Monday June 7, 2004
It was home-coming week in Losers’ Lounge (the NSW Legislative Council for the uninitiated) this week. Labor’s profligate son (Ed. Surely he means prodigal?), Eddie Obeid, the former Minister for Rocks and Cod (Minerals and Fisheries) and erstwhile Labor right-wing powerbroker, was back home. Eddie, who had been rapidly acquiring the habits of a Trappist novice, not uttering a single word in the Upper House since 5 December 2002, spent a lot of his first day back in Parliament this week having to explain himself.
Since the beginning of April the Opposition had granted Eddie a pair on the understanding that he had to leave for Lebanon to attend to urgent family business. Then The Australian discovered him (and 17 associates from Sydney) involved in a minor municipal election in Matrite, a one horse town near the border with Syria, and Eddie’s birthplace. An editorial in The Australian caught the bizarre nature of his Parliamentary leave quite nicely:
“Mr Obeid sought leave from his party to travel home on family compassionate grounds, which seems an odd way to describe what he is actually doing, which is politically kneecapping his own niece, mayoral candidate Yola Obeid, a Maronite Catholic. Instead, Mr Obeid is organising the numbers for the Shi’ite Muslim candidate, Salami Salami.”
With that, all bets were off for the Opposition. Having failed in 2002 to catch him out on his pecuniary interest declarations or his alleged involvement in the request for a million dollar bribe to facilitate the Oasis development at Liverpool, the Opposition seized their chance. Liberal Greg Pearce who had unsuccessfully pursued the pecuniary interest allegations summed up the Opposition’s approach to Eddie:
“My views about the fitness of this member to be a member of this House are well known. I am pleased to note that the Premier accepted my view about the fitness of the member to be a Minister and after the last election he duly sacked him. I do not have anything against the honourable member but then I suppose that I have never had a business dealing with him and I have never had a factional falling out with him. So I do not really have any reason to have any concerns about him. In fact, the honourable member is often charming and erudite. The problem is that he simply does not understand that it causes difficulties when he intermingles his personal affairs with his parliamentary duties.”
No sooner had Eddie helped his favoured candidates across the line in Matrite than Bob Carr was calling for him to get home on the next available flight. The Government Whip, Peter Primrose, a left winger, did nothing to alleviate Eddie’s discomfort by saying that the Opposition was well within its rights to withdraw from the pairing arrangement.
Eddie flew back into Sydney on Wednesday evening, and there to greet him the following morning in Losers Lounge were the Opposition with a censure motion. The Liberal Leader in Losers Lounge, Michael Gallacher, mustered up as much confected outrage as he could manage, saying that he was moving censure to maintain the reputation of the “People’s House”.
Of this justification I say two things: the people are pretty much absentee landlords when it comes to this House, and trying to maintain its reputation shows a remarkable lack of ambition.
Eddie’s defence had to be seen to be believed. Ever wondered how 600 people living in a mailbox could form the basis of an ALP branch in south-western Sydney? Well it has nothing on the Matrite electoral roll, which must be a beauty. Eddie sought to reassure the House that he would hardly squander his talents as a powerbroker on the people of Matrite:
By the way, Metrit has about 150 residents. About 1250 people are on the electoral roll, most of whom-more than 500-live in Australia. I think it demeans my position in politics to claim that I would need a month to convince anyone to vote in any way-and there are only 150 voters in Metrit. I am supposed to be a numbers man and a powerbroker in the Labor Party and I am insulted by suggestions that I need a month to work on 150 people in a small village to get a council up. Think about that again. It is not the case.
Then he made a grab for the Green vote:
“For Heaven’s sake, these people have lived together for 300 years without any outside interference and suddenly we have a chicken farm owner who has bought land in the town, sprinkled chicken farms all around the place. I think the Greens would be proud of me in the way I defended the environment.”
And he knew who to blame for his predicament:
“This rumour mongering and malicious campaign of getting square with Eddie Obeid simply because I am a Member of Parliament is an easy take. It is quite alarming that the media and parliamentarians on both sides of politics are prepared to take for granted anything that is said by someone from an ethnic background. They do not look into the matter further or establish the facts.
