Inside Story

The long shadow of the Labor split

Brian Burke’s doorstopper of a memoir is a valuable but partial account of a career propelled by an old grievance

Paul Rodan 18 September 2017 1694 words

What went wrong? Former WA premier Brian Burke leaving court on 29 January 2009 after pleading not guilty to corruption charges. Andrea Hayward/AAP Image

A Tumultuous Life
By Brian Burke | A Tumultuous Life Pty Ltd | $49.99

The most extraordinary claim in this book appears not in the text but on the dust jacket, where reference is made to Brian Burke and a group of fellow Labor “idealists” reinventing the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party. Burke has been called many things, by friend and foe alike, but “idealist” is — to put it charitably — a stretch. Indeed, most of those who have offered an opinion about the state’s controversial twenty-third premier would place him towards the other end of the spectrum.

For those who came in late, Burke first sprang to national attention when he became WA premier in 1983 at the youthful age of thirty-six, having won the party leadership in 1981. The victorious Labor Party replaced a conservative coalition that had been in office since 1974. While the Burke government’s policy achievements were reasonable, its excessively cosy relationships with colourful business identities, and associated deal-making (including costly bail-outs) gave rise to the uncomplimentary tag “WA Inc.” Harsher critics saw the state as having descended into a form of corporatism.

Burke’s government was re-elected in 1986 and the premier himself continued to record stellar levels of popularity. He left parliament at a young forty-one, but his subsequent tenure as Australian ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See was cut short when the findings of a royal commission led to his being charged with various offences. He served seven months’ jail for travel expense rorting (paroled from a two-year term) and was later sentenced to three years for theft of campaign contributions, serving six months before the conviction was quashed on appeal.

Burke renewed his acquaintance with the WA justice system early in the new century when his lobbying activities came under scrutiny. A friend in the WA cabinet bit the dust as a result, and Burke was fined $25,000 for providing false testimony to the Corruption and Crime Commission.

What drove this tumultuous career? Burke’s father was elected as the federal Labor member for Perth in 1943, but lost his seat at the 1955 election, immediately following the split in the Labor Party. Although he was part of the faction opposed to the federal leadership of H.V. Evatt, the elder Burke declined to join his Catholic co-religionists in the breakaway Democratic Labor Party. Yet he was expelled from the Labor Party in 1957 for his anti-Evatt statements, and only readmitted eight years later. Brian Burke admits that it was only late in life that he came to a realisation that his father’s treatment was the “biggest single factor” driving his own political career.

Burke relates the story of a fairly conventional Catholic schooling, including the routine brutality of the Marist Brothers who provided his upper primary and secondary education. His school reports lamented a lack of application on the future premier’s part. At the time, though, less than brilliant results were no barrier to entering the law school at the University of Western Australia (or anywhere else). Oddly, Burke covers his short university career in three lines, citing a lack of interest and enjoyment to explain his exit before the end of first year. By any measure, this is cursory treatment of a significant decision.

The same deficiency is apparent in his failure to discuss in any more than one passing line the defining issue of his generation: the controversy over the conscripting of young men to fight in Vietnam. Burke’s own vulnerability to conscription ended early, at the age of eighteen, when he married Sue Nevill, whom he had met at school dancing lessons. With married men exempt from conscription, he was free of the fears of his contemporaries as they approached their twentieth birthdays. This is not to suggest that the marriage was opportunistic (the couple have remained married to this day), but it is difficult to resist the conclusion that once he was no longer threatened by the draft he had minimal interest in the issue, or at least none that he wants to commit to print — which is curious, to put it mildly.

After dropping out of university, Burke worked at WA Newspapers, starting as an assistant proofreader before securing a journalism cadetship. He later moved to radio and then television, becoming a familiar face on evening news bulletins. He became involved in state Labor Party affairs, serving on the state executive, but he makes no mention of any parliamentary ambition until 1973, when he sought preselection for a by-election in the (normally safe) state seat of Balcatta; even then he refers to being urged on by others. This was no ordinary by-election: the state Labor government held a one-seat majority. Were he to lose the seat, the government would fall. He won (after preferences) by thirty votes.

