The news of the resignation of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed the depths that the media and public discourse around politics has sunk to in this country.
The notion of the alleged corruption was lost in the cacophony of praise for Berejiklian and heated criticism of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
“Gladys Berejiklian was invincible as Premier until a ‘stuff up’ in her personal life brought her undone” was the headline on the ABC website.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peta Credlin claimed “something is wrong with politics” when the best Premier has to resign while the worst Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews still has a job “despite a litany of failures”.
“‘Lynch mob’ takes down yet another political career” railed Shari Markson in The Australian, equating the body set up to investigate corrupt public sector behaviour to a lawless, justice-seeking mob.
Berejiklian was painted as a lovelorn victim of a manipulating man, while under the burden of carrying NSW through the trials of drought, bushfire and Covid-19.
Journalistic integrity was conspicuous by its absence, but this absence was to be expected, coming after months of puff pieces in the obedient Murdoch media about Berejiklian being the woman who saved Australia from Covid-19 and economic ruin by resisting shutting down NSW.
Social media of course was no better; heaping praise on a great Premier who did so much for the state and attacking the forces who brought her down. Many commenters claimed Berejiklian’s resignation set back the cause of getting more women into politics.
And of course, ICAC was attacked for the timing of their announcement, picking up on Berejiklian’s veiled swipe at ICAC during her resignation press conference.
People were leaving flowers at Berejiklian’s office, and the Sydney radio airwaves were full of people praising her as a politician who helped the community. It was like she had died.
And the less said about former PM Tony Abbott’s statement telling everyone in NSW to be grateful for her service to “freedom” the better.
Even Labor politicians got in on the beatification of Berejiklian, lauding her service to the state and forgetting the reason for her resignation.
The reporters, commentators, politicians of all persuasions and the keyboard warriors all failed to grasp that ICAC didn’t force Berejiklian to resign the Premiership or from parliament; Berejiklian resigned because she failed the character test.
Berejiklian drew the attention of ICAC via the activities of her then secret boyfriend, Wagga Wagga Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, who went on to admit to ICAC he was trying to monetise his office. He was attempting to profit from brokering land deals in Western Sydney. Berejiklian was involved in awarding grants to Maguire’s favoured community projects in Wagga Wagga. Projects from which Maguire and his business partners intended to profit.
Her knowledge of Maguire’s wrongdoing was revealed in taped conversations played to ICAC 12 months ago. When discussing a payment for re-zoning Western Sydney land, Berejiklian can be heard saying “I don’t need to know about that bit”.
In a failure of integrity and character, Berejiklian did not report this corruption to ICAC as required by parliamentary standards. When given a second chance to show some character and leadership during the ICAC hearing last October, she played the innocent woman wronged narrative.
Rather than holding power to account, the compliant media picked up and ran with the ‘Gladys is the victim’ angle, aiding the reframing of alleged corruption as poor judgement.
Three further examples of Berejiklian’s poor judgement come to mind.
In 2015 as NSW Treasurer, Berejiklian oversaw the sale of the Vales Point Power Station at Lake Macquarie to Sunset Power International for a fire sale price of $1 million. Within two years the power station is re-valued at $730 million, and its shareholders have a contract to supply electricity to the NSW government and pocket $40 million via a share buyback scheme.
In 2020 a NSW parliamentary enquiry investigating the Stronger Communities Fund found not only were more than 90 per cent of grants given to councils in Coalition-held seats, but the notes used by Berejiklian’s office in allocating $141 million were shredded and electronic data destroyed in contravention of usual record keeping practices.
In 2019 Berejiklian headed the project to demolish and rebuild the Sydney Football Stadium for at least $730 million. The stadium was found to have access and safety non-compliance issues, which a report by Asset Technologies Pacific for the Sydney Cricket and Sportsground (SCG) Trust suggested could be rectified for just over $18 million. The trust is heavy with Coalition luminaries such as Alan Jones, ex-Premier Barry O’Farrell, and Gerry Harvey’s wife.
Berejiklian said demolition and rebuilding presented better value for the people of NSW.
So, perhaps her resignation was overdue.
As for the attacks on ICAC, the attackers want to have it both ways, cheerleading for ICAC when it is investigating Labor politicians Eddie Obeid and Ian McDonald and calling ICAC an affront to democracy when it investigates one of their own.
The pesky ideals of accountability for public funds and transparency in decision making are apparently a hindrance to exercising power – hence the lack of a federal anti-corruption body.
As for ICAC destroying careers, give thoughts and prayers to ex-Premiers Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell, who went on to be board members and chairs of multiple companies, consultancies and sporting organisations before landing gigs as the Consul-General for Australia in New York and Australian High Commissioner to India respectively.
Also ponder Consul-General Greiner hosting an intimate dinner recently for PM Morrison as soon as he arrived in New York. The only other attendees – Murdoch lieutenant and Newscorp CEO Robert Thomson and US Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos.
Sinodinos’ resume includes being an ex-senator and assistant treasurer, chief of staff for PM John Howard, key Liberal Party powerbroker and a person of interest in two ICAC investigations regarding dodgy political donations and questionable government contracts.
We should assume journalistic integrity and public accountability were not topics of dinner table discussion.
By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.