In announcing her intention to resign as NSW premier today, Gladys Berejiklian took the, “I have been given no option” option.
Her actions followed confirmation by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that it would continue its public inquiry into whether she engaged in conduct that “constituted or involved a breach of public trust”.
The ICAC investigation relates to Berejiklian’s “personal relationship” with the former Liberal member for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire.
At issue, according to ICAC, is whether she was in a “position of conflict between her public duties and private interests” in the promise or awarding of public funding for projects in Maguire’s electorate.
In her parting statement, Berejiklian was at pains to emphasise she has “always acted with the highest level of integrity”. She described the matters involving the ICAC inquiry as “historic”, noting she has “been the subject of numerous attacks […] by political opponents over the last 12 months.”
A record of accountability and delivery
Berejiklian’s statement focused substantially on control, timing and choice. This is significant.
For a decision that has profound implications for a state enduring the most severe public health and socioeconomic events in its history, her deferral of the decision to ICAC’s agenda was notable.
Her hand, she said, was forced. The timing? “Out of [her] control”. The decision? “Against every instinct in [her] being.” The choice? “ICAC’s prerogative”.
The acquiescence of responsibility in resignation is uncharacteristic for a premier who has forged a path defined by clear policy objectives, accountability and delivery. Those traits are largely a matter of public record.
Through her parliamentary career – since being elected in 2003 as the member for the northern Sydney electorate of Willoughby, then as the minister for industrial relations and transport, and later as treasurer and premier – Berejiklian has overseen major initiatives.
Her early management of the COVID-19 pandemic – through rapid contact tracing and agile testing regimes – was seen as further confirmation of her success, with the Australian Financial Review Magazine going so far as to herald her, “The woman who saved Australia”.
Equally, the premier’s presiding over a AAA credit rating set the state up for a large-scale stimulus response to the pandemic’s economic disruption.
A catalyst for government expansion
For the leader of a Liberal-National administration, Berejiklian might be remembered for her championing of some distinctly uncharacteristic ideological approaches. Her “Premier’s Priorities” set a series of social policy benchmarks for her ministers and departmental heads in areas typically viewed as Labor terrain.
Protecting vulnerable children, reducing domestic violence, preventing street homelessness, and increasing Aboriginal access to education are among key measures where her impact, over the longer term, might be more felt than the headline-grabbing pursuit of hard infrastructure.
Against the Liberal tradition of “small government”, she became a catalyst for its expansion. In her orbit, a plethora of agencies and statutory bodies arose. With nuanced purpose and specific remits, the last two parliamentary terms alone have ushered in the Greater Sydney Commission, the Western City Aerotropolis Authority, the Western Parkland City Authority, Investment NSW and Resilience NSW, to name a few.
From an electoral standpoint, Berejiklian has also been a steady hand. Taking the reins from her popular predecessor, Mike Baird, in January 2017, she lost some ground at the March 2019 election. Her party dropped six seats and weathered a 2.3% two-party preferred swing, despite having an impressive budgetary record and infrastructure pipeline.
Since then, Berejiklian’s more recent responses to the pandemic have attracted criticism. Her government was viewed by some critics as slow to act in responding to the state’s Delta variant outbreak. On stimulus, NSW was left in the shade by commitments like the $5.3 billion social housing investment made by the Victorian government.
Her admission in late 2020 that pork barrelling is neither “illegal” or “unique to [her] government”, was also a significant misstep with an electorate bruised by perceived inequities in the distribution of public funds.
Who might replace Berejiklian?
Her successor will confront considerable challenges aside from the state’s protracted public health situation. The newly installed Labor leader, Chris Minns, is also making inroads in critical electoral battlegrounds like western Sydney.
Minns’ focus on engaging with large areas of Sydney’s west impacted by hard lockdowns and economic disruption will be difficult to counter for any incoming Liberal-National premier. The new leader will also need to consolidate a joint-party room destabilised by Berejiklian’s departure.
Who that new premier might be is a matter for conjecture. Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, a conservative faction figure, is viewed by many as a leading contender. He has been a vocal critic of the federal government’s approach to economic support during the pandemic.
Others in the Coalition have a case for leadership. Rob Stokes, a moderate, has championed a wider view of planning and public space in a portfolio critical to a state contending with rapid urban growth and questions of sustainability.
The firebrand transport minister, Andrew Constance, might rethink his commitment to bow out of state politics and test his leadership credentials with colleagues.
And Stuart Ayres, the moderate faction minister for western Sydney, may also prove compelling to peers who view him as a steady set of hands with deep ties to a key constituency.
For now, though, the ripples of Berejiklian’s announcement still need to play out.
In taking the “no option” option, she has made her own irreconcilable challenges on timing a matter for her colleagues to consider, as well. We’ll know the ramifications of that in coming days. The outgoing premier’s legacy, however, is something that will take much longer to determine.