WITH the fascination of a slow-motion crash, the proceedings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption are turning the tables on Newcastle politics.
For years, while the city supinely returned often-somnolent Labor state members, objectors argued for change.
Little by little a persuasive case was made that turning Newcastle into a swinging seat could bring only benefits by making the city an achievable target for both major parties.
Slowly a reluctant electorate began to agree, and when the blatant – though then officially unacknowledged – corruption that rotted NSW Labor from the head became too much to bear, the previously unthinkable happened.
Newcastle had occasionally returned a right-leaning independent, but this time it elected an openly declared Liberal. The expectation of voters was twofold. At a state level they wanted an end to the disgraceful behaviour that had tainted the ALP. At a local level they wanted a fair deal for the state’s second city.
The city had swung right in a resounding way and, to begin with, it seemed the new broom of the Coalition really would sweep clean.
All that promise now lies in confused ruins. The ‘‘cleanskin’’ premier, Barry O’Farrell, was an early casualty of an undeclared gift from a suspect source.
And now, piece by piece, an ugly picture is being assembled of the machinations behind Newcastle’s big swing. It is alleged that the Coalition and a group of wealthy businessmen conspired to sidestep the state’s ban on developer donations, and that big business interests actively sought to assist the new crop of politicians with generous gifts of cash and ferociously dishonest campaigns against unfavoured candidates.
The spectacle of Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell admitting to ICAC that he accepted more than $10,000 from a developer as ‘‘payment’’ for a painting worth much less, on a questionable invoice, and then used the money to pay his tax bill, has saddened many.
The MP’s further admission, that he received $10,000 in cash from another developer, must make his avowed intention to recontest his seat at next year’s election a tall order indeed.
Hunter people had expected the Coalition to deliver what it promised: an end to the dirty state of affairs that a long run of Labor rule had created.
The saga now unfolding in ICAC will have already persuaded many that this promise was largely broken even before the 2011 election.
Those so persuaded may feel regret that the conservative side of politics seems to have thrown away a rare opportunity to prove its bona fides. They may also regret the tremendous setback this squandered trust represents for Newcastle and its electorate.