West Australia and the art of state capture

Feb 28, 2024
Parliament_House,_Perth,_February_2022_01_c. Image: By Steelkamp - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115542844

The idea of state capture is usually associated with the global south, but Australia, and Western Australia in particular, demonstrates that established democracies are far from immune. As the Australian Democracy Network explains, ‘a key element of state capture is the management of political parties both in government and opposition…a range of techniques are brought to bear to reward compliance and punish dissent, ensuring that even in a change of government, the whole infrastructure of state capture remains intact.’

WA is an exemplar of how such processes work even in long-standing democracies, and why abundant resources can be a curse as well as a blessing. The influence of the resource sector over the state’s politics is becoming ever more entrenched and this is having a deleterious effect on public policy. More consequentially in the long term, it makes it very difficult for even well-intentioned political leaders to address climate change and social equity.

Unfortunately, politicians who are unsympathetic to the interests of the resource sector are rather rare in the West. This is entirely unsurprising. Not only is the mining sector overwhelmingly the biggest contributor to WA’s gross state product—nearly 50% of the non-service sector—but there is also a revolving door between politics and the resource sector, which is one of the key measures and mechanisms of state capture.

Former premier Mark McGowan’s surprise resignation on the grounds of ‘exhaustion’ did not stop him from immediately taking up a number of new positions at BHP, Mineral Resources, and most recently a ‘senior advisory’ position with former Liberal treasurer Joe Hockey’s consulting firm, Bondi Partners. This will help make ends meet, given McGowan’s state pension is a measly $275,000 a year. No surprise that greed and self-interest transcend petty party politics, at least.

He’s not the only former ALP minister climbing aboard the resource gravy train, either. Former state treasurer Ben Wyatt has taken up positions on the boards of Woodside and Rio Tinto. The fact that Wyatt is also an indigenous man shouldn’t matter, but it’s a bit awkward given Rio’s role in destroying Juukan Gorge, a sacred aboriginal site, which happened while Wyatt was Aboriginal affairs minister.

The ability of the big miners to influence politics and get their way is also entirely unsurprising. As Crikey’s Charlie Lewis explains,

“In the first three years or so they were in government, McGowan, former regional development minister Alannah MacTiernan, Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston and former environment minister Stephen Dawson met with gas companies and lobby groups nearly 140 times between them….donations from those companies had an uncanny knack of landing in the party bank account soon after these meetings took place.”

It’s also significant that it was a non-WA paper that carried this story. The West Australian is owned by Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media group and dominates the local print media, giving Stokes an unrivalled ability to influence WA’s already parochial public opinion.

The West’s one-sided championing of the resource sector and the absence of any discussion of the industry’s environmental impact has led informed commentators to claim that ‘the gas industry has effective “ownership” of the state.’ As The Guardian’s Adam Morton points out, Woodside ‘can place its message unchallenged in Perth’s local daily without the inconvenience of having to pay for it’.

Despite unprecedented public opposition to Woodside’s proposed extension to the life its Northwest Shelf gas processing facility—which is already the largest emitter of CO2 in Australia—it will continue, and ‘could add 1.37bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere across its lifetime.’ No surprise here, either, given that McGowan apparently directly pressured the Environmental Protection Authority to withdraw tough proposed emissions guidelines—with the enthusiastic support of the West Australian, of course.

It’s also alarming that the police are playing an increasingly prominent role in suppressing dissent. For example, peaceful protestors outside Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill’s home were confronted by counter-terrorism police who were lying in wait. Equally significantly, state governments across Australia have been rushing to enact new laws that impose up to 2 years in prison and $20,000 fines for taking part in peaceful environmental protests. WA was at the forefront of this more aggressive approach to political opposition, too.

Perhaps you get what you pay for. Between 2006 and 2016 the mining industry donated $16.6 million to the major political parties, with most going to the LNP Coalition. This generosity peaked when Kevin Rudd introduced a Resource Super Profit Tax, which was subsequently reduced by Gillard and eliminated by Abbott. The chances of the federal government enacting a more effective Petroleum Resources Rent Tax seem increasingly remote, not least because of suggestions of a ‘sweetheart deal’ for Woodside.

Indeed, it turns out that despite all the talk about reducing red tape and burdensome regulations, the miners aren’t averse to a bit of state intervention and assistance when it suits them. In the aftermath of a collapse in the price of nickel and lithium, Tania Constable, the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia suggests that assistance is needed to combat ‘regressive changes to industrial relations’, not to mention ‘strict and costly environmental approvals, and the threat of increased taxes and royalties.’

She needn’t have worried. The West Australian assured its readers that not only has PM Anthony Albanese said that he won’t let the nickel industry collapse, but ‘his Government’s commitment to WA’s GST floor “can’t be clearer”’. Perhaps if the Morrison government hadn’t unnecessarily poisoned relations with China they might have invested in Australia’s nickel industry rather than Indonesia’s and avoided the problem altogether. Either way, it’s reassuring that Albo recognises the need to keep buying the support of WA voters.

WA’s aspiring plutocrats are unlikely to be affected whatever happens. The mining sector will no doubt continue to deliver riches to the fortunate few, as well as to at least some people further down the economic hierarchy. Quite a lot of the traditional working class in WA are sold on the mining sector, too, and the consumerism it facilitates. A plague of monstrous, planet-destroying utes are the most visible manifestation of the newly affluent.

But is everyone really either too dim, self-absorbed or avaricious not to notice that there’s a climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry is one of the principal causes? Parts of WA are likely to become very unpleasant, possibly uninhabitable, sooner than we thought. Yet our political leaders are either oblivious or simply don’t care.

I wrote Mark McGowan an open letter when he retired urging him to use his undoubted political skills and do something useful for the planet. It doesn’t seem to have had quite the impact I’d hoped. But really, Mark—how much do you need? What do you tell your kids about the future? How do you compartmentalise such contradictory ideas and positions?

There could be a great self-help book to be written if you’ve got time tell us about the last of those, Mark. Be a good theme for your public speaking gigs, too—a snip at $15,000 a pop. Just the sort of selfless devotion to the public good that has always distinguished those with control over our collective natural inheritance, in fact.

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