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State Scene

GOVERNMENTS find it hard avoiding being secretive and clandestine.

When numerous media leaks surfaced during Richard Nixon’s presidency of the 1970s, several White House staffers created an undercover anti-leak unit – the so-called “Plumbers” – which became res-ponsible for Nixon’s ignominious resignation in order to avoid impeachment.

The Whitlam Labor Government of those years loudly promised open government, but several ministers were forced to resign over covert multi-million dollar international loan deals involving marginal and other money dealers.

During the Burke Labor Government’s WA Inc days of the 1980s, secrecy became an integral part of governance.

Tough questions on the Government’s many business deals invariably met with claims of commercial confidentiality.

Our Conservatives screamed long and loud against this … so loudly there was a costly Royal Commission and a change of government.

Information has now surfaced that voters are again being treated like mushrooms. While it all started with the former Energy Minister and now Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, it seems to have the blessing of the Gallop Government, notwithstanding its pre-election commitment to more accountable government.

This latest affair, though not as grave as the Nixon-Whitlam and WA Inc years, involves Western Power’s hush-hush diversification into high-speed telecommunications.

Western Power, while openly installing underground power cabling across South Perth/Como, was also clandestinely burying conduits for a high-speed telecommunications network.

Apparently it and the State Government are paying half the cost of the below-ground power project, with South Perth’s ratepayers forking out the rest.

Just before Christmas a sharp-eyed ratepayer noticed Western Power’s workers were also installing telecommunication conduits, which potentially form part of a significant commercial asset for Western Power

The ratepayer was stunned. The conduits were being installed directly to his house but no one had asked his permission.

He was now curious to know whether there had been an equitable distribution between both projects of the full costs of trenching, underground boring, hauling, and the other shared efforts.

So he contacted local MLA, Phillip Pendal, who wrote to (then) Energy Minister, Colin Barnett.

Mr Barnett replied, saying the City of South Perth was told of the high-speed telecommunications project in April 2000 but residents weren’t, “as the project is low impact, does not require funding by residents and is not assured in terms of final service offering”.

He went on to say residents would be told “if and when the project proceeds to the next stage”, but gave no guarantee anyone would ever know the all-up costs.

“As you would appreciate, these costs cannot be allocated to one suburb but would be amortised over time across a wider base if the project proceeds to commercialisation,” he said.

“If the project does not proceed, alternative strategies involving either sale of the conduit to a third party, utilisation of the conduit for future power-related infrastructure, or write off as research and development expenditure will be pursued.

“Release of project costs at this point may also compromise negotiations with contractors and suppliers and place Western Power at a commercial disadvantage.

“Thus it is inappropriate to release project costs at this point, but please be assured that the Western Power board is fully accountable for proper financial management of the project.”

So, it’s trust me, mushrooms, trust me.

Incredibly, despite all Labor’s promises of more accountable government, new Energy Minister Eric Ripper replied in similar vein to Independent MP Phillip Pendal’s Parliamentary questioning on the matter earlier this year.

State Scene isn’t alone in querying clandestine governance.

The 1989 Burt Report said: “The Commission is concerned by the practice of secrecy or confidentiality provisions being included in contracts entered into by State-owned entities, regardless of whether the entity has been established by statute or is owned by virtue of a shareholding.

“The secrecy arrangement denies accountability to the Parliament. It denies public scrutiny . . .”

And later: “In any activity involving public money, the weight of public interest rests more with accountability than with competitiveness.”

Why was this costly advice so promptly forgotten?

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