/06/2012 - 10:50

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Government and business are becoming a little too close for comfort.

Government and business are becoming a little too close for comfort.

THE only real surprise to emerge from last month’s revelation that some of Perth’s CEOs and top business types pay $25,000 annually for face-to-face contact with Colin Barnett and his ministers – the so-called Leaders’ Forum – is that anyone found this news surprising.

I would now have come close to filling a sizeable wine rack if I’d received a bottle of Grange each time someone expressed amazement that this practice had resurfaced.

Many raising it said it reminded them of Labor’s John Curtin Foundation of the 1980s.

My response was that it’s always worth remembering two simple things when observing politics.

Firstly, the more things change the more they remain the same; and secondly, the appetite political parties have for cash is insatiable, especially as an election approaches with voters needing to be bombarded with what are little more that inane political quarter truths.

Neither, of course, justifies ministers charging voters – wealthier ones – heavily for the opportunity to meet them.

Just about everything is wrong with this kind of practice.

One would have thought Western Australia’s ministers and premier, all handsomely remunerated, regarded it as part of their duty to meet constituents and anyone else who has good cause to seek discourse on matters of public policy.

Specialist meetings should be undertaken with expert departmental advisers present so requests, suggestions, or representations can be fully, expertly and objectively assessed with the broader good in mind.

And all outcomes should be disclosed, firstly by press release followed by parliamentary statements.

Backdoor deals that are paid for over and above company taxes should never be countenanced.

But that’s not the end of this matter. Creating entities like the Leader’s Forum conveys the impression – justified or not – that political favours and ministerial action are for sale in WA.

That’s precisely the way business is done in crony-capitalist China.

And the flipside is that all who won’t or can’t pay hefty ministerial access fees – over $2,000 a month, or $500 weekly – may come to regard themselves as lower-rung occupants.

Here I’m thinking especially of those business people who for years were members of the Liberal Party’s so-called 500 Club.

I was assured long ago that the ‘500’ in that organisation’s title represented the $500 annually charged to become a member of this once-august body.

It must, however, be added that it was always said that the $500 was the lower level; bigger payments were welcomed.

But I doubt that $25,000 was ever envisaged. 

Where does this type of thing end? And, yes, what are the quid pro quos? 

Outlaying $25,000 is a lot of money in anyone’s language. 

What WA’s Liberal Party therefore has is traditional-style membership – which I’m assured has begun growing in recent months because of the federal government’s ongoing troubles – where only a nominal fee is set. After that comes the old 500 Club.

And now this 25,000 ‘club’ has surfaced.

Presumably there are still bone fide donors who, as in the days when the Liberal Party was great and popular, regularly donated with no direct personal or commercial gain envisaged.

The early Liberal Party certainly had business backing, but much of this was simply to ensure the ideals of Menzies ‘Forgotten People’ of the 1940s survived.

The Liberal Party under Mr Barnett has instead devised a three-tier network of membership or association, whereas in the halcyon Menzies years there were only members and donors.

All this is just the beginning of this new order of buying contact.

In addition to this new style of payment to associate with Liberal MPs, there’s the never honestly resolved question of lobbying which, let’s never forget, was how Mr Barnett gained the premiership, even if only just.

Had Alan Carpenter-led Labor not so mishandled the lobbying issue, Mr Barnett would no longer be in parliament since he announced well before the September 2008 election he’d be retiring.

So long before that campaign, when Labor went into a tail-spin over lobbying, the powers among the lay Liberals moved for the then-endorsed candidate for Mr Barnett’s seat of Cottesloe, Diedre Willmott, to withdraw her endorsement, which she reluctantly did.

Mr Barnett was simultaneously asked to reverse his decision to vacate Cottesloe because the parliamentary Liberals had, as Labor struggled with its lobbying imbroglios, changed leaders at a rapid rate of knots.

First came Matt Birney, who struck strife with a Privileges Committee investigation.

Next came Paul Omodei, who was eventually told to go because he was enduring the type of polling problems recently struck by Labor’s Eric Ripper.

Political buffs call this ‘failing to gain polling traction’.

And finally came the accident prone and indomitable Troy Buswell.

When one loses a hat trick of leaders it’s time for the party’s lay – as opposed to parliamentary – wing, to step in, which is what happened.

The party’s oligarchs decided that since no-one in the parliamentary wing was cut out to lead it against imploding Labor, Mr Barnett should be recalled to be the coming election campaign’s Liberal night watchman.

Obviously all this put paid to Ms Willmott’s hopes to enter politics and she eventually moved into corporate lobbying.

WA’s lobbying question over the past decade or so has thus been a central feature of politics, even though very few fully appreciate this.

And hand in hand with all the lobbying that goes on under whatever guise or name, there’s been an uncompromising determination to keep it secret, almost clandestine.

In the US – Washington-DC and each state – lobbying activities require full disclosure.

This means all lobbyists and those within government being lobbied must regularly (monthly or quarterly) reveal all details of their negotiations.

Not so in highly secretive WA.

What makes this scandalous state of affairs more scandalous is that Mr Barnett went into the 2008 election, which he won by just 33 votes in the Riverton seat, undertaking to move promptly to reform lobbying.

My survey and analysis of his foot dragging is carried in two previous columns: ‘Too tricky by half on lobbyists’ register’, (Dec 7 2011); and ‘Constable silent on policing lobbyists’ (Dec 14 2011).

It’s now 45 months since the 2008 election and those long-promised reforms still aren’t enforced in law.

Such inexcusable procrastionation and the rise of a $25,000 Leaders’ Forum, suggests the Barnett ministry, especially Education Minister Liz Constable, who as an independent MP actually drew-up two US-style full disclosure bills, are completely at ease with institutionalised secrecy prevailing forever.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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