The Sydney investigative journalist Kate McClymont (above), in her Andrew Olle Media Lecture in November 2014, said:
The night before any major story is published, you can’t sleep. And it is not from excitement it is from sheer, unadulterated terror. Have I got that right? Can I prove this fact? Will the source give evidence if we are sued? The death threats I receive are not nearly as horrific as those nasty little white envelopes, with the law firm’s address in the corner, which generally arrive by express delivery the day after your story.
McClymont’s revelation that it is the threat of defamation action which terrifies her the most perhaps explains why she can be so careless when writing about dead people. No need to lose sleep when the relatives of the dead don’t have the right to arrange those nasty little white envelopes.
Eric Bedford, a minister in the Wran government, who died in 2006, has been a favourite target of McClymont’s. In her book on Labor identity Eddie Obeid, He Who Must Be Obeid (2014), written with Linton Besser, she makes several corruption allegations against Bedford but provides no credible evidence. The most fanciful claim is that Bedford, as Minister for Planning and Environment (from 1980 to 1984), had solicited bribes by asking developers to admire his wife Jo’s paintings, hanging on his office wall, and commissioning similar paintings from his wife for a nominated sum.
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The authors’ source is a “former Bedford staffer”, whom they don’t identify. Since these alleged offences occurred more than thirty years ago there is no justification for this person to remain anonymous. There can be no possible fear of retribution and, with Bedford dead, no chance of legal action.
The book was later withdrawn because of an acknowledged defamation of a living person. The publisher announced it would only be reissued after being thoroughly fact-checked. I therefore provided to the publisher statements rubbishing the allegation made by two former Bedford staffers, and by the former head of Bedford’s department, all identified by name, and all confirming that Jo Bedford’s naive art had never been displayed in her husband’s office.
In the withdrawn edition of the book, the authors wrote:
Other Bedford staff members have since confirmed that the minister was indeed on the take. But instead of cash in a brown paper bag, Bedford had come up with an ingenious method for corrupt payments. The staffer said that developers were advised that when they went to lobby Bedford about a rezoning they had to “admire” the artwork hanging on the office wall, which had been painted by his wife. If Bedford intended to assist, the supplicant was told that for a certain amount of money Bedford’s wife would be happy to bend her brush on a similar artistic endeavour for the developer.
In the reissued edition, this was changed to:
One Bedford staffer recalled that the minister had come up with an ingenious method for corrupt payments. The staffer said that developers were advised that when they went to lobby Bedford about a rezoning they had to “admire” the artwork hanging on his office wall, which the minister suggested had been painted by his wife. If Bedford intended to assist, the supplicant was told that for a certain amount of money Bedford’s wife would be happy to bend her brush for a similar artistic endeavour for the developer. In fact, Mrs Bedford had nothing to do with the minister’s artworks, which were on loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The changes tell us much about how the authors now view the original allegation. First, they belatedly concede that this was made by “one Bedford staffer” (singular), not “other Bedford staff members” (plural). Contrary to standard journalistic practice, however, they have still made no effort to corroborate the anonymous allegation.
Second, note the subtle change from “which had been painted by his wife” to “which the minister suggested had been painted by his wife”. This change is an admission by the authors that their source had got it wrong in claiming Mrs Bedford’s art was displayed in the office. If the source got this crucial element wrong, surely there is no reason to believe the rest of the story. Are we meant to accept that Sydney developers were so stupid they gazed at heritage-value paintings and believed these were the “artistic endeavour” of an amateur painter?
This allegation about Bedford is obviously nonsense. The authors should never have reported the implausible claim without corroboration and should never have persisted with it once other staff members had debunked it. The revised paragraph, particularly with the important caveat of the final sentence, shows the publisher no longer believes it is true. If this was fact-checked, and found wanting, it should never have been republished.
McClymont’s other allegation about Eric Bedford concerns a proposed residential development in Perisher Valley pushed by furniture retailer Nick Scali and Eddie Obeid. The development required an alteration to the park’s plan of management, which was opposed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The odd thing about this episode is that, by the end of McClymont’s account, she has demonstrated Bedford’s behaviour was exemplary.