“Reputations are so easy to tarnish. I am prepared to cop that. I am prepared to accept that the Sydney Morning Herald has waged an ongoing campaign of vilification against me not only when I first came to Parliament but when I became a Minister. It has progressed to the stage where I have sued the newspaper for defamation. That issue is before the courts. The case has passed the first stage and a judge has determined that the newspaper’s Oasis allegations against me were defamatory. We are now at the critical second stage where a jury must assess whether it warrants an award of damages. Of course, the Queen’s Counsel and lawyers for Fairfax are playing games and extending the case. I accept that that is their intention. Mike Carlton has a commercial relationship with the Sydney Morning Herald — they are a tag team. They work off each other and promote the same causes. I accept that; it is part of being in public life. One cops the good and the bad. Nothing will stop me from having my day in court.”
Eddie suggested that his foray into the politics of Matrite followed a long and distinguished lineage:
“It is not new for any blue-blooded Australian, especially someone in politics, to visit many countries to pursue many different issues. It does not matter whether one is a greenie, a civil libertarian or a humanitarian.”
Eddie didn’t say which one describes him, and does his self description as a blue blooded Australian mean that Eddie is our own royalty?
The Marquis of Matrite went on to say:
“We get involved in matters that are not relevant to the politics of our community, whether it is civil liberties in Burma or the slaughter of seals in Alaska. We are all aware of those issues, we get involved in them and the visit other countries.”
The Marquis’ defence was interrupted by question time, where lo and behold, he ended his long huff of 18 months, and asked a Dorothy Dixer of the Treasurer, Michael Egan. Nothing should be read into the fact that it was about a contract for software to assist in criminal investigations other than the wicked humour of the Treasurer or his staff.
With the debate resuming after lunch, Fred Nile made a curious contribution in which he noted Eddie’s comments about the Sydney Morning Herald and a defamation case Eddie launched over reports of the Oasis deal:
“I think this is a case in which the Opposition has been influenced by the Sydney Morning Herald to take up this issue in this House. As indicated by the interjections, it is as though members of this House have an obligation to act in respect of allegations that have been made in the media, and it is as though this House as an obligation to act on those allegations. I do not believe that to be the case: But if the converse were true, where would it end if the Sydney Morning Herald or any other major media outlet decided to target a particular member of Parliament, and this House acquiesced?
“A relevant factor in this case, which hopefully does not apply to any other member of this House, is that the Hon. Eddie Obeid is involved in a very detailed defamation case with the Sydney Morning Herald. I make the observation as an outsider that if the Sydney Morning Herald is able to encourage the Opposition to move a motion of censure against the member, that would certainly harm his reputation.”
The Hon. Duncan Gay: “Why would you say such a thing under parliamentary privilege when there are court proceedings under way?”
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: “That is the point I am making. We are now discussing censuring a member who is involved in a court case with a major newspaper concerning his honesty and his reputation. That is what a jury has to take into account. If this House passes this censure motion, it could unintentionally contribute to a decision that will be made by a jury in due course.”
The Shooters’ Party’s John Tingle expressed sympathy for Eddie:
“I have been a member of this House for nine years and have seen a series of things fall upon the Hon. Eddie Obeid. Older members of this House-and no-one is as old as me-may remember the Li’l Abner comic strip, in which there was a character called Joe Bfstplk. Joe Bfstplk was a little man who went around with a storm cloud following him over his head, which rained on him and struck him with lightning. Sometimes I think the Hon. Eddie Obeid should be called Eddie Bfstplk, because everything happens to him.”
Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic colleague, Gordon Moyes, said he would reluctantly support the censure motion. Why reluctantly? Well, as Gordon tells it:
“I regret the censure because of Mr Obeid’s personal friendship to me, in particular when I first became a member of this House.”
Gordon’s obviously not aware of Harry Truman’s dictum that if you want a friend in politics get yourself a dog. Since the 1995 election, when the crossbench comprised 8 members from across the political spectrum and was thereby an unknown quantity to the Government, Eddie took it upon himself (helped out by leftie Ian Macdonald, who is now the Minister for Primary Industries) to befriend the new members of the crossbench, and act as a bridge to the Government.
