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Sympathy for Barry O'Farrell


Barry O'FarrellAusralians hold most MPs in low regard. We don't really expect a high standard of behaviour from them (especially after the revelation of factional deals in WA that saw the ALP lose a popular senator), premiers, prime ministers, or even governors general (after Sir John Kerr) and judges. There have been many examples, too many, and this cynicism has had a corrosive effect on civil society.

The worst is the underlying loss of faith in the merit principle, when it is so very obvious that social relationships and deal-making behind closed doors help choose the short lists and crucial manipulation of decision making. Women and racial and religious minorities have always known that the self-satisfaction about their own merit of those who benefit from the unspoken conventions of the day rests on sandy ground.

Yet when Barry O'Farrell fell on his sword on 16 April I understood the nuanced decision he had to make because he, apparently honestly, swore he hadn't received a very expensive bottle of Grange from a lobbyist.

Occupants of public office are expected to act in accordance with their oaths. An anti-corruption commissioner, for example, should be someone whose own conduct is not just seen to be, but is demonstrably, judicious, ethical and proper. Even a minor failure in that was the reason that, several years ago, I resigned as an acting corruption and crime commissioner in another state (i.e. filling in for the real commissioner in particular cases).

I had visited a dying, long-time friend in his hospice, after commission officers had, that morning, caught him in possession of illegal drugs and proof that he had stolen from his employer. He was deranged, and not the man I had known for 20 years, and I wanted to help him make a good death. Foolishly, I went in alone. I resigned immediately after the parliamentary commissioner told me what the staff and others might think of my visit.

In my case, it didn't end there, but in O'Farrell's it should.

O'Farrell offered his own resignation immediately after his sworn evidence to ICAC, that he had not received an expensive bottle of wine from a lobbyist, was spectacularly revealed to be false. ICAC had already announced that it was satisfied that he had not acted corruptly in relation to the matters it was examining, regarding the conduct of business with the NSW Government by a water corporation.

O'Farrell's resignation, like my own, was not an admission of guilt, but a remarkably prompt acknowledgment of the seriousness of undermining public faith in the institutions of government. He did not act as if it were a bribe. He did not say he had lied. He acted ethically and immediately, having won office on the back of scandalous revelations about vast networks of cronyism, nepotism and corruption within the previous ALP administration.

Many years ago Nick Greiner, then Premier of NSW, also left office, after Ian Temby found that certain conduct of his in relation to a proposed appointment was 'technically' corrupt. Greiner was an articulate, able politician who had never behaved like other premiers and king makers of recent notoriety, well known in not only NSW, but Queensland and even WA, for seriously worse behaviour, infinitely worse than a 'technical' offence.

Anti corruption bodies like ICAC ruin the lives and careers of many politicians, sometimes merely by exposing their names in public hearings. Sometimes this is justified, and sometimes it is not. Any such body should enjoy such enormous executive power for just a short time, and be regularly reviewed like any other public institution, to make sure that they do not mirror what they purport to supervise.

Meanwhile, we will continue to have such problems at all levels of powerful institutions, because we live in a real world where power is exercised by nods and winks, relationships and homosocial reproduction: these are not the days of the Roman Republic, but the dying days of its emperors and generals.

Moira Rayner headshotMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Barry O'Farrell, lobbyists, Australian Water Holdings



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Existing comments

Barry O'Farrell's hubris set him up for failure by thanking his benefactor on official stationary for something that was not official business. Regardless of what he says he looks as if he lied to escape trouble and then bailed which is inexcusable for any politician or person in any leadership role. It will be interesting to see if Arthur Sinodinos has the same sense of decency as Barry O'Farrell or if Artie will be rescued by Tony Abbott..

John | 17 April 2014  

I agree entirely, and waittng for someone else to name that particular elephant in the room, Arthur is hoping Mary MacKillop will save him with her intercession for all his good works.

Lynne Newington | 17 April 2014  

It was sad to see Barry O'Farrell fall on his sword but he did the right thing.

Edward Fido | 19 April 2014  

Two comments: Prior to the ICAC hearing when questioned by the press and in Parliament Barry O'Farrell was vague about his dealings with Di Girolamo before finally admitting to a number of meetings. He was alerted to the issue of the gift of Grange but chose to ignore it. ICAC was justified in calling the Premier. If ICAC is regularly reviewed as Rayner suggests it should does she really believe it will retain its ability to investigate the "real world where power is exercised by nods and winks, relationships and homosocial reproduction"?

