The Gold Standard - The Resignation of Gladys Berejiklian
It’s the 1st of October, 2021. The press room feels ironically empty. A couple of flags hang behind the podium at the front of the cold blue wall. There is little chit-chat. The silence of the room and the muted shufflings of the journalists create an eerie and icy atmosphere, bringing to mind the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The quiet reflects the announcement about to be made, something more caustic than explosive. There is something of a stilted sadness, a feeling of tragic inevitability. The people both in and outside of the blue room are shocked but not surprised, more inclined to grief than anger. Normally, today would be like any other in pandemic Australia; at 10am Victoria announces a record 1143 new cases, at 11am NSW announces 864 cases and 15 deaths, at 11:45am the ACT declares 52 cases and two deaths. But today, for the first time since the pandemic started almost 18 months ago, the case numbers are demoted to second billing as the rot within the New South Wales political system claims another soul. Today, the eastern seaboard looks more like winter than spring.
She doesn’t even to pretend to wait for Scott Morrison to finish his press conference in Canberra. At 1pm, the Premier of New South Wales walks briskly into the room. The colour of her eyes and the suppressed catch in her voice betray the fact that in all likelihood, she hasn’t slept in 24 hours. Her eyes carry with her a deep sorrow reflected by the shades of grey which trace her face. She looks more tired than at any point in the course of her state’s battle with Covid-19. She looks like a ghost of her former self. As she has done so many times before, she takes off her mask and begins to speak as the cameras cackle around her. “I was advised yesterday afternoon that the Independent Commission Against Corruption will today release a public statement in which it will state it is investigating allegations made about me concerning matters relating to the former member for Wagga Wagga.” The pace of her speech reveals the unpleasantness of her reality, like ripping off an old Band-Aid, she wants this over. “Standing aside is not an option for me as Premier of New South Wales. The people of this state need certainty as to who their leader is during the challenging times of the pandemic. I cannot predict how long it will take ICAC to complete this investigation … Therefore, it pains me to announce that I have no option but to resign from the office of Premier.”
She borrows from Nixon, “resigning at this time is against every instinct of my being and something which I do not want to do”, looks up briefly and shakes her head. Then she drops the façade, “We will come through this period stronger, more resilient and appreciating what really matters in life”, she pauses, “Most importantly I want to thank you, the people of New South Wales. When the chips were down in the past few years in particular during the drought, or the bushfires and now Covid, we stood alongside each other, we grieved and supported each other during these tragedies,” she says this like someone who desperately wants it to be true, as if a hopeful and warm view of the people she served is her only consolation prize. “I hope you know that you will remain foremost in my thoughts. The courage which you display in your lives everyday has inspired me every step of the way … Serving you has been the greatest privilege of my life.” She retreats to her familiar 11am catchphrase, “Please know that every day I gave it my all and worked as hard as I could to create a better future for our state and its people. NSW and its people will come out of this lockdown stronger and together we will build a future full of optimism and hope.” No questions. She forces a smile and walks out, the door closed quickly behind her.
“Given the Premier’s Interest”
The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald writes “It is a terrible pity but Gladys Berejiklian had to go”. The Australian, in a characteristically hyperbolic mix of populism and simplicity proclaims “Curse of ICAC claims Covid crusader Gladys Berejiklian”. Her federal rival, colleague and ‘friend’ Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, says “I find her to be a person of integrity, a person that works hard for her state and has been a very important partner with us.” His former Minister for Health Jenney Mikakos is more direct, tweeting in the afternoon, “can’t help but feel sad that Gladys’ long career of public service was felled by a man.” For a people so used to watching their leaders come and go like the wind, the response to the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian has been surprisingly poignant. I haven’t seen anyone celebrating her downfall, most of my Sydney-based relatives, conservative or otherwise have posted thank you messages to the fallen Premier. Even in the media, a group sometimes deservingly accused of being heartless, there has been a tone of restraint around these events, suggesting maybe just a trace of regret. Somewhat ironically, her resignation has revealed that she held something that no Prime Minister since Hawke has enjoyed, bipartisan respect and recognition that she was someone who cared deeply about the future of the people she served.
