A career taken to pieces
Date February 16, 2013
Ian MacDonad rose through Labor ranks effortlessly switching allegiances. But the political chameleon has come unstuck.
submit to reddit
Reprints & permissions
Ian Macdonald … the man known as ” Sir Lunchalot”.
Labor elder statesman John Faulkner has a reputation for stark candour. Even so, the speech he delivered to a private gathering of the Left faithful at a Chinese restaurant in the Haymarket two years ago left his audience gasping.
The event was a farewell for Luke Foley, the bespectacled, somewhat cherubic-looking party functionary who was leaving his post as the party’s assistant state secretary and migrating to the state upper house.
Foley was taking the place vacated by Ian Macdonald, who’d been forced to fall on his sword – finally – by then premier Kristina Keneally over an overseas travel rort exposed by the Herald.
The full, breath-taking panorama of Macdonald’s alleged misdeeds had yet to be laid before the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
But enough thunder clouds were rumbling over the man known as ” Sir Lunchalot” for party hardheads to know more trouble lay ahead.
The left stalwarts gathered that evening were expecting a paean of praise for Foley, one of their rising stars. They were not expecting the other half of Faulkner’s message – a ringing condemnation of his own faction for having bred and nurtured Macdonald over decades.
”It [Macdonald’s rise] reflects well on none of us in the Left,” Faulkner chided, in remarks previously unreported outside the party.
”It is a particularly unpleasant reflection for anyone in the leadership of our faction …
”Again and again he received the misplaced and mindless loyalty of the Left, supporting him for year after year in the Upper House.”
Macdonald was, he said, ”our creation” and a ”terrible indictment of us all.”
As the agony of ICAC drags on, one left-winger confided this week, ”it’s the barbecue conversation we are all having. Is it Shakespearean? Is he someone who was genuinely an idealist in the beginning, and it all went wrong, with the power and money? Or was he just always this way? I don’t know the answer.”
Macdonald might have sprung from the bosom of the Left, but he prospered through hitching his star to key players on the party’s more powerful and numerically superior Right. It was Right powerbrokers such as John Della Bosca, Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid who found their separate uses for Macdonald, and whose coat-tails he rode into positions of ever greater trust.
It was on the watch of a right-wing premier,
Bob Carr, that he first entered the ministry in 2003. It was another right-wing premier, Morris Iemma, who expanded Macdonald’s ministerial empire after the 2007 election, fooled by the man’s energy and seeming reliability.
It was a third right-wing premier, Kristina Keneally, who initially restored Macdonald to the ministry after he had been dropped towards the end of Nathan Rees’ ill-starred turn in the top job.
Ian Macdonald was a political shape-shifter. He could be, says former Left minister and party historian, Rodney Cavalier, ”anything his audience wanted him to be. He knew the language, he could spout the ideology of the group with blithe conviction.”
And he ”always wanted to be on the inside of the deal – that was central to his nature.”
Raised on a housing commission estate in Victoria, Ian Michael Macdonald knew the travails of life without money. His mother raised five kids single-handed and earned a living housekeeping for Catholic clergy. Once, he told an interviewer, his mother had hidden them under beds, fearful ”the welfare” was coming to whisk the kids away.
At La Trobe university he cut a dash as a student radical, latching on to the burning causes of the day – the Vietnam war and apartheid. His flair for rhetoric took him to the presidency of the Australian Union of Students in 1974.
By the mid-1970s he’d been talent-spotted by two left-wing senators, George Georges and Arthur Gietzelt.
Georges hired him as a staffer. But Gietzelt had bigger plans. He wanted to plant Macdonald inside the NSW party as a ”purer” left operative to head off a young John Faulkner for the coveted assistant state secretary’s post. As one insider of the time recalls it, Faulkner was ”not enough of a lickspittle” and ”not enough of a Marxist” for Gietzelt’s liking. But despite the senator’s backing, Macdonald couldn’t match Faulkner’s support and dropped out of the contest.
He had, however, found a berth on the staff of the fast-rising and charismatic young attorney-general Frank Walker, a star in the Wran government. There, fate threw Macdonald together with Greg Jones, also on Walker’s staff.
The pair formed the core of a rat-pack, notorious good-time boys, known for roistering lunches and dinners and for overseas trips on the public purse. They experimented with the first ethnic branch stacks in NSW. They found creative uses for ministerial consultants, paid for out of the departmental budget, to run blatant political campaigns. Former housing department staff recall Macdonald consistently lobbying for Housing Department land to be made available to developers. Says one Labor insider of the time, ”People didn’t so much see things about Macca as sense things. It was the style of the operation, the sense of the snout in the trough. He always seemed to have money, always seemed to be lunching, dinnering, it always seemed to be expensive.”
When Nick Greiner came to power in 1988 he slammed Walker’s office for ”consistent, persistent and widespread rorting of the public purse” with Jones and Macdonald coming in for special mentions.