McClymont records that on four occasions in 1982 Bedford had contacted the relevant NPWS regional director, presumably as a result of persistent lobbying by Scali and Obeid. On each occasion the official resisted the proposal as being inconsistent with the park’s plan of management.
The book is in error in stating the opposition to the proposal was because it exceeded the park’s accommodation limit under the plan. In fact, the developers were seeking a strata title subdivision—so that individual lots could be sold—which was permitted at Thredbo but not at Perisher. Approval would require an amendment to the plan of management.
McClymont’s account shows that Bedford took the matter no further. We know this because she reports that in 1988 Scali and Obeid were still lobbying Bob Carr, who was then the relevant minister, to approve the proposed development.
I sought the advice of one of Sydney’s leading planning lawyers. He advised that Bedford had the power, under section 73B of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, to propose an amendment to the plan of management and to require the NPWS director to make it. No such amendment was requested by Bedford.
Bedford behaved as one would expect an honest minister to behave when under political pressure. He sought departmental advice, on several occasions; he did not lean on departmental officials to alter their advice; and, ultimately, declined to exercise his lawful discretion to overrule the department. Far from being evidence of corruption, McClymont’s account confirms Bedford behaved honourably. Her prose is convincing to everyone but herself.
Despite providing no evidence of Bedford’s alleged corruption, McClymont has persisted in her campaign to blacken his name. In her most recent book, Dead Man Walking: The Murky World of Michael McGurk and Ron Medich (2019), written with Vanda Carson, she repeats another astonishing allegation. She claims: “During the 1980s … Eric Bedford and one of his staffers, Francesco Labbozzetta, had come to the attention of police. Labbozzetta was described as ‘Il Capo’ of the Australian mafia in the South Australian Parliament.”
Franco Labbozzetta was employed in Bedford’s electoral office as a liaison officer among the ethnic community. Bedford’s electorates of Fairfield, and later Cabramatta, were ethnically diverse communities. Labbozzetta’s role was to try to resolve problems brought to the electoral office by Bedford’s constituents, particularly those among the migrant community.
Richard Smyth, who was Director of Planning when Bedford was the minister, says:
Labbozzetta often came to the department with development problems in the Minister’s electorate seeking to get a solution. Like all staff from the Minister’s office he was requested to work through me or one of my deputies in the first instance. The problems came from across the community. Sometimes we could help him, sometimes we could not. I have no recollection of any pressure from him. He tended to accept our responses and go.
What evidence does McClymont offer for alleging that Labbozzetta was an Australian Tony Soprano? Her “proof” of this “fact” is the claim that Labbozzetta had been named in the South Australian Parliament but she declines to state whether this was by someone in authority, such as the Police Minister or the Attorney-General or, perhaps, the result of a parliamentary inquiry into organised crime.
It was none of these, but you won’t read what happened in the book. Labbozzetta was described as “Il Capo” by a Liberal backbencher, Peter Lewis, in a question on notice clearly intended as a political smear. The questioning occurred during a period of what can only be described as “corruption hysteria” in South Australia in the late 1980s, much of it directed at the then Attorney-General, Chris Sumner, who was subsequently found innocent of all allegations.
A flavour of the hysteria can be gleaned from the text of Lewis’s question on notice. Lewis asked the Minister representing the Attorney-General in the House of Assembly:
Since January 1980 has the Attorney-General visited Plati or any other part of the Calabrian region of Italy and, if so, (a) on how many occasions; (b) what was the purpose of each visit; (c) was a Mr Francesco Labbozzetta, also known as Il Capo, involved in any way in the arrangement of any part of the itinerary of one or more of such visits and, if so, how? (d) where was the Attorney-General accommodated and if he did not stay at a recognised hotel, who paid or met the cost of that accommodation; and (e) who paid or met the cost of his transport?
The minister subsequently responded, on November 14, 1989:
The only visit which the Attorney-General has made to Calabria was in November 1974. From April to November 1974 he was studying Italian at the University for Foreigners at Perugia in Umbria. In November, he made a tourist visit of ten days or so to the south of Italy, namely the regions of Campania, Calabria and Sicily. He travelled by train. In Calabria, he spent one night in Cosenza and then travelled by train to Catanzaro, and then on to Taormina in Sicily. He met his own travel and accommodation expenses. The Attorney-General has not visited Plati. The answer to (c) is “No”.
