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Why NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell Had To Resign

Barry O’Farrell resigned after not recalling that he received a $3000 bottle of wine. Photo Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Alcohol and memory are poor bedfellows, as NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell just found out. Booze has just cost another politician his job.

After emphatic denials that he received a $3000 bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange Hermitage yesterday, first under oath at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, where he said he “did not believe” he received it, then later at a press conference, where he repeatedly said he had no memory of getting the wine – adding that he certainly would have remembered getting a wine that expensive – the most important thing he forgot was that he’d written a thank-you note.

He couldn’t remember why he had a 29-second phone call with Nick Di Girolamo, the Australian Water Holdings boss who sent it to Mr O’Farrell’s Roseville home, although Mr Di Girolamo told ICAC he had been thanked by the Premier. Mr O’Farrell even included his wife Rosemary in the lapse of memory, saying that he had discussed the matter with her and she had no recollection of the Grange in the house.

ICAC has now claimed the scalps of two Liberal NSW Premiers – the first, Nick Greiner, set up the Commission. Yesterday, O’Farrell said he fully supported the efforts of ICAC to expose corruption.

No-one should think O’Farrell is corrupt in the traditional sense – in his time as Premier, he’s worked hard to unravel the mess created by Obeid’s grip on the ALP – but he slipped up by not recalling the wine and especially for not including it on his pecuniary interests register. Alongside his absent-mindedness, he made simple mistakes that undermine his integrity as Premier.

ICAC not only likes fishing, it likes reeling in its catch slowly. Yesterday, counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson, SC, revealed the phone call first. The Premier said he had “no knowledge” of why he made the call.

Then ICAC produced a courier docket showing the wine had been delivered to Mr O’Farrell’s home. While there was some debate about the date on it, with the Premier saying he left for a break on the Gold Coast at about 5.30pm on that Easter weekend, the circumstantial evidence around him was mounting.

Today, ICAC landed its killer blow: a hand-written note from Mr O’Farrell thanking Mr Di Girolamo for the wine.

It read

“Dear Nick and Jodie,
We wanted to thank you for your kind note and the wonderful wine. 1959 was a good year, even if it is getting even further away! Thanks for all your support.
Kind regards, Barry and Rosemary.”

After such a strong defence of not receiving the wine during yesterday’s press conference, the Premier had no choice but to resign. He staked his credibility on not getting it.

Now you can imagine after winning an election and returning the Liberals to power after 16 long years, there would have been plenty of backslapping, congratulations and tokens of appreciation from supporters landing on his doorstep. It must have been overwhelming, alongside the important business of taking charge of the state.

But Mr O’Farrell added an important caveat to his credibility during his denials yesterday. He kept saying he would have remembered a wine that significant. But he didn’t.

Barry O’Farrell isn’t the first person who have trouble recalling what happened after a bottle of wine and he won’t be the last. Alcohol and politics seem to be a far more dangerous mix than any late night shenanigans in Kings Cross – the area the government focussed so strongly on in recent months.

There’s one more bitter irony in the daily political battle between the ALP and the Liberals.

For all the questionable business dealings of former NSW MP Eddie Obeid, the Labor powerbroker has now done more damage to the Liberal Party, claiming the scalp of a Premier and severely damaging the reputation of federal Senator and former NSW Liberal Party treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, who resigned as finance minister before appearing at ICAC, than the ALP ever achieved during its time in government or opposition.

He is the political equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in his destruction, all those who turn to look at him are turned to salt.

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