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O’Farrell — and NSW voters — pay the price for an inexplicable lapse

Barry O’Farrell’s premiership has been brought to an end by a bizarre lapse in memory. But will politicians realise their close relations with business are the real problem?

For three years Barry O’Farrell has been an excellent premier of a state that desperately needed both good government and an end to the blatant corruption that became a feature of New South Wales Labor’s last years in power.

Like any politician, he was not above compromise and deal-making — his pandering to Legislative Council crossbenchers like the Shooters Party and Fred Nile was faintly sordid. The circumstances in which James Packer was given his way on Barangaroo — enabled by both O’Farrell and Labor — leave a particularly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

But O’Farrell got NSW back on its feet economically, even if he and Treasurer Mike Baird routinely overstated the fiscal task they had been left by Labor — the Iemma, Rees and Keneally governments might have been debacles but they kept their fiscal discipline. Prime Minister Tony Abbott likes to claim his is an “adult” government that will “under-promise but over-deliver”, but O’Farrell’s was the real thing. He projected an image of moderate reformism, intelligence and, above all, calm competence. He looked set for a long and successful premiership.

Now all that’s finished, brought undone by an inexplicable memory lapse over what will now be the most famous bottle of wine in Australian political history, a 1959 Grange delivered by Sydney business identity, Liberal fundraiser and Independent Commission Against Corruption star Nick Di Girolamo after O’Farrell’s 2011 victory. O’Farrell denied receiving it — or thanking Di Girolamo for it — to ICAC yesterday. Then O’Farrell’s thank you note, slightly pro forma but with a joke about the year (when O’Farrell was born), turned up.

O’Farrell either lied or forgot; he denied misleading ICAC today, and instead insisted he’d had a “massive memory fail”. Then he quit. There are few who will seriously entertain the idea that he lied: O’Farrell, in various shapes and sizes, has been an MP for nearly 20 years and always been a straight talker.

Politicians accepting responsibility and being consistent is an increasingly old-fashioned concept. From the Prime Minister on down, we’ve become used to politicians who believe statements they’ve made in the past are mere inconveniences, to be explained away or disregarded in the quest for political advantage. Other politicians may have tried to weasel out of it and conjure up a form of words to justify the lapse. To O’Farrell’s considerable credit, he accepted responsibility, reflecting a standard of ethics in public office far higher than NSW voters have had to endure.

Now he’s gone after three years, and NSW will be the worse for it.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The exposure of corrupt figures like Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald was supposed to, and did, inflict profound damage on Labor, so much so that the damage seeped through to the federal level. But O’Farrell’s government had its problems with former minister Chris Hartcher, who will play his own role at ICAC before too long. And the part-Obeid owned Australian Water Holdings had extended its tentacles into the Liberal Party via Di Girolamo, former staffers and, most famously of all, the “respected” and “admired” Arthur Sinodinos, who faces an extended stint on the Senate backbench after his singularly inept “I don’t recall” performance before ICAC.

With O’Farrell gone, Sinodinos should show some of the same decency and bail out too, and let his government appoint a proper replacement.

It all echoes, sometimes in uncanny parallel, the fate of Nick Greiner, another outstanding NSW Liberal premier brought undone by ICAC. Greiner established ICAC, and the assumption back then was it would damage NSW Labor, which had generated plenty of sleaze before voters turfed it out in 1988. Instead, ICAC terminated Greiner’s career early in his second term in a finding about his dealings with former Liberal-turned-independent Terry Metherell that he was “technically corrupt”. The finding was overturned (Greiner always argued his deal with Metherell was stupid, but not corrupt), but not before Greiner’s premiership was finished.

The key difference: Greiner was put in that position because, despite his landslide 1988 win, he was forced into minority government in 1991 in the backlash against his reforms and because of a cynical campaign by then-opposition leader Bob Carr. O’Farrell had learnt the lessons of Greiner’s time in office, and was in much less of a rush to implement the reforms NSW needs. Given the scale of his 2011 victory, it looked like O’Farrell would have at least eight years to get NSW back on its feet.

