Obeid and his taming

For the Independent Commission Against Corruption, it is vindication. Eddie Obeid is finally in prison for corruption. He was sentenced this week to five years for misconduct in public office.

This is the man who effectively ran New South Wales for more than a decade, who installed two premiers, who never once used the floor of the parliament to advance an idea or debate a policy, who represented all that is most venal about politics in this country.

“Of course I will be fucking vindicated,” he said when ICAC began its investigation three years ago. “I have been looked at inside out with a microscope up my arse and everything is clean as far as I am concerned.”

The hubris was extraordinary. With Obeid, it always was. On Thursday, the Labor powerbroker took off his tie and watch and was taken down to the cells. “Fucking cunts,” a son-in-law yelled at the media as he drove Obeid’s wife away from the court.

It is vindication, too, for journalists such as Kate McClymont. Obeid has spent his career menacing newsrooms with lawsuits. He has won appalling sums in defamation suits, exploiting an act that is sometimes rigged against the truth. It is only through fearlessness in the press, against great losses, that he was ever prosecuted.

“He used that to repeatedly threaten the Herald that he would sue us again,” McClymont said of her decade of reporting on Obeid. “He’d send off legal letters saying he’d prosecute us for malice. You had to have a bit of steel to think, ‘Right, okay, there is a possibility he’ll sue again, and we’ve already lost once.’ But in the end you know what’s right and wrong, unlike Eddie. And you owe it to your readers not to be intimidated. It hasn’t always been easy.”

ICAC’s vindication has tracked alongside a sometimes bizarre campaign against the anti-corruption commission. The conservative press has damned it as a star chamber. Its commissioner has been harassed and ultimately legislated out of her job.

That is not to say ICAC is perfect. It has erred. The High Court ruled, for instance, that it exceeded its powers in investigating crown prosector Margaret Cunneen over a convoluted episode involving a car accident and her son’s girlfriend.

But where the Cunneen case showed ICAC’s flaws, the Obeid case showed its strength. The difference, unfortunately, has become blurred.

Neil Chenoweth reported that in February Cunneen mentioned Obeid in a broader spray at the commission. “Name me one thing that they’ve done properly...” he quoted her as saying. “Even the Obeids will get off.”

The NSW parliament has defenestrated ICAC, urged on by figures such as Cunneen and the Murdoch press. The Obeid decision this week shows the terrible shortsightedness of that. His prosecution without the commission was very unlikely. His imprisonment only makes stronger the case for a federal equivalent. Instead, the country’s most effective anti-corruption body is in tatters, its public hearings less and less likely, its leadership politicised.

“We might have kicked it off,” McClymont said before all this, in an interview in June. “But to carry it to completion, we needed ICAC.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2016 as "Obeid and his taming".

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