Wednesday, 15 May 2013
New South Wales Labor Government
Tonight's adjournment speech continues the comments I made last night in the Senate about recent activities in New South Wales. When a New South Wales upper house inquiry into allegations of corruption in planning decisions was held in September 2009, Ms Hale, who was a member of the upper house at that time, asked Sydney property developer Ron Medich if he had any involvement in the murder of Michael McGurk. Mr Medich was subsequently charged with Mr McGurk's murder. Ms Hale was extensively targeted at the time by conservative Labor and coalition MPs for asking the question that had to be asked as it was deeply relevant to understanding and combating the systemic corruption that had become part of doing business in New South Wales in those years. Michael McGurk and Graham Richardson had both worked for Ron Medich. It is widely recognised that Mr Richardson orchestrated Mr Eddie Obeid's entry into the New South Wales upper house. In Mr Obeid's inaugural speech, delivered on 13 November 1991, the first person he thanked of all his supporters was Mr Richardson.
It was 2008 that marked the height of many of the Labor scandals that ICAC is now investigating. In the week before Christmas that year, the Australian Financial Review reported that Mr Richardson transferred $1 million from his Swiss bank account to a Beirut account. Mr Richardson, amongst his many titles, is now recognised as a mentor to Mr Obeid, and this story about a Beirut account has fuelled speculation on the nature of the relationship between these two dominant Labor figures. For those commentators attempting to grapple with what is happening to Labor, it is a serious mistake to try to dismiss Mr Obeid as a lone operator. Like Mr Macdonald was a creature of the left Labor faction, Mr Obeid was a creature of the right Labor faction.
Mr Carr's role in promoting Mr Obeid also needs to be remembered. While it is true, as the current foreign minister likes to remind us, that he forced Mr Obeid out of his ministry, Mr Carr elevated Mr Obeid to the prized position of Minister for Mineral Resources in 2003 and he often praised this upper house Labor MP for his massive fundraising efforts undertaken for Labor.
Mr Macdonald also had a dubious connection with the strange case of the Young abattoir that went into receivership in 2010 with debts of more than $20 million, leaving its 300 workers out of a job. Money that should have been put into workers' entitlements and superannuation, along with company stock, went missing. The public purse is down $2 million, as the Commonwealth has to cover workers' entitlements when a business collapses. There is no suggestion that the former minister was involved in this bad business deal, but he did fail to act on clear advice about previous fraudulent activities of the company owners, Grant Edmonds and Kim Noble.
In 2005, when Mr Macdonald was Minister for Primary Industries, he was advised that the Young abattoir owner, Grant Edmonds, had been the subject of an internal Commonwealth Bank investigation into fraudulent conduct when he was a bank manager at the Auburn branch. Mr Edmonds' partner, Kim Noble, at the time of the investigation was a bank clerk in the same branch of the Commonwealth Bank. Ms Noble also had a major interest in Burrangong Meats, owner of the Young abattoir, as she was the financial controller. Banking analyst Bruce Ford provided this information to Mr Macdonald when he became aware that the minister had appointed Mr Edmonds to the chair of a committee overseeing the National Livestock Identification Scheme. The email Mr Ford sent was acknowledged with a confirmation that it was received by the minister's office. Mr Macdonald denies he was aware of the issue. Ministers do receive a great deal of correspondence; we all know that. However, it is hard to believe this issue would not have been considered in Minister Macdonald's office. At the time this email was sent, Mr Macdonald's chief of staff was Tony Hewson, a former mayor of Young, a former senior manager for Mr Edmond and a one-time director of one of the Burrangong group of companies. Mr Hewson would have been aware the information supplied by Mr Ford to his boss was significant. Mr Macdonald has made trips to China with both Mr Hewson and Mr Edmonds. I referred this matter to ICAC when I was in state parliament and I maintain my view that this warrants investigation.
News Limited also deserves a mention in the saga of the damage Mr Macdonald has wrought on New South Wales. Former News Limited CEO John Hartigan was a member of one of the former minister's many committees—in this case the New South Wales Wine Industry Research and Development Advisory Council, which became notorious for spending $150,000 on long lunches and top accommodation. News Limited was again standing with Mr Macdonald in backing one of his pet projects, the car race Sydney did not want—the V8 Supercar Championship Series at Sydney Olympic Park. This event, with a price tag of $90 million of public money, required legislation to override the environmental regulations designed to enhance the green credentials of the Olympic precinct.
Then there are the former minister's unexplained actions with the NRL. In March 2010, as Minister for Major Events he pledged about $50 million over 10 years to the NRL, including $45 million in cash and $5 million in kind. Much of the annual $3.5 million payment had no conditions attached. News Limited, with its newspapers, pay TV rugby league and financial ties to two clubs—100 per cent ownership of the Melbourne Storm and a 68 per cent stake in the Brisbane Broncos—would have a clear interest in the NRL gaining financial support. A strong NRL means more followers and viewers, more people looking for news on the game and their club. The NRL is an important and popular sport. It warrants support. But there are a lot of important sports and a lot of public schools and hospitals in need. Why did Mr Macdonald, with the support of the NSW Labor cabinet, single out the NRL for such favoured treatment?
Part of the motivation appears to have been to save New South Wales Labor's political bacon by preventing the bid of the then Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, to have NRL grand finals played in Brisbane. Was something expected in return? The actions of Mr Macdonald, an AFL Essendon fan, in throwing millions of dollars at the NRL are curious. With the way Labor and the coalition parties have pandered to media moguls and their empires in recent history, these questions need to be considered. Maybe the former Monash student activist turned New South Wales Labor minister hoped for some media cooperation for himself or his party. Stranger things have happened in this tale of the rags-to-riches hard man of politics.
When Mr Macdonald resigned in May 2010 over misuse of his travel entitlements, I called on the then New South Wales Premier, Kristina Kenneally, to broaden the inquiry to cover other allegations of ministerial misconduct, as our previous calls for ICAC to investigate had not been taken up. Ms Kenneally did not broaden the inquiry. In March this year, speaking on the ABC's 7.30, she stated that Mr Macdonald had been a competent minister and that is why she put him back in the ministry after he had been sacked by former Premier Rees. The ICAC hearings are shedding light on whom Mr Macdonald was competent for—for himself, for some close colleagues and for business executives. Considering the range of dubious activities the former minister was involved in, there is a strong case for the ICAC investigation to be widened to include the issue of the Young abattoir and whether New South Wales government ministers gave guarantees to proponents of developments, including coalmines, prior to the approval process being finalised. A danger for all of us is that minimal lessons are learnt from these widespread abuses by prominent public figures.
What I witnessed in New South Wales state politics suggests that a dangerous 'whatever it takes' culture dominates in the New South Wales Labor parliamentary wing. This behaviour, I find, damages all sides of politics, as people become cynical about the democratic process. The road to recovery needs to concern us all. For members of this parliament, I believe it is a clear reminder that a national ICAC is urgently needed.