Now he’s gone after three years, and NSW will be the worse for it.

Maybe both sides will learn from this about the need for a much greater separation of politics — especially at the state level — and business: that the close relations between MPs, staffers, former politicians and staffers, party officials, trade unionists, fundraisers, lobbyists and business people on the make — par for the course throughout Australian politics at all levels — are deeply unhealthy. Unhealthy not just for the quality of government we get, but unhealthy politically. Just ask NSW Labor, which is now a byword for corruption.

Just ask Barry O’Farrell, who has paid the ultimate price.

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  • 1
    Glen
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you notes I received years ago are god knows where; even that one from the president of a global corporation. Di Girolamo apparently keeps his carefully archived, ready to play at a moment’s notice. They play it tough in NSW.

  • 2
    Vincent O'Donnell
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I have held Mr O’Farrell in high regard, but surely the original lapse, that of accepting a notable wine that wasn’t a $25 special at a plonk warehouse, was the real lapse of judgement.

  • 3
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    There are few who will seriously entertain the idea that he lied

    Sorry Bernard, I suspect the vast majority of the voting public think just that.
    He lied to ICAC and was trapped by an irrefutable piece of evidence.
    That’s not to say he wasn’t a good premier and a *vast* improvement on his numerous predecessors.
    But you can’t commit perjury and stay in the job.
    NSW will probably be the worse for his loss, as the Liberal right will no doubt profit from his departure.
    But he was caught out in the most public and humiliating circumstances lying to ICAC. The public didn’t believe Sinadinos either and he’ll probably have to follow suit “in the fullness of time”.

    The sheer toxicity of NSW politics and its long history of being beholden to colorful characters, continues to amaze and depress me.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    If that’s what one bottle of Grange does to your memory ……?

  • 5
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    The really sad part for us is that someone who is a relative straight shooter does the right thing and falls on their sword, whilst the real slime balls survive and thrive.

  • 6
    Thorn
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    At the end of the day, O’Farrell did lie to ICAC. He has to accept the same language that has been dished out to Labor over the years. Once someone has been caught in a lie, everything else they have touched is subject to being seen through that prism. I didn’t mind O’Farrell (at least he wasn’t some far right nutcase like Abbott) but he has done nothing of note as Premier, and some of the things he has done are against the interests of the people of NSW.

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    How many casks did Arfur get?

  • 8
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    ICAC was setup by the Liberals to rightfully expose spivs like Obeid et al and of course at the embarrass Labor as much as possible in the process. Well as the saying goes: dig a hole to trap someone else and fall in it yourself; in this instance has been poetic. So far ICAC has worked wonders for Labor, it has been instrumental in the downfall of two liberal party spivs Arthur (I know nuffing, and I cant recall) Sinodinos and now Barry (a memory fail moment) O’Farrel. What a catch! Yes Veronica, truth is stranger than fiction. The big question asked at an Abbott media conference …is the current NSW government corrupt, did to say the least, get right up Mr Abbotts nose.

  • 9
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    It reminds me of the “Bottom of the Harbour” inquiry. And let’s not forget, this is the party that spawned Askin and it’s country cousin, Bjelke-Petersen.

    Let he who is without sin cast the first inquiry!”?

  • 10
    Liamj
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps O’Farrell took this ‘honourable’ (according to Abbott) course because there are smellier scandals drifting his way.. or is this the LNP trying to insert a sacrificial circuit breaker into the AWH scandal?

  • 11
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Some drink to forget. Others go into politics?

  • 12
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Abbott looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel. The red haze was descending and he was struggling for words. His call for decency in the media is beyond parody.
    Hope he loosens up a bit before meeting the Royals or there might be a diplomatic incident.

  • 13
    Wayne Williams
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m oriented towards Labour but Barry was one of the good guys. I hope he comes back because we all lose when a good person goes - should be a yellow card not a red one.
    Not many people would know in advance the cost of a bottle of red. Surely not as bad as flying to a wedding and booking to the tax payer. But the universal law remains: if you lie down with dogs you wake up with fleas.

  • 14
    chpowell
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Nick Di Girolamo plays hardball.

