Power player ... Eddie Obeid in 1999 as minister for fisheries and mineral resources. Photo: Hank Van Stuivenberg
At 11.50am on Thursday, September 12, 1991, MPs from the two houses of the NSW Parliament - the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council - met in a joint session to approve the millionaire businessman and Lebanese newspaper owner Eddie Obeid as the state's newest Labor MP.
He was the ALP head office's candidate to succeed Jack Hallam, the former agriculture minister and leader of the opposition in the upper house, who was retiring after 18 years in politics.
The Labor benches were crowded with MPs joining the ceremony to catch a glimpse of Obeid, still a relatively unknown quantity to most of them.
Ian Macdonald. Photo: Edwina Pickles
''Order!'' the upper house president, Max Willis, shouted. ''I am now prepared to receive proposals with regard to an eligible person to fill the vacant seat in the Legislative Council caused by the resignation of the Honourable Jack Rowland Hallam.''
The opposition leader, Bob Carr, jumped to his feet saying: ''I propose Edward Moses Obeid, OAM, as an eligible person to fill the vacant seat.''
''I second the nomination,'' said Michael Egan, Carr's upper house lieutenant and the future state treasurer. Willis declared Obeid elected and closed the session. It had taken only a few minutes to install Obeid but he would spend the next two decades using his malign influence on state governance and the Labor Party.
Graham Richardson. Photo: Dean Sewell
Obeid's political career was sponsored by Graham Richardson, the former NSW ALP general secretary who became a senator and a senior cabinet minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. Recently, he has been reincarnated as host of Richo on Rupert Murdoch's Sky News.
Richardson had met the owner and publisher of the Arabic-language El Telegraph during the late 1970s and was impressed by his willingness to donate to the ALP and by his bountiful hospitality.
As the friendship matured between the senator and the aspiring politician, nicknamed ''the Sheik'', Richardson vowed to find Obeid a seat in the NSW upper house, once described as ''Sydney's most exclusive club''.
Eddie Obeid at the ICAC. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Richardson set about removing Jack Hallam, who had enraged the factional powerbroker by speaking at an ALP conference in support of a left-wing motion to ban uranium mining in NSW.
''As a long-serving agriculture minister, I think my position carried some weight,'' Hallam said last week from his home on the NSW far north coast. ''Richardson was furious. He never spoke to me again. He wanted me out of Parliament and he wanted his mate Eddie Obeid to take my place.''
Richardson was a spirited advocate for uranium mining and used his influence in Sydney and then Canberra to frustrate the ban, which had become a talisman for the left. In her unauthorised biography of Richardson, The Fixer: The Untold Story of Graham Richardson, the award-winning journalist Marian Wilkinson wrote: ''Uranium mining was one issue Richardson passionately believed in. Not only did it make economic sense but it had the added advantage of prompting scores of left-wing activists to resign from party branches.''
Before the May 1991 state election, there was an abortive move to remove Hallam from the ALP upper house ticket, but the popular MP was given the No.1 spot and Obeid was slotted at No.7.
The first six ALP candidates won seats but Obeid missed out. Another unlucky candidate was Graham Freudenberg, Labor's legendary speechwriter who had worked for Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran and Barrie Unsworth.
''Freudy'', awarded life membership of the NSW ALP in 2005, said his candidacy had been supported by Michael Easson, the secretary of the NSW Labor Council, and his twin brother, Shane Easson, as well as Carr and the party general secretary, John Della Bosca.
''They intended that I should get the sixth or seventh place on the Labor ticket,'' Freudenberg said. ''They neglected, however, to clear it with Richardson, who had his own candidate for a winnable position, businessman Obeid.
''I ended up with the hopelessly unwinnable ninth position.''
But within weeks of Parliament resuming, Obeid struck a lucky break when Hallam announced his retirement.
''I told the party before the election that if we won, I would stay,'' he recounted. ''But if we lost, I would leave. I was exhausted and I'd had enough. I wasn't surprised to learn that the faction decided Obeid would be my successor. He was gifted my full eight-year term. Richardson had finally got his way.''
