Wheeling and dealing won out over higher calling

30/07/2008 - 22:00


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Of Western Australia's 32 premiers, only two - Sir John Forrest and Sir Charles Court - are likely to ever get within cooee of challenging Brian Burke in the most-written-about stakes.

Of Western Australia's 32 premiers, only two - Sir John Forrest and Sir Charles Court - are likely to ever get within cooee of challenging Brian Burke in the most-written-about stakes.

Both will, however, remain far behind.

Brian Burke is, and will remain for decades, the most written about premier not only because of his undoubted media and publicity skills, but his links to WA's failed 1980s millionaires, a $30 million royal commission sparked by those associations, and his encounters with the Corruption and Crime Commission's undercover telephone, video and email monitoring unit.

Edith Cowan University associate professor Quentin Beresford's The Life of Brian Burke - The Godfather, is the second, and surely not last, biography of this standout WA Labor politician.

The first, Burkie: A Biography of Brian Burke (1988), was by one-time Perth journalist John Hamilton, who, when writing, was employed by the Burke government, so is an authorised biography.

The Godfather is unauthorised.

I don't discount Brian Peachey's valuable The Burkes of Western Australia (1992), but it focuses primarily on Mr Burke' s late father, Tom Burke.

Professor Beresford's no-holds-barred biography reveals many aspects about his unique subject, with the most telling being the little-known influence of Louisiana's 40th governor Huey P Long (1893-1935), and Florentine political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).

Huey Long was Louisiana's governor, from 1928 to 1932, and that state's senator until his death.

And it's no secret Mr Burke planned to head to Canberra after concluding his diplomatic stint in Dublin and the Vatican. Machiavelli, like Mr Burke, was a diplomat; and, like Mr Burke, he wrote poetry.

On becoming premier in 1983, Mr Burke may not have had the liquid assets of a Laurie Connell, Alan Bond, or Robert Holmes a Court, but he most certainly shared something more than just the fact that all four subsequently looked to each other to be bailed out of their financial or other predicaments.

That something was a wheeling and dealing urge which, at rock bottom, was to be Mr Burke's, as well as their, undoing in that costly chapter dubbed WA Inc.

Although Professor Beresford necessarily focuses only upon Mr Burke, all - he dubs the others as crony-capitalists - were shown to have been reckless with others' money.

The reason Mr Burke has been and will always be more harshly treated than Connell, Bond and Holmes a Court, plus several others, is that he was premier and treasurer, thus the custodian of taxpayers' money.

For a brief period, Mr Burke was by far the most powerful figure in WA.

We know from where his political urge sprang since in both his maiden and valedictory speeches he stressed the impact upon him of his one-time Labor politician father.

"Describing his father as 'the greatest single influence on my life', the soon to be departing premier again felt compelled to acknowledge his debt saying, 'My achievements are to his credit'," Professor Beresford writes.

Tom Burke was an old-style Labor man in the Ben Chifley mould who had backed socialism, including bank nationalisation and further centralisation of government in Australia - both paths his son was to reject.

From where does that crucial double disparity spring? One quarter that comes readily to mind is his educational years, specifically his exposure to the Marist Brothers secondary teachers, who delicately promoted the notions of subsidiarity - otherwise known as federalism - and distributism, which is unsympathetic to both big private corporations or big state-created enterprises.

Some, including Mr Burke, have called it "the third way".

Distributism, to use the definition given by former Whitlam government adviser and one-time Victorian Labor MP Race Matthews, which Professor Beresford highlights, traditionally sought to promote: "all owners are workers and all workers are owners".

In other words, ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was seen as needing to be direct and skewed to favour the many - employees and even consumers - via public policy programs rather than towards socialist and capitalistic conglomerates.

Distributism was formulated by two great English Catholic literary figures, Gilbert Chesterton (1874-1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), before World War I to help counter the emergence of big socialist entities and equally big capitalistic corporations, both of which were seen to inevitably fall under the control and sway of the few.

In Professor Beresford's words: "This philosophy was designed as an alternative to both the 'evils' of socialism and unregulated capitalism."

The Victorian-based Campion Society first promoted distributist ideas in Australian public life.

These ideas were most evident in and around Melbourne from the 1930s to 1950s, from where many Marist Brothers who later taught in WA hailed, and those, like me and Mr Burke, as students, were exposed to them as well as to their equally strong backing for federalism, since that meant growth of big central government could be democratically thwarted.

Here, at rock bottom, therefore, was Mr Burke's underlying political education even though he was the son of an ardent Labor family whose father, not coincidentally, a trained accountant, had backed Ben Chifley's bank nationalisation - a thoroughly anti-distributist step if ever there was one.

