Inside Story

Was Bob Askin corrupt?

With a new book reopening the debate about the one-time NSW premier’s behaviour in office, our correspondent assesses the evidence

Mike Steketee 9 April 2021 2359 words

NSW premier Robert Askin with the Queen at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in October 1973. Newspix

Four days after Sir Robert Askin’s death on 9 September 1981, the National Times hit the streets with the banner headline “Askin: Friend to Organised Crime.” It was the eve of the former NSW premier’s funeral at St Andrew’s Cathedral, presided over by Sydney archbishop Sir Marcus Loane and attended by more than 1000 of the great and the good, including prime minister Malcolm Fraser, NSW premier Neville Wran and Justice Lionel Murphy of the High Court. Wran called the National Times story and its timing “tasteless in the extreme” — a sentiment echoed by many others.

Tasteless perhaps, but was it true? The article by David Hickie, later to become editor-in-chief of the Sun-Herald and the Sydney Morning Herald, contended that “organised crime became institutionalised on a large scale in New South Wales” during Askin’s near-decade as premier from 1965. “Sydney became, and has remained, the crime capital of Australia. Askin was central to this.” The Liberal leader’s links with major crime figures allowed Sydney’s illegal baccarat clubs to transform into fully-fledged casinos and his “links with corrupt police allowed these casinos and SP betting to flourish.”

Then came the most sensational claim: “According to a reliable source very high in the old Galea empire” — the network of illegal casinos run by Sydney gambling figure Perce Galea — “Askin and [police commissioner] Hanson were paid approximately $100,000 each in bribes a year from the end of the Sydney gang wars in 1967–68 until Askin’s retirement. The source is impeccable. This information has not been available for the National Times to use until Askin’s death.”

In his history of the Fairfax empire Herald journalist Gavin Souter describes Hickie’s story as “one of the most controversial exposés ever published in the National Times,” the crusading Fairfax weekly published from 1971 to 1986. Despite the considerable angst the article caused in the Fairfax hierarchy, the newspaper followed up a fortnight later with another story by Hickie, co-authored by investigative journalist Marian Wilkinson. This article alleged that a group of Sydney bookmakers paid Askin $55,000 as “a going away gift” shortly before his retirement, in return for his help in blocking a proposal to double their turnover tax to 2 per cent. The tax didn’t rise under Askin but was doubled by his successor, Tom Lewis.

Born in working-class inner Sydney, Askin was the son of a sailor turned tram driver. He worked as a bank clerk, rising to manager of the travel department, then served in New Guinea during the second world war, while also acting as his battalion’s SP bookie. It was in the army that he met Murray Robson, on leave as a NSW state MP, who subsequently recruited him into the Liberal Party. Askin was a keen punter and racegoer for most of his life.

Following the National Times stories, the evidence about Askin’s corruption was spelt out in much more detail in Hickie’s 536-page book, The Prince and the Premier, published in 1985. (Galea was known as “the prince.”) Not that this put an end to the controversy. In 1993, another Fairfax publication, the Sun-Herald, commissioned its own inquiry into claims that Askin was corrupt. It was conducted by former NSW coroner Kevin Waller, who introduced his findings by declaring that, as a lawyer, he could not escape the constraints of his profession: “I am not prepared to condemn the ex-premier or anyone else without reliable evidence of guilt.” He admitted to suspicions but concluded that he could not be “comfortably satisfied” that Askin was corrupt until informants close to the action came forward, sources were named and the paper trail explored.

The Sun-Herald published a less equivocal opinion on the same day as Waller’s findings. Denis Lenihan, former chief executive of the National Crime Authority, concluded that the material before him provided reasonable grounds for believing that Askin was corrupt. If he were a magistrate, he would have committed him to stand trial.

The best part of another four decades on, the debate has been revived with the publication of Sir Robert Askin, a new book in a series of biographical monographs on prime ministers and premiers published by Connor Court. The author is Paul Loughnan, who wrote a PhD thesis on the Askin government and describes himself as an independent researcher and “a tragic swinging voter.” According to the series overview at the start of the book, Loughnan “demolishes once and for all the myths concerning [Askin’s] alleged corruption. They are just not true.”

