Bob Carr should really be feeling the heat over allegations that he and
his Government were doing the bidding of Frank Lowy’s Westfield,
however, Mike Scrafton and the Olympics have combined to shield Carr
and his cohorts from too much attention – until now.
It’s 6.30am Friday morning as I write. In just over three and a half
hours, legal representatives for NSW Premier Bob Carr will appear
before ICAC Assistant Commissioner John Clarke QC, a former Supreme
Court justice, to argue why their client should not be found in
contempt of the ICAC.
Should Bob Carr avoid being sent to the Supreme Court to have contempt
proceedings taken against him, he should kneel beside his bed tonight
and thank two men for saving his hide: Mike Scrafton and Baron Pierre
de Coubertin. With the media focused on “Children Overboard Redux” and
the orgy of Olympism this week, what has been one of the worst weeks
ever in the nine and a half years for Carr and his government, has
largely been allowed to slip under the public’s radar.
Carr should really be feeling the heat over allegations that he and his
Government were doing the bidding of Frank Lowy’s Westfield by
effectively closing down a factory outlet complex in Liverpool, in
Sydney’s West – but despite front page coverage, it just isn’t hitting
But Carr is obviously rattled. At the launch of an education initiative
yesterday Carr told the gathered media that this week’s ICAC public
hearings had cleared and vindicated his Planning Minister and former
Health Minister, Craig Knowles, over allegations that he had bullied
and intimidated nursing staff who had blown the whistle on a litany of
sometimes fatal error and misjudgments in the health system in Sydney’s
west. Problem was – ICAC had not finished taking evidence, and was
nowhere near making any findings.
Make no mistake: this was an ill advised and a potentially ill-fated
observation by Carr. For someone usually astute in the niceties of
dealing with the corruption watchdog (he apparently once said that he
supported the ICAC because it kept the ALP’s criminal faction in check)
and who profitably spent his years in Opposition watching occasionally
discomfited Ministers in the Greiner and Fahey governments lash out at
the ICAC, Carr’s remarks were stupid, senseless – and make no mistake
about this – serious.
Yes, from the evidence given this week, there is every likelihood that
Craig Knowles will be cleared by ICAC, especially when a number of the
nurses present at a meeting with Knowles, on Melbourne Cup day in 2002,
and even the brother of one of the nurse complainants who led the
campaign, said that Knowles had behaved reasonably, and even honourably.
But Bob Carr’s premature claims of vindication puts the ICAC in an
invidious position. If the ICAC does clear Knowles how will it escape
the calumny that it was in any way influenced by Carr’s running
commentary about the evidence before it. Assistant Commissioner Clarke
has given Carr the best part of a day to justify his remarks – and so
far, while Carr has apologised and denied intending to influence the
ICAC, he has yet to retract his comments totally.
On the face of it, Carr’s comments are at least as serious as those
made by former Premier Neville Wran in the thick of the proceedings
against Lionel Murphy, which saw Ian Temby, then the Commonwealth DPP
and later the first ICAC Commissioner, launch contempt proceedings
against Wran. Carr and his lawyers will need to seriously abase
themselves before the ICAC if he’s going to escape a similar fate.
It caps off one of the worst weeks – if not the worst week – for Carr
as Premier. Carr has led a Government that has largely reigned without
the stench of corruption and dodgy dealings that pervaded previous
Governments – both Liberal and Labor – over the years. Yes, the Carr
Government has been, at times, seriously incompetent, exceedingly
clumsy and just plain dumb, but until now, there have
never been any substantiated allegations of influence peddling. But the
slow dribble of damaging evidence by means of a Parliamentary committee
inquiring who met who, and for what purpose, over the Westfield-factory
outlet imbroglio reaches right into Carr’s office – to the door of his
Chief of Staff, Graeme Wedderburn.
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The Liverpool stoush is a messy affair. It has a developer who seems to
have taken the mantra of “whatever it takes” to new levels of excess –
to the extent that he camped out the front of Planning Minister
Knowles’ house so that he could catch Knowles leaving his house at 6 in
the morning, and badgered Knowles’ elderly parents in an effort to
persuade their son to allow the rezoning of the land on which he built
his factory outlet so that it would be allowed to remain open, thereby
saving 450 jobs.
All the action takes place in a section of Labor’s hinterland known for
its internecine factional warring, and it comes about from some of last
decisions of the seriously inept and incompetent Liverpool Council,
which was sacked after its ill fated foray into property speculation
and, with Macquarie Bank, into the world of public-private
mega-projects, with the disastrous Oasis
Bruised egos, and more importantly, tight electoral prospects in the
forthcoming Federal election, has seen Federal Labor MPs, including
Julia Irwin, bag Carr and his government uphill and down dale, for
putting 450 jobs at risk. The outlet’s supporters have won the support
of the Daily Telegraph – and a retrospective rezoning has suddenly
taken on the proportions of the Battle of Austerlitz, with its ragtag
ramshackle coalition of disparate interests.
And looming large over the whole rotten affair is Frank Lowy and
Westfield, who have continued their take no prisoners approach to
competition by successfully applying to the Land and Environment Court
to have the factory outlet shut down because its development approval
was improperly made given the industrial (rather than retail) zoning.
Local MP, Joe Tripodi, is alleged to have told the developer that when
his application to the State planners was being considered, the
assistant Planning Minister, Diane Beamer (whose electorate is in the
area) had been heavied by Carr into making a decision in Westfield’s
favour. Furious denials are plentiful, but ICAC may yet again have to
turn its gaze south-westwards.
And then there’s the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations by
Westfield to the ALP. No-ones going to seriously argue that serious
dosh like that isn’t going to buy a bit of mouth to ear time for Lowy,
and we know from the Sydney Peace Prize stoush that Lowy can get
quality time with the Premier. (And does anyone take seriously Carr’s
protestations that he was talking to Lowy about soccer? Soccer? Carr?
Carr and soccer? Savour that sentence kiddies – it’s the first and last
time you’ll see Carr and soccer in the same room – let alone the same
It’s a heady mix of dollars, donations and developers – and it’s grist
to the mill for the Sydney Morning Herald’s state political
correspondent, Anne Davies, who for years has been searching for a
story that would blow the lid on cozy development deals sky high. In
her first months in Macqaurie Street, she may have just found her story.
Before the Boilermaker signs off, he wants to note that this week may
have seen a new low in the media’s coverage of politics – the (mis)use
of the lie detector. By Laurie Oakes elevating to the status of news
the tabloid tactic of subjecting Children Overboard whistleblower, Mike
Scrafton, to a lie detector test, he has done a grave disservice to
politics generally. Every politician who faces a media scrum over
contested facts from now on will no doubt be urged to take the test – a
pollie-graph no less – and will look shifty and shaky if they don’t
Bob Carr was asked to take the test yesterday – and sidestepped it by
saying he would when the technology was failsafe. Mark my words, this
unwelcome tactic might just become a feature of our political
landscape. Anyway, do you seriously think that a jumped up blood
pressure monitor is going to faze anyone who can say the likes of there
“never ever” will be a GST with a straight face? Yep, that’s what the
Boilermaker thinks too. Trust me.
Boilermaker Bill’s inbox is waiting for you and your secrets at boilermakerbill @crikey.com.au