Since all the other claims inferred by Lewis in his question on notice were duly demolished, why should any credence be given to his claim that Labbozzetta was the head of the Australian mafia?
Peter Lewis, who died in 2017, had a colourful and erratic parliamentary career. In 2002, having left the Liberal Party and now sitting as an independent, he reneged on a deal with the Liberals to form government. He then accepted an offer of the speakership from the Opposition, enabling Labor to take office. He was forced to resign as Speaker in 2005, ahead of a no-confidence motion, after making unsubstantiated allegations against a serving member of parliament. Labor’s then Deputy Premier, Kevin Foley, described Lewis’s behaviour as “shameful” and “reckless”.
There is no evidence that McClymont bothered to check Hansard and, if she did so, no evidence that she investigated the credibility of the person who named Labbozzetta. If she did so, in fairness she should have identified Lewis as the relevant person. If she didn’t, she is guilty of careless journalism.
Chris Sumner has advised me that Lewis subsequently apologised for the question and said it had been handed to him by a senior Liberal in the Parliament who didn’t want to put his own name to it. So McClymont’s “evidence” turns out to be anonymous political smearing.
McClymont’s desire to tar Labbozzetta as a mafia don reaches even more ridiculous levels. In the book on Obeid, McClymont wrote about a business partnership involving Labbozzetta’s wife: “Whether the name of their company Capolab was a play on Labbozzetta’s rumoured position as Il Capo is not known.” A simple check would have confirmed the commonsense conclusion that the head of the mafia was unlikely to have deliberately drawn attention to himself in this way. According to Labbozzetta’s daughter Michela, Capolab was a venture involving two families: the Capobiancos and the Labbozzettas, hence “Capolab”!
We now come to McClymont’s claim that Bedford and Labbozzetta had drawn the attention of police. She writes:
In December 1987 [Labbozzetta] was interviewed by New South Wales police. Among the many questions they asked him was, “Would you care to tell us if you had any suspicions or knowledge of Mr Bedford receiving large amounts of money for development approvals or rezoning applications?” “No, no suspicions at all,” replied Labbozzetta breezily. He also denied he had received money for development approvals or rezoning applications.
In her recent book McClymont supplies no information about the circumstances which caused Labbozzetta to be interviewed. In the earlier book on Obeid, however, she says Labbozzetta came to the attention of police because his “business card, as Bedford’s ethnic affairs advisor, was found among the papers of Bruno Brizzi, who had been arrested in the early 1980s over a $6 million marijuana crop near Bourke”. Nobody can be expected to do due diligence on a person before handing over a business card, so this is hardly evidence of criminality. It is reason enough, however, for police to interview Labbozzetta. Since the police took no further action the proper conclusion should be that the police found no evidence that either Labbozzetta or Bedford had been involved in criminal activities.
Eric Bedford is not the only dead Wran government minister to be traduced by McClymont in the Obeid book. She also alleges corruption on the part of Bedford’s immediate predecessor as planning and environment minister, Paul Landa, who died in 1984. Before examining this allegation, it is necessary to sketch some background, which McClymont does not provide.
In May 1978 Landa announced an inquiry into a contentious mining proposal at Diamond Hill, near Kurrajong, at the base of the Blue Mountains. The inquiry would be conducted by the head of the State Pollution Control Commission (SPCC), Eric Coffey. The inquiry followed the refusal by the Colo Shire Council of a development application to mine for basalt by a newly formed company, Kurrajong Aggregates. The council had unanimously recommended the application be refused by the New South Wales Planning and Environment Commission, the relevant determining authority.
Despite the name, it was basalt, not diamonds, that was considered likely to exist below the surface of Diamond Hill. Basalt was valuable as the aggregate for road surfacing. The associated breccia—more plentiful, with plenty of substitutes, and therefore less valuable—was still useful as road fill. There had been several mining proposals for the area, beginning in 1968 with an application by Farley and Lewers, a quarrying and cement company, but all had been rejected.
