Public life in New South Wales is back to “normal”: state Parliament — aka the Bear Pit — reopens tomorrow, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption reopens on Wednesday.
Political embarrassment is being shared “across the aisle”. Labor is still contending with the fallout from the odious career of powerbroker Eddie Obeid, while the Liberal Party is mired in a donations affair involving phantom companies and secretive payments.
In Parliament Premier Mike Baird will be tagging Labor with revelations of further Obeid atrocities, while ICAC commissioner Megan Latham will re-open Operation Spicer to throw light on how the Liberals illegally raise their cash — and hide it. Three weeks have been allocated for public hearings, with two former Liberal ministers — Chris Hartcher (mineral resources) and Mike Gallacher (police) — due to give evidence, as will ex-coal baron Nathan Tinkler.
ICAC counsel assisting, the Rumpole-ish Geoffrey Watson SC, has given notice he will also investigate two nasty campaigns against the former Labor MP for Newcastle, Jodi McKay, a local television personality, who was hounded by the publication and distribution of “misleading” information about her. It won’t surprise keen observers of the faction-ridden NSW Labor Party to learn that some of the material apparently originated from right-wing operatives on her own side.
Dozens of solicitors and barristers have been hired to ride shotgun for their Liberal clients, many of whom appear to be suffering acute memory loss — if their previous ICAC appearances are anything to go by. However, merely chanting “don’t remember” and “don’t recall” does not appear to be a sustainable defence, and Watson simply powers ahead with his interrogation, clocking up more allegations on the (privileged) record.
What gives the theatre in Parliament (Macquarie Street) and ICAC (Castlereagh Street) so much significance is the state election in less than eight months. In the lead-up, the major parties are obsessed by “positioning”. For the Labor opposition it is all about creating a post-Obeid, post-Ian Macdonald and post-Joe Tripodi image and building the integrity-driven leadership of former union boss John “Robbo” Robertson.
This suffered a massive setback when Robertson revealed in 2013 he had received a $3 million bribe offer in 2006 from crooked developer Michael McGurk, who was subsequently murdered. Robertson failed to tell the police, ICAC, Parliament or the ALP about the offer, which he rejected out of hand. He has since been rapped over the knuckles by a NSW parliamentary select committee.
Widely liked in the labor and trade union movement and the parliamentary Caucus, Robertson has failed to attract voter enthusiasm and trails dismally in the opinion polls. His position is so tenuous that a group of Labor insiders recently met federal frontbencher Anthony Albanese to offer him a safe seat in Sydney, the leadership of the state opposition and the chance to become the next Labor premier. Albanese scoffed at the plan and walked away. His inner-Sydney supporters were delighted. They believe, inexplicably, that he is another Ben Chifley and his job is to continue stalking Bill Shorten.