Cavalier says ”personal venality is the essence of Macdonald.”
The Jones-Macdonald friendship continued to prosper, outlasting two of Macdonald’s three marriages. (ICAC has heard how Jones stood to make up to $60 million from the inside maneuverings over the Obeid family’s rotten coal deals, allegedly facilitated by Macdonald who, the ICAC evidence suggests, was to pocket $4 million. They now no longer speak).
Surviving the scandals of Walker’s office, Macdonald managed to gain preselection for the Legislative Council in 1988. Key to this was a power base he’d managed to cultivate among some important left unions, particularly the metal-workers, now known as the AMWU.
He’d struck up a particularly close alliance with the union’s then assistant secretary, later its head, George Campbell (who went on to become a senator). The union’s backing would see him safely through several preselections and would later help save his skin in an internal Left showdown in 2006, when Foley tried to dislodge Macdonald from the Left faction’s ticket for the upper house.
Macdonald also became friendly with an up-and-coming Anthony Albanese, now a federal minister. Campbell, Macdonald, Albanese and a later head of the AMWU, Doug Cameron, all ended up in the ”hard” left after the faction split into two sub-groups in the 1980s. These were loyalties that, for a long time, Macdonald could draw on.
”When Luke Foley tried to move heaven and earth to remove him, the metal workers union saved him” says Cavalier, now. ”The union bloc vote [inside Labor] guarantees Macdonald is protected from the judgment of the ALP membership.”
Macdonald languished as a factional organiser in the Legislative Council for the first four years of Carr’s premiership but his fortunes improved when former state Labor secretary Della Bosca entered the upper house in 1999. Macdonald became ”Della’s” parliamentary secretary and made himself useful on plans to revive the Snowy River and drive through reforms to workers compensation, which were bitterly resisted by the unions.
By 2003, Macdonald had redeemed himself enough to become a minister, accepted by Carr as part of the left ticket for ministry slots.
Those close to Carr say Della Bosca was a key voice supporting Macdonald’s promotion.
Says one senior party source, ”Della in particular was a big promoter of the view that Macca was misunderstood. Della would often say that Bob had made a big strategic mistake in not bringing him into the ministry earlier, that it was better to have his rat cunning inside the tent than out. Della would say, that if you needed to take a pragmatic decision in pre-selections, or deliver a union, it was always Macca and his part of the Left that you could deal with, and you would know where you stood.”
Asked about this, Della Bosca told Fairfax Media, ”Ian Macdonald became a minister by a process entirely internal to the Left, over which I had no influence.”
He also said the decision to make Macdonald his parliamentary secretary had been Carr’s but that he’d become grateful for it as ”Ian and I, though a political ‘odd couple’, made a formidable and constructive reformist team.”
Carr made ”Macca” the minister for agriculture and fisheries, no doubt thinking Macdonald’s years of cattle breeding on the side would make him popular in the bush.
After Carr stepped down as Premier in 2005, Della Bosca’s power waned. The new kingmaker was Obeid, then a key lieutenant around the incoming premier Iemma. ”Somehow Macca slipped seamlessly from Della’s patronage to Eddie’s” said one insider who watched the migration with wry amusement and some disgust.
As Iemma – now a fierce critic of both Obeid and Macdonald – has testified before ICAC, Macdonald initially impressed him as a minister.
”There was never any shortage of events that he would yield up,” says a former minister. ”He made sure our country cabinets were always well attended, by farmers, miners and regional manufacturers, and there was always a farm lined up for us to visit.”
Iemma added minerals and energy to Macdonald’s ministerial responsibilities.
”If there was any culpability by Bob, or Morris” says one Labor insider now, ”it’s that there wasn’t any appreciation of how much potential for corruption there was in the minerals portfolio.”
Macdonald survived the transition to Rees’ premiership in September 2008 but was under notice he should step down the following year, to honour a deal hammered out inside the Left in the aftermath of Foley’s earlier attempt to dislodge him in 2006. Macdonald reneged. Rees dropped him from the ministry anyway in late 2009 (this time backed by Albanese), attracting the revenge of Obeid’s forces, which then removed Rees.
It was ultimately only Macdonald’s own stupidity that forced Keneally to pressure him out, after she’d initially reinstated him as minister. He’d fiddled the expenses one time too many.
Reflecting back on Macdonald’s inglorious career, Cavalier says he believes the former student firebrand might always have been a saboteur, a plant inside the Left. It’s cold war language which finds an echo in the stinging words Faulkner uttered two years ago. ”By his final term Ian Macdonald was a fully-fledged – and by then finally public – operative for the Obeid and Tripodi sub-faction of the NSW Right,” said Faulkner.
”There were no secrets any more. Ian Macdonald had finally come in from the cold.”
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/a-career-taken-to-pieces-20130215-2eijh.html#ixzz2L27UL2eu