Based on the reaction to Barry O’Farrell’s resignation by unnamed federal Liberals and their media supporters, denial runs deep in the Liberal Party —  about the role of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, about the entrenched problems of the New South Wales branch of the party, of how the incestuous links between business, unions and both sides of politics are a cancer on democracy.

Peter Hartcher’s Fairfax piece shows some federal Liberals in outright denial. Maybe it’s just a stage of grief, but it’s remarkable. ICAC had pulled down O’Farrell like it pulled down former premier Nick Greiner, one claimed. Another called it a “kangaroo court”. It was a day for laboured metaphors: former Liberal staffer Peter Van Onselen invoked both the star chamber and witch trials in one paragraph in a furious screed against ICAC in The Australian. The paper itself editorialised that O’Farrell had been “led into political entrapment” and was a victim of a deliberate plot by ICAC, a body that “traduces reputations” and “leads to political car crashes over minor matters”. You almost feared a torch-wielding mob was going to form at Holt Street and march up the road to burn down the commission.

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Strange, but those complaints weren’t being heard when Labor crooks were being exposed by ICAC or when a Who’s Who of former Labor leaders appeared there to explain their response to the intrigues of the corrupt. And entrapment? It wasn’t ICAC that forced Barry O’Farrell to insist that he’d have remembered if he’d received the bottle of wine, just like it wasn’t ICAC that forced Nick Greiner to make his profoundly stupid offer to Terry Metherell. This sort of stuff is verging on conspiracy theory.

Such denial isn’t surprising from politicians and commentators who have been operating on the assumption that ICAC primarily existed to humiliate the Labor Party. But it misses the point that this is yet another instance of the deep problems of the NSW Liberal Party affecting its federal counterpart — and the damage isn’t limited to ruining Tony Abbott’s high-profile Badgerys Creek announcement yesterday. A former O’Farrell minister, Chris Hartcher, will be before ICAC the week after next to face his own investigation. And stood-aside Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos is at the very centre of the Australian Water Holdings scandal as a bizarrely incurious company chairman with a memory like Swiss cheese.

Don’t forget, the NSW branch had lost Tony Abbott the 2010 election through factional disputes and ineptitude in its preselection processes — which were well-flagged before the election. It had lost the 2007 state election after the Right knifed John Brogden. That loss, at least, led to a power-sharing arrangement between Left and Right in 2008, only for intra-factional warfare to break out within the Right that saw threats of “World War 3” ahead of the 2011 election.

Luckily the party managed to hold together to achieve a landslide win under O’Farrell, and Sinodinos was supposed to be the bloke that would keep the peace when he came in as state president after O’Farrell’s victory. Instead, there were complaints that Sinodinos, who also entered the Senate late in 2011, allowed the Left under Michael Photios to wield too much power. The branch also allowed duds like Jaymes Diaz to cruel their hopes of picking up more western Sydney seats in last year’s federal election. And this is the Prime Minister’s own branch, one in which as opposition leader he had to repeatedly intervene to demand that key players keep the factional peace, rarely successfully.

“Baird should go further in curbing the interactions between lobbyists, business figures and his ministers …”

Whether likely new premier Mike Baird, and the prospect of a more difficult 2015 NSW election, is enough to stifle another round of factional warfare, remains to be seen. And the party is still looking for a state director less than a year out from the election after Scott Briggs, the Nine Network’s chief lobbyist and a former deputy director of the party, bailed out of the position at the last minute earlier this month.

Baird of course has his own problems with Nick Di Girolamo, whom he appointed to the State Water Corporation in 2012. That’s the problem with the Australian Water Holdings matter: its slimy tentacles extend everywhere, including to Joe Hockey’s fundraising arm, which returned AWH donations, and to former state vice-president, O’Farrell confidante and lobbyist Michael Photios, who continues to be a Left powerbroker within the party.

If federal Liberals and their media cheerleaders think these sorts of links between party officials, donors, former ministers, former staffers, lobbyists and business mates and serving ministers are OK, then they’ll continue to see colleagues, even good, ethical colleagues like O’Farrell, tripped up. Maybe being in the federal sphere, where there are fewer direct opportunities to influence business outcomes compared to state government, has dulled their capacity to see the problems of such deeply incestuous relationships. Or maybe they’re so convinced that business interests and the public interest are indistinguishable that they don’t see the risks of such relationships. This is the crowd who attack Labor’s close links with trade unions but think it’s fine for Sinodinos, a former NAB executive, to try to sneak through Parliament amendments that would gut financial advice consumer protections because the big banks (via an industry association led by Brogden) want it.

O’Farrell made a start in trying to curb those relationships by overhauling the NSW political donation laws. Abbott also did the right thing in banning party officials from being lobbyists. Baird should go further in curbing the interactions between lobbyists, business figures and his ministers, and shedding more light on the interactions that can occur. The voters of NSW will benefit, and so will his government.

They won’t from shooting the messenger, like some federal Liberals appear to want.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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