Premiers on parade

After 40 years of reporting on Western Australian politics, Peter Kennedy wrote a book about the people past and present in charge of that state. Here he shares insights about the premiers he met along the way. Cartoon by Greg Smith.

Researching the Western Australian premiers I have known and interviewed since starting in journalism in Perth in 1970 for my book, Tales from Boomtown, was more than just a trip down memory lane. Looking back at the 10 men and one woman who have held the state’s top political job, it was also a reminder of how the groundwork to win the post has changed, let alone the demands of the media, with technology revolutionising the way politics are covered.

Of the first four premiers I reported on, three – David Brand, Charles Court and Ray O’Connor (all Liberals) – served overseas in the army during WWII. The fourth, Labor’s John Tonkin, had been a primary schoolteacher before being elected to parliament in 1933.

Brand had left school aged 12. But that didn’t stop him becoming the first Liberal elected to any Australian parliament in 1945, and later serving a record 12 years as premier – from 1959-1971. The English-born Charles Court, meanwhile, left school after year 10, and studied to become a chartered accountant at night school. By way of contrast, the past six premiers have all been graduates of the University of Western Australia. Does a longer formal education make them better leaders? Not necessarily.

One common factor has been the willingness of the WA premiers to stand up to the federal government, regardless of which side was in power. Brand and Court pressed for the lifting of the iron ore export embargo, which bore fruit in 1960 with stunning results for the WA economy in the short run, and the national export performance in the longer term. Construction of the Ord River Dam and completion of the standard gauge rail link were also achieved in the 1960s after considerable pressure on the Commonwealth to “kick in”.

Court was alarmed at the plan by the Whitlam government’s energy minister, Rex Connor, for a national pipeline to move North-West Shelf LNG (liquefied natural gas) to the east coast. These concerns eased when Whitlam lost office in 1975, but he was soon feuding with the new PM, Malcolm Fraser, for allegedly blocking ventures in WA.

Cartoon by Greg Smith

Cartoon by Greg Smith

Labor’s Brian Burke, who attracted much controversy – including following his retirement in 1988 after just five years as premier – dug his heels in over the Hawke government’s plan for uniform land rights. This included giving indigenous people power to veto mining on their traditional lands.

Burke said that wasn’t on – the minerals belonged to the state and the government would make that decision. It didn’t help his popularity with federal ministers from non-mining states, but it was the only decision that would satisfy mineral-rich WA.

The current premier, Colin Barnett, started his term in 2008 as the only Liberal premier at COAG meetings, but quickly developed a rapport with Labor’s Kevin Rudd, whom he initially referred to as “my friend Kevin”. The love affair didn’t last, however. When Rudd wanted to raid one third of GST revenue in return for a bigger say in running hospitals – a traditional state preserve – Barnett said enough is enough. And when Rudd and Julia Gillard promoted a new mining tax, relations with Labor in Canberra never recovered. And Labor’s support in WA slumped.

That WA, with only 15 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, lacks political clout in Canberra is a given. But its natural resources give the state economic significance that successive premiers have exploited judiciously.

While researching my book I was surprised at the willingness of all but one of the surviving premiers to be interviewed, and also by the co-operation of many of their senior colleagues, former public servants, political staff and journalists to share their thoughts.

Former prime ministers John Howard, Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser gave their views on the premiers with whom they had worked – Keating said Burke could be a “bit fast” and “cut a corner if he could”; Graham Richardson provided valuable insights into his dealings with Burke; and Malcolm Turnbull spoke for the first time on his role in advising, along with Neville Wran, Peter Dowding during his tumultuous almost two years (1988-90) at the top.

Lurking through the terms of all the 11 has been the influence of the media, especially that of The West Australian, the state’s morning newspaper. There were stories of hairy-chested editors at varying times throwing their weight around, wanting to show the premiers who was really the boss.

Charles Court wasn’t immune from a bit of “treatment” from The West early in his career, although this changed during the 1970s. And a bit of family “experience” came in useful when his fourth son, Richard, was elected, making them WA’s only father-son leadership team.

After Richard was greeted one morning with the page one headline “You’re wrong Mr Premier” in bold type in The West, he was in no way provoked. Invited to respond in kind by reporters from other outlets, he declined. “I learned from my father’s experience it never pays to take on The West,” he said. “The paper always has the last word.”

Another editor vehemently attacked Labor’s Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter over issues such as Perth’s first desalination plant and the Perth to Mandurah railway. Carpenter, especially, responded strongly and relations deteriorated. The ventures proved great successes and the editor was eventually dumped, but not before Labor lost office in 2008.

Most premiers I have spoken to since the book was published have accepted what I’ve written about them with only a few minor quibbles. But several thought I had ‘gone soft’ on one or more of their colleagues.

Peter Kennedy retired in 2010 as the ABC’s political reporter in Perth after a 40-year career that included covering politics for The West Australian in Perth and The Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney and Canberra.

Tales from Boomtown is published by UWA Publishing, RRP $29.99

Greg Smith is an award-winning cartoonist for the Sunday Times and Perth’s Community Newspaper Group; smithyink.com.au