What unfolded on the 1st of October was the climatic finale of an all too familiar scandal, and a story as old as time. Someone of integrity and ability was brought down by a slippery conman, compromised by their own humanity. Gladys Berejiklian first met Daryl Maguire when she was elected to the NSW parliament in 2003. At the first ICAC hearing in October of 2020, the Premier described him as “someone I trusted” and that they had developed a close personal relationship during their time in parliament together but didn’t feel that it was of “sufficient substance” to be made public. In 2018, after serving as the local member for Wagga Wagga for almost two decades, Maguire was drawn into ‘Operation Dasha’, an initiative of ICAC investigating corruption within the NSW Parliament. It was revealed that Maguire assisted a “mega big” foreign client in buying into development projects in return for payments in the form of commissions. He resigned from the Liberal Party and from the NSW parliament in 2018.
As part of Operation Dasha, ICAC had intercepted Maguire’s calls and subsequently opened up a separate investigation exclusively focused on him. By tapping Maguire’s phones, this investigation revealed with all the elegance of an airport spy-thriller that he had been in a relationship with Berejiklian for five years, while she was both Treasurer and then Premier of New South Wales. In January of 2016, while Berejiklian was Treasurer and Maguire was the Member for Wagga Wagga, Maguire wrote to her requesting the approval of a $5.5 million grant for the construction of a local clubhouse and office complex on behalf of the Clay Target Association, a recreational shooting range authority within his electorate. A month later, Berejiklian wrote back, thanking Maguire for bringing this to the attention of the government. In 2017, shortly after Gladys Berejiklian became Premier, the project failed a government cost-benefit analysis. A letter between two public servants revealed that Berejiklian had requested that the project be given a second look, and an update on the status of the grant was requested by Berejiklian’s office, “given the Premier’s interest.” The project was approved that same year.
The Rise and Fall of the 45th Premier
So was the downfall of the New South Wales Premier, someone who appeared invincible just a few months ago. The day of her resignation, the Australian Financial Review published its list of the most powerful people in Australia. Somewhat fatalistically, Gladys Berejiklian and the other premiers were listed as number 1, eclipsing the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the federal Opposition Leader. The woman who was viewed as beyond reproach and occasionally seemed to transcend petty party politics in a way no other leader has done since Kevin Rudd, was brought crashing back down to earth by a failed relationship she would rather forget and an ex with a reputation for duplicity, betrayal and moral turpitude. That she survived until now is in itself remarkable considering the tumultuous reign of NSW’s 45th Premier. Stepping in to the state’s top job after her predecessor spectacularly and somewhat cowardly resigned, Gladys Berejiklian won a decisive victory in an election most expected to be a draw, fought the right-wing of her own party and won, fought her own Deputy Premier and won, and fought three state opposition leaders, outlasting them all.
When Scott Morrison was off enjoying Luaus in Hawaii while his country burned, Gladys Berejiklian turned up to work, fronting the media with Australia’s Fire Chiefs, who were scorned by the Commonwealth just months earlier. In January 2020 she declared the first state of emergency in NSW in seven years and went to work rolling out support for communities devastated by bushfires. Even before the pandemic hit, she seemed invincible, afterwards, she became inevitable. As the international borders slammed shut, the toilet paper ran out and everyone’s hands were glistening in hand sanitiser, the states teamed up to create Australia’s miracle escape from Covid catastrophe in March of 2020. Together, Berejiklian and Andrews forced Morrison’s already overplayed hand and shut down their schools in defiance of the National Cabinet. It is likely that this outbreak of federalism saved Australia from a British-like Covid catastrophe. Not even the Ruby Princess disaster could check her power. Until Delta, she seemed to wield a special kind of administrative magic as she suppressed every outbreak of Covid-19 without using lockdowns. She was hailed as “the Gold Standard” by the federal government and praised as the architect of “the greatest Covid success story in Australia and maybe the world.”
Even after she fell victim to her own success and Delta ripped through NSW and spilled into Victoria, South Australia and the ACT, she deftly pivoted to become a champion of vaccination, convincing Australia that whether they approved of her Covid-management or not, now was the time to get the jab. So absolute was her power, that she had Scott Morrison dancing to her tune with the entire commentariat convinced that the hopes and dreams of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party lay in the hands of one woman, Gladys Berejiklian. But as it turns out, her greatest threat was not Covid-19, the opposition or an incompetent federal government, but something much closer to home. When asked over the course of the last 12 months why she stayed with a man who was enveloped in such disgrace she has said, “he lost everything, and he was in a very dark place and I didn’t feel that I could stop being his friend during that time, rightly or wrongly.” Soon after her relationship with Maguire became public in October of last year, she said that she had made a mistake in her personal life, describing the damage it had caused her, “I can’t tell you what it’s done to me personally … I’m human.”