Landa’s decision to hold an inquiry seemed sensible, given the continuing controversy over Diamond Hill and the fact that a previous SPCC inquiry into extractive industries in the Hawkesbury had made no reference to a resource in this area. McClymont and Besser tell a different story, however. They claim Landa extracted a bribe of $50,000 in exchange for “setting up an inquiry that would allow the mine to proceed”. The authors rely on claims by two people from Kurrajong Aggregates, Karim Kisrwani (who claimed he paid the bribe) and Dr Peter Solomon, a Liberal Party activist.
According to the book, Landa chose the wrong man to conduct the inquiry. Coffey found against the proposal. The authors claim the minister “had no wriggle room—the money paid to Landa was for nothing”. They further claim Kisrwani demanded Landa repay the bribe. In what must be a first in the history of criminal activity in New South Wales, they report that Landa handed back the cash.
There is no evidence the authors have interviewed others involved in these events, such as former Landa staffers. They have also withheld pertinent information which would allow readers to assess the credibility of those making the allegations.
Kisrwani, who is now dead, is simply described as a “once close friend [of Eddie Obeid]”. In fact, like Obeid, Kisrwani had a colourful business reputation and was also prominent in the Lebanese Australian community, but on the Liberal side of politics. In 2003 he figured in a “cash for visas” controversy with claims in federal Parliament that he had used his close relationship with the then Liberal Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, to obtain visas for people in return for payment for himself and political donations.
Labor’s Julia Gillard also claimed in Parliament that a controversial Filipino businessman, Dante Tan, paid Kisrwani $220,000 to help persuade Ruddock to overturn a departmental decision to refuse Tan a visa. Gillard, who said Tan was “responsible for the single biggest corporate fraud that there has ever been in the Philippines”, claimed Kisrwani raised the issue with Ruddock’s office only a month after Kisrwani contributed $10,000 to Ruddock’s re-election. The minister reversed the decision but denied any connection between his decision and the donation.
The controversy led to a Senate Inquiry into Ministerial Discretion in Migration Matters. The report lists several allegations about Kisrwani who, despite not being a registered migration agent, had a very high success rate in supporting candidates for ministerial intervention. The committee reported that “of the cases where a decision had actually been made by the minister before 29 August 2003 close to half had received ministerial intervention”. According to the committee, this success rate was much higher than other individuals and community groups, including Amnesty International. The committee further noted that its attempts to investigate whether there was any connection between Kisrwani’s success and his political donations had been hampered by a denial of access to relevant files and by Kisrwani’s refusal to appear.
Solomon does not make a specific allegation against Landa but is quoted as saying “the whole issue was full of corruption”. While the authors note Solomon was preselected as the Liberal candidate for the federal seat of North Sydney, they strangely fail to record he was subsequently forced to resign his preselection.
The somewhat farcical circumstances of the North Sydney preselection are detailed in Ian Hancock’s The Liberals: A History of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party of Australia 1945–2000 (2007). Hancock notes that “in choosing Solomon, the preselectors did not know that he had included inaccurate particulars in the dossier which accompanied his candidature”. The inaccuracies related to Solomon’s service in the Army Reserve, including claiming to have been an officer. Far more serious were allegations of Solomon’s strange behaviour and associations in defending himself. The then Liberal State President, David Patten, a political ally of Solomon, concluded after an investigation that “it caused him ‘great distress’ that Solomon had so compromised himself that he had to stand down as a candidate”.
In fairness to Landa, a person unable to defend himself, readers should have been provided with information about those making the allegation. The fact that the character and veracity of both men had been publicly questioned is very relevant, particularly since there is no corroboration of the allegation.
The authors have also failed to apply proper journalistic scepticism in evaluating the allegations.
First, and most critically, why would Landa have taken the risky path of setting up an inquiry if he wanted to pocket $50,000? Despite the authors claiming the inquiry “would allow the mine to proceed”, a favourable finding by Coffey would not necessarily have led to approval. The final authority was not the State Pollution Control Commission but the New South Wales Planning and Environment Commission (PEC), and the SPCC could not replace the PEC as the determining authority.
