Ian Macdonald
Ian Macdonald (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Ian Macdonald, the former NSW Labor minister whose name became synonymous with the corruption and rot at the heart of the party, walked out of Silverwater jail yesterday, after the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal overturned his conviction for misconduct in public office.

After less than two years in prison, Macdonald, along with union boss John Maitland, will face a retrial over his granting of lucrative mining exploration licenses at Doyles Creek. But while Macdonald might be, at least for now, a free man, his story is still an endless carousel of grubbiness.

The rise and fall of ‘Sir Lunchalot’

Long before the ICAC investigations and criminal trials, Macdonald was a Labor minister not afraid of having other people (often the taxpayer) foot the bill for his expensive and flamboyant tastes. Macdonald had to overcome real hardship to make it in politics. He grew up poor with a single mother, and this memory of childhood deprivation soon turned into a burning desire to “get everything” he could.

As early as the 1980s, Macdonald had earned the moniker “Sir Lunchalot” because of his habit of putting long, boozy Friday lunches on the Department of Housing credit card.

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Fast forward 20-odd years, and Macdonald was an embattled minister, lurching from one expenses scandal to the next. He spent thousands on furniture and a television. He charged taxpayers $150,000 for a wine advisory council stacked with his mates. He regularly went behind cabinet’s back and made multibillion dollar offers to sporting bodies to hold events in Sydney. In 2010, Macdonald was finally sacked after he was caught rorting travel expenses on a trip to Rome.

Then the ICAC came calling and things got worse. In 2011, the commission heard Macdonald accepted sexual favours from a sex worker in return for brokering high level meetings between property developer Ron Medich and government agencies. Medich is currently serving a 39 year sentence for the murder of an old business associate. Macdonald claimed he was too drunk to think straight, but was later found to have engaged in corrupt conduct.

Also under the microscope were several decisions Macdonald made while holding the mining portfolio. More corrupt conduct was found after the commission heard Macdonald opened a mine for his mate and fellow NSW Labor power broker Eddie Obeid. One Labor insider told the ICAC that Macdonald was known as Obeid’s “left testicle”. Obeid is now in prison over separate corruption incidents.

How the case fell apart

It was a later ICAC finding — that Macdonald had helped grant a coal mining licence to Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union boss John Maitland — that has been overturned. True to form, the deal was sealed over a now infamous $300 bottle of pinot noir. In 2017, after ICAC recommended Macdonald to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the former minister was convicted of two counts of misconduct and sentenced to 10 years in prison with a seven year non-parole period. During sentencing, Judge Christine Adamson said Macdonald had betrayed the people of NSW.

That all came crashing down yesterday, when five judges on the NSW Criminal Court of Appeal overturned Macdonald’s conviction. The court found that Adamson had misdirected the jury in relation to the state of mind required to be found guilty of the offence. Macdonald also appealed for a second reason, that the jury’s verdicts were unreasonable and could not be supported by the evidence, but the court suppressed its conclusion on that question.

What it means for Labor

With a NSW state election just weeks away, the court’s decision could not have come at a more inconvenient time for Labor, who are desperate to banish the memory of Macdonald and Obeid to the past. The pair were banished from the party following ICAC’s findings in 2013, and at the time it was believed that spectre of corruption cost the party in that year’s election.

When Michael Daley took over as Labor leader late last year, the Liberal Party were quick to gleefully point out his connections with Macdonald and Obeid. However tenuous that connection may be, Daley has no desire to revisit the numerous incidents that tainted the last Labor government to run NSW.

But Macdonald’s quashed conviction, and the prospect of another, high profile trial makes that era harder to forget.