By Jon Singer
PERTH — The first weeks of the WA Inc royal commission have shed some light on the operations of the Peppermint Grove set and how a good number of the financial and political "geniuses" of the '80s became the bankrupt (though by no means poor) crooks of the early '90s.
With the commission's work just beginning, it has already heard allegations of massive pay-offs to former Labor Premier Brian Burke (now in Ireland), to former state energy minister David Parker (presently in Hong Kong) and to business figures Yossi Goldberg (reportedly in Israel) and Laurie Connell.
The inquiry, which opened on March 12, is probing 10 years of state government dealings with big business. It will cover the last years of the Liberal government of Charles Court and all of the Burke and Dowding periods.
Its establishment followed a sudden back-down by Labor Premier Carmen Lawrence, as it became clear that a cover-up was impossible. Prior to the royal commission, several business executives and private detectives had already been convicted in the courts and in parliamentary and legal inquiries.
It became clear that only a royal commission, with its relative independence of the government and public service, could clear the air.
Lawyers assisting the commission opened the hearings by alleging that Western Continental Corporation, run by Goldberg, paid $300,000 in July 1985 to Burke's private secretary after winning control of Fremantle Gas and Coke Company. About $200,000 went into an account controlled by Burke, while the remainder was a $100,000 cash cheque.
Evidence in the following fortnight centred on David Parker's alleged role in guaranteeing a resale arrangement for Goldberg's company. At a March 6, 1985, meeting between Parker, Connell and State Energy Commission officials, Connell reportedly offered to arrange for Western Continental Corporation to buy Fremantle Gas and Coke with a view to reselling to the State Electricity Commission. This move would have forestalled a bid by a Robert Holmes a Court company.
Letters and documents from December 1985 and February 1986 show that Parker had already committed the SEC to buying Fremantle Gas and Coke, though throughout 1986 Parker and Burke denied any secret arrangements.
Meanwhile, snouts were in the trough. Connell collected $225,000 from both companies, while Goldberg charged Fremantle Gas and Coke $2 million as an "administration fee" for the first year of his ownership. One witness also alleged that Parker received $50,000 from Goldberg, part of which apparently filled a suitcase with $100 bills for Parker to pay the deposit on his Fremantle house.
Parker was able to swing the SEC purchase of Fremantle Gas and Coke only in late 1986, when given ministerial power to order the ious financial restrictions on the company, he had meanwhile increased its paper value. Goldberg reaped an estimated $6-$8 million profit.
With only a year to run, the commission has spent two weeks on one deal of the more than 30 it is required to investigate. It will probably run well over time, as was the case with the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland.