W Australia ex-premier jailed for two years

ONE OF the most turbulent eras in Australian politics finally closed with a thud yesterday when a former Labor Party leader, once touted as a future prime minister, was sentenced to two years in prison for taking public money under false pretences.

Brian Burke, a former premier of Western Australia, stood impassively in the Perth District Court, flanked by his weeping wife and family, as the judge pronounced a sentence which sent shock waves through Australia's ruling Labor Party.

Burke is the first head of government in Australia to be imprisoned for a criminal offence since the country's formation as a federation in 1901. A former television journalist, and son of a former MP, he became premier of Western Australia in 1983, at 36. Under his administration, over the next five years politics and business became enmeshed in WA Inc - the term coined for an elaborate network of deals between the state government and Perth's fast-money entrepreneurs who soared to prominence during the 1980s.

Burke described his approach as one designed to make the government money, and pass on the benefits to the public through lower taxes, by tapping the financial drive of 'can-do' tycoons. The most prominent were Alan Bond and his former associate, Laurie Connell, who ran Rothwells, a Perth- based merchant bank. Burke led the government into joint business ventures with such figures and raised millions from them in donations to the Labor Party. He greatly impressed Bob Hawke, then Labor prime minister, who lavished praise on him in a foreword to Burke's 1988 biography, and said he saw Burke as a possible future national leader.

When Rothwells faced a crisis after the stock market crash of October 1987, Burke poured public money into saving it. He quit state politics in February 1988 just as WA Inc began to collapse. Mr Hawke's government later appointed him ambassador to Ireland and the Vatican. Rothwells finally collapsed a year after the crash. A Royal Commission into WA Inc in 1991 unravelled other financial scandals under Burke's government. Losses to taxpayers from WA Inc deals are estimated at between Adollars 500m and Adollars 1bn ( pounds 234m- pounds 468m). It was the Royal Commission's inquiry which led to four charges against Burke of making false pretences with intent to defraud while he was premier.

A jury on Wednesday night found him guilty on all charges of taking Adollars 17,000 from the parliamentary travel fund between 1984 and 1986 for overseas trips, which were already publicly paid for, and depositing the money in his personal bank account. Burke said at his trial that the transaction was due to civil servants' errors and that his staff had put the money in his bank without his knowledge.