The Politics    Monday, December 6, 2021

Gladys for Warringah?

By Rachel Withers

Image of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in September. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in September. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

In attempting to take down an independent MP, Morrison is helping pro-integrity candidates across the country

The 2022 election campaign went into overdrive on the weekend, replete with photo ops galore. But that’s not the only campaign picking up speed. The “Gladys for Warringah” push went up a notch following a Nine report alleging that the former NSW premier is considering running as the Liberal candidate in the federal seat, with party insiders not overly concerned about the ICAC allegations hanging over her. The PM this morning praised Berejiklian, saying that she would be “very welcome” in the federal party, and framed what had happened to her (an independent investigation into whether she had breached public trust in enabling corruption) as a “pile on”. “Gladys was put in a position of actually having to stand down, and there was no findings of anything,” Scott Morrison said of a premier who chose to resign and an inquiry that has not yet handed down its findings. Federal ministers Simon Birmingham and Sussan Ley also backed Berejiklian on ABC’s News Breakfast, railing against the “public shaming” and “murky” reputation-destroying work of ICAC. The Liberal Party clearly wants a moderate star to counteract the popularity of independent MP Zali Steggall, who won the once-safe seat off former PM Tony Abbott in 2019. But by openly downplaying the seriousness of corruption, don’t the Liberals realise they are adding credibility to pro-integrity independent campaigns across the country?

The still popular and high-profile Berejiklian is considered the Liberal Party’s best chance at taking back Warringah from the well-respected independent. Such is the belief in the former premier that nominations have been extended specifically to give her more time to decide. (Barrister Jane Buncle, who has nominated for pre-selection, is reportedly willing to step aside if Berejiklian decides to nominate.) But she occupies a complicated space in the showdown between Liberal moderates and centrist independents that is threatening inner-city seats across the country. Berejiklian ticks several of the boxes that might win back those voters who were turned off by Abbott’s conservatism, and could neutralise some tenets of the pro-climate, anti-sexism movement. She is a powerful woman (never mind that she didn’t bring other women up with her) who ran a moderate Liberal government with far stronger climate policies than those of the federal government.

But she’s also a lightning rod for those concerned about political corruption. Whatever findings ICAC ends up handing down (the Liberals don’t really care either way, says a source), Berejiklian’s unscrupulous actions – moving taxpayer dollars into her secret lover’s electorate for “inadequate” proposals that failed approval processes, simply because he demanded it – are now a symbol of the rotten nature of politics, fury over which has catapulted independents like Steggall and Helen Haines to the national stage. The government’s failure to introduce an effective federal integrity commission is expected to be a major factor in the campaigns of independents – including Zoe Daniel in Goldstein and Allegra Spender in Wentworth – and yet Morrison is doubling down in his resistance to one. Addressing the National Press Club today, Labor’s climate spokesperson Chris Bowen savaged Morrison over his support for Berejiklian. “It is absolutely outrageous that the prime minister of the day has undermined the ICAC,” he said, noting that the PM was undermining all independent anti-corruption bodies across the country.

That’s not the only way in which Morrison is hurting the chances of those “modern Liberals” who are trying to stave off independent challengers in their inner-city seats. Moderates are reportedly anxious that a full-blown scare campaign against Labor’s climate policy will “backfire” in their climate-concerned electorates, as Morrison rallies against what has been received as a “rational” plan, backed by big business and national security leaders. But it’s clear that Morrison has no intention of letting up. In today’s press conference, he said that Labor’s 43 per cent emissions-reduction target was just an “opening bid”, and warned it would be sent higher if Labor was forced to do a deal with the Greens to form government (a line that could also sound like a warning to voters to make sure Labor wins a majority in its own right).

The members for Wentworth and Goldstein, meanwhile, ignored the PM’s scaremongering, and continued trying to brandish their questionable green credentials, popping by the Double Bay Sailing Club today to take a relatable selfie in front of solar panels purportedly funded through the federal government’s powering communities program. It’s likely going to take much more than a thumbs-ups in front of solar panels to stave off the challenges from Spender and Daniel. And Morrison’s backing of Berejiklian is not going to help.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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