Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Canberra’s raiders tackle Sydney

Past the stalls and delegates for Labor Left women’s groups, Labor for Asylum Seekers, Rainbow Labor, action committees against coal seam gas and fracking, Italians for Labor, the Little Labor photo sessions, on past the people handing out Centre Unity how-to-vote cards (yellow and pink ballot papers), and then down, underneath to the lower Town Hall. 

It’s Sydney and it’s Sunday and it’s the NSW Labor Party Conference. Bill Shorten is still on a big screen with his rousing address to the bruvvers. As is the tradition at these rallies, people have to shout their speeches – for added meaning and sincerity. 

Somehow your Gadfly finds himself as a guest of Labor Lawyers to judge a fringe conference event – a live hearing on the legality of legislation allegedly passed by the Abbott government that purports to abolish NSW. 

It’s entirely fitting that the judge should be a journalist. Curiously, lead counsel for the Commonwealth was shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, QC, not that he would be likely these days to be getting any real briefs from the Commonwealth. 

His submission is that by merging NSW into the ACT a new entity would thereby be created – the WACT, or Wider Australian Capital Territory. 

Importantly, Sydney’s housing affordability crisis would be resolved by rezoning Sydney as part of Canberra. 

In the style of the national capital this would entail renaming Sydney suburbs after politicians or significant mandarins. 

Mr Dreyfus suggests that Bondi could be renamed “Grech”, which instantly would make housing 40 per cent more affordable. The Abbott government has also requested that Vaucluse be renamed “Mirabella”, with an even greater impact on housing affordability. 

The shadow attorney clinches the argument for the abolition of NSW by submitting that the inclusion of Sydney within the ACT will finally allow Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott to realise their dream of governing for the North Shore from the North Shore. 

1 . Pulp conviction

Obeid, cronyism and corruption hovered over the Labor state conference with unfortunate associated pongs. 

Kate McClymont and Linton Besser’s book He Who Must Be Obeid had just come off the presses and was waiting to be sent on Wednesday down the sales slipway. 

This is a book that had to be launched by not one but two former premiers – Nathan Rees and Morris Iemma. It also required a two-stage launch, from the formality of Parliament House’s Macquarie Room, crowded with the reptiles of the press, politicians and bizoids, to drinks in room 1122, Eddie Obeid’s old office. 

What a grim tomb. A space that produced not a shred of contribution to decent public policy by its former occupant, but inspired plenty of grifting and grafting. 

As for seeing the book into production, the lawyers faced a challenging time. 

Barrister Richard Potter, who advised Random House, said dodging the legal pitfalls was like “driving a truck of explosives between Baghdad and Basra”. 

Fairfax lawyer Richard Coleman was even more dire: “Buy the book now, because by lunchtime it will be pulped.” 

2 . Art for graft’s sake

Among the collection of glorious stories in the McClymont–Besser book is one concerning a former Labor minister for planning, the late Eric Bedford. He had devised a nifty scheme to wash money in return for favours to developers. 

People seeking rezoning approvals were advised that when they came to see the minister it was important to admire the artworks on his office wall. 

By sheer coincidence these daubings happened to be produced by the minister’s wife. If the minister was inclined to exercise his discretion for the benefit of the developer, which was quite frequently, he would say that for a certain price his wife could knock up a similar painting for the art-hungry entrepreneur. 

It’s a tiny bit unfair to say the minister was “on the take”. He was simply acting as a patron of the visual arts. 

3 . Tucker bagged

The flourishing business of art has kept us agog as we follow barrister Louise McBride’s litigation against Christie’s, art and car dealer Alex Holland and art consultant Vivienne Sharpe

It’s a world of guaranteed sale prices, secret commissions and fake paintings without money-back guarantees. Francis Douglas, QC, for McBride, did his bit to deflate the price of art by telling the court that between 20 to 30 per cent of the works in the “secondary market” were fakes. 

By most accounts Faun and Parrot is a fake Albert Tucker. McBride paid $86,000 for it and now wants her money back. 

The painting came to Christie’s by a circuitous route, which included Peter Gant, who is not unknown to the world of counterfeit paintings. Christie’s, and the various intermediaries, say they weren’t to know the Tucker was bogus, although the auction house did know later that Faun and Parrot and another Tucker, sold to the Australian Club in Sydney, were “suspect”, after experts from Melbourne University had sniffed the canvas. 

The Australian Club kicked up a stink and got its money back ($69,165), Christie’s apparently not wanting to be offside with the old boys’ set. 

Gant gave evidence that another of his customers, Robert Ojeda, had burst into his office “with henchmen and a big gun”, seeking the return of $250,000 which had been paid for a fake Russell Drysdale. 

“I had been caught out on that one,” Gant said, adding, “It looked like a Drysdale and smelled like a Drysdale.” 

For those unfortunate enough to be dudded in the art market, short of going to court, to get your money back you need to be an establishment gents’ institution or have a big gun. 

4 . Down on Eddie’s farm

Nice to see that business mogul John Kinghorn, of RAMS fame, has escaped ICAC’s corruption wrap. By precise parsing of the ICAC Act and the revenant bit of the Corporations Act, Justice Robert McDougall of the NSW Supremes came up with the decision that, contrary to David Ipp’s ICAC finding, there was no corruption here, so move along. 

Along with other directors of Cascade Coal, which had its fingers in a lucrative mining deal involving the Obeids’ farm in the Bylong Valley, there was a finding that Kinghorn had intended to deceive government authorities or officials as to the Obeids’ involvement in the scam. 

But McDougall said that Kinghorn’s involvement in the sale of Cascade to associated company White Energy for $500 million, “did not support the conclusion that his conduct could involve a criminal offence”. So no corruption arose. 

The adverse ICAC findings against the other business plaintiffs stuck, because they had fallen foul of other sections of the Corporations Act or, in the case of co-director Travers Duncan, the Crimes Act. 

In He Who Must Be Obeid there is an enchanting revelation that the federal police had a tap on Kinghorn’s phone. There were conversations with Duncan about Graham Cubbin, the independent chairman of a committee at White Energy who was investigating the proposed takeover option, and in the process being a fly in the ointment of those who stood to make a small fortune. 

Kinghorn: “We don’t want people like that [Cubbin] on the board, we only want people who are strong for the company.” 

Duncan: “Yeah, yeah ... but he’s [Cubbin] paranoid about the ... our ... mate [Obeid]. 

Kinghorn: “Tell Cubbin to stop fucking around, yeah.” 

Duncan: “Yeah.” 

Kinghorn: “That’s why you and I could never afford to get divorced, mate. All this shit will come out if we do.”

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Gadfly: Canberra’s raiders tackle Sydney".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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