EVER had an ‘‘I’ll always remember where I was when I heard …’’ moment?
Pretty sure the Premier being brought down by a bottle of plonk and a ‘‘significant memory fail’’ counts as one of those.
For the record, I was standing in a mosquito-infested patch of grass in Raymond Terrace, listening to a bunch of sub-contractors talk about how much money they lost working on the state government’s soon-to-be-open HealthOne Clinic.
Basically, the state government hired a company called National Buildplan to build the clinic.
Buildplan promptly went broke, and left seven Hunter subbies out of pocket to the tune of about $700,000.
So far the government has been reluctant to step in and do anything about it.
Anyway, hearing stories about how hard these small business owners are doing, and BoF’s run in with a $3000 bottle of wine, got me thinking about the importance of perception in politics.
Mr O’Farrell’s resignation speech was all about integrity. He still reckons he doesn’t remember receiving the wine, or writing the note to say thanks, but ‘‘as someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility’’ he accepted the consequences of his actions.
And to be fair, he’s got a good track record on that score – he sacked Greg Pearce from his ministry when he failed to disclose a perceived conflict of interest over an appointment to the board of Sydney Water, and he accepted the resignation of Chris Hartcher, another former front bencher, when he got caught up in a separate ICAC inquiry.
By stepping down now he’s stuck to his self-imposed standards, and done his legacy a world of good in the process.
The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, called him ‘‘a man of honour’’ and ‘‘a great servant of the Liberal party and a great servant of the people of NSW and Australia’’.
Rather than his resignation being a source of embarrassment, Mr Abbott described it as ‘‘an act of integrity, an act of honour, the like of which we have rarely seen in Australian politics’’.
Swansea MP Garry Edwards told the Herald the news was ‘‘bloody devastating’’, and on Twitter NSW upper-house MLC Peter Phelps said he was an ‘‘honourable man’’ who was ‘‘ambushed over a minor incident fabricated by a bunch of filthy headhunters’’.
You can bet though that if he’d hung around long enough for the water, or wine, to get any murkier, the tributes might not have been so glowing, the defence not so strident, and in the lead-up to next year’s state election it could have cost his government dearly. You only need to look to the deafening silence surrounding Senator Arthur Sinodinos for proof of that.
The importance of perception doesn’t change between politicians, but the kind of perception they seek to promote certainly does.
Look at Port Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie, for example. ‘‘MacKa’’ as he is known to just about everyone in the Port, trades off a reputation for pushing boundaries.
He courts controversy like a matador courts a bull, and seems to get a thrill out of evoking outrage at his ‘‘do now, ask questions later’’ approach to running local government.
And why wouldn’t he – the more certain parts of the public dislike him, the more he’s able to build on his image as someone interested in results, not popularity.
In many ways Mr Abbott’s government has been the same since being elected last year. From making noises about raising the pension age to 70 to redrafting the Racial Discrimination Act, they’re framing their government as one willing to do unpopular things that they believe in.
A kind of commitment that after six years of Labor’s watery resolve on every issue from refugees to, you know, who the Prime Minister is, is likely to win the respect of many voters in the middle of the political divide.
Which brings me back to where I started, on a soggy patch of grass in Raymond Terrace.
What do the perceptions politicians craft for themselves have to do with everyday voters, like the contractors who lost out on the HealthOne Clinic?
Well, the stark reality is, very little.
As Mr O’Farrell’s run-in with the expensive red appears to show, it doesn’t matter which public mask they wear, in politics money and power is still the puppet pulling the strings.