Gladys Berejiklian and Eddie Obeid (Images: AAP)

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian might be having a rotten end of year with revelations of a secret lover, pork-barrelling and shredded documents, but there’s been no joy for Labor either. For that you can thank the Obeid factor.

Labor’s problem is that however bad the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) might look for Berejiklian, it’s nothing compared with the mind-boggling corruption of former ALP kingpin Eddie Obeid and his factional mates.

Nearly a decade on, voters have neither forgiven nor forgotten the rorts, bribes and outright criminality. In short, Labor’s corruption has delivered unto NSW a one-party state.

Yet the politics of corruption has become a complicated question for the NSW Liberals and their NSW party colleagues in the federal government, Prime Minister Scott Morrison among them.

A Liberal government created the ICAC in 1988 in the face of corruption in the NSW police, judiciary and political class which had flourished under Labor. Thirty years later Liberal sentiment has swung against a powerful corruption commission doing its work in public.

Corruption, it appears, has shifted from being a serious question of governance to a question of image management.

The lesson has been absorbed that the best form of political damage control is not to find corruption in the first place, or at least to make sure it is kept under wraps with secret hearings.

Liberal governments have moved in parallel to restrict the power of anti-corruption investigations — why give your opponents the ammunition to destroy you?

In NSW the state parliamentary committee on the ICAC is in the middle of an inquiry into what to do about the impact on the reputation of individuals adversely named in the commission’s investigations. It is due to report early next year.

Some would like to see an exoneration process, to remove the stain of being adversely named at the ICAC — a stain that you carry for life even if you are never convicted in a court of law.

Others would prefer to see no open ICAC process at all.

At the same time Berejiklian has declined to provide extra funding of close to $8 million the Greens argued was needed to make up for the commission’s “underfunding”.

Over the past 12 months the ICAC has warned that funding shortfalls risked “an immediate and devastating effect” on its frontline services “and, therefore, its ability to fight corruption”.

It is still recovering from a 25% budget cut in 2015 in what looked like a punitive step for exposing secret donations by property developers to the NSW Liberals.

Meanwhile, the federal government has dragged the chain on its version of an anti-corruption body.

It started at the end of 2018 with Morrison dismissing a commission as “a fringe issue”. Last month, Attorney-General Christian Porter released draft legislation for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC). Porter is seeking public comment up to March, a period which overlaps with NSW’s inquiry into the ICAC’s powers and how it operates. Cue the vested interests.

Under the Porter model hearings would largely be held in private. He says this is to avoid “the failings” of state bodies which had led to “multiple instances of unjust and irreparable harm to the reputations of innocent people”.

It’s a strong echo of NSW. But who, exactly, are the unjustly harmed “innocent people”? Official reviews of ICAC’s operations have turned up only two names in the past decade. If you wanted to count Berejiklian it would be three.

Porter’s CIC model has been derided by, among others, the union for members of the Australian Federal Police which has described it as a “protection racket” for politicians.

Who’s pro secrecy and anti ICAC-style corruption commissions?

There are common links in the moves to water down both the federal and NSW corruption bodies.

Margaret Cunneen: Cunneen is the high-profile Sydney barrister and (then) senior Crown prosecutor who ran foul of the ICAC in 2014 over an allegation that she tried to pervert the course of justice at the scene of a car crash involving her son’s girlfriend.

She launched a High Court challenge against ICAC proceeding with public hearings and won. The court found ICAC had acted outside its powers.

Cunneen is a conservative who publicly supported Tony Abbott in the 2019 election. Her High Court win and the subsequent acrimonious tussle over the commission’s powers elevated her status as a conservative warrior.

She was appointed by Porter to a three-member “expert panel” in 2018 to advise on the shape of the federal government’s integrity commission. Porter’s office has declined to answer Crikey’s questions on how much Cunneen has been paid or what advice the panel has provided.

The Rule of Law Institute (ROLIA): The RoLIA is a conservative legal think tank and lobby group with links to the country’s most powerful conservative forces.

It is run by Sydney tax lawyer Robin Speed whose wealthy clients include the Lowy family, and its committee members include The Australian’s Chris Merritt.

The institute is also home to the Magna Carta Institute, whose board includes John Roskam, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, businessman David Lowy AM, and Hugh Morgan AC, the Liberal Party titan who is a former head of Western Mining Corporation and the Business Council of Australia.

The RoLIA is campaigning determinedly to stop the ICAC’s open hearings, which it says “has disgraced itself”.

“The agency has overstepped the mark and removed all doubt that the law governing public hearings needs to change.”

The coal industry: The owners of the NuCoal Resources mining company have claimed they were treated unfairly by the ICAC and the NSW government in a case which has galvanised the coal industry.

The ICAC found that a mining licence for a site acquired by NuCoal had been granted corruptly in a deal involving a former NSW mining minister Ian McDonald and former mining union boss John Maitland.

The NSW Liberal government cancelled the licence but only after the company had ploughed tens of millions of dollars into exploration. The move also damaged NuCoal’s more than 3000 investors.

The company has made the case that it was the innocent victim of moves against ALP corruption and raised issues of justice and transparency which resonate for the NSW coal industry. NuCoal has also taken its case to federal MPs. The Australian has also backed the company’s campaign for redress.

Alan Jones, The Australian and the whole gang — again: The right-wing broadcaster and Liberal party donor Alan Jones has used his various media platforms to denounce ICAC operations.

He’s supported by another Sky news personality, the former ALP powerbroker Graham “whatever it takes” Richardson. Both men closed ranks around Berejikilan after her damaging ICAC appearance in October.

Richardson told viewers ICAC “always has been, always will be a disgrace”.

“Any organisation that is able to traduce reputations the way this one does, with no hope, in the end, no hope of ever trying to recover, I find it a disgrace,” he said.

Richardson’s former ALP cronies include Eddie Obeid.

The Australian has also campaigned against the power of public corruption hearings and has championed the cases of NuCoal, Margaret Cunneen and individuals who claim to have been besmirched by adverse ICAC findings.

And the facts are?

The Centre for Public Integrity, a think tank of former judges, academics and veteran anti-corruption investigators, has attempted to set the record straight on the question of public hearings. It argues the cases advanced by opponents to demonstrate the pitfalls of an open inquiry are flawed examples.

Anthony Whealy QC, the centre’s chairman and a former NSW judge who presided over ICAC’s hearings into Obeid, has accused The Australian of “fail[ing] to appreciate the role of ICAC and the nature of its jurisdiction” in its reports of alleged ICAC injustice.

“Given the large number of thoroughly deserved corruption inquiries over the last 20 years it is surprising that the critics of ICAC concern themselves with two cases only,” Whealy wrote.

Ultimately, it seems Liberal politicians now see the issue as being not so much about stopping corruption as controlling the message.