On Friday Gladys Berejiklian became the third Liberal Premier of NSW to resign from office. No Premier of NSW has recontested a state election since Bob Carr in 2003, some 18 years ago. Countless NSW state politicians have fallen on ICAC’s sword since it was established in 1988. The sad truth is that the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian should not have come as a surprise. NSW has long been the Gold Standard for political corruption in Australia. The states’ 32nd Premier Robert Askin created a network of bribery, extortion and blackmail that extended throughout the entirety of the state’s legal, social and political framework, giving organised crime free reign to spread throughout the city of Sydney like a disease. I don’t even have to mention Edie Obeid, a man so notorious that he has become the personification of political corruption in Australia, having seen off three Labor Premiers and mastered the dark arts of power to wield enormous influence.
What has been termed “NSW disease” is by no means confined to the nation’s largest state. Kevin Rudd himself has blamed his downfall on politicians like Mark Arbib, the General Secretary of the NSW Labor Party, right-wing factional heavyweight and practiser of the “dark arts”. The terms of his five successors have been overwhelmingly characterised by bitter personal disputes, a selfish numbers game and all the pointlessness of some poorly-run university students club. That the deteriorating political culture of the Commonwealth Parliament has mirrored the death spiral of NSW politics into a cesspit of corruption is by no means a coincidence. And yet, for now, the roads to power run through NSW evermore. Just a few weeks ago, reports suggested that Morrison’s dream of a fourth term relied on a decisive victory in his home state to offset potential losses in Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. Now that the downfall of the state’s most popular politician has taken the state Liberal Party’s most valuable asset off the chessboard, he might find himself having to look elsewhere. If Sydney and regional NSW are no longer an option and Victorians have their baseballs bats out after years of abuse from their federal government, he might want to book his trip to Hawaii early.
“What Really Matters”
To be sure, the story of Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation is about more than just a personal failing, but it rings true as a brutally human story. I am someone who is on the opposite side of political spectrum to the former NSW Premier. But as I watched her on Friday afternoon, looking like a shell of her former self, I couldn’t help but feel sad. I suspect many people across Australia will be asking themselves, why did she stay with him? Why did she get into a relationship with him in the first place? Why didn’t she just delegate review of his projects to someone else? I suspect we many never know the full story and we must not forget that the ICAC inquiry is still in motion and a final report will not be released for many many months. But in all likelihood, human error killed the political career of NSW’s 45th Premier. She simply found it impossible to separate the political from the personal and compartmentalise her role as Premier from her reality as a human being.
Australians have excessive expectations of our politicians; we demand that they be both human and machine but punish them for heartlessness or weakness anyway. Australians have a unique ability in the western world to build our leaders up to great heights and then tear them down in fits of envy and insecurity. Gladys Berejiklian is yet another victim of human error, her last days played out on national TV like a spectacular political thriller. But beyond all the commentary, all the politicking and all the noise, we must remember as we enter both the beginning of the end of the pandemic and potentially the most divisive federal election in living memory, that we are all cut from the same human cloth. As she herself said in her final press conference, we must remember “what really matters”. Gladys Berejiklian made a terrible mistake and tried to paint it as something which was confined to the boundaries of her personal life and a "personal nightmare" which had no bearing on her career as both Treasurer and Premier of Australia’s largest state. She should have known that today it is impossible to separate the personal from the political and those who you serve will punish you just as much for what they themselves have done time and time again.
Banyan, “Australia’s states are asserting themselves”, The Economist (Webpage, 2021) <https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/09/18/australias-states-are-asserting-themselves>.
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Tingle, Laura, “As Gladys Berejiklian fell from the top of the power list, Scott Morrison literally raced out ahead of her with his own agenda”, ABC News (Webpage, 2021) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-02/gladys-berejiklian-fell-power-list-scott-morrison-raced-ahead/100508252>.
White, Daniella, “The events that led to Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation”, WA Today (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.watoday.com.au/national/nsw/the-events-that-led-to-gladys-berejiklian-s-resignation-20211001-p58wgn.html>.