May 2009

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Brian Burke & Nicolae Ceausescu

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Everybody wanted to be Nicolae Ceausescu's friend - the United States, Britain, China and the premier of Western Australia. To the Americans and the Chinese, the infamous Romanian dictator was a geopolitical thorn in the side of the Soviet Union. To Brian Burke, he was a business bonanza waiting to happen. And so, in July 1987, the Don of the Swan set out to woo the Danube of Thought.

Already a major customer for Australian coal, Romania was a potential gateway to Eastern Europe for Pilbara iron ore. Aware of Ceausescu's aversion to foreign debt, Lang Hancock had devised an elaborate deal to swap raw minerals for railway wagons. A delegation of politicians, public servants, businesspeople and union officials was assembled. Burke's job was to front the pitch.

The Genius of the Carpathians was somewhere in the port city of Constanta. After a guided tour of the newly completed Danube-Black Sea canal, the Westralians set off for their meeting with the megalomaniac so vicious that even other communist despots detested him. Shunted from palace to palace through austere streets heavy with paranoia, Burke and his entourage were eventually ushered into Ceausescu's presence.

The tyrant sat across the conference table, backed by stony-faced Securitate bodyguards and flanked by functionaries. Burke laid out the proposition. Ceausescu grunted. An underling translated. Il Conducator, he said, could make anything possible. Ceausescu grunted again.

The delegation returned home with no immediate results to show for its efforts, apart from a sightseeing trip to Dracula's castle and the dose of gastro which swept through its ranks in the days following the meeting.

When Ceausescu visited Perth the following year, he was put up in Government House. But by then, the wheels were falling off the WA Inc. wagon. Collusion between Burke's inner circle and certain prominent businessmen was revealed to have rorted the state of $600 million, and Burke had quit the premiership to become the ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. Soon after, he was charged with fraud and deception, and convicted of stealing campaign funds - money he'd spent on his stamp collection. The Hancock plan never got off the ground.

But all's well that ends well. Nicolae Ceausescu was executed by his own henchmen. Brian Burke continues to exert considerable influence in WA Labor and business circles. And Australia's relations with Romania turned out to be a licence to print money. Many of the Balkan country's lei banknotes are manufactured in Craigieburn, Victoria.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: May 2009
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