The minister, his wife and the smirking slug

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am


Did he or didn't he? That's the question on the lips of every Sydneysider after allegations began circulating that a state government minister had abused staff at a nightclub before driving home intoxicated.

New South Wales Education Minister John Della Bosca and his wife, Belinda Neal, a federal Labor MP, had just finished a meal at Iguanas bar on Friday night when an argument broke out.

Those are the only known facts in a scandal already labelled 'Iguanagate'. What happened next, who said what and what threats were made remain in dispute.

According to signed affidavits from six employees at the Gosford supper club, a dispute broke out when the politicians were asked to move tables so staff could prepare the dance floor. The entire incident was captured on security cameras.

Ms Neal, they allege, let out a string of expletives. 'She screamed at me that I was smirking at her like a slug,' a waiter said. Other staff claim the couple threatened to have the club's licence cancelled. Some employees say Mr Della Bosca, who had made a pledge in Parliament to stop driving after notching up a string of fines for speeding and other offences, ignored their advice not to drive home, resulting in a scuffle in the car park.

Despite calls for him to resign, the embattled minister (an ally of NSW Premier Morris Iemma) has held firm, denying all the allegations. 'The staff were rude. My wife complained,' explained Mr Della Bosca. He then threatened to sue the club for defamation.

After a flurry of telephone calls between the minister and the bar's owners over the weekend, all six staff mysteriously withdrew their statutory declarations and the club's manager, Steven Twitchin, publicly apologised to the couple. 'No one in your party was abusive, swearing or intoxicated,' he said in a statement distributed by the minister's staff. The premier said he saw no reason to sack Mr Della Bosca.

But Iguanagate is far from over. Not only have several bar staff broken ranks and repeated their original claims, but their accounts of events on June 6 have been supported by several patrons. Customer David Lincoln said on television that Ms Neal was 'going off' at staff and threatening to close the place down. 'Then Mr Della Bosca got up and got standover-ish ... saying, 'Don't you know who the f--- I am?',' Mr Lincoln said.

Yesterday, the saga took another twist when it emerged that Ms Neal, 45, had been suspended from her soccer club after allegedly making a dangerous tackle. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has told Ms Neal to take anger management counselling or face suspension from the Labor Party. 'I said to her that there appears to be a pattern of unacceptable behaviour,' he said.

Although Sydney's tabloids regard Iguanagate as a colourful diversion, political commentators believe it reveals a deep-rooted malaise within the Labor government of NSW, still wounded by the recent jailing of a former minister, Milton Orkopoulos, on drug and child sex offences.

But for city residents, foul-mouthed outbursts from politicians are hardly big news. The lower house of the state parliament, known as 'The Bearpit', is no stranger to robust debate. If nothing else, 'smirking like a slug' is certain to become a popular term of abuse in city pubs and playgrounds.