By Sonia Hickey: Sydney Criminal Lawyers Blog.
Many who watched the final press conference in which Gladys Berejiklian resigned from politics, have been wondering why the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) had chosen a critical time in the State’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic to conduct its hearing into whether the former Premier engaged in conduct that “involved a breach of public trust”.
In her statement to the media, Ms Berejiklian said she had been given “no option but to resign” and that her “resignation could not occur at a worse time”.
At the same time, the former Premier made sure to take a swipe at the ICAC, all but blaming the corruption watchdog for taking action “at the most challenging time in the State’s history.”
Strong words. And given the comments on social media following her resignation, it appears many others also question ICAC’s timing.
The ICAC investigation was inevitable
Ms Berejiklian has been riding high for years on favourable mainstream media reporting of her management of bushfires, droughts and the pandemic.
The media even spun her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire, during which she was intercepted making incriminating statements – including the infamous “I don’t need to know about that bit” – as a love affair gone wrong, and the former Premier as a vulnerable victim, despite her powerful position.
Indeed to many, Ms Berejiklian has been a source of comfort and stability through difficult times.
But away from the distraction of COVID-19, serious questions were brewing for some time about the integrity of many of her decisions as Premier of the state.
Viewed in that context, Ms Berejiklian’s resignation was not a “shock” at all – but a decision which followed numerous corruption scandals involving her government – from shredding documents relating to over $250 million in grants, to her questionable interventions grants allocations, to blatant pork barrelling – which culminated in the ICAC’s decision to investigate her directly.
Gladys was always going to be next on the list
ICAC is already part-way through its corruption investigation into Daryl Maguire.
“Operation Keppel ” has been underway since last year. And, the writing was potentially on the wall for the corruption watchdog to require the now former Premier to take the stand at a later date after she revealed the mentioned secret relationship with Daryl Maguire last October.
At the time, numerous telephone conversations intercepted between the pair were played to the ICAC hearing.
During these conversations, Mr Maguire discussed at length his dire financial situation and business endeavours, which, together with the then Premier’s responses, led many to believe Ms Berejiklian was aware of – or at least wilfully blind to – her partner and party colleague’s corrupt activities, but did nothing about it.
So, it makes sense in so many ways that the ICAC investigation continues along its current path.
Since the original revelation regarding the ‘secret relationship’, it’s been alleged that while Premier, she intervened in the grant approval process for a multi-million dollar handout to Daryl Maguire’s electorate of Wagga Wagga after a cost/benefit analysis determined that the grant would be unlikely to deliver the returns projected, this led to it being approved.
The NSW Upper House referred Ms Berejiklian to ICAC in March, asserting that she failed to declare her relationship with Daryl Maguire as a potential conflict of interest when dealing with road upgrades.
The motion alleged that Ms Berejiklian met with Mr Maguire about an upgrade to a road more than 100km from his Wagga Wagga electorate, which runs past two investment properties he hoped to use as short-term rental accommodation.
It also alleged the Premier failed to disclose a conflict of interest when planning the M9 Outer Sydney Orbital; a project in relation to which Mr Maguire stood to obtain a financial benefit from.
In between these very serious allegations, Ms Berejiklian’s office was found to have shredded documents in relation to ‘pork barrelling’, involving the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund which allocated 95% of grants to Coalition and marginal districts.
While the NSW State Archives and Records (SARA) launched an inquiry and subsequently found that the Office of the Premier breached laws governing state records when it shredded working advice notes, SARA decided not to proceed with prosecution.
Despite a number of calls for her resignation, Ms Berejiklian maintained that she “has always expected the highest standards of herself, and her colleagues”. She has also steadfastly maintained her innocence, and at times has often portrayed herself as a ‘victim of circumstance.’
When her relationship with Daryl Maguire became public knowledge she stated that the mistake she made was “to trust the wrong man.” Although it should be noted that it was she who had insisted on his resignation after the first corruption probe in 2018 into his business dealings while in public office.
In relation to not making the relationship public, Ms Berejiklian often said that it didn’t have ‘sufficient substance,’ despite it lasting several years. She also admitted to ICAC last year that she had hoped Mr Maguire would retire and they could make the relationship public. She also revealed he had a key to her home.
The inconsistency in many of her statements have caused significant damage to her reputation and her integrity over the past 12 months, although it will be up to ICAC to determine any unlawful behaviour or breaches of ministerial conduct.
When she was told by ICAC last week that she would be under investigation, Ms Berejiklian sought legal advice in order to understand the implications for her position as Premier. It’s been reported that Ms Berejiklian and her closest cabinet colleagues received advice she was on safe legal ground despite being named as a person of interest by ICAC.
The advice was provided by Bret Walker QC, the prominent Sydney barrister whose service fees cost thousands of dollars per day. It’s understood that hMr Walker’s advice appeared to extend to her ability to stay in her role while the ICAC investigations continued.
Legally, it appeared, she may not have been required to vacate her position.
But the rest, as they say, is history. Gladys Berejiklian chose to resign. Former Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has now been sworn in as the state’s 46th Premier.
The ICAC hearings begin on 18th October. While there is no love lost between politicians and the corruption watchdog, it’s important that the process goes ahead, because, irrespective of its findings, it sends a very strong message to politicians that corruption will not be tolerated.