October 14, 2021

State politics

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

By Russell Marks
Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

When Gladys Berejiklian resigned as NSW premier on October 1, the story should have been that she’d done so in disgrace. It had been almost exactly a year since she’d infamously appeared before an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry and admitted she’d been in a “close personal relationship” with corrupt former backbencher Daryl Maguire until some time in 2020. In June 2018, Berejiklian had moved the Greater Sydney Commission out of the planning department and into her own portfolio, against the advice of department heads, at a time when Maguire was lobbying the Commission to release land for development (and complaining about it to Berejiklian). At the same time, she also relaxed the guidelines for the Stronger Communities Fund, which meant that 95 per cent of its grants were pork-barrelled into councils in Coalition-held or marginal electorates during the lead-up to the 2019 state election. Berejiklian personally approved dozens of the grants in a secret process, and then staff in her office destroyed the notes of her approvals in breach of the State Records Act.

Last November, Berejiklian failed to self-isolate after being tested for COVID-19. In June and July this year, she and her government had made a series of decisions that unleashed the Delta variant of COVID-19, not just in NSW but also in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. (Those bungles recall her government’s earlier decision to allow passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess.) At the time Berejiklian resigned, the NSW auditor-general was investigating a $40 billion rail corporation into which Berejiklian – as transport minister – had shifted billions of dollars of assets, despite being warned years ago that doing so would “most likely” create safety risks for commuters. And on October 1 this year, ICAC announced that as part of its ongoing investigation into Maguire’s dealings, it would be questioning Berejiklian over grants she’d approved to community organisations in Wagga Wagga (in Maguire’s electorate), and why on earth she didn’t report him.

In short, since at least October last year, Berejiklian has had the stench of corruption about her. Not that you’d know it from the general reaction to her resignation. “New South Wales has lost a great premier,” said former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, “one of our very best.” Scott Morrison said she “displayed heroic qualities”, that he knows “how much she is trusted and respected by the people of NSW”. Her eventual successor, Dominic Perrottet, said she’d “worked tirelessly before and through the pandemic to protect the people of NSW from COVID-19”. From across the party divide, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews described her as “a person of integrity”. Even NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said he “never doubted Gladys’ dedication to NSW”. And journalists were joining in. The Australian’s Tom Dusevic suggested that the pending end to NSW’s lockdown was “a testament to Berejiklian’s diligence and grit”, forgetting that it was her delay that sent the state into its protracted lockdown in the first place. This is to say nothing about the outpouring of what seemed to be genuine grief from thousands of NSW constituents.

The up-yours commentariat in the Murdoch stable immediately blamed ICAC. Gerard Henderson was furious that its “perceptions of corruption have led to the resignation of three of the best premiers NSW has ever had” (along with fellow Liberals Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell). ICAC may be the institutional embodiment of the rule of law – the idea that public officials are subject to the law and not above it – but The Australian’s Chris Merritt, vice president of the anti-ICAC Rule of Law Education Centre, declared that NSW had somehow “undermined the rule of law and established a parallel system of rough justice”. James Morrow, The Daily Telegraph’s federal political editor, described ICAC – in a tweet – as “a weird unelected star chamber”. Sharri Markson – apparently with a straight face – called ICAC a “lynch mob”.

One of the strangest developments in recent Australian parliamentary politics has been the growth of hero-worship in the two most populous states, Victoria and NSW, which has elevated premiers Andrews and Berejiklian to a kind of cult status. During the evening following Berejiklian’s resignation, a friend said he couldn’t find any commentary critical of her on his social media feeds. Leaders don’t just spontaneously develop a cult-like status with the public. Our parliamentary politics are entirely mediated. Leaders and voters both depend on journalists. When a leader transcends criticism, it’s mostly because journalists have allowed them to.

The real mystery is not why Berejiklian resigned, but how she survived her October 2020 ICAC hearing, during which we heard Maguire banging on about his dealings in multiple taped phone calls with her, and Berejiklian agreeing that she didn’t “need to know about that bit”. At the same hearing, we learnt of emails sent by racing heiress Louise Waterhouse directly to Berejiklian, requesting help with rezoning land to her benefit. Berejiklian insisted that she didn’t take any interest in Maguire’s finances, she doesn’t read all her emails, and she never thought her relationship with Maguire significant enough to tell anyone, let alone report it. Her explanations didn’t pass the pub test.

The ministerial code of conduct, which in NSW has the force of law via the same legislation that created ICAC, demands that ministers disclose any “intimate personal relationship” and the pecuniary interests of their partners. Berejiklian did neither. She has taken a hardline interpretation of the code, insisting that any minister being investigated by ICAC should step aside. When ICAC’s counsel assisting, Scott Robertson, asked her on October 12 last year questions about her relationship with Maguire, and about why she hadn’t declared it when she was making decisions that could conceivably have benefited him, it should have been clear that she was being investigated. On her own interpretation of the code, she should have stood aside in October 2020. The Independent Commission Against Corruption Act itself demands that ministers report any suspicion of corrupt conduct. It’s inconceivable that Berejiklian didn’t at least suspect Maguire. It’s remarkable that she held on for another year.

