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Sympathy for Barry O'Farrell

  • 22 April 2014

Ausralians 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