01/05/2007 - 22:00

Trauma of a tainted process

01/05/2007 - 22:00

Bookmark

Save articles for future reference.

If business in Western Australia thought it was impossible for government services to get worse than they already are, then just wait until the lethargy triggered by the Corruption and Crime Commission inquiry really starts to bite.

From what Briefcase was told last week, entire state government departments, especially those that issue planning, environmental and mining approvals, have virtually ground to a halt.

‘Post corruption trauma’ is the name for what’s happening.

It manifests itself in the form of an acute inability to make a decision just in case it’s later found to be wrong, or corrupted.

It’s being caused by a realisation that government really was (and might still be) tainted at the highest level, and that those likely to cop some of the blame are the foot soldiers doing the grunt work. This, of course, in addition to the ministers with secret telephones to report cabinet decisions, and ministers who order decisions favourable to their mates who already have been exposed.

Briefcase will not provide a re-run of the spectacular evidence given at the CCC hearings, which led to the exposure of the lobbying activities of former premier, Brian Burke, especially in the way he was able to reach down into the lower levels of government to tap the allegiance of true believers in the Labor cause.

The purpose of these observations is to ask what’s happened to the process of government in the wake of the inquiry. The answer seems to be a further slowing as everyone frets about the implications of actually doing something – partly in fear that there’s a sinister motive behind it, but also because of deep-seated anger at the way the political process has tainted the supposedly non-partisan government process.

The best example to surface so far is the staggering situation in the Education Department where, despite a desperate shortage of teachers in the classroom, more than 300 qualified teachers are waiting for their documents to be rubber-stamped.

One of the excuses is that the police clearance process is holding things up. What nonsense. Anyone who has ever seen a police clearance knows that it involves constable plod looking at computer records to see if the applicant has a criminal record, or charges outstanding, a process which should take minutes, not weeks.

Teachers, however, are the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to the issuing land development approvals the process is even slower, because that was one of the areas targeted by the entrepreneurial Mr Burke, who got his friends at various levels of government to assist his clients.

Layering post corruption trauma on top of an already disillusioned civil service, which believes it is missing out on the goodies that flow from a resources boom, and you have a classic logjam which would make a family of beavers in a Canadian river proud.

Wise business managers will look at what’s happening in government (not much, actually) and do whatever they can to avoid direct contact. If a service can be purchased from the private sector, then do just that. If it can’t because of a government’s monopoly hold on a particular service, then Briefcase says sorry, poor you.

•••

What makes the current malaise of government more interesting is that the cause can be traced back directly to events of 20 years ago when we all got to see exactly how Mr Burke operates.

For anyone to say that the latest inquiry into corruption produced anything that could really be called a surprise, then consider the transferability of this story published in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 8 1988.

“WA Red Ink was the merging of two worlds – Brian Burke’s ALP mates and the new money in Perth, a small town with small town ways where deals are done face to face. Regular contact between Labor and business saw the line between the worlds begin to blur and eventually, the only way to distinguish government men and businessmen was the make of their cars.”

Back then, the car of choice was a Porsche for business, and a Commodore for government. Today, the choice of car for business is a Bentley or a Maserati. Government still drives Commodore.

Or, a little further on in that 1988 Sydney Morning Herald story about how Burke was able to reach down into the lower levels of government and identify people likely to respond to his promise of doing them favours.

“Burke plucked an old uni mate, Tony Lloyd, from an assistant town clerk’s job and shoved him into a souped-up Premier’s Department. Lloyd later worked as Burke’s director of policy, assistant under-treasurer and as a commissioner of the state insurance company, responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars and not just policing the Dog Act.

“Another old uni mate of Burke’s, Kevin Edwards, was taken from a union post and was eventually crowned head of the Premier’s Department.”

The purpose of this trip down memory lane is not to simply say: “goodness, has nothing really changed between then and now?”

No, dear reader, the purpose of this little reminder is to say: “why would you think this corrupt game of patronage has actually stopped just because there’s been an inquiry?”

•••

Bad decisions are not the sole province of government. In South Australia, we can see a marvellous example of how big business can also get it just as wrong.

At a remote site known as Carrapateena, a lone prospector by the name of Rudi Gomez, and the big Canadian mining company, Teck Cominco, have reported a phenomenal copper discovery with a drill core measuring 905 metres and assaying 2.1 per cent copper. To say this is world class is an understatement.

What makes the Carrapateena discovery interesting from a wider business perspective is that, up until two years ago, another big miner was a partner with Mr Gomez.

Xstrata, the Anglo/Swiss miner that acquired MIM, had its foot on the prospect but famously told the world that it wasn’t interested in exploration, because buying a mining company made more sense.

Talk about the one that got away. Xstrata is now watching a rival prove up a discovery which might be as big as the nearby Olympic Dam, one of the world’s great mines valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

Someone at Xstrata should write out 100 times: “Exploration is an essential part of the mining process, and to think otherwise is daft.”

•••

Speaking of Teck and bad past decisions, it is also worth noting that mining has re-started at the Pillara zinc mine in WA’s Kimberley region, once the property of the ill-fated Western Metals.

Two years ago, Teck upset the locals by mothballing Pillara, and other operations in the Kimberley, while it restructured the operation.

In this case the mistakes were not made in the field. They were made at head office when management at Western Metals signed up for unrealistic forward sales and hedging contracts.

The result was the death of a business which, Briefcase is pleased to see, has sprung back to life.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

Subscription Options