The Politics    Monday, August 9, 2021

Do unto others

By Rachel Withers

Image of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Leaders ask for respect, but refuse to show any to the public

Things may be about to go from bad to worse for embattled NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, after the ABC reported further revelations about the use of her position during her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire. It has not been a great day for the premier, with another 283 COVID-19 cases and one death reported, a regional lockdown announced for Tamworth, and the state government increasingly isolated – physically and politically – from the rest of the country on its pandemic strategy. So it’s surely not ideal timing for 7.30 to be presenting new documents showing that, as treasurer, Berejiklian intervened in the assessment of a $5.5 million grant to a shooting association in Maguire’s electorate, despite having previously downplayed her involvement in an Estimates hearing. But when questions about the perceived conflict of interest were put to her by 7.30’s Paul Farrell in today’s press conference, the premier claimed the proposition was “absolutely ridiculous”. When pressed on the implicating documents, a clearly uncomfortable Berejiklian implied the question was disrespectful: “I refer you to my previous answer and please respect this press conference.” Berejiklian’s request for the journalist to “respect” the press conference – one of the only opportunities to publicly question her about the alleged conflict of interest – was a naked attempt to use COVID-19 to avoid questions she would rather not answer. But in refusing to answer legitimate questions about her conduct, it is Berejiklian who is disrespecting the public – much like her federal counterparts do whenever such questions are put to them. Whether labelling them inappropriate, or dismissing them as “bubble questions”, or claiming they’ve already been answered, or accusing the asker of “playing politics”, governments across Australia continue to disrespect their constituents.

Berejiklian’s implication that Farrell was being disrespectful was an obvious deflection from a deeply uncomfortable topic for her: why are there letters showing she was directly involved in the awarding of a grant being lobbied for by her then-secret boyfriend, and why didn’t she declare a conflict of interest? (In its online story, 7.30 notes that the premier did not provide an on-the-record response to the “detailed written questions” put to her.) The last time concerns were raised around Berejiklian’s relationship with Maguire, she successfully avoided much of the public scrutiny, claiming that she was in the dark about his corrupt behaviour. And the media allowed her to pass herself off as merely a woman with unfortunate taste in men. But the new revelations are directly about Berejiklian’s conduct as treasurer, suggesting that the grant was reassessed after failing a cost-benefit analysis, following a direct intervention from her. This raises serious questions – questions the premier now wants to pass off as rude.

Unsurprisingly, a similar level of accountability avoidance continued in today’s federal Question Time, as Labor continued to seek an answer from the prime minister on his involvement in the Coalition’s pork-barrelled commuter car park program. Scott Morrison was asked to explain the fact that he expressly signed off on the funding decisions in 2019 (despite last week repeatedly saying it was a decision for the minister), to which he claimed that it was “normal” for the PM to sign off on such things. He then returned to spruiking the benefits of car parks before handing over to the current infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, for an irreverent (and deeply disrespectful) display. When another MP asked Morrison when he would actually explain his role in the process rather than palming questions off to others, he claimed that he had answered the previous question, and proceeded to mansplain how the expenditure review process works. “Those on the other side may be unfamiliar with that process,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the process of the economic management of this country because it has been under this government when we went into this pandemic.” (He was eventually pulled up on relevance.)

Government figures appear to have grown increasingly shameless about rejecting, ignoring or dismissing questions they don’t like, apparently believing they are above having to answer for their actions – especially when it comes to the misuse of taxpayer funds. While outgoing speaker Tony Smith has been widely acknowledged as having been effective and fair, Question Time has remained a useless format for getting answers out of government. And so have press conferences, as we’ve seen over the past week, with weaselly ministers simply walking away from pressers when they get too hard. While Berejiklian couldn’t walk away from today’s, her call for respect was especially ironic, when that is exactly what leaders are refusing to show the public.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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The list

“Fishing can take you to the most beautiful places – fresh beaches at dawn, with pink skies and wheeling gulls – and promptly ruin your enjoyment of them. All that fussing about with knots and bait; the hassle of catching something, the anxiety of not. Sometimes I think the perfect fishing trip would be to arrive at such a beach with your friends, only to realise that no one has brought any fishing rods. Then what? This is what we’re too terrified to find out, which is why someone always packs the rods.”

“The entire letter makes sense. It is striking for its simplicity, unencumbered with reams of information, apps and portals, or the tap-dance of public relations that so many state schools seem compelled to produce. Instead, this principal tells families that, contrary to the hype, this is not homeschooling, it is ‘crisis schooling’, and to ‘never underestimate’ the implicit learning and value in ordinary home life: baking, drawing, bike rides, board games. As my partner finishes reading, he looks as I imagine I did when I had first read it. Relieved, reassured. Grateful.”

“There is no normal. The figures don’t provide for it, mostly because they can’t. When Scott Morrison announced his four-phase road map out of COVID-19, he included phase C as the period when lockdowns would no longer be required and phase D as the period when Australia would be essentially as it was before the pandemic. But when it came time to provide the scientific backing for national cabinet’s announcement, there was a problem. Designing models that could account for the final two phases simply was not possible. There were no figures to put to it.” 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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