Laughing all the way to ICAC: the star witness
Just a coincidence … Ian Macdonald on his way to the commission on Monday. Photo: Nic Walker
DECISIONS made by disgraced former mining minister Ian Macdonald stand to enrich the family of his former colleague Eddie Obeid somewhere between $75 million and $175 million, a corruption inquiry has heard.
Just before 3pm on Monday Ian Michael Macdonald swore to tell the truth at the Independent Commission Against Corruption. He also took what is known as ''a section 38'', which means that his evidence is given under objection and can't be used against him in other proceedings, unless he is found to be lying.
Mr Macdonald did not have long to wait before counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson, SC, said acidly, ''I'm suggesting you're a liar and that you're making this up!''
Mr Macdonald was trying to explain that he ordered his department to create the ''Mount Penny tenement'' after he consulted a government-issued atlas, which he no longer has.
Senior geologists have told the inquiry that they had never heard of Mount Penny, which happens to be a large hill on the farm the Obeid family owns in the Bylong area.
Mr Macdonald could only offer that it was a coincidence that in May 2008, the day after he discussed Mr Obeid's farm with him, Mr Macdonald asked his department about coal reserves in the Mount Penny area. The former mining minister also could not explain why the new tenement sat ''smack bang over the top of the Obeid family farm''.
Mr Watson said that he would take Mr Macdonald through 40 particular times and events … ''at the end of it I'm going to show to you that you did this deliberately, you created this tenement with it in mind to profit your friends the Obeids''.
''I don't accept that,'' said Mr Macdonald, adjusting his collar. By the end of the day the commission had covered four of the 40 events.
Demand was so great for Mr Macdonald's starring role at the inquiry that commission staff issued tickets for the 42 seats in the public gallery. Some of those who received tickets had been queueing for two hours before the commission started at 10am.
''Don't worry, I will have a lot to say,'' said Mr Macdonald, with a fixed grin, as he arrived to give evidence about allegations that he stood to receive $4 million for his role in rigging a government coal licence tender to benefit the Obeid family.
One woman, who declined to give her name, declared she was outraged at the influence on his party colleagues of the former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid. ''He's very skilful, isn't he?'' she said, begrudgingly. ''Disgusting.''
Nineteen-year-old Tom Woods, fresh from high school and studying arts at the University of Sydney, took a more jaundiced view.
''It's happened before, it's bound to happen again,'' he said. ''These guys with power in their hands being able to misuse it. In that way, I'm not shocked by it.''
The hearings were also ''a bit of entertainment I guess'', for him and a fellow student. ''We heard there were droves of people coming in to see the Labor guys go down in the witness box. We just love the theatre of it so far. It's spectacular.''
The witnesses were not the only focus.
Dorothy, of Collaroy, enthusiastically nominated the ICAC Commissioner, David Ipp, as a major drawcard thanks to his tendency to suddenly inject himself into the proceedings with a biting comment.
''He's like one of those iguanas, just sitting there in wait, with a little tongue that suddenly darts out!'' she observed gleefully.
Ed, 40, wanted to see ''every cent paid back to the state'' in the event of a corruption finding.
Two retired accountants were focused on the implications for family trusts after evidence that Obeid family members received millions of dollars this way, apparently tax free.
Neither had faith that the commission's work would result in criminal prosecutions but held out hopes for an Al Capone-like result. ''In the 1930s they got the gangsters through the taxation system,'' said Patrick, 75. ''And I think that's what's going to happen here.''