Resurrection Men


In the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare were two entrepreneurial ‘resurrection men,’ who met the Edinburgh medical school’s pressing demand for fresh bodies to dissect. Their respectable purchasers turned a blind eye to their supposed source the graves of recently buried paupers and were amazed and confounded when they learned Burke and Hare were serial killers. Evil may flourish when good men play naïf.

I met Brian Burke once, at a Bob Hawke fundraiser 25 years ago. It cost 1000 bucks each, for me and 49 other business suckers to eat cheap, warmed chook and soggy trifle, drink middling wines, and rub shoulders with Great Men in the hope of a business or policy-influencing opportunity: not unlike Burke’s ‘intimate’ dinner for 30 staged for Rudd in 2005, just not arranged by Beelzebub.

Hawke spoke, then introduced Burke, to my surprise, as the ‘soon-to-be Premier of WA.’ I’d never heard of him, though I’d been flying Left-winged (that is, in small, dwindling circles) for a while.

Burke rose. He spoke. He was slick, oh-so-sincere and shyly appreciative. Everyone but I seemed to know he manipulated ALP pre-selections.

A year or so after Burke slipped into power in 1983, his MP brother Terry, rang to offer to broker a resolution between a Government Department and me over a now-forgotten problem. I declined. He was then, I believe, still Secretary to Cabinet. Terry resigned, virtually overnight, during the Burke Administration. Nobody’s heard much of him since.

A few months earlier, I’d heard another MP shout down the phone, ‘For God’s sake, Brian, you’re disgusting you’d sell your own grandmother!’ over some welfare-related backsliding. It was suspected, but not known, that Brian Burke had pawned his late and honourable Federal MP father, Tom’s legacy of political integrity.

Burke’s machinations and the catastrophic end of ‘WA Inc’  gave birth to a rather impressive Royal Commission Report. Its recommendations were, however, ignored as government rolled on under both political hues: beige and beige.

So, Labor’s Burkes and the Liberals’ Noel Crichton-Browns sought to make sure that mediocre and obligated Realpolitikians filled safe parliamentary seats, and malleable men occupied statutory offices and strategic bureaucratic desks. And they used both factional numbers to influence pre-selection, as well as tribal networks and the long-standing system of ‘nod-wink-stack the selection committee’ cronyism, typical of WA (but not unique to that State).

One MP memorably defended this to me on the basis that there was more need for ‘parliament fodder’ than original thinkers. Some of us girls call it ‘homosocial reproduction’ the promotion of clones by those challenged by diversity.

In 1994, Brian was sent to jail in a grand fall from grace, but the late mineral exploration king-pin of WA, Lang Hancock, kindly looked after this ‘talented young family man,’ and gave him work. When Burke came back from Siberia, he and his partner Julian Grill got plenty of lobbying work from WA businesses. You don’t need a Corruption and Crime Commission ( CCC) Star Chamber hearing to know that their clients well knew that Burke & Grill delivered favourable development, land use and mineral exploitation opportunities.

Though some businessmen behaved despicably, this does not reduce by one jot Burke & Grill’s responsibility, and that of the Party that supported them, and the blind eye turned by Liberals, too, for they also worked with WA Liberal power-broker Noel Crichton-Brown and other less colourful eminences.

Burke & Grill made good, because they knew the right people. Part of their success also lay in their generous, confidential sharing of information with somewhat lazy, local journalists. Intriguingly, the CCC’s accusations have been delicately covered in the local press. The West Australian had published sympathetic stories on ‘Burkie’ not long before ‘Carps’ (Premier Alan Carpenter) opened the running of the bulls by lifting the embargo on overt contact with Burke’s lobbying business in January 2006.

Greedy little cheats with delusions of grandeur are nourished by the environment they live in. According to a Bulgarian proverb: ‘He is not mad, the man who eats the entire cake mad is the one who gave it to him.’

Thanks to Bill Leak

Yet, when I look at John Howard (and so many other political leaders) I see unsettling, familiar mannerisms: the rubbing of hands, the ‘holier than thou’ attitude, the pseudo-honesty, the all-too visible signs of piety, the earnest indignation at any suggestion of impropriety or mendacity and, especially, the contrition (‘how regretful I am, but I didn’t know’) after appeals to ‘values’ and pandering to the media don’t work. I see Burke mid-1980s cynical vanity in full bloom.

Worst of the lot is the current return to religiosity hypocrisy and lies as distorted manifestations of the otherwise laudable characteristics of those who are genuinely faithful.

Oh, the ‘repentance’ we have seen from two of the three exposed WA Ministers! (Though not from Burke’s well-placed go-between, Shelley Archer.) What public display of confession and atonement, in the staged, probably short-term resignation of one Federal WA-based Liberal Minister! How we love these spectacles, in our irreligious political world!

The hypocrisy of the attack on Kevin ‘Tintin’ Rudd after his ‘Bad Day in Black Rock’ in late 2005 should not go unchallenged. WA politics is puppeteered by manipulative ‘masters’ like Burke, Grill, and Crichton-Brown.

Rudd is no ingénue: he would have been a fool not to have sussed out the attitude of the Resurrection Men of WA Labor in 2005. He would have been a double dimwit to do business with them and he didn’t.

All of this leaves me a simple, disillusioned elector no more disgusted with modern Party politics than I have been for the last 25 years. Like Diogenes,  I seek an honest politician in broad daylight, with a candle but with little hope. Democracy deserves better than the whole damned lot of them.

It may have been Jean-Paul Sartre who said that indignation is an inalienable human right.

I exercise it now and I hope never to lose that capacity.

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