Plutocrats and political elites: The way we do things in the West

Dec 28, 2023
Map of Australia red background.

Western Australia is famously a long way from everywhere. Given our isolation, it’s not surprising that politics can be a bit parochial. While this may have been forgivable in another era, at this current historical juncture it’s becoming rather embarrassing.

But before ‘eastern staters’ start feeling too smug, it’s important to recognise that in many ways, WA is Australia in microcosm – if that’s quite the way to describe a place that’s about the same size as western Europe. WA may have become a byword for planet-destroying self-absorption, but the country as a whole isn’t much better, despite Chris Bowen’s attempts to put a positive spin on our shameful record of fossil fuel development and exportation at Cop28.

One of the more unfortunate features of living in a relatively small town is that local plutocrats loom large. I think it’s safe to say that no one would ever have paid the slightest attention to Gina Rinehart if her father hadn’t happened to fly over a gigantic iron ore deposit. But we all know about her now, especially in her home state. Being a mineral magnate gives you a lot of influence and attention, especially in a demographically diminutive place like WA.

One of the many advantages of being fortuitously and fabulously wealthy, of course, is that it’s possible to pay people to promote your prejudices or fund existing organisations that share a similar world view, no matter how detrimental these may be for the rest of us. Rinehart’s support of the Institute of Public Affairs, ‘a consistent promoter of climate science scepticism‘ is a case in point. Not quite what Australia or the world needs at this historical juncture.

At least during the 1980s when Alan Bond was at the height of his wildly corrupt powers, devious self-enrichment rather than political grandstanding was the main game for Perth’s ruling class. Nothing especially unusual about that perhaps, apart from the extent of the cosy nexus between economic and political elites, one that seems to be coming back. But at least it didn’t have obviously planet destroying implications 40 years ago.

Now, however, it’s become painfully evident just how much WA contributes to Australia’s overall greenhouse emissions. What happens in WA no longer stays in WA, unless we’re talking about the tax revenues that the resource sector generates, of course. Then, I’m afraid, you eastern staters can keep your nation-building nonsense to yourselves.

In a telling indicator of how much some minds are changing, however, there’s at least one local billionaire who seems to be increasingly driven by something other than greed and self-interest. Andrew Forrest’s ‘extraordinary outburst’ at Cop28, when he suggested that the ‘selfish beyond belief’ bosses of the world’s major resource companies should have their heads ‘put on spikes’ is a remarkable break with the usual WA consensus.

Yet the generally baleful influence of the resource sector continues unabated, facilitated by the uncomfortably close relationship between state governments that go out of their way to facilitate new, environmentally unsustainable mega-projects. The resource sector also provides lucrative post-political career opportunities in a mutually enriching symbiosis. Labor luminaries really do always back a horse called self-interest, it seems.

Ever alert to money-making opportunities, WA’s political and business elites are getting on board with AUKUS, the greatest nation-building initiative since the first Snowy River project, apparently. There’s a positive feeding frenzy developing at the thought of all the billions that may come to WA, no matter how improbable the strategic necessity or benefit of this project may be.

WA’s policymakers are apparently even willing to accommodate all the nuclear waste that will be produced during the production and operation of our nuclear powered – but not nuclear armed, of course – Virginia class submarines. Given the lifespan of radioactive material, 100,000 years of burden sharing is quite an inheritance for future generations.

Even the university sector is bending over backwards to accommodate the needs of the defence sector, promising to provide a stream of job ready graduates to help build the weapons systems of the future. Not exactly what the world needs at this historical juncture, perhaps, but possibly no worse than facilitating environment-destroying resource developments on the Burrup Peninsula.

Paradoxically, despite the entirely predictable impacts of our collective behaviour—we keep voting for the same sort of political class, after all— WA is one of the most agreeable and secure places on the planet. Or it is at the moment, at least. Recognising the consequences of what we actually do and what we arguably ought to do is not a challenge that’s unique to WA, of course. But given it’s Christmas, though, it’s worth pointing out that no less an authority than God’s Son apparently suggested that ‘to whom much is given, much will be required’. Suck on that Sandgropers.

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