The last word on Askin? Not quite.

Loughnan’s view is that the “Askin corruption myth was founded on hearsay, innuendo and uncorroborated evidence.” He lauds Askin’s “extraordinary record as the longest-serving and most politically successful NSW Liberal premier,” a man who won four elections in a state traditionally dominated by Labor, and who deserves much more respect than he has received, including within his own party.

Loughnan acknowledges that organised crime increased during the latter period of the Askin government, as manifested in the number of illegal casinos. But he asserts this would have happened under any government during those years “as a result of the global phenomenon of the institutionalisation of organised crime and its subsequent escalation.”

He argues that the evidence of Perce Galea — Hickie and the National Times’s primary source — should have been discarded. “Unfortunately their Deep Throat was a major crime figure who had laundered large amounts of drug money and had been dead for four years.” He builds his case by quoting a long list of people who have criticised Hickie, including Waller, Askin’s ministerial colleagues and staff, and investigative journalist Bob Bottom, all of whom said they had seen no or insufficient evidence of Askin’s corruption.

Loughnan derides Hickie as an inexperienced young journalist at the time. He speculates that Hickie was duped by Galea, who may have been seeking to punish Askin for refusing to legalise casinos.

Loughnan came to his conclusions even after conducting a lengthy interview with Hickie, who said all his principal sources could be discussed openly given the passage of time. When I contacted Hickie recently, he made the same offer to me, and a very different story from Loughnan’s emerged from that conversation. Loughnan has tried to make a molehill out of the mountain of information assembled by Hickie.

Hickie confirmed that a key but unnamed figure in his book, referred to as one of Sydney’s leading heart specialists, was his father, John Hickie, who formed a fifteen-year friendship with Perce Galea after treating him for a heart attack. Loughnan mentions John Hickie but curiously omits the fact that he was David Hickie’s father.

Why did a professor of medicine form such a close relationship with an illegal casino operator? Galea “had the rare knack of endearing himself to everyone he met,” David Hickie writes in The Prince and the Premier. He was a pillar of the Catholic Church as well as a flamboyant racetrack punter, and enjoyed entrée to the most privileged circles. Hickie’s book includes a photograph of Galea with then prime minister Robert Menzies and Cardinal Norman Gilroy, head of the Catholic Church in Sydney.

So was it his father who told Hickie about the bribes? No, he told me, but Hickie himself got to know Galea and his wife Beryl through the hospitality that they periodically extended to the Hickie family. Galea was the main source, Hickie confirmed, but by the time of the National Times story he had died, and editor David Marr and chief editorial executive Max Suich wanted corroboration from a living person. Hickie obtained that confirmation from Beryl Galea, who was the “impeccable source” referred to in the original article. He also subsequently received further corroboration from another illegal casino operator, George Walker, and from a senior person in the Galea organisation whom he declined to name because he may still be alive. As for the timing of the story on the eve of the funeral, Hickie said the concern was that others in the media would start publishing stories now that they were free of the constraints of defamation law.

Hickie sent me a six-page document he put together years ago, headed “Askin Corruption: Some Sources & References,” in which he lists scores of names. He gave a very similar version to Loughnan, he said, “by email on Wednesday 1 July 2009 at 10.24am.”

As well as that corroboration of the Galea allegation, Hickie names twelve bookmakers and three others in the racing industry as confirming the $55,000 payment to Askin. He provides the name of a former bank manager who told him about $20,000 deposited directly into Askin’s personal Rural Bank account as payment for a knighthood for a company chief executive. He provides five further sources and references for payments of up to $60,000 for knighthoods.

Hickie also drew on public sources, including Alan Saffron, son of the notorious Abe Saffron, also known as Mr Sin, who ran a prostitution and gambling empire. In his 2008 book Gentle Satan, Alan writes that Askin was on his father’s payroll, that his father had “an excellent business relationship and longstanding friendship” with the premier and with police commissioner Norm Allan, and that he paid the two men $5000 to $10,000 a week during the late 1960s.

