WHEN Kevin Rudd ordered the federal MP Belinda Neal to attend anger management counselling yesterday, he lifted the lid on one of the worst-kept secrets of the NSW Labor Party – that Ms Neal can frequently be abusive and even violent.
Ms Neal is a woman who, senior Labor sources say, keeps photographs and written names of her political enemies in her freezer. And neighbours have told yesterday of police visits to Ms Neal’s home at Woy Woy Bay, where she lives with her husband, the NSW Education Minister, John Della Bosca. They had often heard her swearing and screaming coming from the house.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was forced to interrupt his tour of Japan – one of the most important international visits of his political career – to telephone Ms Neal. He ordered her to undergo anger management, and threatened to dump her from the Labor Party if she transgressed again.
Mr Rudd had reached his limit. In the past week, Ms Neal has been accused of swearing and abusing staff at Gosford’s Iguanas Waterfront, and threatening she would have the club’s "f—ing licence"; and yesterday it emerged that she had been suspended for kicking a rival soccer player while she was on the ground.
Mr Rudd put every Labor MP on notice, saying they were expected to uphold decent standards of behaviour.
"No one, I repeat no one, is guaranteed a future in politics and that goes for all our members of Parliament," he said in Tokyo.
After meeting the Japanese Emperor Akihito, Mr Rudd said: "I spoke to Belinda Neal today and said to her that there appears to be a pattern of unacceptable behaviour. She’s indicated that as a result of our conversation that she’ll actually be seeking counselling to assist in her own management of her relationships with other people."
A somewhat contrite Ms Neal confirmed this yesterday, admitting that her argument with Iguanas staff "did continue too long". But she continued to insist she had received bad service, and she denied kicking the soccer player when she was down.
But the Iguanas affair appears set now to be investigated by police. The Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, wrote to the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, and asked him to investigate contradictory statutory declarations of the events written by the venue’s staff and Ms Neal’s and Mr Della Bosca’s dining companions.
It will not be the first time the police have been involved with the couple, say neighbours yesterday. They confirmed that police had been called to the couple’s home two or three times in the past decade, and it was "not uncommon" to hear Ms Neal’s screams coming from the house.
"Swearing and things being thrown, I’ve heard it," one male neighbour said. "I’ve heard them arguing, fighting and throwing things. She’s a mouth on her."
It has long been rumoured that Ms Neal has been abusive towards her husband. Mr Della Bosca and Ms Neal did not respond to written questions yesterday, but Mr Della Bosca’s spokesman said last night: "The minister does not want to respond to untrue and hurtful muckraking other than to say he loves his wife very much and has been married for 22 years."
When Mr Della Bosca was asked in a profile interview last August if Ms Neal had hit him on occasions, he said: "Not true". Three other neighbours in their small dead-end street spoke of Ms Neal’s rages
In the Central Coast seat of Robertson, the election night dampener in November was the lurking guilt that, in our desperation to get rid of John Howard, we had sent a time bomb to Canberra. Poor Kevin 07, we sagely said. As we raised our glasses to toast Rudd’s win, somebody added: "And Kevin, sorry about Belinda, mate."
"You can hear the language, you can hear the throwing," another said. "She’s the one that does all the calling and the abusing."
Ms Neal’s erratic behaviour is often viewed in Labor circles as the reason why her husband has not gone further in his career. As one senior Government source said: "The truth is we all know this [latest incident at Iguanas] is Belinda’s doing and Della’s judgment evaporates when Belinda is involved. It has been the way for 20 years."
One of Ms Neal’s Labor colleagues said she publicly humiliated Mr Della Bosca at several country Labor conferences by shouting and abusing him. Another Labor source said she was so vindictive that she boasted of putting her enemies’ written names or their photos in the freezer.
Another Labor source said she was so vindictive that she boasted of putting enemies’ written names or their photos in her freeezer. This practice has been recorded as a modern adaptation of a hoodoo spell to shut up the named person, or freeze their words.
