Labor’s Chris Bowen made a very pertinent contribution on Monday to the debate over whether the Liberals should run Gladys Berejiklian, the subject of an ICAC investigation, in the Sydney seat of Warringah.
What would the Liberals and the media be saying if it were a Labor figure in a similar position? Bowen asked.
Of course we know the answer. They’d be outraged and they’d be justified.
The push within the Liberal party, backed by Scott Morrison, for Berejiklian to stand is a case of the “whatever it takes” brand of politics.
The Liberals are desperate to get this seat back from independent Zali Steggall. And they are spurred by the continued high popularity of Berejiklian. The polling and focus groups tell them people think she was a good premier, and has been hard done by.
She’s probably the only Liberal who would be competitive with Steggall, who’s dug in solidly since she ousted Tony Abbott in 2019.
The close of nominations for Liberal preselection for Warringah has been delayed from last Friday until January 14 to give the former premier time to make a decision.
The ICAC won’t bring down its finding before then, so if Berejiklian ran there’d be a cloud hanging over her.
Behind the scenes, some indication will come before Christmas about how things are likely to go, when counsel assisting the ICAC present their submissions to the parties and the commissioner.
But while this could be important in Berejiklian making up her mind, the material won’t be public. If she ran, the speculation about it would be rife, which would surely be unhelpful.
Morrison has this week returned to attacking the ICAC over Berejiklian’s treatment. In the recent parliamentary sitting he denounced this as “an absolute disgrace”. “The Australian people know that the former premier of New South Wales was done over by a bad process and an abuse of process,” he said.
On Monday he said her treatment had been “shameful”. There was no suggestion she’d done anything criminal, he said, and he found the playing of intimate conversations she had (with then secret boyfriend, Daryl Maguire) “just awful”.
Morrison’s opposition to giving a national integrity commission the right to hold public hearings was adamant during recent government discussions, which ended with no legislation being introduced into federal parliament.
Morrison said Berejiklian was “put in a position of actually having to stand down and there was no finding of anything. Now I don’t call that justice.”
Without saying it explicitly he creates the impression the ICAC forced her to quit her job. In fact, she chose to resign, judging that just standing aside while the inquiry was on was politically untenable.
Steggall on Monday pushed back strongly against Morrison, saying the words he’d used in parliament were “outrageous”. “We should be seeing leadership to raise trust, call for more accountability, not undermine accountability.”
The ICAC is investigating whether Berejiklian breached public trust in relation to two grants awarded to the electorate of Wagga Wagga, then held by Maguire. It is also inquiring into whether her conduct “was liable to allow or encourage” corrupt conduct by Maguire.
Berejiklian, when she was treasurer and then premier, did not disclose to her colleagues her close personal relationship with Maguire, and has defended her failure to do so, arguing “I didn’t feel it was of sufficient standing”.
The PM and some other Liberals dismiss her lapse basically on the grounds that here was a woman who’d just had a bad boyfriend.
In Morrison’s view integrity bodies should not be looking at “who your boyfriend is”, as he put in in parliament.
Leaving aside the rather patronising attitude this implies – the gullible woman as an explanation – it doesn’t wash in terms of political ethics. If you are premier, your relationships are relevant. With this relationship, private life impinged on public life.
Does Morrison really think it was okay for Berejiklian not to disclose her closeness to Maguire, who was well known as an urger of the first degree?
That certainly wasn’t the view of former NSW premier Mike Baird, a good friend of Berejiklian, who said in evidence at the ICAC “certainly I think [the relationship] should have been disclosed”. Baird is another high profile figure the Liberals have pursued to stand in Warringah, but without success.
If the Liberals fielded Berejiklian ahead of the ICAC report, they would be adding insult to injury in their performance on integrity issues.