There’s nothing better than the feeling of finally being proved right, and so it was that the two happiest ex-premiers of New South Wales, Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees, yesterday launched a ground-breaking book about corrupt former NSW politician Eddie Obeid.
He Who Must Be Obeid, by Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont and ABC broadcaster Linton Besser, tells the story of Obeid, who has been found to be corrupt several times over by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Acting Commissioner Anthony Whealy has also recommended that prosecuting bodies give consideration as to whether he should face criminal charges for misconduct in public office. ICAC has heard that while running the numbers for the dominant Right faction in NSW Labor, the Lebanese-born father of nine also pocketed tens of millions of dollars from corrupt deals involving coal mines, Circular Quay cafes, marinas and the state’s water supply.
Iemma said the book was a “very valuable and important and groundbreaking contribution to this sad, dark, evil saga that has unfolded at ICAC”.
As recently as this week, a former colleague had asked him, “Do you really think that it’s true that [associate] Joe [Tripodi] and Eddie are crooks?” Iemma told the man that “there have been 10 corruption inquiries involving a maze of shelf companies, a web of fronts behind fronts behind fronts and licences for the exploitation of natural resources gifted to mates”.
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Obeid threatened to sue several times and did in fact sue The Sydney Morning Herald for defamation. “At the time [defamation writs] were used powerfully in Parliament and in caucus not just to traduce [McClymont’s] reputation but also to justify their conduct — he said that they were being persecuted by the Herald by McClymont and [fellow journalist Anne] Davies in particular. And for a long time, he could trade on the fact that he had succeeded in a court of law and he used that in Parliament.”
“There is an underestimation of just how charming, charismatic and likeable Eddie was …”
Rees, who is retiring from politics at the next NSW state election in March, said that he and Iemma had lived through an extraordinary period. For the journalists in NSW the stories wrote themselves, he said — a union movement at war with a premier over electricity privatisation, changes of premier, the proroguing of Parliament and an election “shellacking”. This was followed by several ICAC inquiries, which triggered the resignation of two ministers and a premier, events he described as “unprecedented in terms of political volatility”.
During his parliamentary career, Obeid was essentially “running a mixed business on steroids”, said Rees. “He was involved in property development, the water systems, immigration agency and a function centre. I’m a parliamentarian, and I have no idea how he found the time to do all those things.” Reading this “extraordinarily well-researched book” had given him three lessons, Rees said: “Don’t lend money to Eddie, don’t buy assets — just take out an option, and always think big”.
Rees said the worst aspect of Obeid’s actions was that they led to a “corrosion of confidence in the body politic. There needs to be a transparency in how political parties operate … and that process by which the dominant faction controls the party has to be smashed, otherwise the power and influence of people like Eddie and Joe will be able to raise its ugly head again. And it’s [a problem] not just in the ALP but also in the coalition.”
There should be maximum transparency in decision making, Rees said, including expansion of the freedom of information rules and the lobbyist register. “You have to remove political donations to the parties to the maximum extent possible … saying that some fundraising dinners raise $600,000 — this creates in the community a feeling that if they are doing it, there must be something in it for them.” Referring to the NSW Labor conference last weekend, where proposals to dilute the power of the union bosses were voted down, he said that “parties have to be more open to democracy internally”. Rejecting a plan that “dilutes the influence of those people who are the current decision makers” is a recipe for disaster, Rees said. “There are lessons in there for all of us.”
In the book, former party secretary and now federal Senator Sam Dastyari is quoted as saying that he has been frustrated at attempts to rewrite history by many of those who were so close to Obeid. “There is an underestimation of just how charming, charismatic and likeable Eddie was. There was his selfless help he would give to everybody. [The] simplistic caricature by the media that Eddie Obeid was an evil, conniving figure and that when he had coffee with you he’d offer you a bribe — he wasn’t like that at all. He was really charming and caring, thoughtful. He would help you, show an interest, give political advice, try to introduce people to other people … the couch in his office was where people came to air their ambitions and their problems and their fears and their broken marriages.”
You will need to read the book to find out about cabaret singer Geraldine Turner, who was hired to entertain at Eddie’s surprise 50th birthday party at the Airport Hilton. Scheduled after the belly dancer and the stripper, she sang for only 20 minutes because everyone was too drunk to listen. And she was never paid.
McClymont made an excellent speech, thanking former parliamentarians Michael Egan, Michael Knight, Deirdre Grusovin, Bob Carr, Frank Sartor (who was at the launch) and Angela D’Amore. She also quoted a defamation lawyer who had read an early draft of the book, saying that he would buy one straight away as it could be pulped by lunchtime. She also revealed that Obeid had once invited her to join his family for lunch at Passy, his sandstone mansion in Hunters Hill, and had even asked her to write his biography, for which he would pay her “handsomely”. ‘
Co-author Besser also spoke, relating an interview with Obeid on the eve of the first major inquiry into his conduct in 2012. When he asked Obeid whether he thought he’d be exonerated, he barked down the phone: “Of course I will be fucking vindicated. I have been looked inside out with a microscope up my arse and everything is clean as far as I’m concerned.”
The launch was held at NSW Parliament House and afterwards several of us repaired to Room 1122, Obeid’s old room, for a few glasses of champagne. The current occupant of the room and generous host, the Nationals’ Melinda Pavey, had decorated it with photocopies of McClymont’s and Besser’s stories about Obeid, just to get us in the mood. It was a very small room (he spent the vast majority of his career as a backbencher) with a very small couch. I thought of all the shenanigans that are rumoured to happen on politician’s couches. Did John Della Bosca really conduct an entire affair, as he has publicly admitted, on an office couch this size? Perish the thought.