Whose castle now? – Newcastle Herald

By GREG RAY

Oct. 10, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

IN the wake of this year’s sensational hearings in the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Newcastle people have been left wondering which of the two major parties is worse.

Labor had decades of almost uninterrupted control of the electorate, but at the state level it appeared to achieve relatively little for Newcastle until the controversial introduction of celebrity candidate Jodi McKay.

Then McKay, having taken the seat controversially from former Labor member Bryce Gaudry, was spectacularly knifed by the state ALP in astonishing circumstances.

Newcastle was on track to have a container terminal built in the city, a move that would have been a small but important step towards the goal of diversifying its economy away from excessive reliance on the boom-bust coal industry.

But when Labor puppet master Joe Tripodi and some other senior ALP figures sided with former billionaire Nathan Tinkler to sink the container terminal in favour of the tycoon’s dream of his very own coal-loader, McKay was in the way.

Standing alongside Newcastle Port Corporation, she insisted the container terminal would be best for the city, and Anglo Ports was on the record saying it was keen to operate the business.

To eliminate McKay, Labor teamed up not only with Tinkler, but with a swath of Newcastle’s business community, which took cash from Tinkler and spent it on campaigns to blacken McKay’s name and turn the seat Liberal.

At the time, newly recruited Liberal candidate Tim Owen was struggling to find cash to take the fight to Labor, especially since a relatively recent law change had made it illegal for property developers and the alcohol and tobacco industries to make political donations in NSW.

The answer, ICAC evidence appeared to show, was to sidestep the law and secretly take money from the banned donors.

The commission heard reams of evidence about who knew what and when about the scheme to break the law and use cash from banned donors to fund the Liberal campaign.

And the Liberals have argued that it wasn’t really wrong, since they never planned to provide any benefit to the donors in return for their financial help.

Whatever the truth might be, the mere revelation of the acceptance of envelopes full of cash was enough to vacate the seats of Newcastle and Charlestown.

So the question for voters becomes, which is worse? The party that was willing to knife its own member, sink the city’s container terminal hopes and hand the seat of Newcastle to another candidate simply as a favour for a super-rich patron?

Or the party that chose to ignore the law against banned donors and accept secret contributions of cash in envelopes from high-profile developers?

Muddying the waters even more, the state’s ports have all been privatised now, and the general sense is that the government maximised the lease-sale price for Sydney and Wollongong by promising Newcastle wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the container trade.

The Newcastle lease-sale brought more money than expected, with a Chinese government-owned corporation taking a big share in the port. Its plans remain unknown.

Part of the sale proceeds are to be spent revitalising Newcastle, but the ICAC hearings have put all that under a cloud.

The Liberals aren’t even running in the byelection, but they are expected to retain office after March, so the question of the city’s relationship with the party in power remains an issue too.