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Keeping up with the Obeids: the media and corruption claims in Australia

When the Obeid family took the stand at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) yesterday, the Australian media took more notice than it previously had. This is perhaps not…

There has been a media frenzy around allegations against Moses Obeid (centre) and his family at ICAC. But he’s not alone. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

When the Obeid family took the stand at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) yesterday, the Australian media took more notice than it previously had.

This is perhaps not surprising, considering the notoriety of the Obeids in New South Wales. Former state Labor MP and patriarch Eddie Obeid (senior) has a reputation as a right faction powerbroker within the ALP, due largely to his influential role in selecting the past three New South Wales ALP Premiers.

But politics is not the only calling for the Obeids. Eddie Senior, his wife Judith, and five business partner sons, Moses, Paul, Gerard, Damien, and Eddie Junior, also have stakes in industries such as mining, construction and exports.

Yesterday, the Obeids faced ICAC upon allegations of insider trading. The accusation is that they misused information provided by former state Minister for Resources, Ian Macdonald, to turn $200,000 worth of investments into an estimated $100 million profit.

This was allegedly achieved through the buying (and subsequent selling) of property in the Upper Hunter region of NSW prior to Macdonald granting leases to mining companies to allow exploration for coal in the area. Moses Obeid has admitted to acting as a “point of contact” between Macdonald and the rest of the Obeid family, with Macdonald providing Moses with a list of names of miners interested in investing in the region.

The Obeids did not just stand to benefit from selling property in the region. One of the mining companies that bought into the Upper Hunter after Macdonald’s tendering of leases – Cascade Coal – is 25% owned by the Obeids.

Due to the high monetary value of the alleged offence and the high profile of the Obeid family in New South Wales, it is not entirely surprising that this case has caught the media’s eye.

When considering the history of corruption in Australia, however, how bad are the Obeid allegations really?

A perception seems to exist that Australia has been “cleaned up” following the corruption scandals of the 1980s and 1990s such as the Greiner dismissal and Queensland’s Fitzgerald Inquiry. The idea goes that the numerous inquiries into political and police corruption have effectively changed national attitudes towards corruption and misconduct. If the allegations being investigated in the Obeid/Macdonald case are made out, Australia isn’t as clean as people think.

Corruption is defined by international organisations and academics alike as the misuse of public office for private gain. In December of last year, Victorian MP Geoff Shaw was found to be a key figure in a “cash for access” scheme, in which Liberal Party funds were generated through payments made by property developers and business figures to gain access to MPs at private events. In the same month, allegations about New South Wales Customs hit the media, in which customs officials have allegedly been using their position to import and traffic drugs, tobacco and weapons.

So that’s two examples from the past two months. If you extend the search parameter beyond eight weeks, more cases emerge.

In order for anti-corruption efforts to be successful, there needs to be a greater awareness of what corruption actually means.

But we also must be clear on what does not constitute corruption.

Taking the above examples, the alleged acts by New South Wales customs officials and Geoff Shaw, are clear examples of corruption.

Similarly, as the Obeid/Macdonald case relates to alleged events occurring when both men were in office, there is scope for their actions to be classified as corruption – but with evidence yet to be heard and the case still underway, this is yet to be determined.

Earlier this month, much attention was given in Victoria to the case involving the wife of state opposition leader Daniel Andrews and her involvement in a car crash, after which she was not breathalysed.

With no evidence found to suggest that either Andrews or his wife used their position to force police to ignore procedure, this cannot be said to constitute corruption. In which case it’s worth asking whether the incident was deserving of the five-page spread it received in the Herald Sun.

The Obeid case is sensational in its nature, but not alone in existence. Corruption in Australia is more widespread than you might think. What is important is how it is reported, and how anti-corruption policy is shaped. Media accountability does not fall into the shadows here. More scrutiny must be given to politicians and public officials, but greater accuracy is needed when it comes to understanding corruption.

