If any other Australian leader had given the sort of evidence Gladys Berejiklian did to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Monday, they’d probably have been out of their position by the end of the day.
The NSW premier was protected, in the immediate term, in part because the disclosures about her five-year secret relationship with the disgraced former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire seemed so bizarrely out of character with her unsullied past and apparent conservatism in her private life.
Also, she has been a highly competent premier, especially during COVID. The pandemic fireproofed her.
Her political performance this year is certainly one reason the prime minister is standing with her. As Scott Morrison has said repeatedly, NSW has set the “gold standard” during the coronavirus crisis.
But Berejiklian’s personal and political reputation should not obscure the seriousness of her actions, or rather her inactions, in relation to Maguire.
She didn’t just make a bad judgment about a sub-optimal boyfriend which can be written off as having “stuffed up” her personal life. She made a series of decisions that were inappropriate.
When in 2015 she changed the nature of her relationship with the then member for Wagga Wagga from friendship to a “close personal” one, she failed to disclose this to colleagues.
Her supporters say her private life was no one else’s business. If her relationship had been with the plumber down the street who was unconnected with government, that would be absolutely correct. It’s another matter when those involved are a senior minister, who then became premier, and one of her party’s MPs.
The premier could affect the fortunes of the MP; the MP could use the relationship, even if undeclared, to further his own interests by suggesting he could deliver access.
As Berejiklian has said, there is nothing wrong per se with two members of parliament having a personal relationship. But, given the position of one of them, in this case it should have been put on the record – at least to cabinet colleagues.
When Maguire fell foul of ICAC in 2018, Berejiklian should have belatedly admitted to the relationship, informing senior colleagues, so there would be no time bombs. Certainly she should immediately have broken off the connection with Maguire, rather than continue it until this year, when he was back in ICAC’s sights.
Most compromising, however, is the material captured by phone taps of Maguire’s conversations with Berejiklian.
Maguire told her of his lobbying for developers. The activities referred to might not have been illegal – Berejiklian makes the point MPs are allowed to engage in business – but for any premier they would be very uncomfortable.
Berejiklian certainly seemed uncomfortable and on two occasions said “I don’t need to know”.
She explains her apparent dismissiveness of what Maguire was saying as boredom with his big-noting. It sounded, however, more like she did not want him to give her information she preferred not to receive. She had a deaf ear to clues she should have picked up.
Imagine the reaction if Morrison had given such evidence, or been embarrassed by such tapes. People would not be looking for reasons to excuse him.
The line that everyone makes mistakes in their private life – “people have all made personal decisions I’m sure they regret, that’s human”, Morrison says – won’t wash.
Berejiklian can be forgiven for initially being taken in by Maguire. But persisting with the relationship after he was found out is surely harder, if not impossible, to justify, regardless of her explanation he was in a “very dark place”. After all, she removed him from the Liberal Party and pushed for his resignation from parliament in 2018.
To maintain that different, tougher standards are applied to women leaders may often be true, but it doesn’t fit this instance. If anything she is being given a softer run.
Morrison has said “it would be a bit of a numpty of a decision” to replace her.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull praised her integrity and said: “Her leadership of this state has been tried and tested in the toughest circumstances this year, from the bush fires to now the pandemic and she has excelled.” And, he pointed out, “Let’s be frank – leaders of her calibre are not easily found.”
If the point is that the alternatives on offer – and it is not clear who would become leader if she went – wouldn’t do as good a job, that might be a valid argument on strictly utilitarian grounds (although if she survives, this scandal will make it much more difficult for her to govern effectively).
When you compare the way the NSW and Victorian governments have handled the pandemic, NSW has been way ahead (the Ruby Princess debacle notwithstanding).
Yes, she would be hard to replace. But this should not be confused with a clear-eyed view about the ethical shortcomings in her behaviour over Maguire.
In recent decades we’ve seen declining trust in political institutions. The pandemic has led people to reattach to these institutions and all Australian leaders – Morrison and the premiers – saw their ratings rise.
What we don’t yet know is whether trust in general will again plummet when the pandemic subsides.
If politicians seem to be holding their noses when there’s the whiff of impropriety or corruption in the air, they are trifling with the public’s trust in them and in the political system. They are treating the electorate with disdain.
The ICAC hearings this week have reinforced the case for a federal integrity body. But the reactions of Liberal politicians show why they want it to be relatively toothless.
It is not being suggested Berejiklian, whose leadership hangs by a thread, has personally engaged in wrongdoing; her appearance at ICAC was as a witness in an investigation into Maguire’s alleged wrongdoing.
But on what we have heard this week, she has fallen short of the standards that should be expected of a premier. Federal and state colleagues who are defending her are being tribal or expedient or both.