I sought the advice of the leading planning lawyer referred to earlier, remembering that these events occurred before the passage of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, one of Landa’s significant ministerial achievements. The lawyer’s advice is reproduced in full below:
In July 1977 the NSW Planning and Environment Commission issued a direction under section 342V(3) of the then Local Government Act 1919. The direction required a Council to forward development applications for extractive industries to the PEC for determination.
The direction was issued following an environmental investigation conducted by the State Pollution Control Commission into extractive industries in the Hawkesbury Region. The report was released and published under the authority of Minister Landa on 18 March 1977 (State Pollution Control Commission, “Extractive industries in the Hawkesbury Region”, SPCC, Sydney, March 1977).
Under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1919 applying to a development application which was the subject of a PEC direction, the PEC was required to offer both the Council and the Applicant a right for a hearing before dealing with any development application under s.342V(3). If the Applicant was dissatisfied with the decision of the PEC, it had the right of appeal to the Minister under s.243V(5). If either the Council or the Applicant requested, there was a right of a hearing under s.243V(5A) before the matter was reported to the Minister. The Minister had the final role to determine the application under s.342V(5B).
In the case of Diamond Hill, the Minister referred the matter to the SPCC for a public inquiry under s.23 of the State Pollution Control Commission Act 1970. A SPCC inquiry could not lead to an approval, nor could it substitute for the right of a hearing under s.342V(3) before the PEC determined an application, or before the Minister decided an application under s.342V(5A). The rationale for an SPCC inquiry was that the SPCC had just published a major review of extractive industries in the Hawkesbury region, and that report made no reference to any significant gravel resource at Diamond Hill, as was claimed by the applicant. But an SPCC inquiry could not lead to any approval.
If Landa wished to approve the Diamond Hill development application all he needed to do was let the statutory provisions of s.342V(3) occur and approve it at the conclusion of those processes.
Following the SPCC inquiry into Diamond Hill, it is noted that neither the Applicant or the Council sought a hearing before the PEC refused the development application, and the Applicant did not appeal to the Minister against the PEC’s decision, as they could have.
In summary, the key allegation against Landa—that he set up the SPCC inquiry to approve the proposal—does not stand up. If Landa had been bribed, he had no need to establish an SPCC inquiry and he would have known that holding such an inquiry would not “allow the mine to proceed”. Indeed, setting up the SPCC inquiry was counterproductive if the objective was to approve the application. The likely public and political reaction of a ministerial approval, following an adverse finding by Coffey, would have been immense. If Landa had been bribed, a ministerial approval under section 342V(5B), without the risk and glare of a public inquiry and finding, would have been a far more sensible approach.
Second, what about the size of the bribe? For most people $50,000 is still a lot of money but in 1978 it was a very large amount, the equivalent of $277,000 in today’s dollars. The median Sydney house price in 1978 was only $37,000. Kurrajong Aggregates had nominal share capital of $40,000 and paid-up capital of only $1000 but we are meant to believe that Kisrwani was prepared to hand over more than the value of the company in a bribe. This smells like someone in 2014 inventing a story, and an amount, about events which are supposed to have occurred in 1978, and forgetting to discount the figure for nearly forty years of inflation.
Third, Kisrwani claims he handed over the cash, in a bag, in May 1978 and that Landa returned it to him after Coffey reported in February 1979. He claimed he went to his local Westpac branch in Parramatta and withdrew the cash. If the authors had been conveying this allegation about a person with access to the defamation law, they would have demanded from Kisrwani the record of the transaction, something Kisrwani could have obtained without trouble. There is no evidence they bothered to do so. Incidentally, Westpac wasn’t formed until October 1982, nearly four years later, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume it was the Bank of New South Wales.
Finally, the authors don’t appear to have asked: Why would Kisrwani hand over such a substantial bribe simply to hold an inquiry, the outcome of which he could not have predicted? He would have known from his legal advisers that the inquiry would not necessarily have led to an approval. Why not hold on to the money and wait until after the inquiry had reported? If he is to be believed, Kisrwani is not only corrupt but displays a naivety and level of trust not usually associated with Sydney businessmen.
The allegation against Landa is obviously nonsense, but McClymont’s story does not end there. A sequel allegedly took place around five years later when Kisrwani, now linked in business with Obeid, claimed he sought to resurrect the mining proposal.
