Extraordinary legislation rushed through State Parliament this week to protect Western Australia against an estimated $30 billion damages claim marks a dramatic escalation of the Government’s battle with Clive Palmer.
The legislation deals with Palmer’s Mineralogy company and a damages claim over the Balmoral South iron ore deposit in the Pilbara that goes back to 2012 and the Liberal Coalition Government led by Colin Barnett and before that to 2002 when Labor was in office under Premier Geoff Gallop. Attorney General John Quigley made the political understatement of the year when he said that provisions and measures in the bill were “not usual.” The estimated damages claim of $30 billion matches WA’s annual budget and Quigley told the Parliament this was a $12,000 charge on every West Australian.
The radical legislation blocks liability by the State of Western Australia and passed swiftly through the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday after the Opposition accepted the Government’s appeal for bipartisan support. The bill’s drastic measures deny the right of natural justice and freedom of information requests on the Balfour South arbitration. Opposition Leader Lisa Harvey suggested a quick committee reference in the Upper House because of the bill’s complexity and sensitivity but Nationals and Greens went along with the Government’s urgency.
In plain language, the WA Government, already in dispute with Palmer on Covid-19 border closures, has decided that big Clive has got too big for his boots. The Opposition agrees and politicians on both sides of the House will have no trouble at all persuading the voting public that their hospitals, schools and transport services need $30 billion more than the fat-cat Queenslander needs that much sugar.
Politically, the Government is likely to get away with this drastic move. Democracies try to avoid this type of action and would not want to pull such a stunt more than once in a blue moon. Bipartisan parliamentary support is essential. A precedent was a similar move by the WA Government in the 1970s against Hancock and Wright, the legends of the Pilbara iron ore industry. The reason was the same. It was about power and money. The Government of the day decided Lang Hancock was too big for his boots and achieved bipartisan support to cut him down to size.
The big difference was the preparation and professionalism of the Parliament and the civil service in the 1970s. The principal speakers on the legislation — Labor’s Herb Graham and the Liberals’ Sir Charles Court — addressed the Parliament with the solemnity of a State Funeral. They gave long, detailed speeches building up a forensic case for the legislation. They and all following speakers made the same comment — this is a terrible thing we are doing , but ….
The legislation cobbled together and rushed through the WA Parliament this week was introduced by the Attorney General talking like a gangster about delivering a left hook. When radical legislation of this complexity is prepared and debated in a hurry the chances of making a mistake are high. Entrepreneurial types like Clive Palmer employ armies of lawyers who will now be combing through the Government’s strategy looking for loopholes. We have in the wild West a High Noon confrontation between the power of the sovereign State and the jungle of the corporate law.