  • 15
    arnold ziffel
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Greiner gets off far too lightly, largely due to his own self-promotion as some kind of deposed saviour.
    He offered an inducement to an independent MP to leave parliament in order to get a better result from a by-election.
    The fact that he got off on a legal technicality doesn’t really diminish that.
    This was later addressed legislatively - from his wiki page:
    ‘Following the affair, a parliamentary committee inquiring into ICAC’s powers in December 1992 recommended that Section 9 of the ICAC Act, on which the successful appeal was based, should be repealed as it was too narrow in defining corrupt conduct. While the section was not repealed, a sub-section was ultimately added in 1994 which addressed the behaviour of ministers and members of parliament, and gave legislative enforcement to ministerial and parliamentary codes of conduct.’
    That was during Fahey’s premiership.

  • 16
    Stephanie
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Well said Paddy - completely agree with your comment

  • 17
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Barry had the decency to resign over a bottle of wine. On that basis, given the scale of matters concerning Arthur Sinodinos Arthur should leave parliament altogether. I’m sure the retail superannuation industry owes him a well paid position,

  • 18
    mikeb
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Give me a break BK. You don’t just forget a $3k bottle of wine. Further questions that he should answer is why he received that gift, what was the payback for Di Giro and did he declare it on the gift register? If an unelected public servant did that there’d be no need to resign - they’d be sacked without entitlements.

  • 19
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Do you drink a bottle like that - or keep it, and let it increase in value - as an investment/asset?

  • 20
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    What’s “an apple or two”, considering what you know some of your colleagues are getting away with?

  • 21
    RogerDty
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Bernard,
    Not really that inexplicable, given that Di Girolamo had lost all credibility the previous day and had withheld the “thank you” note from investigators.
    O’Farrell banked on his credibility easily surpassing Di Girolamo.
    He was surprised by the phone log but would have suffered only a setback if Di Girolamo had not sprung the trap and released the note, delivering the coup de gras.

    He should have acknowledged receipt of the wine and spun his way around not recording the gift on the pecuniary interest register

  • 22
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Some say, given the ICAC enquiry damage caused to the Liberal party to date, Tony Abbott is having second thoughts about having an enquiry into the unions. Abbott may be right, as you don’t know what dregs of the Liberal party are slushing around at the bottom of that barrel. I ask of Tony do not cancel the union enquiry. The media will not like it, and the Australian public will be denied the entertainment that will result out of that enquiry.

  • 23
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    This clearly demonstrates the dangers inherent in the calling of Commissions of inquiry .. Abbott needs to be warned that he is on a Heydon to nothing with his BP pick a box Union slush fund adventure…

  • 24
    C@tmomma
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I bet Barry didn’t declare the wine on the Pecuniary Interests Register for NSW State politicians because he didn’t want some journo to scour the records, find it, and run a Tory Elitist type of story about Middle Australia’s Premier, Barry O’Farrell.

    Yep, it’s the lapses in judgement about such trivialities that produce the slipperiest banana peels for politicians.

  • 25
    burninglog
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    As a public school teacher, I don’t lament the demise of O’Farrell. His government planned to rip 1.6 billion out of schools, declaring it necessary for the state’s economy. When, as BK blithely points out in the 3rd para, it was all “BS”, O’Farrell & Piccoli just shrugged their shoulders with a ‘so what?’ attitude.

    I’m old enough to remember all NSW Premiers from Wran onwards. I can’t remember anything ‘excellent’ about O’Farrell’s tenure. Maybe the press will recount such excellence in the weeks to come

  • 26
    Rob TwoEyeHead
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    The ‘I can’t recall’ get out of jail free card that is being passed around all politicians is getting a little tired. These folk are supposed to be our finest minds, but reveal themselves under examination to be completely dumb at best or completely dishonest, are these really the finest Australia has?.
    http://twoih.com/thenewlot.php

  • 27
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    If only Barry O’Farrell had been a member of Federal Parliament he could have simply paid back the expenses he rorted, or say that the wine was the benefit of his electorate and all would be well.
    Just ask Abbott, Bishop, Brandis et al who have got away with plundering the public purse.

