Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

O'Farrell resignation: red wine, political blood and cultural memory

Political scandals, the perennial product of the grinding gears of greed and governance, proliferate in the age of digital media, the 24-hours news cycle and anti-corruption bodies with wide powers. Constant…

Ritzy red wine has come to represent political influence-peddling in the resignation of NSW premier Barry O'Farrell. AAP/Julian Smith

Political scandals, the perennial product of the grinding gears of greed and governance, proliferate in the age of digital media, the 24-hours news cycle and anti-corruption bodies with wide powers.

Constant tonal inspiration is drawn from the tracking of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., all the way back to Richard Nixon’s White House. Many investigative current affairs programs and fictional political dramas framed a “Deep Throat” in the sinister concrete gloom of a multi-storey car park in homage to the 1976 film All the President’s Men.

Few tyro journalists of the last 40 years have not fantasised about posing the famous Watergate question in the US Senate:

What did [fill in the accused] know and when did they know it?

Scandals involving politicians (as well as sportspeople and others) routinely attract the suffix “-gate”.

“Gate” has often been attached to an object, deceptively innocent in its connotations, that only serves to highlight the egregious nature of corruption and deceit. Sometimes “affair” works better, as was the case with the 1982 colour TV affair involving Fraser government ministers Michael MacKellar and John Moore and the alliterative 1984 Paddington Bear affair concerning Hawke government minister Mick Young. All three men lost their ministerial positions in these “affairs”.

All this is essential cultural background to interpreting “Grangegate”, the boilerplate description of the sudden resignation of New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell last week over the unacknowledged receipt of a A$3000 bottle of Penfolds 1959 Bin 46 Grange Hermitage from a lobbyist. Divining the significance of the wine has somehow become entwined with the political ramifications of the scandal itself.

There is an obvious – if rather worrying – reason for this heavy focus on the expensively fermented grape. There have been so many high-profile political scandals it is hard to keep track. Many people – not least those in a news media dedicated to the quick, relentless turnover of news stories – have resorted to mnemonic triggers to aid recall and to distinguish one scandal from another.

Forging collective cultural memory while being deluged by information relies on highlighting a single detail to symbolise the whole sorry business of political exposure. In communication theory this is known as metonymy – the use of a part to signify the whole.

In O'Farrell’s case, ritzy red wine stands for political influence-peddling and duchessing.

Many people, though, will never grasp the whole because they have not followed the story closely. And with the passage of time, many more will know next to nothing about it. But the metonym – which in the digital world has mutated into the meme – can live on, another of the “gate” and “affair” curios to be interrogated and mocked.

Watergate, the original ‘-gate’ political scandal, ended the presidency of Richard Nixon. Ollie Atkins

What, then, is the meaning of the “Grange” in “Grangegate”? Only recently on his trade trip to Asia, prime minister Tony Abbott was recommending Penfolds wines to Chinese president Xi Jinping. Grange has become a byword for New World vinous opulence, both as a present exchanged among the affluent and as a commodity traded on the international premium wine market.

Bottled wine is widely seen as a sophisticated commodity and its appreciation a marker of a cultured palate. For Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello:

Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.

But as a contemporary luxury good, its ill-use can – as O’Farrell painfully discovered – have dire consequences.

That the wine is red provides additional piquancy. In his essay Wine and Milk in the classic 1957 work Mythologies, French cultural theorist Roland Barthes argues that wine:

In its red form, [it] has blood, that dense and vital fluid.

In NSW, it has drawn unexpected political blood before the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Grangegate now takes its place among the litany of political “gates” and “affairs” in Australia connected to banal everyday objects, among which can be counted 1994’s “Sandwichgate” involving Keating government minister Alan Griffiths.

More recently, 2009’s “Utegate” involving Kevin Rudd had a memorably folksy ring. That this sturdy workhorse vehicle, beloved by tradies, might be implicated in a political scandal caused some consternation in the ranks of Australia’s petit bourgeoisie. However, the ute in question in the end only dented the duco of then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

My intention here is not to trivialise the issue of political scandal, actual or alleged. Public probity and its policing is no laughing matter. But among the welter of allegations, denials, revelations and confessions across multiple institutional and social media platforms, the citizenry-at-large has considerable difficulty in discerning and – ironically in terms of O’Farrell’s woes – remembering what really matters.

Often, recall is reduced to a bizarre-sounding “gate” or “affair” rendered absurd by its association with the likes of a foodstuff, vehicle, soft toy, white good or beverage. In echoing the Porter in Macbeth, imbibing fortified media scandals and their catchy titles:

…provokes the desire, but [it] takes away the performance.

