I first met Morris Iemma long before he was Premier of New South Wales, or even an MP. A quarter-century ago, he was the fresh-faced apprentice to the Labor Party’s master of the dark arts, Graham Richardson.
I recall going into Richo’s office latish one night, during his time as federal minister for environment and sport, and finding young staffer Iemma surrounded by a sea of paper. He was hard at work apportioning sports grants, distributing them in such a way as to maximise the quantity of pork going to key electorates.
All governments do this. Such malapportionment of grants has long been one of the tools of political advantage used by those in power.
Done cunningly, it’s not hard to get away with. Some “formula” can usually be bodgied up to disguise political need as community need.
Richo and Iemma, being smart operators, got away with it. When the successor minister, Ros Kelly, admitted working the sports rorts out on a “great big whiteboard” in her office, she was ridiculed out of office, not so much for the corruption of public process as for her dumb failure to disguise it.
Of course, politics is all about largesse. All about getting more for “your” people by taking it from “their” people.
Nor is it necessarily dishonourable. The Labor Party came into being as a means of taking some power and money from the rich and giving it to the poor.
But it’s all too easy for the ends to become corrupted by the means. And there is no better example of that than the NSW right wing of the Labor Party. And no greater personification of it than Iemma’s old mentor, Graham Richardson.
It would take a book to recount all the dubious associations Richo cultivated over the years, from the CIA and Nugan Hand bank to the thugs of the Balmain Welding Company, from lowly bent councillors to bent magistrates to mega-rich entrepreneurs like Alan Bond and Laurie Connell. Oh, the scandals.
Indeed, there is such a book, written 17 years ago by the brilliant Marian Wilkinson, called The Fixer.
I’ve just been re-reading it, because even now it remains relevant to understanding the travails of the Gillard Government.
Page 194, for example, records the guest list for a big 1982 fund-raising dinner including, among others, Wran advisor and later Packer facilitator Peter Barron; a number of corrupt property developers; the dodgy stockbroker (later to be Richo’s personal broker) Rene Rivkin; Greg Symons (another corrupt mate who later would call on Richo’s help to get him out of jail in the Marshall Islands, which would in turn see Richo forced out of the ministry), and:
“Also … one of Richardson’s most important new friends in the ethnic community, the publisher of El Telegraph, Australia’s largest Arabic newspaper, Eddie Obeid.”
Wilkinson’s book mentions more about Richo’s developing relationship with Obeid in subsequent pages: how, for example, Richo sought to help Obeid and his business partner Karim Kisrwani overcome delays in their development activities by interceding with Labor mates at local and state level. And how Obeid’s paper El Telegraph gave mates’ rates for Labor ads in the 1981 state election.
There’s more, lots more, in the book. It has all the ingredients of racy fiction – sex, power, money, betrayal, violence – except redemption.
There are some redeeming features about the NSW right. It has produced some politicians of note, such as Paul Keating and Bob Carr.
Even Richo did some “good” things: exercising his factional power, fundraising skills and tactical brilliance to help get two very successful Labor Prime Ministers — Bob Hawke and Keating — into office.
But Richo was imbued, as a result of literally growing up immersed in the culture of his faction, with a ruthless conception of the relationship between means and ends, well summarised in the title of his autobiography: Whatever It Takes.
It was that kind of ruthlessness which made the NSW right the most powerful tribe in Labor.
Now, I’m not defending the application of Richo’s means-justifies-ends philosophy to something like the rorting of millions of taxpayer dollars, in sports or any other grants. But at least in that case the ends are political: the objective being to keep enough electors happy that they vote Labor, which in turn has more opportunity to implement its policies.
What happens, though, when the ends are no longer political but personal? When the politics actually becomes the means, when politicians no longer care much about their constituency, or about policy, except in as much as enriches them personally?
Wilkinson’s book gives some examples, at a party, branch and local government level.
But what if it happened to a whole state?
Well, let’s not make any assumptions about Eddie Obeid and current proceedings before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Let’s just note the irony of the fact that two of the legacies of Graham Richardson’s time in power were Morris Iemma and Eddie Obeid.
And that the former became one of two NSW premiers who lost their jobs because they displeased the latter.
It’s not just a state matter anymore either.
Now poor old Morris is lining up for preselection for the federal seat of Barton. Presumably his mates will give it to him.
But as ICAC drags deliciously on, you’d have to doubt his chances of election.
Then there are the other federal Labor pollies Obeid now has identified — notably Tony Burke, Minister for the Environment and good NSW right mate — as having enjoyed the luxurious environment of his ski lodge.
It looks bad, bad, bad.
Unless you’re a member of the Coalition Opposition, of course, in which case it looks really good.
When Burke got asked a question in Parliament the day after Obeid’s ski lodge revelations, the Opposition had their
ski-related interjections ready.
“Slippery slope” was the best.