  • 28
    Northy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly with Bernard’s analysis. This was a very competent government - something we so sorely needed in NSW. They were getting stuff done. Despite some of the negatives Bernard alluded to such as the casino approval (and I’d add the unfair removal of Clover Moore from parliament), they really proved to be a positive force for this state. I appreciated Barry’s centrist approach.

    I don’t think this disappointment is a reason to attack ICAC though, as some of the conservative commentators and Liberals are doing. If anything, the role of ICAC is more important than ever. Not just for exposing corruption at its worst, but also for shining a light on the power of lobbyists and the need for further reform.

  • 29
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Just heard David Spears the muppet fronting Sky News PM Agenda refer to the ICAC enquiry as a ‘star chamber’. My, how media attitudes change when things don’t go the way they’re planned.

  • 30
    katas
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I am certain Spears and the creepy Paul Murray will find some way to put a Really Positive spin on all this; probably blame Christine Milne, Julia or maybe Climate change

  • 31
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m wondering if AWH had a “branch office” in Sydney’s North Shore, say Warringah?

  • 32
    Interrobanging On
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Hardly excellent. I guess Keane just has a low standard to meet.

    That said, the next one is likely to be worse. O’Farrell had a bit of decency at times eg calling out the odious Brandis for his justifying bigotry etc. He should get a bit of credit there (cue conspiracy theory that he was set up by the hard Liberal right to remove him as being too soft.)

    But there was plenty sordid and secretive from the outset. The lying about the financial position. The attempts to deny scrutiny of govt business. Bizarre that the deal with the Shooters and Loons Party was mentioned just after calling him ‘excellent’.

    I agree on the core problem if not all of the hagiography - the too-closeness to business interests. But O’Farrell had this too.

    Worth noting that the coal industry is a big part of this - and if not corrupt, then O’Farrell was shonky.

    The pairing with Rio Tinto to doom Bulga by tearing up a legal deed of agreement joining them in court cases and changing the law so financial interests override social and environmental.

    The clear lying about Wallarah (the ‘excellent Premier’ giving a clear promise not to mine wearing a ‘Water, not Coal’ tshirt, then promptly giving it the tick politically).

    That sort of thing.

  • 33
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Katas …I say climate change, yes too much carbon dioxide in the air seems to affect the memories of the Liberal members of parliament.

  • 34
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    How was Barry to know Nick would keep his hand-written “Ta Baby”?
    Like some sort of insurance?
    Like he wanted something on/didn’t trust a politician?

  • 35
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    klewso …do you think that Rupert might have one or two Tony Abbott hand-written “Ta Baby” notes for some sort of insurance?

  • 36
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Hold on BK…one minute you mention Bazza as an excellent Premier, then he did faintly sorbid deals with the shooters and Nile fringe dwellers; talk about a 2 bob bet both ways!
    We are running out of politicians with integrity in NSW, that’s why I vote Green, at least they stand for something apart from greed.
    No doubt about ICAC; there’s not that amount of loss of memory in any nursing home as at ICAC from all of the players, left and right (or are they all just right?).

  • 37
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Harcher next on the stand…won;lt that open a can of liberal (and fellow travellers) worms.
    And we haven’t got to the bottom of the liberal donations and who was aware of those from AWH; maybe some Federal pollies with some inside knowledge apart from Artie?

  • 38
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Gawd, if anyone sent me *any* bottle of Grange as a gift I’d remember it all right! I don’t believe for a moment he forgot - I suspect he wanted to stare down any evidence linking him to AWH.

    Is Di Gerolamo a stalking horse for the NSW Right (aka “Uglies”) who’ve never liked O’Farrell?

  • 39
    PaulM
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    A trivial fact. Both Greiner and O’Farrell were (and are) the Member for Ku Ring Gai

  • 40
    prodigy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    The latest scuttlebutt suggests that there is more in this than the wine …….