Arthur Chesterfield Evans described the love bombing from Eddie after he discovered that the Australian Democrat (singular, as Michael Egan continually points out) was a neighbour in leafy Hunters Hill:
“Eddie lives near me in Hunters Hill and, upon my election, he offered me a lift to Parliament. I accepted his offer. Eddie made some suggestions about what I should do as a new member of Parliament — I was keen to learn. He said, ‘Look, I’ll give you the drum on what to do when you’re here. You vote with us regularly and consistently and at the end of the day we’ll give you a little win and you’ll get back in’.”
Arthur demurred, saying that he would vote on legislation on its merits. Eddie replied, “Oh no, you haven’t got the right idea at all”… The second time Eddie gave me a lift we had almost the same conversation and he said that I was still not catching on. After we had virtually the same conversation on a third occasion Eddie simply turned up the radio, and I knew that I was a disappointment to him. I continued to catch a lift home with Eddie.
Why didn’t Arthur use public transport? Well, as it frequently is the case with the Democrats, it’s do as they say, not as they do:
Ferries to Hunters Hill run only once every hour. I could have used free taxi vouchers but I thought to do so would be a bit of a drain on the taxpayer so I hitched with Eddie whenever it was convenient. One day Eddie said, “You didn’t vote for us. You should, you know, because I give you a lift home.” I did not know whether he was being facetious — he may well have been — but I did not want it to appear as though I was compromising on the matter so from then on I caught the ferry.
Arthur then enraged “Kokoda” Charlie Lynn by saying that he used his pair to “take books and soccer balls to Papuan school kids”. Charlie had to take a point of order there and then, and make a personal explanation later.
Jon Jenkins from the Four-wheel-drivin’, Huntin’, Fishin’, Shootin’, Rootin’ Party (OK, it’s registered as the Outdoor Recreation Party) noted that it was second censure motion since his election to the casual vacancy caused by Malcolm Jones’ departure last year. Failing to take heed of the advice that it’s best to take an instant dislike to Michael Costa because it saves time, Jenkins found that a lack of familiarity with Costa was grounds to vote against his censure. Jenkins is inclined to extend a generous amount of leeway to his Parliamentary colleagues:
Last night I was accused of being naive. I wish to say that I am not naïve; I simply choose to live my life by the philosophy that I take people as I find them. I refuse to be cynical; I refuse to distrust, by default; and I refuse to look for deception in people.
He doesn’t have to look for deception — it will be in his face if he hangs about Losers Lounge. Forgetting that her accusation that Tony Burke was Boilermaker Bill blew up in her face, Lee Rhiannon had a crack at Jenkins. When Jenkins said that his trust in people was why he couldn’t join a major party, Lee interjected:
Even though you tried.
The Hon. JON JENKINS: I have not tried at all.
Ms Lee Rhiannon: Haven’t you?
The Hon. JON JENKINS: No. Would the Hon. Lee Rhiannon care to elaborate?
Ms Lee Rhiannon: No. I am pleased you have corrected everybody.
Jenkins then said that he might join the left wing of the National Party (the one that socialises the losses presumably), prompting an exchange with the Libs and Nats:
The Hon. Rick Colless: We have no factions.
The Hon. JON JENKINS: No factions? I might start one. Rather than change and become a cynical politician I hope to change this House. Will I succeed? No, not a chance in Hades. Will I give up trying? No, not a chance in Hades.
The Hon. Michael Gallacher: Will you make a difference?
The Hon. JON JENKINS: I hope so.
The Hon. Michael Gallacher: You should make a decision; you cannot sit on the fence.
The Hon. JON JENKINS: I am going to making a decision.
The Hon. Michael Gallacher: You get splinters every day you sit there.
After nearly five hours of debate, it came time for a vote. The Greens voted for censure, while Chesterfield-Evans, Jenkins, Tingle, Peter Breen, and Peter Wong joined the Government in voting against. And in what must be a first, the Christian Democrats vote was split: Moyes voting for censure and Nile voting against. The undoubted shame and horror of censure by the Legislative Council was avoided — for now.