Recent events have shown that neither side of politics is immune from the clutches of ICAC.
Just over a week ago, the revelation came that, despite his denials, O’Farrell had indeed received a bottle of Penfolds wine worth $3,000 – well over the $500 threshold for gifts that must be declared. After adamantly denying receipt of the bottle a thank you note surfaced, suggesting otherwise.
Countless times O’Farrell told the media there was no bottle of wine, saying that he would remember such a gift, especially as it was dated the same year as his birth.
O’Farrell was confronted with a handwritten note, in which he thanked Nick Di Girolamo, former Australian Water Holdings boss, and his wife for the wine and “all” their help.
In the face of this damning contradiction, O’Farrell resigned within 24 hours. Was his resignation perhaps the most unusual thing about this case?
In recent years, allegations of corruption have not been uncommon in Australian politics, both at a state and federal level. Yet Craig Thompson and Eddie Obeid, not to mention former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (accused under police investigation of fraud in her days as a lawyer), all chose to cling on to their positions.
Decades ago, resignations following even a minor upset was the norm. In 1982, Liberal member for Warringah, Michael Mackellar stepped down after a staff member had submitted the wrong customs form when he arranged to import a colour TV (claiming it was black and white instead of colour). Similarly, in 1984, Labour member Mick Young resigned because he failed to declare a Paddington Bear when going through customs.
While the sceptic might argue today that if all politicians resigned over such scandals there wouldn’t be very many left, it is interesting to contemplate how much has changed in the political arena since the 1980s.
In any case, Barry O’Farrell made a major blunder when he didn’t declare the gift. Political writer Annabelle Crabb writes satirically that perhaps his voluntary resignation was the most shocking thing about the whole case – that here was a public figure “deciding not to give himself the benefit of the doubt.”
Perhaps the revelation of a thank you note which outright contradicted his claims that no such bottle was received bore just too much of a similarity to a “there will be no carbon tax” assertion. Certainly the repeated replays of his denial throughout the media have a note of similarity.
If O’Farrell had admitted his receipt of the 1959 Grange, is it likely that the case would have turned out differently? In the criminal law, pleading early can result in a reduced sentence, it is likely that a prompt confession would also have benefitted O’Farrell. It may have salvaged his career. An upfront apology, as quick as possible has always been the best PR policy in crisis situations.
To this day, O’Farrell has never acknowledged memory of the bottle, calling it a “massive memory fail.”
Some speculate that the whole thing came to light due to a deliberate ploy to topple the premier. If this was the plan, it worked – a whole political career, and three-year premiership was unravelled in 24 hours.
And O’Farrell will not be enjoying the retirement privileges of his predecessors – the free travel, office and driver – due to reforms that he himself instituted, limiting them to premiers who served for a minimum of five years. He was two years away from receiving these benefits.
But before you feel too sorry for him, O’Farrell will not be leaving Parliament empty handed. He will retire with an annual salary package of $160,000.