It is tragic that New South Wales has lost an able and dedicated Premier apparently over a bottle of wine, even if it is a $3000 bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange. Many will be sad to see Barry O’Farrell go. He is one of the most skilled politicians in the recent history of a state not well endowed with people of his capability and determination.
But what this ICAC revelation demonstrates once more is the tawdry state of the NSW government and Parliament. Single-handedly Geoffrey Watson SC, the counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), is apparently clearing out an Augean Stables of greed, graft, bribery, and deceit.
In the catalogue of alleged influence peddling, misdemeanours, fraud and theft revealed in successive ICAC hearings concerning Australia Water Holdings, this bottle of wine incident might appear fairly trivial. Especially when you consider the corrupt coal licences at Doyles Creek, Mount Penny and Glendon Brook, all allegedly revolving around the financial interests of Eddie Obeid.
Nor should O’Farrell be pilloried for forgetting that he received the gift, if we grant him the benefit of a considerable doubt and assume he’s telling the truth. Premier O’Farrell has put himself forward as a defender of honesty, integrity and fair-dealing in the NSW Government. He even took the brave step of cancelling the mining licences awarded in dubious circumstances. But in accepting that bottle of wine he broke a fundamental rule in public or business life: do not accept gifts or favours in any circumstances (other than as a substitute for a fee for a service, such as a conference speech).
It was a career-ending mistake to accept an expensive bottle of wine from AWH chief executive Nick Di Girolamo, a man whose company stood to receive extraordinary benefits from a badly drafted contract with Sydney Water that allegedly allowed him to rort NSW taxpayers at will. To make matters worse at the time AWH was also bidding for a potentially lucrative new Public Private Partnership deal.
In many leading businesses there is a simple rule not to accept gifts of any kind from anyone in the course of business. It’s really not worth the hassle of imputations of potential corruption. In other companies and organisations small gifts may be allowed (less than $100) and anything larger must be handed over to the company, or handed back to the giver. Once Alan Greenspan, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve was asked to give the annual address at Enron. He was offered a cheque for US$30,000 and a gold statue after the speech. He left both on the Enron board table when he walked out.
In public life gifts have to be recorded, and large gifts handed over. In NSW parliament gifts over $500 have to be declared on the register of pecuniary interests. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph no such declaration was made.
The alternative to strict adherence to such rules is that those with the deepest pockets and worst intentions can exert undue influence over decision makers. These systems of graft are often prevalent in developing economies, and undermine and divert economic growth and development. But as the ICAC inquiries have shockingly revealed, they can also occur right here and now.
Australian government and Australian business has to set higher standards. Barry O’Farrell has done the right thing in resigning.