A soap opera of historic proportion unfolded Wednesday before the shocked citizenry of New South Wales.
As Prime Minister Tony Abbott travelled to Liverpool to announce the city’s long-awaited second airport, Premier Barry O’Farrell – who was supposed to join him at that press conference – was instead announcing his resignation.
In one of the most sudden and dramatic events in Australian political history, a single bottle of Penfolds Grange appears to have brought down the leader of a state.
With just 12 minutes’ notice, a handful of reporters (most were already en route to Liverpool) ran to state parliament from the nearby Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing.
Mr O’Farrell told the ICAC on Tuesday afternoon that he had not received a $3000 bottle of wine from Liberal Party fundraiser and businessman Nick Di Girolamo.
Mr Di Girolamo’s company Australian Water Holdings, which has links to the family of disgraced Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, is alleged to have corruptly billing Sydney Water for expenses and donating the money to the Liberal Party. It also lobbied the government over a potential deal to roll out water infrastructure.
But on Wednesday, it became known that ICAC would receive as evidence a thank you note from Mr O’Farrell to Mr Di Girolamo.
“We wanted to thank you for your kind note & the wonderful wine,” the handwritten note says.
“1959 was a good year, even if it is getting further away. Thanks for all your support.” The ‘all’ is underlined in the note.
Mr O’Farrell told stunned reporters that he “still can’t recall” receiving the gift and appeared to have suffered a “significant memory fail”.
“I do accept that there is a thank you note signed by me,” he said.
“I accept the consequences of my actions. And that is, that as soon as I can organise a meeting of the parliamentary Liberal Party for next week, I will be resigning.”
The airport infrastructure announcement now completely overshadowed, Mr Abbott praised Mr O’Farrell as a man of high integrity.
“He innocently, inadvertently misled ICAC yesterday. He has taken the utterly honourable step of resigning as premier,” the Prime Minister said.
“I admire him tremendously for this, although I deeply regret the necessity for it.”
The ABC’s state political expert Quentin Dempster said the premier’s integrity was “on the line overnight” once he was drawn into the ICAC inquiry at very short notice this week.
There was speculation on Wednesday that Mr O’Farrell could be indicted for perjury.
The premier was recalled to the ICAC hearing Wednesday afternoon, where he apologised for giving incorrect evidence just the day before.
“I gave yesterday my best recollection of that which was clearly was mistaken,” Mr O’Farrell said. “I regret that.”
He told the hearing that despite the thank you note coming to light, he still does not recall receipt of the bottle of 1959 Grange. The ICAC made it clear that no further action will be taken against Mr O’Farrell.
Treasurer Mike Baird and Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian are understood to be the frontrunners to replace the fallen premier. A well-placed source within Liberal Party staff told City News that “Baird is ahead for now but Gladys can still win”.
A 2012 opinion piece by the then Sunday Telegraph political reporter Barclay Crawford suggested Mr O’Farrell would support Ms Berejiklian as his successor, were he forced to step aside for some reason.
Nobody imagined then that it would actually come to pass. And all, of course, as Kate and William arrived to inspect their former colony.