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So much for Labor values

  • 14 October 2013

Amid all the post-election talk about Labor values, no one within the party has explained how the appalling behaviour exposed by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption could have occurred if senior figures took any notice of these supposedly cherished values. Few in the federal parliamentary party, in particular, seem to grasp the significance of what ICAC laid bare. In essence, ICAC set out how the party's biggest branch let one person, Eddie Obeid, gain control of a state government and use his influence to enrich himself and his family.

It is not credible that most NSW state and federal Labor MPs, and key officials, had no inkling of Obeid's behaviour while a backbencher or minister. These are people who usually pride themselves on having their finger on the political pulse. Yet we are expected to believe they missed the vibe around Obeid. There were solid grounds to suspect that Obeid was corrupt, but most of his colleagues did nothing about it. In effect, however, they tolerated these signs as another example of how Labor conducts politics in NSW. A decade ago, one senior figure told this writer on a non-attributable basis that he knew Obeid was corrupt, but ultimately lacked the backing to curtail his power.

Obeid rarely spoke in parliament and showed almost no interest in policy, preferring to build his power as boss of right wing factions until he could, and did, make or break premiers. His power derived partly from his ability to determine who won pre-selections by stacking branches with the help of a highly mobile band of Lebanese Maronite Christians. It also helped that he had conspicuous wealth at his disposal, despite his pecuniary interest statements claiming his sole source of income was his parliamentary salary.

Nor did it hurt that Labor's powerful state secretary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Graham Richardson, was instrumental in Obeid gaining his seat in the Upper House, which he held for 20 years.

In July, ICAC found Obeid, former NSW Labor MP Ian Macdonald, and several wealthy businessmen, engaged in corrupt conduct in relation to a coal mining tenement covering rural properties owned by the Obeid family. The supposedly left wing Macdonald issued the lease while he was mines minister. ICAC said the Obeid family had received $30 million from this decision and stood to make more. Other ICAC inquiries into Obeid are underway.

In all this, Labor values were nowhere