As Premier, Gladys Berejiklian has never missed a chance to draw invidious comparisons between the ALP's abysmal record on corruption and her own government.
On August 9, 2017, soon after former ALP cabinet ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald had been found guilty of corruption offences, Ms Berejiklian told Parliament: “When it comes to strengthening integrity provisions in all levels of government, we on this side of the house not only do what is right and enact those changes but also ensure that we live by those changes.”
The wiretaps of her conversations in 2017 and 2018 with her former lover Daryl Maguire at the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings over the past week should make her eat those words.
Within days of Ms Berejiklian’s speech in Parliament, Mr Maguire was caught talking to her about a series of private money-making schemes which created a clear conflict of interest for him as a member of Parliament and could amount to abuse of public office. Those matters are now the subject of an ongoing ICAC probe.
He spoke about a development deal at Badgerys Creek he claimed would help him pay off his $1.5 million of debt and about his plans to travel to China to promote the interests of a company that was not in his electorate.
To most people it would be shocking that a well-paid MP could actively lobby for personal business interests in a clear breach of basic ethics.
Yet when the evidence of her close personal friendship and the wire taps was first made public on Monday, Ms Berejiklian said she never questioned Mr Maguire’s behaviour or checked whether he had adequately disclosed his conflicts of interest to her colleagues or on his register of interests. She said she assumed he had.
She justified her failure to act by saying that Mr Maguire was a big talker and she never took him seriously. She admits she “stuffed up” in her personal life but had not done anything professionally wrong.
Yet three days of Mr Maguire’s testimony have only made that explanation less plausible and deepened the impression that she failed to live up to her own standards of integrity.
Mr Maguire said that he sought “guidance” from Ms Berejiklian about his business dealings and there were particular details Ms Berejiklian did not want to know.
When Mr Maguire told her in September 2017 about one business deal Ms Berejiklian was caught saying: “I don’t need to know about that bit.” In February 2018 when Mr Maguire told Ms Berejiklian about “a little friend” involved in a business deal, the Premier again said, “I don’t need to know”.
It has become clearer Ms Berejiklian continued her “close, personal” relationship with Mr Maguire until last month, more than two years after he was forced to quit Parliament because his land deals became public at an ICAC hearing in July 2018.
While Ms Berejiklian is not being investigated for any wrongdoing the Herald believes that she has made terrible errors of judgment which will cast a shadow over the rest of her premiership.
The Herald said earlier this week that the writing was on the wall for Ms Berejiklian’s premiership. Her position is only weaker now. Former Premier Barry O’Farrell chose to resign over misleading ICAC about receiving a bottle of wine in 2014 rather than try to cling to his post with arguments like Ms Berejiklian. While she has greater public support than he did, the optics of her situation are just as serious.
Her Liberal colleagues were initially in shock at her failure to inform them of her close, personal relationship with Mr Maguire but most of her senior cabinet colleagues and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have publicly rallied behind her.
They are stressing that Ms Berejiklian has been a popular, competent and even inspiring premier in all other respects and changing premiers now in the middle of a recession and a pandemic would be disruptive.
These arguments can be overstated. The NSW government has a very strong frontbench who could step up just as Mike Baird and then Ms Berejiklian did when the premiership suddenly became vacant.
It seems increasingly likely, however, that Ms Berejiklian will remain in her post.
If Ms Berejiklian survives it sends a terrible message about the party’s attitude to probity. It accepts that, even at the highest levels, politicians will not suffer if they turn a blind eye when their colleagues engage in suspect behaviour.
Ms Berejiklian was completely right when she spoke in 2017 about the importance for political parties to practice what they preached. It is the leader who has the crucial role in setting a culture of integrity. The Liberal Party’s reputation will pay a heavy price for Ms Berejiklian’s choice. It will be very hard to make this go away.
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