Today the country’s political foundations have been well and truly shaken on one of the biggest news days of 2021.
As the Prime Minister was announcing a Cabinet reshuffle and plans to reopen Australia to the world, he was pushed off the TV feeds. Gladys Berejiklian was resigning as New South Wales Premier and leaving politics, the third Liberal leader to be brought down by the Independent Commission Against Corruption – a body created by the Liberals.
Ms Berejiklian will remain Premier until a secret ballot of Liberal MPs is held and a new party leader is elected. The vote is likely to be held next Tuesday. The new leader will then become the 46th Premier of the Premier State.
Ms Berejiklian’s departure – the first political leader to leave office since the pandemic – will be a shock to many, particularly outside NSW, who have grown accustomed to her widely admired leadership of the COVID-19 response on the national stage. It comes at a time when the NSW Government’s firm rejection of a Zero-COVID approach has steered the nation towards international reopening in November.
The Operation Keppel integrity probe initially focused on former MP for Wagga Wagga Daryl Maguire in relation to inappropriate payments while still an MP. A year ago, ICAC exposed to public gaze the highly private Premier’s undisclosed relationship with Mr Maguire. ICAC’s next moves have been a subject of speculation ever since. Today the sword of Damocles fell: ICAC announced it would investigate whether the Premier had engaged in conduct that breached public trust “where she was in a position of conflict between her public duties and her private interest”. The matters include grant funding to a clay pigeon shooting club.
Convention is that Liberal MPs under ICAC or other legal scrutiny stand down. The Premier said in her farewell press statement that as the issue would not be resolved for possibly another 12 months, she effectively had no choice but to step out completely. In doing so, she emphatically rejected any wrongdoing on her part.
It is likely her successor, to be confirmed next week, will be similarly committed to reopening NSW. Nonetheless the dynamics of National Cabinet will shift and enhance the influence of the Labor premiers. The by-election for her seat, deep-blue Willoughby on Sydney’s North Shore, may be a litmus test for how well the Delta outbreak has been handled. Pressure for a national ICAC is likely to ramp up further.
ICAC’s intervention has prevented Ms Berejiklian from departing at a time of her choosing, possibly early next year when she would have marked five years in office. The Berejiklian style was moderate, pragmatic, practical, self-effacing and mind-bendingly thorough. As the State’s first female Coalition premier, she never made gender an issue but she nonetheless advanced the profile of female political leadership by several light years. As the daughter of immigrants, she brought a unique lens. She will be remembered for the city’s rapidly expanding metro rail system and the State’s infrastructure renaissance. Nationally she stood out in her leadership of the bushfire crisis and in her willingness to risk-manage the pandemic, keeping Sydney and NSW open for business. It seems ironic that a politician who has been highly accountable to the public in managing crises has been caught on an accountability issue. Even non-fans will acknowledge her genuine dedication to the job and a willingness to make personal sacrifices in public service.
Meanwhile, the PM was putting Cabinet in order following former Attorney General and Industry Minister Christian Porter’s departure. This has enabled him to reward loyal supporters and signal his increased focus on climate. With the political fallout seemingly resolved and the Prime Minister demonstrating some indecision over attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, some commentators are arguing that an election leveraging a national re-opening late November or early December this year cannot be entirely ruled out.