Finally, the man who ran NSW Labor — and perhaps the state — was defending himself at the ICAC inquiry. The political class had waited a long time to see Eddie Obeid take the stand.
Defiant. Surly. Combative. Former New South Wales politician Eddie Obeid finally got into the witness box at the Independent Commission Against Corruption this morning and behaved badly, demonstrating his deep contempt for the process. It can be very hard for a powerful man to sit on the wrong side of a witness box — and like Silvio Berlusconi and Conrad Black, Obeid is obviously finding it difficult to give up control.
It’s been a fiery morning at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, and those people who lined up for almost two hours to get a seat have not been disappointed. The public gallery is completely full, as is the overflow room on a different floor. And as Obeid took his seat at 10am, complete with OAM badge in his lapel, the room fell totally silent.
By 10.20am, Obeid, his barrister Stuart Littlemore SC and Counsel Assisting Geoffrey Watson SC had all raised their voices, topped off by a strong admonition by the Commissioner David Ipp QC. In years of court reporting, I’ve rarely heard a witness talk over a judge, but Obeid did it several times. “I won’t be intimidated by you … or anyone else,” he said.
Finally, the normally implacable commissioner had had enough, telling the political powerbroker that he had authority over the inquiry, and Obeid was to respect that. Good luck.
But there have been some lighter moments. When counsel assisting asked Obeid the difference between a legal or ethical obligation to disclose something, he said “you do understand the difference, don’t you?”.
Obeid replied “yes, I do have a good understanding of ethics”, prompting loud laughter from the public gallery. Commissioner Ipp jumped in: “Could members of the public gallery please stop laughing, this is not a theatre.”
By the time Geoffrey Watson put to Obeid that he was in a criminal conspiracy with former resources minister Ian Macdonald and the Obeid family to defraud the people of NSW, no one was laughing. He denied it, of course, and things went steadily downhill. By lunchtime the most common phrases in the courtroom were “just answer the question” (Watson) and “I object to that” from Stuart Littlemore, who appears to have breakfasted on Red Bull.
Commissioner Ipp, who is trying to control his frustration, has finally admonished the witness, “can you try and control yourself, you are not in Parliament now!”.
Obeid is scheduled to be in the witness box for two days, but going on the pace of this morning’s proceedings it could be much longer. Ian Macdonald, who has already starred in an ICAC inquiry featuring a young Asian masseuse called Tiffanie, is due to give evidence on Thursday.