Gladys Berejiklian’s downfall: A self-inflicted tragedy

The NSW corruption watchdog is set to begin public hearings into former premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The NSW corruption watchdog is set to begin public hearings into former premier Gladys Berejiklian.

She did not trouser any bribes.

But the evidentiary leads soon to be exposed by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption are expected to allege that Gladys Berejiklian, while premier and a minister, facilitated taxpayer funded pork barrelling grants for her then undeclared boyfriend, Daryl Maguire, the Liberal MP for Wagga Wagga and his property-dealing business associates.

On Friday the ICAC announced that Berejiklian was now a person of interest in an extension of Operation Keppel, rather than her previous status as a mere witness into its inquiries into Maguire’s allegedly corrupt use of his public office and questionable business dealings.

The ICAC is now out to determine whether, between 2012 and 2018, Berejiklian breached public trust, putting in conflict her public duties with her private interests through her personal relationship.

The alleged breach relates to grant funding promised and/or awarded to the Australian Clay Target Association Inc in 2016/17, and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in 2018.

ICAC will determine if Berejiklian dishonestly refused to do her duty under Section 11 of the ICAC Act, which requires reporting any reasonable suspicion she might have had about the conduct of Maguire, or if she encouraged corrupt conduct by Maguire for his benefit and G8wayInternational entities and their associates.

Millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money are involved.

The ICAC show begins on Oct 18

Live video streamed public inquiries, conducted by Assistant Commissioner Ruth McColl AO SC, are scheduled from 10 am on Monday, October 18.

When the NSW Premier heard of the extension of Operation Keppel on Thursday afternoon she decided to fall on her sword with a 1pm Friday statement, resigning both the premiership and her North Shore seat of Willoughby.

A “moderate” in NSW Liberal Party factional terms she had held her seat in the “bearpit”, the Legislative Assembly, since 2003, rising to become transport minister, treasurer and then premier, replacing Mike Baird in 2017.

Berejiklian bitterly resented the ICAC’s timing of its announcement that it was out to pursue her as NSW desperately strives to suppress the COVID Delta super-spreader wave, enduring a four-month lockdown, and having to announce 15 deaths, a daily record.

In her statement, which may bring the public’s wrath down on the head of ICAC, she said she had no control over ICAC’s timing at “the most challenging time in the state’s history”. While the option of standing aside pending the ICAC inquiry was open to her, she called it quits “against every instinct in my being”.

Berejiklian, the state’s second woman premier (Labor’s Kristina Keneally was the first), had won the 2019 state election in her own right for the Coalition and survived the lethal cruise ship Ruby Princess COVID fiasco early last year.

She had built substantial public support through her empathy and presence when fire devastated NSW communities over the 2019-20 conflagrations, which made world headlines as the “fires of climate change”.

Denied under oath

But it was the ICAC’s public hearings in November 2020 which revealed she might be held to account for misjudging, or not taking seriously enough, the ministerial code of conduct.

Berejiklian denied under oath that her relationship with Maguire was “intimate”. Such an admission would have obliged her to make a declaration under the ministerial code of conduct in the event that the relationship could be seen to have advantaged Maguire’s political or personal business activities.

The ICAC had begun an investigation into Maguire following complaints received about his business activities while an MP. These inquiries led to the discovery through search warranted phone taps of Maguire’s relationship with Berejiklian.

The NSW ministerial code includes a definition of “family member” as “any other person with whom the minister is in an intimate personal relationship.”

But now it appears the ICAC has received or uncovered further evidence requiring it to pivot its attention to Berejiklian’s own conduct in the awarding of taxpayer grants to the alleged benefit of Maguire and his business associates.

Berejiklian ended her relationship with Maguire last year but maintained public support with a seemingly frank admission that she had hooked up with the wrong type of bloke. In supportive profiles her hard work and success as an Armenian immigrant who did not speak English until she was five years old bolstered her political resilience.

But in this self-inflicted tragedy, Berejiklian, in apparently unassailable power, had forgotten the downfall of other NSW premiers.

Toppled premiers

In 1992 Premier Nick Greiner, the architect of the ICAC legislation, was forced to resign after a jobs-for-the-boys scandal and an ICAC finding of corrupt conduct. Although the finding was overturned by the Supreme Court, Greiner had to go when his minority government was not supported by bearpit crossbenchers.

In 2014 Premier Barry O’Farrell, who had led the NSW Coalition to a landslide victory after ICAC exposed deep-seated corruption within the NSW ALP, now known as the Eddie Obeid saga, resigned. O’Farrell admitted to having inadvertently misled the ICAC in sworn evidence concerning his receipt of a bottle of Grange Hermitage from a water privatisation lobbyist. He said he could not recall the gift until the lobbyist produced a ‘thank you’ card to ICAC.

To lose one premier is a misfortune. But to lose three?

Now, while many people will be shocked and distressed at Berejiklian’s downfall coming on top of daily despair as the pandemic disrupts lives and livelihoods, attention in the 24-hour news cycle will quickly switch to her replacement as premier.

At the moment it is a party room headcount between current Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, a right winger, and moderate Rob Stokes, the Planning Minister. Also in contention is Stuart Ayres, the Minister for Jobs and Tourism. We are waiting to see if any other candidate emerges to test the factional machinations which will be put to the vote by the parliamentary Liberal Party on Tuesday.

The new premier will have plenty of time to put the Berejiklian affair behind while working hard to ensure another Liberal is returned in the coming Willoughby by-election.

Under the state’s fixed four year terms the next election is already scheduled: Saturday 25th March 2023.

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