So much for Labor values


Bill Shorten smilingAmid 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 to be seen. Instead, Labor's modern deal making ethos allowed Macdonald to ignore tender processes and let the directors of the favoured company enter into an arrangement (now in jeopardy) to on-sell the licences for almost $500 million without engaging in any productive activity.

In a later report, ICAC made corrupt conduct findings against Macdonald, a former mining union official John Maitland and three businessmen over another lease worth tens of millions of dollars. ICAC also made corruption findings against Macdonald, businessman Ron Medich and his associate Rocky Gattellari, over inducements for Macdonald to arrange meetings with state energy executives. Richardson has worked as a lobbyist for Medich on other projects.

Labor's current NSW leader John Robertson recently revealed that six years ago he rejected an offer of a $3 million bribe from another Medich associate Michael McGurk to sell these two developers a holiday retreat for union members at Currawong Beach. Robertson, who was then head of Unions NSW, has failed to explain why he didn't refer the offer to the police or ICAC. In September, Medich pleaded not guilty to murdering McGurk in 2009. Gattellarri has already been sentenced for his part.

Obeid and Macdonald were clearly aspirational. Perhaps this helps explain why they rang few alarm bells among Labor insiders who insist the party should target the 'aspirational class'. Never mind that most people have aspirations, even if only to a life of quiet dignity. Moreover, Labor was originally set up to help workers who aspired to a better life. But some Labor MPs want to woo an aspirational class loosely defined as relatively well off people who yearn for more material wealth. Labor's former Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon seems to think it is an electoral imperative to not means test those with a family income of $5000 a week because they're 'still struggling'.

The catch cry is that Labor has to abandon old fashioned 'class warfare'. That's fine. Labor and the Coalition should govern for all Australians. But this doesn't mean all Australians should be entitled to budget handouts, especially well off retirees who can fend for themselves. Labor should maintain its earlier values that supported means testing — if it wants to run responsible budgets and fund areas that improve living standards such as better educational opportunities, more scientific research and efficient transport facilities.

Nor, in blunt electoral terms, should it forget that households 'struggling' on a disposable income of $5000 a week are in the top 2 per cent. Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in July showed that low-income households had an average weekly disposable income of $475 compared to $793 for middle-income households and $1814 for high-income households (the latter being in the top 20 percent).

If Labor wants to help those who really struggle to meet their aspirations, it should scrap compulsory superannuation. Perversely, this policy will force low-income earners to have a higher standard of living in retirement than while working and often stretched trying to raise a family. Paying the 12 per cent contributions rate as normal after-tax salary would increase real tax home pay for minimum wage earners by over $70 a week when it is fully phased-in.

Bill Shorten recently said he wants to be Labor leader and then 'the prime minister for the powerless'. Yet he wants to lift compulsory contributions to 15 per cent of salaries — giving the powerless even less power over their meagre incomes. Neither the Victorian based Shorten nor his leadership rival Anthony Albanese, who voted for Macdonald to have another term in the NSW upper house, have supported calls to set up a federal anti-corruption watchdog like the states have — despite the abundant opportunities for corruption at the federal level. Somewhere along the way, Labor values have been lost.

Brian Toohey headshotWalkley award winning journalist Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.

Topic tags: Brian Toohey, Labor, Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, Eddie Obeid



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Existing comments

And while those struggling on $5000 a week deserve pity, single parents struggling on a few hundred deserve to have their incomes slashed so refugee prisons could be built on Nauru and Manus. I haven't voted for the ALP since Hawke sold the off to Murdoch and began the stinking refugee prisons.
Marilyn | 11 October 2013

Many communities in NSW and QLD are in literal despair at having mining and coal seam gas forced on them destroying their communities, industrialising their landscape and ruining their water and property values. This was all achieved under Labor in both QLD and NSW with ex Liberal federal ministers at the helms of the companies. There is absolutely no trust left and total disgust with the politico -business machine that is destroying our laws and building green/ red tape flummery around approvals processes which fail to have the STOP button communities want. I predict the next three years are going to see ordinary citizens pitted against corrupt politicians. Exposing Diddling of the public till over entitlements is only the beginning of citizen driven action.
Peter Tyler | 12 October 2013

It should be Lucky, not Rocky.
george | 14 October 2013

Not sure if it was the same person, Brian, but I also heard from a very senior Labor figure at the time he retired about a decade ago words to the effect "I had to get out. I couldn't stand the stench any more." What is it with these guys? I recently had occasion to research "entitlement syndrome" and that linked to "narcissistic personality disorder" or NPD. Look it up! It seems to fit the observed phenomena very well.
Ian | 14 October 2013

Yes, I remember Joel Fitzgibbon crying poor for those "still struggling" on $250,000 a year. Well, of course they would still be struggling if they are trying to live those on $350,000 a year.
Alan Slatyer | 14 October 2013

A cogent case Brian and indefensible! However I believe that Labor is still the preferred party to raise the aspirations of the poor and marginalised relative to any other political force in Australia. Forgiveness is timeless.
Carey | 14 October 2013

It's time to bring back the National Civic Council and the grassroots Catholic political movement - one that incorporates the new consciousness about social justice for a diverse Australia - asylum seekers, the homeless/unemployed/low income, those marginalised by sexual identity, rural communities, and the unborn.
AURELIUS | 14 October 2013

The basic Labor Values were once very much in line with the Christian Principles of helping the needy. With the drift away from Christianity, Political Parties in general have drifted away from concern for the needy, and tend toembrace the idea of feathering their own nests, and those of their cronies, ignoring the warnings about the Last Judgement given in Matthew chapter 25.
Robert Liddy | 14 October 2013

Labor also abandoned refugees and other marginalized citizens. Not proud to call myself an Australian when I see how they treat refugee issues.
John Bennett | 18 October 2013


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