But the son, who so admired his father, differed - diametrically differed in fact - in this regard, suggesting that his school or educational impact was more significant than that of kin in this regard.

Mr Burke's encounter - even if only lightly - with distributist ideas via his Marist teachings should not therefore be overlooked.

That, as much as anything, made him unsympathetic to socialism as well as to corporate capitalism.

He regularly claimed, when in power, that he was pressing ahead down a "third way", but avoided the word distributism; and understandably so, since by the 1980s it was well and truly out of vogue in both political and academic circles.

It's largely because Australian academics are ignorant of the history of this essentially Anglo-Catholic ideology that none across Australia during the 1980s was able to understand and interpret what Mr Burke was doing.

All this helps explain why Mr Burke was inclined to create entities such as the WA Development Corporation and Exim, and a markedly beefed-up Tourism Commission that would be able to joint venture with private sector operators and investors.

It was intended that his chosen economic path would involve neither mainstream government bureaucracies - departments - nor big privately owned corporations.

The intention was rather that these new entities brought growth to a capital starved state and profits to Western Australians.

And who knows what the outcome would have been had he followed a path where each was subjected to far more stringent auditing, greater accountability practices and far less political direction?

One path a Burkean distributist approach could have taken was that pioneered by one-time socialist-turned-distributist Catholic priest, Father Don José Maria Arizmendiarrieta (1915-1976) in Spain's Basque region with his creation of Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC) in 1956.

Today, MCC is a huge industrial and commercial entity. According to one source: "The MCC is a group of manufacturing and retail companies based in the Basque Country and extended over the rest of Spain and abroad.

"It is one of the world's largest worker cooperatives and one important example of workers' self management.

This co-operative network - owned directly by all its employees - even has its own bank, the Caja Laboral Popular ("People's Worker Savings Bank").

Today, MCC includes more than 150 companies that are involved in manufacturing, engineering, retail, and financial and educational services.

Its supermarket arm, Eroski, is the largest Spanish-owned retail food chain and the third largest retail group in Spain.

Moreover, the Basque government's taxing approach favours co-operative enterprises.

MCC has offices in South America, China, the US and across the European Union, and is Spain's seventh largest corporation. The MCC is distributism in action, with commercial thinking taking the lead and always being ahead of political endeavour, which so dominated our WA Inc years.

With the MCC there was no room for association with asset strippers, conmen and others, the like of which emerged during the WA Inc years as self-seekers and destroyers of capital, not generators of it - something WA so desperately needed.

So it is right here, first and foremost, that the real tragedy of Brian Burke is to be found.

Rather than moving to decentralise and spread ownership far and wide as distributism calls for - indeed, demands - of entities like WADC and Exim and the placing of the newly created network of directly owned enterprises under strict auditing regimes, Mr Burke opted to oversee involvement with unsavoury capitalists, which became the defining feature of WA Inc.

Professor Beresford considers a vast array of the "forces which fashioned" the Burke persona, including the early evidence of an emergent distributist path which Mr Burke unfortunately never fully and rigorously applied.

What occurred was that, very soon after gaining power in 1983, his other proclivity - his wheeling and dealing urge - took over, thereby subsuming his weaker distributist inklings.

But imagine if things had gone otherwise. Imagine if a broadly owned WADC, Exim and many other well-managed spin-off entities had been created and survived to this day.

If that had occurred Mr Burke could now be an outstanding Labor hero - not the pariah Premier Alan Carpenter has contributed to making him.

Professor Beresford harvests information from official sources - the WA Inc Royal Commission, the CCC and Parliamentary evidence, and press reports.

On top of all that he conducted scores of confidential and disclosed interviews with people who either worked with or carefully observed Mr Burke over many years.

Together this paints a picture of a WA variant of Huey Long and Niccolo Machiavelli - a truly interesting and original assessment.

Which brings us to the final point, one not considered so far. Where does the post-WA Inc, post-Dublin/Vatican, post-lobbying Mr Burke now stand in relation to all this?

I have known Mr Burke moderately well for several decades and the one thing that's a certainty is that he's a determined fighter.

Will he just sit back and allow more biographies to roll off the presses and do nothing?

It's a guess, but I suspect not.

By that I mean we can probably expect not another biography next, but rather, an autobiography by this paramount post-war Labor factional chief.

Professor Beresford would in all likelihood see that as a compliment, since there would be an element of competitiveness in the wind.

However, for future generations of Western Australians it would be another valuable addition that will hopefully help all to better understand what happened here in the latter decades of the 20th century when the distributist urge was not properly implemented.



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