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WA Inc. has returned – but this time the corporate interests are far bigger, and the surrender of the WA government much more complete.

 

Western Australia was once a byword for a particular kind of corruption: a free-wheeling culture in which spivs and crooks like Alan Bond and Laurie Connell forged close relationships with the WA Labor Party under Brian Burke and Peter Dowding, and in turn received substantial support for their financial ventures.

The eventual cost to WA taxpayers, of what was dubbed “WA Inc.”, is estimated to be at least $600 million — in 1990s money — with a trail of spectacular corporate failures. It also threatened to ensnare the Hawke government, with allegations resource taxation policy was dictated by WA interests and political donations.

WA Inc. is now back — but it’s not your grandmother’s kind, the venal corruption and systematic misuse of taxpayer money that characterised 1983-89. It’s on an altogether larger scale.

The corporate players involved are now huge fossil fuel corporations and their executives — particularly Woodside, as well as foreign players like Shell and Chevron. Like Bond, Connell and other cast members from WA Inc., Woodside is a generous donor to WA Labor — it has given the state party more than $220,000 over the past decade (Chevron has given more than $170,000 to WA Labor in the same period).

But the favours extracted from WA Labor go far beyond the kind of dodgy investments of taxpayers’ money and bailouts of spivs’ financial ventures that characterised WA Inc. Mark 1. What has resulted is full-scale state capture of the governing apparatus by fossil fuel companies, in which the regulatory, policing and lobbying powers of a state government are effectively at the disposal of fossil fuel companies.

Earlier this year, Crikey outlined the extent to which the WA government, along with federal Labor and Liberal politicians, had engaged in demonising climate protesters, in addition to the WA Police acting as Woodside’s security arm and enforcers.

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Imagine a WA police force this keen to enforce pollution laws when toxic industries breached them

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Meanwhile, WA Premier Roger Cook decided, at the behest of WA’s extractive industries, to jettison new Indigenous heritage laws put in place in the wake of Rio Tinto’s shameful destruction of Juukan Gorge in 2020, mere weeks after their bipartisan passage through WA Parliament. Cook earlier this week announced new laws to expedite fossil fuel and mining project applications, arguing environmental groups were exploiting minority factions in Indigenous land community groups to pursue legal challenges to fossil fuel projects.

The independence of the WA Environmental Protection Authority, which has embarrassed WA Labor by calling for more ambitious carbon emissions targets and pointing out the spectacular failure of Chevron’s Gorgon carbon capture and storage project, will also be curbed by Cook, and it will be forced to expedite approvals for resources projects.

It might be cheaper for WA taxpayers if Cook and his cabinet simply took up jobs with Woodside, making the state run its offices rather than pretending there is any difference between fossil fuel interests and their political arm in Parliament.

In another echo of WA Inc., federal Labor is involved as well. There aren’t merely allegations that WA interests shaped federal resources tax policy – we know they did: Cook’s predecessor Mark McGowan lobbied for fossil fuel companies against federal Labor plans to fix the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax regime, which was allowing offshore gas producers to pay virtually no tax.

WA MP and Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King has been a stalwart backer of Cook as well, and has now supported his conspiracy theory that Indigenous groups are being infiltrated by environmentalists.

Via Alan Bond and his media company, WA Inc. had significant ramifications for Australia’s media landscape. And there are plenty of parallels there too. Mining services billionaire Kerry Stokes is a hundred times the businessman Bond was – an authentic titan of Australian business, not the fraud that Bond was eventually revealed to be. But his media company Seven West Media – current share price, 24 cents – is a malignant force in Australian media.

The West Australian has cheered on Cook at every stage in delivering for fossil fuel interests. Seven Network is continuing to spend vast sums funding accused rapist Bruce Lehrmann (which he denies), and has a long history of giving a platform to far-right extremists. Stokes himself has funded the so-far unsuccessful defamation case of accused war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith against the forensic journalism of the Nine Network.

It’s hard to avoid the editorial conclusion of The Sydney Morning Herald this week that “Stokes’ Seven West Media has fallen into a dark hollow, with part of its news division recently turned into a platform for proven and alleged wrongdoers and egotists, where the priorities of late seem to outweigh a sense of news or professionalism”.

It’s not the old WA Inc. It’s far bigger, more systemic, more normalised, and its impacts beyond the borders of WA are far greater. But it’s the same story of a government that is far too close to corporate interests that exert a damaging influence across the country.

 

by Bernard Keane – Crikey

Dec 14, 2023

 

Notes

“Formed in Perth, Western Australia in October 1984, the John Curtin Foundation was a fundraising organisation for the Australian Labor Party which attracted the sponsorship of a powerful group of wealthy businessmen, placing them in a privileged circle with direct access to both the Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and the state premier Brian Burke.

The foundation was an early step to the creation of a unique network of corporate and government co-operation which was dubbed WA Inc by news media. Its two vice-patrons were Kim Beazley, senior, a former Whitlam government minister, and Mick Michael, an electrical contractor and former lord mayor of Perth. The executive-government patronage of business was similar to Peronism in Argentina. It caused multiple financial disasters, leading to a royal commission which exposed and condemned the corruption.” – John Curtin Foundation – Wikipedia

Feature image – Alan Bond and Laurie Connell with singer, Jackie Love at the opening of Observation City Hotel Perth in 1987

 

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Confronting State Capture – Australian Democracy Network

Andrew (Twiggy) Forrest | Class, Connections and Corruption

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