Illustration: Dionne Gain
- More on Barry O'Farrell's resignation
- Did someone target Barry O'Farrell?
- O'Farrell's lapse no reason for guillotine
- Premier resigns over bottle of wine
The resignation of Barry O'Farrell has opened a gaping conceptual hole. It seems disproportionate. A bottle of wine and a memory lapse does not seem enough for the guillotine.
Which means everyone around here is wondering if there is more to this story. This does not help O'Farrell in his moment of ultimate sacrifice.
If the events that led to his resignation are as stated, the problem appears to have been containable if O'Farrell had a good political consigliere. Because the Premier's diary would have been frightening to behold due to the sheer number of meetings, events, correspondence, debates, briefings, legislation and parliamentary duties he would have had to have been across.
Animation: Rocco Fazzari
Probably about 4000 discrete items a year by rough estimate. Multiply that by three years and you get 12,000 separate items.
Given that most people have trouble recalling much of what they did last week, it was plausible that even a 1959 bottle of Penfolds' Grange and a thank you note could get lost in the torrent of detail over the past three years.
It is possible O'Farrell did not recall the Grange gift and was telling the truth when questioned at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which is why he made the error of being unambiguous. It is a criminal offence to give false evidence to the ICAC, hence his crucial mistake was to not allow for inexactitude in his recollections. He could have invoked scale of detail.
That he did not do so may have been because another prominent Liberal, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, had recently poisoned the well of forgetfulness. The senator went into an ICAC hearing as a cleanskin and emerged as an amnesiac.
Even though what O'Farrell said was wrong, the sheer size of his diary provided plausible deniability. This, coupled with a frank admission that he was wrong, made it a survivable lapse. The public was not going to demand his head over a bottle of wine, given that O'Farrell has worked so hard to build a reputation as a cleanskin and is otherwise not linked to scandal.
This is why there is speculation bubbling, on the basis of nothing, that it was not just about a bottle of expensive wine.
Such cynicism is based on the corruption that was in the DNA of the longest-serving Liberal government in NSW, run by Robert Askin from 1965 to 1975. When Askin was premier every operator of an illegal off-track betting operation or illegal casino knew that the best way to get things done or to stay alive was to drop a donation, off the books.
Askin had a terrible gambling problem and was always on the hook to his bookies. But he always paid his bills because his fixer always had cash flowing in the pipeline.
The terrain was brought to light in a book, The Prince and the Premier, published in 1985, by a former editor of The Sun-Herald, David Hickie. The book's sub-title does not leave much to the imagination: The Story of Perce Galea, Bob Askin and the Others who Gave Organised Crime Its Start in Australia.
It details how millions of dollars in pay-offs flowed from the illegal gambling industry while police commissioners Norman Allan and Fred Hanson allowed it to flourish because their boss, the premier, was in on the take.
Another book, The Politics of Heroin, by Alfred McCoy, describes Askin as regularly having dinner with Sydney's most notorious criminal, Abe Saffron, at the Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross.
Now that's corruption. It makes this scandal seem like an episode of Mickey Mouse.
And what happened to the most corrupt premier and his bagman? He won four elections, retired with a knighthood, and died wealthy. Sir Robert Askin. When the Australian Taxation Office audited his estate it found a substantial part of his wealth had come from undisclosed income.
On Monday this column offered a glimpse into the operations of Labor's former bagman in NSW, Sam Fiszman, who raised tens of millions of dollars for the party and laundered much of the donations. He was appointed to a series of government boards, grew wealthy, and was lauded by Labor.
As we said, it's not just money that gets laundered in Sydney, it's reputations.
Not this time. This time it's the reverse. The ICAC, set up by a Liberal premier, Nick Greiner, has changed the game.
In June 1992, then ICAC commissioner Ian Temby concluded that an appearance by Greiner before the ICAC would be seen "by a notional jury as conducting himself contrary to known and recognised standards of honesty and integrity". This was enough for the independents in the NSW Parliament, who then had the balance of power, to demand Greiner's resignation. He stepped down, while pleading his innocence and was vindicated by a court of appeal decision, which found the ICAC had exceeded its powers. By then it was too late.
O'Farrell had an even lesser blot and a thumping majority in Parliament.
All of which leaves us with this irony: two NSW premiers have resigned over small ethical breaches while the real money-gougers in the NSW Liberals have grown rich and unaccountable.