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Pioneer still drives powerful message

SIR Charles Court is one of WA’s living heroes in terms of his role in its economic development.

Even at 88, Sir Charles still projected enormous energy in the Sheraton Hotel room used for our interview – although it was less an interview than a well-rehearsed lecture by Sir Charles on what he achieved for WA.

Sir Charles was “one of the major men in WA history”, according to political commentator David Black.

Professor Black said Sir Charles ranked with WA’s first Premier John Forrest in terms of his contribution to the State.

“Sir Charles is a human dynamo, even in his 80s,” Professor Black said.

Sir Charles Court was a member of the WA Parliament from 1953 until 1982, and Premier from 1974 to 1982. He is the father of current WA Premier Richard Court.

Professor Black said it was as Minister for Industrial Development and the North West from 1959 to 1971 that Sir Charles really left his mark on the State.

“He was a figure suitable for his time. He was more suitable for the earlier times than the latter times,” he said.

It was a period of stability during which Sir Charles turned WA into Australia’s powerhouse State.

Sir Charles said WA was known as a mendicant State when the Liberals were elected in 1959.

“We went to the Commonwealth every year with a begging bowl,” he said.

“That was not to fund policy, that was just to preserve the status quo. We believed the only way to progress was to get rid of the grants commission and develop ourselves.”

However, the Commonwealth would not give WA the funds to develop the State.

“They didn’t seem to see the danger of having this huge area with no people in it,” Sir Charles said.

He and then Premier Sir David Brand decided to by-pass Canberra and approach the private sector.

Sir Charles went to banks and developers and told them that if they built the railways, the ports and much-needed infrastructure, they would receive guaranteed long-term tenure on the land and access to the resources.

“The Labor Party said these agreements were pies in the sky and scraps of paper,” he said.

“I used to always say – what great pies and scraps of paper.”

In a self-assessment by Sir Charles in the 1988 book The Jindalee Factor, Insights on Western Australian Entrepreneurs by Roger Smith and Barry Urquhart, he said: “When we developed in the 1960s we had no money. And I say thank God we had no money. If we’d had money we would have tried to build railways and ports in the typical

government style...and they would have been of a lesser standard than what they are today”.

Sir Charles recognised something else was necessary for economic development – indigenous energy. At the time WA relied on imported fuel to drive the State.

“Before you can achieve your potential you first need palatable water and, secondly, you need energy,” he said.

“There was no future for economic development while we were dependent on imported fuel.”

Sir Charles’ vision paid off in 1980 when the joint venture to form the North West Shelf Company came to fruition.

“That was when we were able to say with confidence that we had the energy,” he said.

A higher population to drive development was also crucial, Sir Charles said.

“I don’t think there is any alternative than to increase our population.

“There is no future for Australia if we don’t have more people. I say that not only for economic reasons but also security reasons.”

He acknowledges that it was far easier to get things done when he was in government.

“I don’t think the government of today will be able to implement what we did because we had what was known as the one-stop shop,” he said “I was that one-stop shop. Investors weren’t passed from one department to another. I don’t think you could get away with it today.

“This is mainly because of the different interest groups and attitude of the media today. People and the media don’t seem to trust any more.”

That is not to say his government ignored these issues – the WA Government under his leadership was the first in Australia to set up an Environmental Protection Authority.

Professor Black said both Sir Charles and Richard Court have been suitable for their time.

“His son is not a bull-at-a-gate person in the same way. Sir Charles worked enormous hours and expected people around him to do the same,” Professor Black said.

“Richard Court is more gentle. I think Richard mixes far more easily with people.”

Professor Black believes Sir Charles had a similar leadership style to Margaret Thatcher.

“People either loved him or hated him,” he said.

Are the heady days of development during Sir Charles’ reign behind us?

“The greatest days are yet to come,” Sir Charles said.

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