If revenge is a dish best served cold, then the former enemies of New South Wales Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid are having the best meals of their lives.

Former and current NSW politicians Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees, and Frank Sartor appeared at the NSW corruption watchdog yesterday, all with a glow of self-righteousness. Sins have been committed, but it is now time for confession, absolution and eventually retribution. No wonder they looked smug.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption is conducting the largest investigation in its 25-year history. It will spend the next five months examining the circumstances under which former NSW Labor minister Ian Macdonald made or influenced government decisions which may have allowed the Obeid family to “acquire profits in the order of $100 million”.

We have known all along, of course, the last Labor government was run by the henchmen of the NSW Right for their own benefit, not in the interests of citizens. But it was still gratifying to hear it in person. The hearing room was packed yesterday with people keen to hear the three pollies describe the way they were lobbied and bullied for favours by Obeid and his fellow powerbroker, Joe Tripodi.

Nathan Rees, who appeared particularly cheerful, described the way he sacked Tripodi and Macdonald from the ministry and then feared for the worst. “I thought they would come at me before the end of the [parliamentary] session,” he said. “And did they?” he was asked. “Every which way!”

In fact, he lost the leadership over it to Kristina Keneally, who he infamously labelled a “puppet” of Obeid and Tripodi.

Former planning minister Frank Sartor described a meeting he had with Obeid when he was weighing up whether to enter politics.

“What do you want to retire on?” Obeid asked him. About a million in superannuation “would be nice”, Sartor replied. “I think I can help you with that,” Obeid replied.

Sartor told the Commission he declined the offer, saying he didn’t want to enter Parliament feeling as if he was “owned” by Obeid. And in what could be the understatement of the year, he described 2009 as a “tawdry time” for Labor; “not our finest era”.

Iemma and Rees described the way they were continually lobbied by the Obeid-led faction, The Terrigals, to elevate Ian Macdonald to the planning portfolio. They both resisted, but in the end, Macdonald didn’t need to be planning minister to be of service. As minister for mineral resources, he was just as useful.

ICAC is examining whether Macdonald rigged public tenders for coal exploration licences to confer “massive cascading profits” on the Obeid family, thus depriving NSW taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Macdonald, of course, has already starred in a previous ICAC inquiry, receiving the services of a s-x worker which was paid for by property developer and murder suspect Ron Medich.

Ironically, the Central West farmer, nicknamed “Sir Lunchalot” for his excessive appetites, has long had firm views on ICAC. In 1988, as a newly-minted member of the Legislative Council, he spoke out on the bill which created it, saying it could lead to a “political witch hunt”:

“The extraordinary search warrant provisions, the denial of legal professional privilege, the absolute secrecy clauses, the ouster of the ombudsman’s jurisdictions, the failure to provide for an absolute right of legal representation, are but some of the denials of our basic freedoms. All in all, I think it fair to say that there has never been a more potentially dangerous bill presented to this Parliament.”

And how did Macdonald actually know, in 1988, that “the Commission will spend much time examining the workings of the Labor Party”?

What we really want to know, and are hoping to hear, is how the NSW Labor Party allowed Obeid and his cohorts to turn it into the poster-child for bad governance, leading to an unprecedented loss in the NSW election in 2011.

In his 1988 speech, Macdonald quotes approvingly from the 17th century statesman Francis Bacon: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” But Bacon, who was charged with corruption and resigned in disgrace, is wrong. We need to weed out bad politicians and public officials and make an example of them. And revenge can be awfully sweet.

The inquiry continues.