One Labor source said anybody who knew her would know "how far-fetched and ridiculous" was the suggestion that she did not swear at Iguanas. Mr Rudd did not say whether he believed Ms Neal and Mr Della Bosca’s denial that they threatened and abused the staff at Iguanas.
Mr Rudd’s action puts further heat on the Premier, Morris Iemma. But Mr Iemma’s spokesman insisted yesterday that "appropriate action" had been taken against Mr Della Bosca, claiming there was a lack of evidence that he had behaved inappropriately.
Late yesterday, Ms Neal told ABC radio that after a 20-minute phone conversation with Mr Rudd, she finally accepted that she had not handled the Iguanas situation appropriately; this after days of she and Mr Della Bosca claiming they were at no fault.
But Ms Neal maintained that she did not swear at staff and did not threaten their liquor licence. In fact, she said she was the latest victim of poor service at the restaurant and nightclub. "I have been contacted by several people who have had similar or far worse experience than mine."
Earlier, at a news conference, Ms Neal said: "The argument did continue too long and as a result I have had a conversation with the Prime Minister today in which I agreed that I would attend counselling to deal with conflict with other people and I suppose I’ll do that as soon as arrangements can be made."
Ms Neal denied doing anything wrong in a soccer game for her team, Umina United, in which she was given a red card and sent off. She allegedly kicked The Entrance-Bateau Bay United player Amy Parslow, and was suspended for two weeks.
"There was an occasion where my boot made contact with the other player’s boot," Ms Neal said. "It was a minor incident and as a result the referee made a decision and I guess referees make good decisions and not so good decisions. I … left the field and, of course, the other woman involved went on to finish without injury."
She dismissed the acting Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s remark that her anger formed a disturbing pattern of behaviour. "I haven’t spoken to Julia Gillard. I have spoken to Kevin Rudd, who is both the Prime Minister of the country and my leader."
She refused to admit she had anger problems, instead saying she would take the classes "to draw a line in the sand".
A former councillor who served with Ms Neal on Gosford City Council for four years in the 1990s said she was very difficult to work with, regularly raised her voice during debates and was known to swear in the chamber.
"She was very, very aggressive in debate and she was known for being very forthright and difficult, especially with her Labor Party colleagues who were on council with her, they found her the hardest to work with," the councillor said. "There’s wasn’t a lot of raised eyebrows when we heard what happened on Friday night, it came as no surprise."
Another former councillor said Gosford police had told him they had been called to Ms Neal’s family home several times in the past few years after complaints of shouting and swearing.
Labor sources say Ms Neal has long harboured ministerial and even, bizarrely, prime ministerial ambitions when she tried to move to the lower house from the Senate in 1998. One reason Labor head office allowed her to run in the seat of Robertson at last year’s election was that, with its 6.9 per cent margin, senior officials believed she was only a slight chance of winning.
During the campaign, Ms Neal suggested Labor had a secret plan to review the carve-up of GST revenue or raise the GST rate. Mr Rudd insisted an increase would happen "over my dead body". According to a local campaign source, Ms Neal kicked up a fuss when told to retract her statement.
Ms Neal got into trouble when a neighbour took her to court over her dog, Checkers, harassing him on his motorcycle. Ms Neal wanted to challenge the fine but eventually pleaded guilty, the local campaign source confirmed, after she was pressured by the party.
Late last month, Ms Neal apologised to Parliament after telling the heavily pregnant Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella that "your baby will be turned into a demon by evil thoughts". Mrs Mirabella suggested then that Ms Neal needed counselling.
During the Herald’s profile interview, Mr Della Bosca rejected that Ms Neal’s lack of political success had been "a problem for me or a problem for her – no, I don’t think so. We’ve got a 21-year marriage. It’s been a good marriage. Like every marriage it’s had its ups and downs but I think that kind of comment is unfair and untrue."
Ms Neal said at the time, when asked if she was fiery: "I haven’t really heard people say that. Certainly I’m someone who has the courage of my convictions. I’m prepared to stand up [for them]. There’s no point representing a seat and not having a … strong voice." A voice soon to be restrained by anger management.