Bowing out a blow to reform

The item in Australian Water Holdings’ accounts, when ICAC’s forensic accountants found it, must have looked delicious: an American Express payment for $2978; written beside it, the words: “Gift to Barry O’Farrell and wife”.

Of course, in the preparation of a corruption inquiry such a gem deserved investigation. A premier receiving an astonishing gift, a bottle of Grange from his birth year, which he failed to disclose, from a man lobbying for a hugely valuable public-private partnership. Even without the stench of Obeid that hangs over this ICAC and now Australian Water Holdings, the facts seemed extraordinary.

The fact that the sender, Nick Di Girolamo, later leapfrogged the then finance minister to receive an audience with the NSW premier where he pleaded his case only serves to make matters worse.

Greg Pearce, who was present, told the  Independent Commission Against Corruption the meeting was “cosy” – a horrible word, especially in the rapacious company of rent-seekers and lobbyists. Less than a year later, Di Girolamo’s company won a $100 million government contract, although it was awarded by Sydney Water and not cabinet. Cosy.

But O’Farrell’s resignation this week for misleading ICAC over the bottle of Grange – he says, in hindsight, he has no memory of the gift or the thank-you note he wrote on receiving it – is an unfortunate one. There is no suggestion he acted corruptly, only thoughtlessly. For a man who has made a respectable if consistently drab contribution to public life, it is an inglorious end. He is the commission’s most unlikely scalp. He is also its biggest.

O’Farrell should not have resigned. NSW is not a better place for losing his leadership. But he should have used his blunder to improve anti-corruption legislation, as Victoria has indicated it will. Donation reforms, never broad enough in their scope, should be expanded. The Greens’ suggestion that minutes be kept at all meetings with lobbyists and made public afterwards is a good one. Better still, lobbying might do well to be conducted only at public meetings or through published submissions. That access to politicians can be bought is always troubling, and mechanisms to monitor this access, to moderate its potency by taking away its secrecy, can only be positive. O’Farrell’s resignation is a wasted opportunity. It does nothing to fight this scourge.

Instead, respected commentators and Gerard Henderson have used O’Farrell’s resignation to criticise ICAC. The disruption of a state’s politics for what in the broad scheme of things amounts to a petty oversight has been used to mount the case that politicians should be afforded more secrecy, not less. It is a worrisome argument.

This latest inquiry at ICAC has proved the enormous worth of a muscular corruption watchdog. It has shown the deep indecency of lobbying on both sides of politics, the susceptibility of elected officials to inducements, the greed sitting in plain sight on the benches of our parliaments.

What we should be doing now is discussing means by which to protect figures such as O’Farrell from their own susceptibility to lobbying and birth-year vintages. Perversely, the NSW premier’s resignation has served only to draw attention away from this.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Bowing out a blow to reform". Subscribe here.