After two weeks of sensational Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearings into the conduct of Gladys Berejiklian, we have finally heard from the former NSW premier herself. This saw Berejiklian continue to maintain she has done nothing wrong.
She has argued her undisclosed relationship with disgraced former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire was not of “sufficient standard or sufficient signifiance” to be publicly declared. Berejiklian also told the ICAC there was no conflict of interest in the actions she took to facilitate projects Maguire had an interest in as she had not made a personal profit.
Asked why she had described him in an intercepted message as “family”, Berejiklian said he was family “in terms of my feelings but definitely not in any legal sense”. Counsel assisting, Scott Robertson ominously replied: “We’ll let the lawyers argue about the law”.
ICAC’s forensic approach
From the beginning, the tone of the hearing has been more like a prosecution than an investigation. Robertson has been logical, forensic, and relentless in his questioning.
Almost all described Berejiklian as competent and conscientious. They also universally said that being in a secret relationship with Maguire and being involved in government decisions that would benefit him was an obvious conflict of interest that should have been declared.
ICAC’s Operation Keppel investigation was always going to be dangerous for Berejiklian.
A crucial matter arising from hearings in October 2020 was whether Berejiklian should have publicly disclosed her relationship with the former MP. Under the Ministerial Code of Conduct, Berejiklian had an obligation to do so if the relationship was “intimate” and if she was involved in deciding any matter that could reasonably be expected to confer a private benefit on him.
The form of words she used during her last ICAC appearance in October last year was that they were “close” not “intimate”, so it was not not serious enough to warrant disclosure. However, in an interview shortly after with The Sunday Telegaph she spoke of how she once had hopes to marry Maguire.
This week, via Maguire, we have also heard the couple talked about having a child. He also had a key and ongoing access to her home.
For her part, on Friday, Berejiklian said Maguire was part of her “love circle […] of people that I strongly cared for” but things were not serious enough to introduce him to her parents and sisters.
On this alone, she runs the risk of being accused of having misled ICAC.
Hospital upgrade, secret calls
The evidence of the last two weeks has also shown how Berekilian was involved in decision-making processes concerning substantial funds flowing to Maguire’s electorate of Wagga Wagga.
In a recording of a conversation between Maguire and Berejiklian in 2018, Maguire complained about a lack of funding for projects in his electorate. “I’ll deal with it, I’ll fix it,” Berejiklian replied. Two hours later, in another phone call, Berejiklian told Maguire she had spoken to Dom Perrottet (then treasurer) and it was in the budget.
During her appearance on Friday, Berejiklian repeatedly denied there had been a conflict of interest. “I always put the public interest first,” she said.
What happens now?
On the evidence we have seen so far, the future looks bleak for Berejiklian. Her life and career may be on hold for some time. If ICAC makes a finding of corrupt conduct against her, she can be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
The DPP process could then take some time. For example, ICAC’s Operation Credo found in August 2017 that former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi and others had acted corruptly by faking a cabinet minute and referred them to the DPP. The DPP is still deciding whether criminal charges will be laid. Obeid’s recent sentencing over a mine license conspiracy follows another ICAC inquiry that started almost ten years ago.
Why someone as renowned for competence, honesty and political astuteness as Berejiklian should make such an obvious blunder as failing to declare her relationship with Maguire is inexplicable (although on Friday, she said she would not change her decision if she had her time again). She has paid – and will continue to pay - a very heavy price for neglecting to make an admission that would not have had many, if any, deleterious consequences.
It is clear Berejiklian realised what was coming would be very damaging and decided to preempt a messy end by resigning at the start of October. It is also clear much of the criticism of ICAC for “establishing a parallel system of rough justice, in which the presumption of innocence and equality before the law count for nothing” was ill-informed.
So far, Berejiklian has garnered a significant amount of public sympathy, as a successful woman, who lost her high-profile job over a personal misjudgement. It will be interesting to see if that sympathy holds.
The former premier is due to back at ICAC on Monday morning.