Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Supping with the devil

To those of us fortunate enough never to have met the disgraced Western Australian politician turned lobbyist Brian Burke, the real mystery is how he manages to exert any political influence at all, let alone set himself up as a sort of premier in exile.

You would think even those unaware of his criminal record would be warned off by his appearance. The slightly too tight dark suit with the open-necked white shirt, panama hat and dark glasses simply scream spiv, shonk, sleazebag. If you saw him walking down the footpath towards you, you would hastily cross the street, keeping both hands on your wallet as you did so. If you had him in your home or office once, you would make sure it didnt happen twice and you would count the teaspoons after he had left.

Yet his friends (and he still has plenty, something which should alarm federal politicians on both sides) insist that this unsavoury figure is a bundle of charm, a charismatic con man in the style of Peter Foster. And what is indisputable is that he, in partnership with the equally unlovely Julian Grill, gets results. His list of clients is an impressive one and extends well beyond the usual run of dubious developers and Labor Party cronies.

On his home turf he is certainly loathed and feared, but he is also accorded a perverse admiration: he is a man of respect, in every sense of the term. As the current investigation into his activities has revealed, he demands to be taken seriously. But having said that, it must be said that he is not, as John Howard and his attack dogs have sought to portray him, Satan himself, the lord of all evil whose very presence corrupts everything it touches. It is a measure of the governments failure to lay a substantive glove on Kevin Rudd in the last three months that Burke has been given such exalted status.

So Rudd, two years ago when his leadership aspirations were still in the formative stage, thrice ran into the ex-con on the basis that he was a friend of a friend. Well, one might legitimately ask, so what? It was perhaps a little indiscreet, given that there was at that stage a ban on state government ministers meeting Burke, but no one has seriously suggested that any favours were sought or given. The results speak for themselves: if Burke was supposed to tout for caucus votes for Rudd in the leadership spill he did an unusually ineffective job, because Rudd ended up with just two out of the nine Western Australian votes on offer. Politicians meet scores of people every week, and its a safe bet that among them are many more dangerous than Burke.

But Burke was in the news, and the connection with Rudd could be made, so the heavies went in with all guns blazing. Tony Abbotts line, pinched from one of Crikeys more excitable commentators, was that Rudd had supped with the devil not once, but three times. Peter Costello said that everything and everybody who associated with Burke was morally and politically compromised and that Burke never did anything without wanting something in return, implying that Rudd was now somehow in Burkes debt. Alexander Downer said baldly that Rudd was lying about it all. Howard, assuming his role as firm but fair Elder Statesman, mused that Rudd had huge amounts of explaining to do but that whatever he said wouldnt make any difference to the fact that he was now hopelessly compromised.

This was hyperbole on a grand scale, but that was the point: it put Rudd in the position of having to give a detailed reply to charges that were so wide-ranging, so general as to be effectively unanswerable. And Rudd bit; he spent three days last week floundering, with the dancing bears in the Murdoch press chortling that the honeymoon was finally over. Rudd was back in the pack as just another politician whose judgement and honesty were both under question and who was clearly too nave and inexperienced for the job.

It was all good, clean, healthy fun until Burkes office contacted The Australian to say that the arch-demon had also met one of Howards less horrible ministers, Ian Campbell, and what about that then? Campbell, sprung, rang Howard and Howard promptly accepted his resignation whether it was offered or not. As Campbell quite openly pointed out, he hadnt actually done anything wrong, but the important thing was to win the next election. If his presence was some kind of impediment to Howard and the gang throwing dirt at Rudd, he was quite willing to get out of the way, the unspoken rider being that it would only be for a little while, the political and moral corruption would undoubtedly dissipate straight after polling day.

Campbells noble gesture allowed Howard to insist that Rudd should stand down; it was now a matter not just of judgement and honesty, but of that mysterious American concept character. Rudd replied by challenging Howard to call an election based on honesty and see where that got him. But he had clearly been bruised by the week; he had overreacted and over-explained, suggesting that he might be vulnerable under sustained pressure. Given that the attacks from now on will become more intense, more personal and probably a whole lot dirtier, he will need to watch himself. But there must be some satisfaction in knowing that he has Howard so worried that the Prime Minister is prepared to sacrifice a cabinet minister without hesitation or compunction simply to get a clear shot at him.

And it may not be over yet. Even if Campbell proves to be the only minister to have supped with the devil, what about Burkes clients? Are there Liberal Party donors among them, and if so will Howard return their morally and politically corrupt money? And how does Western Australias business community feel about being pilloried by association, reduced by implication to a bunch of orcs capering to the tune of Burkes Sauron? The full bill for Rudds humiliation has not yet been presented.

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