When Barry O’Farrell suddenly resigned as New South Wales premier in April over the Independent Commission Against Corruption revelation that he had received a bottle of Grange from a business lobbyist, his colleagues were stunned: “Resigning over a gift of a bottle of wine? What is Barry thinking? There must be something else to it.”

There was. Unlike his colleagues, O’Farrell knew in advance that worse — much worse — was to come from ICAC’s public hearings.

The latest casualties, Liberal MPs Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell, have quit Parliament, paving the way for byelections in Newcastle and Charlestown, where the ALP is poised for victory.

The daily testimony from Operation Spicer is riveting stuff: the completely unexpected confessions, angry assertions of innocence, memory lapses, humiliation, shame and occasional bursts of laughter. The press corps is enjoying the spectacle because it is providing front-page copy. But the dozens of lawyers in attendance are not so happy, muttering constantly about “liberties” taken by the counsel assisting, Geoffrey Watson SC. Some talk of referring him to the NSW Bar Council for his “impertinent” treatment of their clients. If Watson knows what the legal eagles at the packed bar table think of him, he doesn’t appear to care. It’s head down and on with the show.

The spotlight is firmly directed on the murky world of Liberal Party election donations, the developers who ignored the law by giving tens of thousands of dollars to Liberal candidates, and the phantom companies used to wash the money. It was part of a master plan in which Liberal Party operatives stole constituencies across the Hunter and Central Coast in the March 2011 election. The operation was financed from a war chest provided by on-the-make developers while party chiefs in Sydney and Canberra washed, dried and folded donations using Liberal fronts they controlled. The cash guaranteed that the party fielded full-time candidates who were paid while they campaigned. Bills for their offices, staff, posters, advertising and mail-outs were all paid for.

The strategy is not new. In May 2005, Professor Maurice Daly delivered a report into Tweed Shire Council after “puppet” councillors were elected with the help of local developers. “Tweed Directions constructed a campaign funded by money primarily sourced from developers intended to secure a pro-development majority,” Daly said in his report tabled in Parliament. “Candidates, selected and supported by Tweed Directions, while presenting themselves as independents, were imposters, being puppets of Tweed Directions. The actions of the candidates and of Tweed Directions corrupted both the democratic process and its transparency, misleading the electorate.”

The Tweed scam resulted in the sacking of the council and the appointment of three commissioners, including former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull, to take charge. Most of the backers of Tweed Directions were from the National Party. In their defence, they said: “We are only doing what Labor does in Sydney and Wollongong.”

Now we can include Newcastle and the Liberals as well.

Peter Fray

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