Top ministers caught up in graft probe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 4:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 4:16am

Two senior Australian ministers have been dragged into a snowballing Labor Party corruption scandal, admitting accepting hospitality from a former power broker at the centre of an inquiry.

Environment Minister Tony Burke and Senate leader Stephen Conroy both stayed at a ski lodge owned by Eddie Obeid, who is the focus of an Independent Commission Against Corruption probe over an alleged criminal conspiracy.

Obeid, a former kingpin in the New South Wales state Labor Party, is accused of using confidential information about a prospective coal licence to enrich himself and his family by tens of millions of dollars.

He has been giving evidence this week in a hearing that has gripped Sydney, with people queuing for hours to get a glimpse of proceedings that have seen him accused of effecting a massive “fraud on the people of New South Wales”.

Obeid denies the allegations that he conspired with the state’s former resources minister to obtain inside information, but in a new twist revealed that Burke accepted his hospitality when he was in opposition.

“We are generous people and we like to share our generosity with our friends,” Obeid told the hearing, naming Burke and several state politicians, including current New South Wales Labor leader John Robertson.

Conroy said he too had stayed there once when in opposition. 

It is another big headache for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose ruling Labor Party is badly lagging in opinion polls after she last week announced an election for September 14.

Adding to her woes, two other senior ministers resigned over the weekend, while an ex-Labor MP was arrested on 154 fraud charges. The former MP, Craig Thomson, appeared in court yesterday and was bailed to reappear on May 22.

Both Burke and Conroy yesterday played down their links to Obeid, rejecting suggestions that anything was expected in return.