The Obeid/Macdonald case presents a significant opportunity to ICAC. While it does not act as a prosecutorial body (rather it hears cases then passes the evidence on to prosecutors and parliament), with the national media coverage this case is attracting, the commission is able to draw attention to the importance of effective anti-corruption policy in Australia.

ICAC should use its media time wisely, to ensure it can fight future corruption cases that don’t sell quite so many newspapers.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Alex Njoo

    Architect/academic (ret.)

    Ms Monaghan's article confirms the view that we, Australians, tend to believe that corruption is anathema to our social values. The media's consensus is that corruption only happen in foreign countries, especially our near neighbours; e.g. Indonesia, China et al. The recent 'expose' on attempted bribery by Chinese developers is a case in point.
    Let's hope that this article serves as a true mirror to the dark side of our pristine national psyche.

  2. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    Thanks for a concise review of the state of play. The entire proceeding is deeply gratifying. What is regarded as corrupt, for NSW at least, really is just business as usual especially when it involves "the mates" from
    Sussex St. More poignant is that the corruption involves coal. These people, all of the corrupt players, symbolise the dirt, filth and corruption of the industrial epoch.

    All should hope for the opportunity to say :"good riddance" to each and all even if all they ever get is in minimum security.

    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      We all know that there is no such thing as an even playing field out there in business or politics, here in OZ or overseas.

      The emmissions trading scheme on carbon is a prime example of how the top % of wealthy people are the law inventors, gudges, juries and auditors of their own vested makings. You can thank the stupidity of the political far left for supporting what the rest of us knew was/is just another avenue for the very problems purported in this article.

      It's all explained here....

  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    And it always seems to be the same few names that come up repeatedly with NSW Labour corruption.

  4. Peter Redshaw


    Not only is the Obeid/labor elements corruption case a reminder of what happens when individuals have too much power without having proper oversight in place. And not only is the Obeid/labor elements corruption case a reminder of what happens when politics and business gets into bed with each other without proper oversight. This case and this article are reminders of the corruptibility of power when there is no proper oversight, no matter who is in power, no matter what political party is in power…

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  5. Theo Pertsinidis

    ALP voter

    Australia deserves honest, open and accountable Government at all levels. People have a right to expect that MPs and Ministers will behave ethically and put the community’s interests ahead of their own.

    Greatest achievements have been delivered through the hard work and dedication of principled, ethical people, committed to causes.

    At a meeting today, John Robertson put forward a clear plan to reform both the Labor Party and State Government to lift standards of accountability and transparency.

    Read John's... A New Standard for Labor speech at...

    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Theo Pertsinidis

      Motive is plausable and needed but words are cheap Theo....

      Perhaps this is why two Labor Ministers announced their quitting....couldn't be stuffed trying to attain such standards of openess and accountability?

    2. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade Macdonald, your partisan view (on corruption and climate change) is not addressing Ms. Monaghan's contextual issues on corruption. If anything at all, the so-called 'far right's' neo-totalitarianism is a breeding ground for corruption, both private and public; however much I concede you're right to express your views.

    3. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Alex Njoo

      Wrong Alex....I know the far right are no better or worse and never suggested otherwise, clearly you think otherwise so who has a partisan view again?

  6. Peter Innes
    Peter Innes is a Friend of The Conversation.

    ag science research

    I think the most worrying part is that so many 'honorable' people we vote into parliament must know there's corruption afoot but turn a blind eye.

    There obviously needs to be a better ongoing independent process to audit and weed out corruption as it happens, not every twenty years or so when a big inquiry finally gets organised.

  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Most of the interest in this case comes from its political implications for the Gillard government. Let's hope people are also informed about the half dozen or so "leading business types" (non-labor) implicated.
    "Corruption" these days seems a grab-bag term - perhaps because it's in the name of the official body. The ABC was calling the case a "fraud " case today. Looks similar to insider trading or the sort of real estate speculation that happens when a rezoning might be mooted.Lots of that seems…

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  8. Paul Wilson

    logged in via Facebook

    "Corruption in Australia is more widespread than you might think." What makes you think that?