Red wine has caused many a memory lapse, but rarely one quite so spectacular as that of Barry O’Farrell, who was forced to resign as premier of Australia’s largest state today over the gift of a A$3,000 (£1,700) bottle of Penfolds Grange, which he claimed not to recall receiving.
The wine – considered one of Australia’s finest, and bottled on Mr O’Farrell’s birth date, 24 May, 1959 – was couriered to his home by Nick Di Girolamo, a Sydney lawyer at the centre of an inquiry by New South Wales’s anti-corruption watchdog into allegedly shady dealings at a water infrastructure company of which he was chief executive.
The occasion was Mr O’Farrell’s election victory in 2011, but the gift – which he did not declare in the parliamentary register of interests – came to light this week, in testimony by Mr Di Girolamo at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearing. Summoned before the ICAC, Mr O’Farrell, a close friend of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, categorically denied receiving the wine – adding “that I’m certain I would remember receiving a bottle of Penfolds, particularly one that was my birth year”. His wife, Rosemary, whom he described as “the premier of my home”, backed him up.
Inconveniently, though, mobile phone records showed he made a 28-second call to Mr Di Girolamo that evening. And today the ICAC’s lawyers produced a handwritten note, signed “Baz and Rosemary”, in which Mr O’Farrell thanked the head of Australian Water Holdings for the “wonderful wine”. He duly announced his resignation, citing a “massive memory fail”.
The events unravelled just as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were due to fly into Sydney, and threw organisers of the royal tour into turmoil. Mr O’Farrell was scheduled to greet the couple, travelling with Prince George, and host a reception for 400 people at Sydney Opera House. He withdrew, leaving the state’s governor, Marie Bashir, to perform those duties alone.
Australians, meanwhile, puzzled over how anyone – even a busy premier – could forget such a memorable gift. The irony is that Mr O’Farrell, whose conservative Liberal Party won by a landslide in 2011, ousting a Labor government tainted by corruption scandals, was regarded as a clean pair of hands. Although there is no suggestion of corrupt behaviour on his part, Mr Di Girolamo lobbied his government in the hope of winning lucrative contracts.
A former Liberal minister has recounted attending a meeting between Mr Di Girolamo and the premier and being “taken aback” at how “cosy” the pair were.
Mr O’Farrell apologised for misleading the inquiry. “I still can’t explain either the arrival of a gift that I have no recollection of, or its absence, which I still can’t fathom, but I accept the consequences,” he said.
Mr Abbott said his friend had “constantly worked to do the right thing by the people of New South Wales”, and he praised him for resigning.
Mr O’Farrell told the ICAC he was “no wine connoisseur”, being more of a “Brokenwood Cricket Pitch drinker” – a tipple that costs about A$20. A bottle of 1960 vintage Penfolds Grange was offered on eBay for A$5,890 today.