In the wake of Berejiklian’s appearance at ICAC, her political opponents tried to keep up the pressure. In parliament, Labor moved a motion demanding that she be referred to ICAC in her own right, and One Nation’s Mark Latham wanted to know why Maguire had apparently had a key to her house until September 2020. But too many in popular media allowed her to at least appear to shrug off her ICAC appearance. Six days after the hearing, The Daily Telegraph published Annette Sharp’s infamous puff piece in which Berejiklian told readers how she’d fallen “in love” with Maguire and had hoped it could lead to marriage. The purpose of the puff piece was clear: to encourage the idea that she’d been unlucky in love, an unwitting victim of a deceitful partner. That narrative was enthusiastically taken up, and we saw it trotted out repeatedly following her resignation. But it was a very different account than the one she’d given at ICAC. Either she was lying to Sharp, or she’d lied to ICAC. She couldn’t have it both ways.

Yet any criticism faded into the background in the face of an ever-growing Gladys cult. In early January, ABC journalist Janine Perrett remarked on “how well Berejiklian does in the role” as premier and commended her “strong handling of the pandemic thus far”. In May, Berejiklian graced the cover of the Australian Financial Review Magazine, which bore the now-notorious headline: “The Woman Who Saved Australia”. A month later, Berejiklian delayed lockdown orders for nine days, allowing the number of Delta variant cases from the Bondi cluster to climb to 65. “Ms Berejiklian continues to resist increasingly strident calls by public health boffins … to lock the place down,” Spectator Australia’s Terry Barnes wrote approvingly on June 24, calling her “our Glad”. Her delay condemned parts of the state to 107 days of lockdown, and almost certainly led to the spread of the Delta variant to Melbourne, which has been locked down again since early August.

As late as September 16, the Sydney Morning Herald’s state political editor, Alexandra Smith, noted the “host of milestones under her belt” and expected Berejiklian to stay on until at least January, when she would have been entitled to a publicly funded car and staff for life. And the hosts of Channel 9’s Today crossed over into sycophancy when they waited outside her house with a mariachi band on the morning of her 50th birthday – September 22 – so that they could deliver presents through the window of her moving vehicle.

Everyone now seems to agree that Berejiklian was a marvellous premier. But her “host of milestones” are difficult to unearth. Are people referring to her decision to allow Alan Jones to advertise a horse race on the sails of the Sydney Opera House? The demolition of the Sydney Football Stadium? A bungled light rail project? Committing to the Sydney Metro West rail tunnel and the Albion Park Rail bypass without a business case? The Transport Asset Holding Entity, which hid billions from the state’s budget while likely increasing safety and operational risks to public transport users? “She cut taxes, reduced the size of government, built roads, railways, stadiums and schools,” fawned Aaron Patrick in the Australian Financial Review. She’d apparently “presided over one of the strongest Coalition governments in NSW history”. But its strength depended largely on the narratives provided by senior journalists like Patrick. He made a last-ditch effort to justify his paper’s notorious May headline. “If she had survived to the end of 2021, when the health crisis may have mostly passed, Berejiklian might have been accepted as the woman who saved Australia – instead of the woman who failed herself.”

Writing for Guardian Australia, Christopher Knaus suggested that Berejiklian’s resignation would have “come as a shock” to most Australians, “given the focus has been almost exclusively on the state’s devastating COVID-19 outbreak and her handling of that”. This is surely another way of saying journalists had not been doing their jobs. When the ABC’s Paul Farrell challenged Berejiklian at one of her daily COVID-19 press conferences in August over the extent that she was involved in securing a $5.5 million grant for the Australian Clay Target Association in Wagga Wagga in 2016, the premier called his proposition “absolutely ridiculous” and demanded that he “respect this press conference”. Had anyone else reacted like that, they’d be toast. Soon afterwards, she stopped her daily COVID-19 briefings. “I don’t intervene in those [grants] processes,” she told a press conference last December. In August, 7.30 alleged there are documents that show otherwise. The Australian Clay Target Association grant is in ICAC’s sights in hearings next week.

Berejiklian responded angrily to the timing of ICAC’s announcement that it would be further investigating her. “I have never felt stronger or more confident in my leadership,” she said while resigning both the premiership and her parliamentary seat, and insisted she’d always acted with “the highest level of integrity”. She was angry at ICAC’s very independence, that it had the gall to be inconvenient to her government’s sense of its own priorities. There are two possible explanations here. One is that, as an experienced politician, she’s a master of chutzpah. The other is that she genuinely believes she’s never done anything wrong. She was briefly a banker and has spent most of her working life mired in the problematic culture of NSW politics: perhaps her radar for improper conduct is badly skewed. Both explanations would make her unfit for public office.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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