Victory of spivs guarantees decades of defeat
About 20 years ago Australia was captivated and appalled by the secret footage of a bunch of senior Sydney police openly talking about taking bribes and collaborating with drug dealers in the crooked Kings Cross command.
Coppers such as Detective Graham “Chook” Fowler and his sidekick Inspector Trevor Haken became household names. Secret cameras caught police receiving cash kickbacks worth thousands of dollars, often stuffed into boots. “Hooley f…ing dooley,” a crooked copper was heard saying on one of the tapes, “I didn’t know you could get so much into an RM Williams.”
The revelations forced the NSW police royal commission and prompted other states to examine their police forces to make sure no such corruption existed there. In SA there was no such inquiry as the police had just undergone a thorough anti-corruption investigation, Operation Hygiene, in which one copper was busted for stealing a punnet of strawberries, another for pinching a bag of potting mix. To paraphrase the great journalist and author Cyril Pearl, one day someone will write the full story of Australian roguery, and every state will play a part, but undoubtedly NSW will steal the show.
It is wrong to say that Sydney was a convict town. Sydney is a convict town, its origins still clearly evident in its present day culture, language and behaviour. So it is right now with the galling corruption allegations against two former NSW Labor Government ministers, the slippery Eddie Obeid and his spiv sidekick Ian MacDonald. It is not an exaggeration to say that Obeid and his acolytes and enablers inside NSW Labor may have collectively conspired to destroy the Labor brand for decades, if not all time, in the biggest state in Australia.
The defining characteristics of these two men are a low-rent sense of entitlement, as if the hardships of public office should be compensated via special benefits, and the retention of power as an end in itself rather than a springboard for action on behalf of the community.
I inhabited this world for more than a decade both as a political reporter at NSW Parliament and then as a newspaper editor. Moving to Sydney in 1999, when Bob Carr had just been returned, the vibe of the place was so much looser and more raffish than anything I had ever witnessed growing up and working in the genteel City of Churches.
Even the blokes who were likeable cleanskins could come across as being suss. For example, the then Police Minister, Paul Whelan, was a thoroughly reputable bloke who aside from being an MP also owned several big city pubs which were full of poker machines. Whenever any issues came before Cabinet involving gaming or licensing issues, Whelan would leave the room. It always struck me as an odd arrangement – ie, not doing his actual job because of his vast hotel interests – but no-one in Labor cared, the journos didn’t, in fact it didn’t seem to bother the Opposition.
One of the first functions I went to was a drink put on at Parliament by Obeid’s grouping within the NSW Right. This grouping is known as the Terrigals, and takes its name from Obeid’s beach house in the NSW Central Coast town of the same name. They referred to the older, crustier, more Anglo-dominated members of the NSW Right as the “trogs”, short for troglodytes. At these drinks I was confronted by an MP called Paul Gibson, who was the Australian Hotel’s Association’s man inside Caucus, helping channel donations to the party, even writing a column called “Friend of the Publican” for their magazine.
At the drinks Gibson came up to me in front of both Eddie Obeid and another controversial Terrigal MP, Joe Tripodi, and called me among other things a f**king hypocrite for attending their drinks given I’d written a piece the last Sunday about subsidised grog at Parliament. I told him I’d never written such a piece and had no idea what he was talking about. He persisted with the abuse, stopping only when Tripodi told Gibson that he had confused me with another journo from another paper. The next morning Tripodi came to see me to say that he and Eddie had spoken to Gibson, that his comments showed a lack of respect, and that the whole thing was regrettable and we should move on. It was like something out of a hard-boiled crime drama.
The problem – of which the gouging Eddie Obeid is the epitome – is that when Bob Carr was premier he successfully held back the careers of many of these people whom he regarded as being too dicey to risk with frontbench positions. When Carr quit in 2005, the subsequent numerical wranglings over the rise of Morris Iemma, then Nathan Rees, and finally Kristina Keneally meant that the people who put power ahead of policy were suddenly running the show. Their victory was emphatic and has guaranteed Labor defeat in NSW for many years to come.
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