Here, it detracts from understanding and analysing our political environment. Another bottle of red is not the antidote.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Does this trapping of social prestige, synonymous with wealth and the high life with its top of the range cornered market, symbolize much more than the now popular understanding of another standard case of snouts in trough, run of the mill politicians' predilection for deals to be done behind closed doors at public expense? As O'Farrell's political nemesis was it doubly/duplicitously deployed as a muddying, misleading propaganda tool, a red herring of a red wine, deployed to have the appearance…

    Read more
  2. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    You have to wonder about the level of corruption that permeates our politicians, when someone cannot remember being given a $3000 bottle of wine vintaged in the year of their birth. Do they get so many expensive gifts that they all 'blend' into one?

    report
    1. Jane Middlemist

      citizen

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Hi Mike, one last thought about wine and its effects:
      many of our political hiccups (both state and fed) were foreshadowed in the Savoy Operas e.g.:
      "And wine, when it flows in abundance, enhances the reckless delight of that wildest of dances . . . . . W.S Gilbert.
      That "Bun-Dance" must be great fun. While it lasts …

      report
    2. Peter Horan

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I am not saying that BOF should be forgiven for failing to declare receiving a bottle of expensive wine. But, are we relying on only di Gerolamo's word that the bottle was Grange Hermitage? Is there independent corroborating evidence? No one seems to know. Perhaps Barry could not remember receiving Grange because it was NOT Grange.

      report
    3. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horan

      The thankyou letter, whilst it doesn't refer to Grange hermitage, does refer to the year, 1959, the year of BOF birth. He's not guilty of receiving a particular brand of wine, he's guilty of lying to the ICAC regarding it, and, hence his association with these paricular lobbyists.

      report
    4. Peter Horan

      Retired

      In reply to Mark Amey

      My question was about the chain of evidence that labelled the wine Grange Hermitage not about BOF's guilt, nor an attempt to justify his actions.

      Is the ONLY evidence Nick di Gerolamo's word that is was Grange? Or is there supporting evidence?

      BOF should not have accepted any gifts and would not then have been caught by his hand-written note.

      report
    5. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horan

      ".....Perhaps Barry could not remember receiving Grange because it was NOT Grange....."

      Whether or not it was Grange is immaterial. He received a $3000 bottle of wine in the year of his birth - of that there is zero doubt.

      So either Barry never receives corrupt gifts from lobbyists but is the most forgetful person in the world; or he receives so many corrupt gifts that a $3,000 bottle of wine is just one among many and is therefore forgettable; or he is lying.

      And none of those options are acceptable.

      report
    6. Peter Horan

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Grange '59 = $3,000. What other bottles from '59 have an equivalent market value? I think Barry was foolish (and perhaps worse) and I wonder if he was set up. Who keeps thank you notes? The only evidence seems to be di Gerolamo's.

      report
    7. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horan

      So I guess you want to ignore the evidence of the courier company that delivered the wine then?

      I am not sure what you are trying to deny here Peter. O'Farrell received an expensive gift from a lobbyist, and he lied to ICAC about it. Those are simple facts.

      report
    8. Peter Horan

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I am not denying anything. I am not defending O'Farrell. I am asking what is the evidence. If it is only di Gerolamo word, then there is a question. It is his word against O'Farrell's. Has he actually admitted it?

      So are you saying that the courier company knew that it was Grange or were they only told?

      report
    9. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horan

      Gee Peter, a hand written note from O'Farrell, that he admitted writing. Keep up!

      report
    10. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horan

      Well Peter, there is Di Girolamo's American Express bill for the wine.

      There is a courier company invoice that it delivered a bottle of wine to the O'Farrell residence.

      There is a handwritten thank you note from O'Farrell thanking Di Girolamo for a bottle of 1959 vintage wine.

      There is the record of a telephone call between O'Farrell and Di Girolamo - that O'Farrell also can't remember occurring (apparently).

      So ummm - keep denying the evidence all you like. O'Farrell has gone.

      report
    11. Peter Horan

      Retired

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Thank you for that. That was the kind of information I was seeking. The only evidence I had been aware of was di Gerolamo's testimony that it was Grange.

      report
  3. Jane Middlemist

    citizen

    How the mighty have fallen, from grace; and can we ever vote again without a wry grimace as we reflect on the uncountable 'leaders' of NSW politics. Reminds me of my father's advice when I was a teenager: "It doesn't matter who you vote for because you'll just end up with a politician".

    report
  4. Graeme Henchel

    Educator

    As a Victorian I know little about O'Farrell but it seems he was an effective premier. However viewing the ICAC outcome objectively I think O'Farrell has come out of it very nicely. After being found out through the thank you note to be wrong he had a choice. Resign because he "inadvertently" mislead the commission through memory lapse or risk 5 years in jail for being found to having knowingly lied to the commission. He was between a rock and a hard place perhaps this situation could be called a Catch 59.

    report
  5. Lindsay Costelloe

    Consultant

    Off topic, but "the Paddington Bear Affair" is not alliterative. You are confusing alliteration (same initial sound) with assonance (same vowel sound). Offered in the spirit of constructive critique and clarity.

    report
    1. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Lindsay Costelloe

      Thanks Lindsay. I played around with using either 'alliterative' and 'consonant' and decided on the former because I think it reads a little better. The words in question are closely connected by sound, but I did take a little licence over the matter of commencement (as indicated in my faithful concise OD). It's good to know that articles in The Conversation are being read with rigour!

      report