Freudenberg recalled that shortly after Hallam's resignation and Obeid's elevation, senator Stephen Loosley, another former ALP general secretary, made him an outlandish offer. ''I've just had lunch with Eddie Obeid,'' Loosley said. ''He was wondering if you would write his maiden speech for the Legislative Council.''
Freudenberg declined, but someone else crafted Obeid's inaugural speech, which was delivered on November 13, 1991, before a public gallery crowded with his family and associates.
He began at 8.15pm and concluded almost 50 minutes later. He gave public thanks to his supporters, starting with Richardson and including Carr, Wran, Della Bosca, Loosley, Michael Easson, the federal parliament speaker, Leo McLeay, upper house MPs Johnno Johnson and Deirdre Grusovin and former attorney-general Terry Sheahan.
He concluded: ''We should never lose sight of the fact that we are here … for the betterment of all Australians.''
With the speech delivered, Obeid set about recruiting MPs to the Terrigals, the right-wing sub-faction named after the central coast township where the group's founding meeting was held.
The faction attracted influential right-wingers who exercised ruthless power in two key areas: preselection of parliamentary candidates and promotion to cabinet.
Policy wasn't a major issue for the Terrigals. Their overriding considerations were jobs for the boys, branch-stacking, accumulating a war chest from developers and hoteliers, and extravagant advertising. Whatever It Takes, the title of Richardson's 1994 book, became their slogan.
The Obeid-Richardson relationship continued to flourish. In 1993, Richardson informed Obeid that Kerry Packer wanted to sell his suburban printing subsidiary, Offset Alpine Press. Obeid took the deal to stockbroker Rene Rivkin, who stumped up $15.3 million for the company and listed it on the stock exchange. One of Obeid's sons, Paul, was made a director, though there is no evidence the family had any shareholding in the company.
On Christmas Eve 1993, the print shop went up in smoke. Fortunately, it had been insured at its replacement value of $53 million for its shareholders, including Richardson, Rivkin, governor-general Bill Hayden, Channel Nine's star host Ray Martin, entrepreneur Rodney Adler and former Packer chief executive Trevor Kennedy.
Obeid's biggest breakthrough came after the 1999 election when the then-premier Carr appointed him minister for fisheries and minister for mineral resources, aka the state's ''Mr Fish and Mr Coal''. After his victory at the 2003 election, Carr sacked Obeid from the cabinet, provoking a flaming row in the premier's office. From that day they became sworn political enemies.
By this stage there was a clear division of labour at the top of the state: Carr ran the Premier's Department, Michael Egan ran Treasury but Obeid's Terrigals ruled the Labor caucus.
Their ruthless power became public when they broke Carr's premiership and forced him into early retirement, killed off the premiership ambitions of Carl Scully, ended the reigns of premiers Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees, and cynically elevated Kristina Keneally to the top job.
Under Iemma, the highly prized mineral resources portfolio previously held by Obeid, was handed to Ian Macdonald leader of the left faction. When Rees sacked Macdonald in late 2009, he paid dearly: he was ousted from the premiership by the Obeid faction and the incoming premier, Kristina Keneally, immediately promoted ''Macca'' to three portfolios, including Mineral Resources.
Alarmingly, the rise in the influence of Obeid's faction was in direct proportion to the collapse in ALP membership and the folding of branches. At the 2011 election, NSW Labor suffered its biggest defeat in 100 years and its numbers in the lower house were decimated to a rump of 20 MPs.
The Obeid legacy is now being played out in sensational hearings at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, where secret deals involving mineral resources in the Upper Hunter Valley worth hundreds of millions of dollars are being forensically examined. Voters are being given a ringside glimpse of how the nation's oldest parliament had become a private fiefdom for insider profiteering.
In coming years, historians will argue over the causes of Labor's decline. What will not be in dispute is that factional powerbrokers such as Graham Richardson, the right's Eddie Obeid and the left's Ian Macdonald were major contributors to its implosion.
Alex Mitchell is a former state political editor of The Sun-Herald.