Having been elected, Burke (now twenty-six) mainly focused on tending his now marginal electorate. He omits any mention of the fact that he was initially unpopular with his fellow caucus members. Over time, though, he joined forces with other like-minded Labor MPs seeking to oust the party’s old-school leaders, who usually combined minimal energy with maximum electoral unpopularity. (Similar trends were evident in other states in the 1980s.) Burke’s energetic alliance-building and media skills saw him win the leadership in 1981. His election to government in February 1983 came the year after that of the Cain Labor government in Victoria, and was soon followed by the Hawke federal Labor government in March 1983.

No politician’s version of his or her own time in government is likely to be objective and balanced, but it is useful to have even imperfect accounts on the public record. In A Tumultuous Life Burke stresses his pride in abolishing capital punishment, and provides interesting insights into battles with Canberra over native title and a proposed gold tax. Electoral reform, the reopening of the Perth–Fremantle railway line, environmental protection and advances in equal opportunity laws also feature prominently.

It is unlikely that many will be satisfied by Burke’s explanation for the all-too-close relationships with business figures for which his government was notorious. Clearly, this was more than just an effort to improve Labor’s traditionally poor relationship with business, and Burke certainly embraced the 1980s Labor theme that new money was preferable to old money. He is brutally candid in admitting that he “set about divorcing these entrepreneurs from what were really temporary political affiliations,” and his obvious comfort with the links between donations and policy is, in an age of spin and dissembling, almost refreshing in its honesty. The same might be said of various government appointments, but he seems to take cronyism as a virtual given, no explanations needed. To be fair, he is hardly alone in that respect.

Naturally, the former premier puts on the record his version of the various charges and accusations that form such a significant part of his public life, and readers can make of that what they will. For this reviewer, the oddest item on the charge sheet concerns the way he treated a Labor Party campaign fund as his own social security kitty, dispersing funds both to worthy causes — people down on their luck and a local soccer club, for instance — and to less worthy causes, such as a suitably aligned union. For a hard man of the realpolitik school, this was extraordinarily naive. (For the record, this activity led to the conviction that was later quashed.)

In his account of his controversial lobbying activities, Burke sees no need to justify the rights of the well-heeled to make representations to government through highly paid intermediaries while the less well-off have no such opportunity. And he conspicuously fails to comment on the accusation that he used his enduring Labor Party links to bring improper pressure to bear on ministers.

Having experienced the penal system firsthand, Burke is in the position to make some informed comments about its operation. He acknowledges that political reality works against genuine prison reform: voters want punishment, not rehabilitation, and the only education taking place is of the sort that helps inmates to be better criminals. In a depressing observation, he sees it as “next to impossible to know how to improve the prison system, or even to understand how it works.”

Although he is hardly a disinterested observer, Burke’s comments on WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission are disturbing. He cites parliamentary confirmation that the CCC acted unlawfully when it charged 171 people with 1976 offences. He also identifies at least one suicide flowing from tardy CCC processes, and while he draws no wider conclusions, some of the “star chamber” aspects of state anti-corruption bodies (and the Australian Building and Construction Commission) should be of greater concern to civil libertarians than they apparently are.

A critical biographer once observed that the pragmatic Burke had no interest in the battle of ideas, and that view is certainly vindicated by this autobiography. In a rare reflective section, Burke considers the “What went wrong?” question, and identifies the fact that he started young and was over-confident of his own abilities. For his critics, this will prove unsatisfactory: only some sort of confession and apology will suffice. Even the more neutral will be disappointed by the lack of any serious discussion about ends and means, the purpose of politics, or even how Burke’s most controversial policies and decisions fitted into a Labor view of the world (except at the tribal level). At the intra-tribal level, some WA observers see Burke as driven by a need to triumph over the Labor left, which had effectively destroyed his father.

At 564 pages, the book is excessively long, although it is an easy enough read and a reminder that, decades ago, Burke was a capable journalist. Tighter editing would have been useful: the detailed life stories of various Perth wheelers and dealers (Alan Bond, Robert Holmes à Court and others) could easily have been dispensed with. One suspects that an editor is less influential when dealing with a self-publishing author.

While the book is unlikely to generate wide interest outside Western Australia, Brian Burke was a significant figure whose fall from a great height ensures that he will retain a prominent position in the pantheon of Australian premiers. ●