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Sunday, March 04, 2007

From rats in the kitchen to rats in the ranks

Juicy as it is, I don't intend to delve into the fine detail of "L'affaire Burke", but it has a couple of interesting transparency angles.

For those not familiar with the matter - the former (1980's) Premier of Western Australia, Brian Burke, who presided over a corrupt government and went to jail over a couple of the minor matters that emerged, has been in business for years as a lobbyist in Perth. It's now come out, through secret phone taps and hearings by the WA Crime and Conduct Commission, that Burke corruptly influenced events on behalf of his clients.

Three Cabinet Ministers have been forced to resign in Perth since December. Last week, the Federal Government nailed Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, over the fact that Rudd had met with Burke on three occasions. On Saturday Federal Human Services Minister, Ian Campbell appears to have been pushed overboard as a result of admitting to the Prime Minister that Burke had been a member of a group from the WA Turf Club that had met him last year. All this is a hot political potato and likely to remain on the boil for some time.

The transparency angle is whether we should expect to know who ministers meet in the course of their public functions.

It's not a generally accepted notion here in Australia. A Freedom of Information application might get you something. For example in 2003, Prime Minister Howard denied that he'd met anyone from Australia's main producer of ethanol prior to imposing a fuel excise on the product, but documents released under FOI showed that he had met Dick Honan, the company's Managing Director.

Then again, the Sydney Morning Herald last year drew a blank when it sought access to the NSW Premier's appointments diary, leading it to comment that on the basis of what the NSW Premier's Department claimed at the time, the Premier didn't really spend much time running the state.

In other countries the record is mixed. According to this article anyone in Florida can ask to see the local council general manager's appointments calendar, although in New York state, a request along these lines "can be greeted by a laugh or a snarl" from the town hall staff.

The Washington Post also ended up 'packing it in' in January this year after seeking access to Vice President Dick Cheney's log of visitors, although at the time it was winning a battle that had taken several years in the court system.

I imagine over the weekend there have been lots of phone calls about who in government has spoken to Brian Burke. Prime Minister Howard seems confident that no other minister apart from the selfless Senator Campbell has done so. What's happened in Western Australia will come out through the Crime and Conduct Commission. But given the fact that all other states and territories are governed by the Labor Party, and Mr. Burke's legendary status as a party powerbroker, who knows what ministers in all the other states may have had some contact with him?

If they'd received a call, what did they say when the receptionist had Brian Burke on the line and he'd asked to talk to the minister, a "maaaate"?

Anyone for the Florida model?

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