10/04/2007 - 22:00

WA Labor lets the team down

10/04/2007 - 22:00


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Last month’s announcement by former Fremantle Labor MHR, Carmen Lawrence, that she intends to return to academe raises an interesting triple-headed historical question.

Last month’s announcement by former Fremantle Labor MHR, Carmen Lawrence, that she intends to return to academe raises an interesting triple-headed historical question.

Why was it that Western Australia’s Labor Party failed to produce a national leader when that’s precisely what was so confidently predicted after the mid-1980s?

During much of the 1980s and 1990s, two WA state parliamentary Labor leaders were constantly touted at the party’s highest levels as virtual certainties, and a third was also in there with an even better chance.

Of all the states WA was the one that sat highest on Labor’s league ladder for prime ministerial hopefuls.

Yet it never happened; each failed. Instead, Queenslander Kevin Rudd has now emerged as the likely one.

First came Brian Burke, who was pressured to resign from the ALP.

The second was Dr Lawrence, who succeeded failed Labor leader, Peter Dowding, the man Mr Burke personally chose to lead Labor into the crucial 1989 state election, where it just managed to hold power despite expectations to the contrary.

The third, and the one coming closest to being the second Western Australian to be prime minister, was Kim Beazley, who had two cracks at gaining this much sought-after post.

Interestingly, Mr Burke’s and Mr Beazley’s fathers served in Canberra – a significant, if minor, advantage for offspring.

However, Mr Beazley was also found lacking the necessary attributes and, like Dr Lawrence, has opted to exit politics at the forthcoming federal election, with an academic post probably already being finalised.

So, three WA possibilities, but no successes.

That’s a pretty dismal record for the party and state that produced the man many still hail as Australia’s greatest PM, wartime leader John Curtin, after whom a Perth university is named.

Some may quibble here and claim that’s too tough a judgement, since Robert J Hawke succeeded where Messrs Burke and Beazley and Dr Lawrence fell short.

But let’s be fair.

Mr Hawke certainly spent his childhood and teenage years in WA, where his uncle, Bert Hawke, was Labor premier.

But he was born in Bordertown, South Australia, so well within cooee of Victoria where he later held a federal parliamentary seat.

Surely, therefore, the Vics have a better claim on him.

Moreover, he’s opted to live in Sydney, not Perth, where he’s a consultant to the Chinese government and companies seeking business in China.

If he qualifies for a WA tag a Victorian one must surely go to Mr Curtin, since he was born in Victoria and moved to WA when in his 32nd year.

That said, the one thing we can confidently say of the Burke, Beazley and Lawrence families is that they’re true blue Sandgropers.

But despite all sanguine predictions about their offspring, none ever reached The Lodge.

Coincidentally, State Scene met all three as a University of WA undergraduate, where Dr Lawrence now plans to study and research fanaticism.

Mr Burke, while working at The West Australian, where his father was employed, briefly attended UWA as a part-timer before moving into television reporting.

Many years later, while he was premier, State Scene was told he’d started studying law, something, it was claimed he intended to return to after leaving politics.

Instead, he opted for Dublin as Australia’s ambassador to Eire and the Vatican, posts gained because of his links with Mr Hawke, who was then PM.

Although State Scene regularly attended Labor, Liberal and other campus political club-sponsored talks and functions, I cannot recall ever meeting Mr Burke at any of these.

This is almost certainly explained by the fact that, unlike Mr Beazley and Dr Lawrence, who were full-time students, he attended lectures and tutorials late in the day.

Political talks, rallies, club functions, and the like, were generally middle-of-the-day affairs.

Mr Burke instead became a king-maker across the Balga and Balcatta areas, where he quickly got to know everyone who was anyone in Labor branches, sporting clubs, the Stirling shire, and community groups.

This proclivity was markedly boosted after he succeeded Labor deputy premier, Herb Graham, as Balcatta MLA, in 1973.

Mr Beazley, on the other hand, had enrolled to study history, and attended the same Australian honours history seminars as I did for two years.

Even then, and I’m talking of 1969-70, there was never any doubt that he and Mr Burke had eyed-off political careers.

Mr Beazley regularly attended all Labor Club events and no-one was surprised he sought and gained the  full-time, paid post of president of the campus’s student union.

Like Mr Beazley, Dr Lawrence, was also quite an active campus identity, involved in various so-called progressive causes, especially those linked to feminism and, if my memory serves me well, even in the theatrical scheme of things, while studying psychology.

It’s therefore no surprise that she’s quietly paved the way for a female successor in Fremantle, Melissa Parke, someone being marketed as a ‘human rights lawyer’.

Dr Lawrence was also often mentioned in relation to activities within the Catholic student club, the Newman Society.

Those I’d encountered who knew her well then were all residents of the university’s Thomas More College, a Catholic institution.

Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, her involvement in feminist causes could have been seen as an early sign of eventual political aspirations. If so, I most certainly never picked it.

Precisely how Dr Lawrence manoeuvred herself into politics is something else I’ve also never inquired into.

It’s markedly more difficult to make definitive comments about her early rise to political prominence because, unlike Messrs Burke and Beazley, she’s never attracted a biographer.

Mr Beazley has been the subject of one (Beazley: A Biography, by Peter FitzSimons) while Mr Burke features in two (Burkie, by John Hamilton, and The Burkes of Western Australia, by Brian Peachey) with a quickie just commissioned by Sydney-based Allen & Unwin for release in May 2008, since it’s felt there’s now a dollar in it.

However, it may not be coincidental that maverick Liberal MP, Dr Tom Dadour, who was Thomas More’s honourary doctor, after breaking-off with the Liberals, backed Dr Lawrence’s bid to enter parliament via his seat of Subiaco.

That said, all three prime ministerial hopefuls directly benefited from Labor’s years of federal ascendancy under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Mr Hawke, by appointing Mr Burke ambassador, offered him a decent interval away from Perth to distance himself from his torrid WA Inc years so he could later move to be pre-selected for his father’s federal Perth seat.

It’s worth noting, however, that it wasn’t only Mr Hawke who held Mr Burke in high regard.

Mr Keating certainly appears to have seen him as a political whiz and hasn’t been afraid to say so when nearly all Labor MPs, including especially Kevin Rudd, are distancing themselves from him.

“The fact is that Burke is smarter than two-thirds of the WA Labor Party rolled together,” Mr Keating claimed when commenting on Perth’s ongoing Corruption and Crime Commission lobbying hearings.

Mr Hawke also set Mr Beazley on the road to national prominence with a string of senior ministries, leading to his appointment as deputy prime minister under Mr Keating.

And it was Mr Keating who coaxed Dr Lawrence to Canberra, where he handed her a senior portfolio within a fortnight of reaching the national political stage.

But like Mr Burke, whose national political ambitions were torpedoed by a royal commission that, coincidently, Dr Lawrence convened, so too was Dr Lawrence’s career thus thwarted.

In her case the royal commission, also followed by charges and court appearances, was sparked by the suicide of a woman, Penny Easton, whereas the earlier and far bigger Burke WA Inc one was not overshadowed by a death, just the loss of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Who, except perhaps William Shakespeare, could have envisaged such fates?


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