Filthy lucre

Issue 

It seems the Howard government's relentless attempts to blast opposition leader Kevin Rudd for meetings last year with disgraced former WA Labor premier and current "political lobbyist" Brian Burke have missed their target, or even backfired. A poll, published in the March 12 Sydney Morning Herald, showed Labor's potential vote and approval for Rudd continuing to climb, with support for the Coalition and PM John Howard's ratings declining further.

An interesting aspect was that while a mere 20% of respondents thought Rudd was being wholly truthful about his dealings with Burke, solid majorities approved of his overall performance and preferred him as prime minister. This suggests both the fairly low standard people have about politicians, and that many people see the rank hypocrisy of Howard and Co.'s attacks.

Burke was the chief architect of the notoriously corrupt "WA Inc." in the 1980s, in which his government gave huge sums of public money through loans and share buyouts to businesses, owned by the likes of Alan Bond, Laurie Connell and Robert Holmes á Court, in return for generous donations to the ALP. After a royal commission into the conduct of his government, Burke was jailed for fraud related to travel allowance rorts in 1994.

Despite this apparent handicap, Burke soon built up a lucrative business acting as a "consultant" and "lobbyist" for a broad range of WA corporate and political figures and, disgracefully, unions.

As Matt Price put in the March 5 Australian, Burke and partner Julian Grill "were deftly able to cut through endless red tape and set up meetings with key bureaucrats and MPs". Until, that is, more recent revelations by the state Crime and Corruption Commission sent their many high profile clients running for cover.

Burke's sordid career seems to epitomise several related aspects of the corrupt nature of "liberal democratic" politics that help assure this system's pro-capitalist nature: the close links, and often revolving doors, between corporate boardrooms, government boards, legislatures and the upper reaches of bureaucracies; the grasping greed of many individuals attracted to establishment politics, and the increasing role of a parasitic layer of lobbyists who have found a profitable niche facilitating such links and satisfying such greed.

Rudd may actually believe the Christian morality he has lately been earnestly espousing, including the Bible's many admonishments against leaders being motivated by "filthy lucre" (ill-gotten gains). Probably then he really should ask his wife, millionaire businessperson Therese Rein, to get rid of her $100,000 worth of shares in uranium miner BHP Billiton if he wants to continue advocating the expansion of uranium mining.

But whatever his actual ethical positions, in his determination to maintain and extend his power within the ALP, Rudd would have had little choice but to relate to Burke's until recently extensive influence in the west.

Howard and his parliamentary attack dogs attempted to portray the Burke story as a particularly "Labor mates" sort of corruption, but the hypocrisy was soon apparent.

WA Liberal Senator Ian Campbell had to be sacked from his ministry after admitting to also meeting Burke, and a number of other Liberal MPs are known to have dealings with the dodgy Panama-hatted one. Andrew Forrest, managing director of the WA-based Fortescue Metals Group and a close confidant of Howard's, was a key client of Burke and Grill's.

The attacks on Rudd were also embarrassingly followed on March 7 by raids on three Queensland Liberal MPs by federal cops over the rorting of printing allowances. It's also not long since federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull was revealed, despite having made a fortune from the socially useless activities of corporate law and merchant banking, to be paying his MP's generous $190 per day Canberra living allowance straight into his wife's pocket via her ownership of a Canberra flat. Not, of course, illegal but no doubt in the minds of many a little filthy.

By March 15, minister for ageing Santo Santoro had been sacked for failing to disclose investments directly relating to his portfolio, and it had been revealed that a 2004 Brisbane Liberal fudnraising lunch featuring Howard was attended by one Scott Phillips, a porn king accused of torture.

There are of course many embarrassing affairs in the Howard government closet. These were usefully summarised in a March 5 blog entry on Getup.org.au:

"When his close friend the Resources Minister, Warwick Parer, failed to declare his shareholdings in the resource sector, John Howard refused to sack him.

"When Warren Entsch did not declare his directorship of a concrete company that won a large government contract without tender, John Howard refused to sack him.

"When Peter Reith lent his taxpayer-funded telecard to people who made $50,000 worth of calls (not to mention lying over the children overboard affair), John Howard refused to sack him.

"When Phillip [sic] Ruddock and Amanda Vanstone, as Immigration Ministers, wrongfully detained or deported [people in] 200 cases, John Howard refused to sack them.

"When Helen Coonan misled Parliament over her interests regarding an investment property, and failed to disclose her directorship of a public company, John Howard refused to sack her.

"And, of course, when Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile were embroiled in the AWB scandal, John Howard refused to sack them."

And, of course, everything is bigger and better in the US. The 2006 film Thank You for Smoking sharply satirised, in a lightly fictionalised story, the social and personal corruption resulting from the tight nexus between big business, establishment politicians, the corporate media and lobbyists there. It ends with an apparent defeat for Big Tobacco and political lobbying with a 1998 multi-billion lawsuit brought against the industry by most US states.

But there's a related, classic example of the revolving door not included in the film.

In the 1990s, Robert McCallum was a US corporate lawyer for a firm representing tobacco corporations. In 2003, he was appointed associate attorney-general by President George Bush, whose inaugural ball happened to be paid for by tobacco giant Philip Morris.

In that position, McCallum fought hard against a decade-long case the federal justice department had been running against the tobacco corporations (separately from the states' case), and managed to get the asked-for payout reduced from US$130 billion to $10 billion (it's now unclear whether anything will have to be paid).

The name may be familiar because, in July last year, McCallum received his latest cushy position as US ambassador to Australia.

Socialists call for a radically more accountable, transparent and democratic political system through measures such as smaller electorates, paying representatives no more than the average wage, making regular report-backs mandatory and making them subject to recall by their electors at any time. Ultimately though, corporate control of the economy and society will have to be replaced by conscious democratic control for the reign of filthy lucre to end.