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The mystifying world of liquor lobbying


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The year of the ’59 Grange will always be 2014 now.

I can feel Max Schubert giggling.

When New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned for forgetting he’d been sent a bottle of his birth-vintage Grange by none other than Nick Di Girolamo, the wine writing racket got itself a hernia.

When the Independent Commission Against Corruption flushed out the Grange yarn, wine experts came out of everywhere; unknown heads emerged from the murk; trumpets long dormant got a chance to blow. Everything from a list of wines that wouldna got O’Farrell into trouble to widely varying opinions on the quality of the ’59 flooded the digital morass.

New Premier Mike Baird had just got the job when he walked into his interview with Sarah Ferguson on Sydney’s ABC-TV 7:30 program. Opinions vary on how well he went, but from that point on it seemed the ’59 Grange took on more weight than any wine deserves. To watch Baird face questions on whether Di Girolamo, as a major Liberal Party donor, donated also to his campaigns was twisty enough. Baird’s dealing with her query about the nature of Di Girolamo’s lobbying intensified the discomfort; his explanation of why he’d appointed Di Girolamo to his directorship of the State Water Corporation was laughable.

In her exquisite summary, Ferguson suggested that the public first saw “a Labor government suborned by influence peddlers”, but that “that same group of people simply switched to the Liberal Party when it moved in.”

She finished by asking the new Premier if the second round of inquiries into slush funds and influence-peddling in the NSW Liberal Party could damage his premiership in the way that Barry O’Farrell’s ended. To which he answered: “Let’s be honest about this: it’s not good.”

After that wobbly start, new stuff emerged after other new stuff and everything got volatile. Many in Sydney must have felt very grateful for the crucifixion providing a handy long weekend in which some shit could be regrouped.

Perhaps the most notable entry into the world of wine writing was John Laurence Menadue, who sometimes seems as close as this country’s got to a figure of the stature of John Kenneth Galbraith. He was private secretary to Gough Whitlam from ’60 to ’67, then general manager of News Limited. He’s been ambassador to Japan, and CEO of Qantas. The list goes ever on.

In his essential blog, Pearls and Irritations, on April 19, under the headline “This is about more than a bottle of wine”, Menadue wrote:

“We have seen the awful underbelly of the ALP in NSW. Now we are seeing the sleazy underbelly of the Liberal Party.

“All political parties are at the beck and call of the alcohol and hotel lobby,” he continued. “It took months for the O’Farrell government to take action against alcohol-fuelled violence. Right to the end O’Farrell was unwilling to make the trading hour changes that had been so successful in Newcastle. Alcohol sponsorship dominates our major sports. We have a ‘war’ on illegal drugs but the alcohol industry causes much more damage than illegal drugs. But the alcohol industry prevents effective government action against the alcohol industry. And guess who is the Chief Executive of the NSW Hotels Association? It is Paul Nicolaou who was engaged by Australian Water Holdings as a lobbyist in 2007. At that time he was Chairman of the Millennium Forum, the NSW’s Liberal Party’s major fund raising body.”

It may just be possible that the fascinating business being unzipped in Sydney brings attention to the whole vast world of liquor lobbying; perhaps even to the role of the most powerful wine industry operatives in this mystifying network.

The path of very serious wine industry issues, starting with the problems of an unreliable river system being used to make Australia’s cheapest bladder-pack plonk, is a strange route that simply doesn’t stack up as a business plan. In a country with no water we use up to 1200 litres of it to make a litre of wine three times the strength of your average beer which is then sold at the price of Evian water, thanks to a tax system illogically skewed to favour these bulk bladder-pack bevvies … sorry, I’m panting. But if you follow that on through, whatever became of the Murray Darling Authority through the biggest winery names in the country to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (“Shoppies”) who end up selling it through the duopolist liquor barns of Woolies and Coles, you’ll be breathless.

One wonders just how much of this web might unfold. ICAC’s biggest scalps have so far been the most unlikely.

Richard Farmer weighed in, too, on his Political Owl blog. Press secretary for Prime Minister Bob Hawke, liquor merchant, lobbyist, advisor, journalist, Farmer’s been around as much and almost as long as John Menudue. In the fever of the now fabled ’59, and the furore about unchecked lobbyists, he dug out “Lobbying”, a speech he made to a conference of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party in November 1996.

It would pay anyone who needs advice in running a hung parliament to learn this speech, perhaps even more desperately than those who need to grasp any of the basic precepts of your actual lobbying, as in handing out birth-vintage Granges. Apart from complaining about the lack of booze on the tables, Farmer started like this:

“Thank you for inviting me here today and thank you for the description in your brochure as ‘Richard Farmer – government relations consultant.’ That was very polite of you. Whenever I describe myself as a lobbyist there is always something of an embarrassed pause so becoming a government relations consultant suits me just fine. In my trade we understand why lavatory cleaners became sanitary inspectors.

“If you can’t drink their booze, take their money, fool with their women and then vote against ’em, you don’t belong in politics,” he concluded some 30 minutes later, quoting Californian legislator Jesse Unruh. “In my experience there are many in Canberra who do belong in politics. The lobbyists will never always win.”

There can’t be too many more bottles of the rare ’59 Grange about to break the surface of the ongoing ICAC inquiry, but it seems very likely we’ll learn a lot more about all the issues I’ve skirted about rather gingerly.

Like the quality of such a wine. Even if it had been through the famous Penfolds Recorking Clinic to be freshened up and re-plugged, it’s worth mentioning that O’Farrell may have forgotten the wine because it didn’t exactly whelm him. All those fifties numbers are well and truly twilight farm material now.  It must be 25 years since last I got my kisser into a glass of it, and it was tired then.

So where’d that bottle come from? My lobbyist was its maker.


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