According to the Obeid book, Kisrwani alleges he handed over $100,000 to Obeid, supposedly for the purpose of bribing Bob Carr, who was now the Minister for Planning and Environment, and Labor Senator Graham Richardson. Kisrwani claims he was told by Obeid that Carr was to get $35,000 and Richardson was to get $65,000. Both Carr and Richardson have denied receiving any money from Obeid and their denials are reported by the authors. The obvious inference in the book is that the $100,000, if it was paid, was pocketed by Obeid.
In considering the credibility of these further allegations, it is necessary to examine the findings of the Eric Coffey inquiry by the State Pollution Control Commission in February 1979. The environmental impact statement by Kurrajong Aggregates estimated a quantity of 14 million tonnes of basalt and possibly as much as 20 million tonnes. The company later revised this down to 10.6 million tonnes of extractable rock, of which 7.1 million tonnes would be sold as road sealing aggregate and the remainder as road fill. Coffey found this far exceeded other assessments, including those by Farley and Lewers and Pioneer Concrete, both of which had expertise in quarrying, unlike Kurrajong Aggregates. Farley and Lewers estimated there were only 2.3 million tonnes of basalt and concluded, according to Coffey, “the viability of extracting the reserves was marginal and therefore did not proceed”. Pioneer Concrete estimated the deposit totalled 5.4 million tonnes but, according to Coffey, the reserves “were definitely not great enough to permit economic exploitation”.
Coffey found that far from being a substantial deposit of basalt, Diamond Hill would probably yield relatively little and extraction would most likely be uneconomic:
If the Commission had regard only to the firm data brought before the inquiry, it would assess the deposit as unproven beyond a total quantity of basalt and brecciated material of 5,100,000 tonnes, of which 4,670,000 tonnes would be capable of extraction. The likely maximum yield of first quality rock in these circumstances would be 3,100,000 tonnes. In either event, the deposit is so small in relation to total reserves elsewhere as to be inconsequential and, probably, uneconomic.
This conclusion corroborates the earlier judgements of major companies such as Farley and Lewers and Pioneer Concrete, who, after detailed investigations, did not regard Diamond Hill to be a viable source of hard rock aggregate.
Coffey instead recommended that Diamond Hill be rezoned for residential subdivision “to ensure prohibition of all activities and developments that would be incompatible with such preservation, including the extraction of hard rock and other minerals or material”.
Coffey’s thorough critique of the economic viability of the proposal undermines Kisrwani’s claim that he sought to revive the project and paid Obeid $100,000 in bribes. Why would Kisrwani, with no expertise in hard rock quarrying and no potential marketing contracts, want to revive a mining proposal after Coffey had found there was “no evidence to show there is other than a minor deposit of hard rock”?
Under Coffey’s recommendation the land was to be rezoned residential. With the prospect of a profitable residential subdivision on offer, it makes no sense that Kisrwani would seek to pursue an uneconomic and unpopular mining proposal. Indeed, the authors report that “the company’s land at Diamond Hill was later subdivided and sold off for $2 million” and that Kisrwani was a beneficiary.
Kisrwani’s claim that he sought to revive an uneconomic mining project, and had forked out another $100,000 in bribes, is not credible. A more logical conclusion, based on the facts, is that Kisrwani’s claims about Obeid (and Carr and Richardson), like his claims about Landa, are fanciful. It is astonishing that this conclusion was not reached by the authors.
The legal truism that it is not possible to defame the dead is grounded in the common-law fiction that the dead do not have a reputation to protect. Eric Bedford, Franco Labbozzetta and Paul Landa, however, have children who must live with McClymont’s published accusations of corruption against their fathers, a destruction of reputation which hopefully this article will mitigate.
Legal privileges should come with moral responsibilities. Those who write about the dead should feel the same “sheer, unadulterated terror” of getting things wrong, which Kate McClymont says she experiences when she is writing about the living.
Milton Cockburn is a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist.
Note: The planning lawyer referred to in this article does not wish to be named. His name, and the advice he provided, has been shown to the editor. Full disclosure: Eric Bedford and Paul Landa were friends of the author. These friendships, and the assessment of character which friendship enables, prompted the investigations which formed the basis of this article.