  • 41
    lalasalamz
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I take issue with the idea that O’Farrell was somehow good for NSW … O’Farrell has overseen the savage gutting of public sector vocational education … TAFE is the people’s college and introducing exorbitant fee hikes to courses explicitly disadvantages those without the financial resources to better their chances in this world … education is a human right and a government that rips money out of public education, retrenches 400 TAFE staff, including 220 teachers, degrades skills training, and ultimately puts the future of TAFE at risk is not my idea of good or clever government …

  • 42
    David Hunt
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    O’Farrell was not the messiah BK claims NSW needed or had. Lets look at his blatant hypocrisy in standing with anti-mining protesters then approves that mine. The shafting of employees onto a vastly inferior workers compensation scheme that gave the insurance industry millions of $$ in return, closing of TAFEs, and the closing of Fire Stations…just off the top of my head.

  • 43
    Margaret Ludowyk
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    He resigned because he lied, not because he forgot

  • 44
    botswana bob
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Not to worry about Barry-he can launch a new career as a wine writer.

    More interesting will be the upcoming I C A C appearance of Chris Hartcher for a couple of reasons. He is a cousin of SMH heavyweight Peter Hartcher who today launched an attack on I C A C but somehow the SMH neglected to inform readers his rellie is under I C A C investigation.The SMH coverage, both reporting and commentary could well be as biased as LTDNEWS. Liberals and their media symps — at the SMH Hartcher is joined by Liberal lover Paul Sheehan — can be expected to launch a broadside on I C A C for simply doing its job. The Liberals pointed the I C A C shotgun at Labor and now its exploded in their collective face. They are obviously most miffed

  • 45
    Atticus
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Given the many people I’ve recommended Crikey to, I’ll need to do an “apology tour” after Mr. Keane’s characterisation of Barry O’Farrell as an excellent Premier. Many other posts here have pointed out the clear evidence that Mr. Keane has perpetrated a gross hyperbole regarding this mediocre state leader who was ideally suited for an electorate which dearly wished for nothing more than a long and boring break from the frequent melodramas of the Labor Party’s final term.

    We didn’t get our wish granted due to the O’Farrell government’s penchant for unsound ideologically-based decisions epitomised by the degradation of our once-proud TAFE system for the sole benefit of private providers and the forced departure of Minister Pearce for conflict of interest involving appointment to Sydney Water followed by investigations of Minister Hartcher as well as some Central Coast MP’s.

    For a government to plunge into a tailspin like this one a mere three years after chalking up a landslide election victory requires an exceptional display of leadership, but not in the bizarrely positive sense that Mr. Keane has expressed.

    Well, with Mr. Keane having run a close second to Peter Collins and other Liberal heavyweights with this “imaginative” elegy for Mr. O’Farrell, I’d better make a start on those apology emails ……………….

  • 46
    mikeb
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    After watching Hendo on SBS last night I had to login to check if O’Farrell had won the nobel peace prize or just been sainted by the Pope. Nup - haven’t spotted the announcement yet. Either Henderson lives further in fairyland than I think or we’re all mad.

  • 47
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    @mikeb. Some people say that hendo eventually broke down completely, sobbed and wailed until someone rushed out and gave him a sip of 1959 grange after which he composed himself.

  • 48
    mikeb
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Hendo would be silly enough to hand write a thankyou note as well. That poor journo he was with in the interview could just shake her head at the rubbish he was coming out with - slamming ICAC because they’ve caught only two “small fish” only even though the ICAC report isn’t even done.

  • 49
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    What a trumped up supercilious little prat that professional Limited News Party apologist is?
    “Please don’t interrupt me, ‘cause I’m the only one allowed to do that!”? Who’s interpretations of events/reality are the only valid ones?
    That his opinions qualify as fact?
    But I did like the way he hectored and asserted the validation of his superior/more valid perspicacity in “I believe ……”, while trying to shut down a contrary view as invalid, because it contradicted his ?

  • 50
    Tim nash
    Posted Thursday, 17 April 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I am not sure that I agree that Barry has been a great premier. I think personality wise for a Liberal he was better than most more calm and less arrogant. But his government had a lack of vision have cost NSW many jobs mainly in the Transport sector.

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