Managing the media at WA Incorporated


A basically uncritical media is an essential element to autonomous, executive-style governments like that of former WA Premier Brian Burke. WA's only morning newspaper, the West Australian, came to be part owned by the state government's insurance commission and the Bond Corporation. Not surprisingly, the paper was more than ready to run stories emanating from the premier's media office.
Perth journalist JENNY HARRIS joined the media office in 1984, at the peak of the association between the state and the private sector. She wrote this account of her impressions for Green Left.

The atmosphere in the Government Media Office was hectic. I felt incredulous at getting into lifts at the Capita building in St Georges Terrace in the morning and seeing Laurie Connell and Alan Bond laughing and joking as they ascended to the 19th floor, the premier's office.

Brian Burke was very much attuned to electoral politics rather than being involved in traditional Labor policy-making. He was constantly polling marginal electorates in the south-west of the state and the mortgage belt suburbs in the north metropolitan corridor (Wanneroo, Joondalup) through mate and former media colleague Darcy Farell's association with the company Insight Market Research.

Burke followed the role model set by Bob Hawke and his personal pollster Rod Cameron by testing the electoral water and then tailoring policies to "buy a few votes". This blatant pork barrelling infuriated the Liberals, who lost many traditional south-west seats such as Mandurah and Bunbury.

It led to the formation of so-called development authorities in Geraldton (Geraldton Mid West Development Authority), Albany (Great Southern Development Authority) and Bunbury (the South West Development Authority). These regional development "facilitators" were the means of delivering taxpayers' dollars and electoral promises to win key marginal seats.

Most of Burke's employees — many of whom were from Labor Party ranks, academia, the unions and the media industry — felt uncomfortable about the association with big business and the establishment of such authorities as LANDCORP, which sold state assets without a traditional tendering process and GOLDCORP, which marketed gold nuggets internationally.

However, Burke kept insisting that economic benefits from the nexus with big business and the flogging off of state assets would result in better social welfare programs at the state level.

Burke seemed really to believe that hanging off the coat tails of millionaires would result in a trickle down effect to the underclasses in Western Australia. Such a bizarre mix of right-wing economics and leftist social policy, I felt, could never be accommodated.

The 17 journalists whom Burke wooed to work in the media office were an excellent means of maintaining influence with key media outlets and through "the old boys' network" of former media employees, ensuring ssage got through.

I remember our former director of government media, Norm Taylor, a former top political correspondent at the Daily News [an afternoon companion to the West Australian], ringing the chief of staff at the West on a daily basis to "hose a story down". Sometimes the stories were pulled. n