True, many of these sources fall into the category of colourful racing (and other) identities, not to mention outright criminals. But then there is John Mason, a Methodist minister who became NSW Liberal leader. In a taped conversation with National Times editor David Marr in 1981, Mason told the story of an election donation a company in his electorate wanted to make to Askin. “It makes things easier if they give it in cash,” was Askin’s response when Mason raised it with him. Mason later attended the meeting at which the company executive handed wads of notes worth $20,000 to Askin. The Liberal Party subsequently introduced a rule that all fundraising had to be conducted through party headquarters so as, in Mason’s words, “to stop it being creamed off.”

Publisher and journalist Maxwell Newton told a radio interviewer that he handed a brown paper bag containing $15,000 in cash to Askin in his office in 1970 on behalf of Philippine businessman Felipe Ysmael. “I’ve never seen $15,000 disappear so quickly in my life,” said Newton. “He took the money and whipped it into the top drawer of his desk.” A police investigation concluded that Newton’s claim was “utterly without foundation.” But that was par for the course for police inquiries at the time and may have meant little more than that Askin had denied it.

Despite his views on the timing of the original article, Labor premier Neville Wran seems to have had no doubts about his Liberal predecessor. Asked in 1986 whether he thought Askin was a crook, he replied with a crisp “Yes.”

Shortly after the National Times stories in 1981, writes Souter in Heralds and Angels, David Marr and other Fairfax editors dined at the Lodge with Malcolm Fraser. “The prime minister criticised the National Times for running the Askin stories but changed his attitude when the others present supported Marr with their own testimony about the growth of organised crime in New South Wales.”

In his chapter on Askin for the two-volume study The Premiers of New South Wales, party historian Ian Hancock writes, “Very simply, Hickie’s sources, named or otherwise identified in confidential correspondence with the author, are too well-placed to be dismissed.”

Then there’s the money trail. According to figures provided to Hickie by the NSW parliamentary library, Askin earned an average annual salary of $6637 a year in his fifteen years as an MP and an average $27,518 in his almost ten years as premier, for a grand total (before taxes) of $374,730. When he died six years later, he left an estate of $1,957,995, while his wife Mollie’s estate in 1984 was $3,724,879. As political scientist Murray Goot writes in his 2007 article on Askin for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “Although the Department of Taxation made no finding of criminality, it determined that a substantial part of Askin’s estate was generated through undisclosed income from sources other than shares or punting and taxed it accordingly.” A substantial part of Mollie Askin’s estate was similarly taxed, adds Goot.

None of this convinces Loughnan, whose main focus is on the unreliability of Perce Galea — whom he dismisses as a crook — as Hickie’s primary source for the casino payments allegation.

Corruption was not confined to the Askin years. When I went to Macquarie Street in 1981 as state political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, stories about political and police corruption, past and present, were legion. Both parties had bagmen who collected bribes weekly, and a succession of police commissioners had been on the take. Until the National Times took the plunge, the assumption was that very little could be reported: it was difficult to establish proof, and the defamation laws were (and still are) a high barrier.

But some moments of high farce did enter the public arena. Police had enormous difficulty raiding illegal casinos, despite reporters repeatedly gaining ready access. When Wran, as premier, ordered police to close the casinos in 1977, commissioner Merv Wood remonstrated that this would be terribly unfair. The loss of 300 jobs so close to Christmas would bring unnecessary hardship, he said, and be “inhumane.” When Wood was questioned in 1979 about organised crime by the ABC’s Caroline Jones, he asked, “Can you tell me where it is, Miss Jones?”

John Mason challenged the Wran government in 1979 to hold a public inquiry into illegal casinos, which continued to operate despite Wran’s instructions. Soon after, he told parliament, Liberal MP Tim Walker offered him $5000 a week to stop raising the issue.

Loughnan believes all of this should be disregarded. It may be that much of the evidence collected by Hickie and others would neither have met the standard of criminal proof required in court nor survived defamation cases. But that is a reflection on a legal system that allowed so many people to act so corruptly for so long with complete impunity. •