D. O'Connor | 22 April 2014  

If O'Farrell's case has highlighted one (or two) things, it is this: that lobbyists need to be reined in and that public office can be a perilous stamping ground. Blaming ICAC is not the way to go. That bastion of "Independent. Always." the Sydney Morning Herald has revealed that O'Farrell had some warning about what was to occur but continued to strongly deny receiving the wine. He could have said "I don't recall" (always a good standby). Perhaps he can now enjoy the benefits of being a 'private citizen'.

Pam | 22 April 2014  

Thank you Moira, once again you manage to pull me up and make me take a more distanced and balanced view of the downfall of a man who most likely deserves to be acknowledged for the service he has given the people of NSW. As for the dying days of emperors and generals I fear we are at the start of a long dynasty with an inescapable web of influence.

Diana White | 22 April 2014  

Ms Rayner tells only part of the story. Mr O'Farrell's problem went back to April 2011 when -- within a few weeks of winning government, after having (with real justification) campaigned against an ethically dubious ALP regime -- he personally failed to implement his own high standards and failed to declare (as he should have done) a very expensive and purposive gift. Then, last February when the Opposition started to ask questions in Parliament about his association with Mr Di Girolomo (doubtless relying on information, perhaps from a rival in his own party) his answers were (and looked) evasive and incomplete. Then it was revealed in ICAC that Di Girolomu had (and regularly used) the Premier's private mobile-phone number -- something which cast doubt on the reliability of his Parliamentary answers. This raised the real likelihood, when Parliament resumed, that the Premier would be exposed to a prolonged and damaging series of further questions. His POLITICAL position had become untenable, especially from his own side. His position became clear, so, as Macbeth said, it was well to be done quickly. The cause was his political actions and the price was political. Sympathy is misplaced.

John CARMODY | 22 April 2014  

Your words echo my sentiments exactly. It was so honourable that Barry O'Farrell resigned but what a shame for NSW!

Name | 22 April 2014  

Ms Raynor, it was recently reported, possibly after you wrote this article that, three weeks after Di Giramolo's gift, he was to be appointed to a new post by Mr O'Farrell.

Caroline Storm | 22 April 2014  

It may be a little early to conclude whether Barry O’Farrell’s resignation was ethically motivated or a political expediency. Does his resignation mean that ICAC will no longer continue investigation of matters specific to O’Farrell’s premiership role in relation to the conduct of business with the NSW Government by a water corporation? I hope not, as it could imply that ICAC‘s brief is satisfied when an official resigns – which is certainly NOT the brief for an investigative-only body. Was ICAC premature in earlier concluding that they were satisfied that O’Farrell had not acted corruptly in relation to the matters it was examining – given the subsequent evidence of the expensive (undeclared) gift and (initially denied) dinner(s) and frequent mobile phone contacts? While I am inclined to support Ms Rayner’s take on Barry’s action being “judicious, ethical and proper”, perhaps it may be prudent to wait and see what else emerges from ICAC.

Richard Heggie | 22 April 2014  

What is the evidence that the bottle WAS Grange Hermitage? Do we have only di Gerolamo's word?

Peter Horan | 22 April 2014  

What concerns me most about the O'Farrell resignation is that in public office it is apparently quite acceptable to accept a $3,000 readily trade-able gift. Too many commentators seem to think that all would have been fine if O'Farrell had first admitted to a memory lapse. If the receipt of such a gift is acceptable behaviour in public office then corruption is endemic.

Peter Anderson | 22 April 2014  

Peter Anderson is perfectly correct. There may have been nothing untoward in the fact that Mr Di Girolomo seems to have received an important appointment shortly thereafter; on the other hand, it may have been an improper appointment.
An experienced political journalist wrote to me recently: "The staff at Parliament House told me of vehicles arriving at the Hospital Road delivery entrance and unloading boxes of gifts for Ministers and Labor MPs. None of them ever declared the "gifts" in the pecuniary interests register."
On the basis of what has recently been made public in NSW -- through ICAC and elsewhere -- it seems that, at the very least, many MPs simply do not take their legal or ethical obligations seriously. In such circumstances, the transition to corruption is easy and -- worse -- often imperceptible to the participants and miscreants. It's often called the "slippery slope".

John CARMODY | 25 April 2014  

Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be; a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad; he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds; And here they say that a person consists of desires, and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BC

Annoying Orange | 28 April 2014  

Thank you for the clarity of your article.

Ian Palmer | 01 May 2014  

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