Politics Opinion

Morrison backs Berejiklian for Warringah under cloud of corruption

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands by the integrity of former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image by Dan Jensen)

After having her name tarnished by corruption allegations, Gladys Berejiklian now has the support of Scott Morrison in running for Warringah, writes Dechlan Brennan.

IF PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison wanted to help promote the transparency of Australian politics in the lead-up to the upcoming election, he would have been better suited not spruiking a candidate that is currently under a cloud of corruption charges. Even if this candidate is the still-popular former New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian

On Monday, the Prime Minister promoted Ms Berejiklian to run for the independent seat of Warringah, currently held by MP Zali Steggall. This was despite some thinking Berejiklian running will only further widen the row over corruption that has dogged the Coalition in recent months. 

Despite claims he is undermining a state investigation into her conduct – run by an independent body – the Liberal Party believes the former Premier is their best bet at winning back the once safe seat that now requires a 7.2 per cent swing their way. The electorate of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seen as one of a number of crucial New South Wales seats that the Coalition can pick up in order to win the 2022 Election.  

Currently, Berejiklian finds herself immersed in an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into her conduct as Premier. ICAC is investigating whether Berejiklian breached public trust when she awarded two grants to the Wagga Wagga electorate, which was held by Daryl Maguire — who she had not publicly revealed was also her partner. The Commission is also scrutinising if her conduct was ‘liable to allow or encourage’ Maguire to continue corrupt conduct.  

The investigation resulted in her standing down as Premier and a swathe of right-leaning journalists and politicians deriding the independent investigative body as nothing more than a “kangaroo court”.

Morrison called the treatment of Berejiklian “shameful” and went on to say that:  

“What I found is that Gladys was put in a position of actually having to stand down and there was no findings of anything. Now, I don’t call that justice.” 

But of course, there haven’t been any findings — because they haven’t been handed down yet. The Prime Minister knows this. However, Morrison also knows that Berejiklian is still popular. A Sydney Morning Herald poll found that 54 per cent of voters in the region ‘still like and respect’ her. 

Berejiklian also resigned because she set a standard in her Party that anyone under investigation would stand down. She wasn’t forced to and Morrison knows that. Without saying it, Morrison is making out that ICAC forced Berejiklian to stand down when in reality, her staying would have simply been untenable.  

Labor’s climate spokesperson, MP Chris Bowen, said that Morrison's comments were disgusting, in part because they undermined the independent system:

“It is absolutely outrageous that the Prime Minister of the day has undermined the ICAC and therefore not just undermined their work on Gladys Berejiklian but undermined every single inquiry and investigation and finding that the ICAC has brought down.” 

Bowen is right to defend the ICAC. After all, two of its most high profile “scalps” have been from the ALP — former New South Wales Ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald.

Still, Bowen held no grudges:

“We welcome ICAC looking at people in the Labor Party. We don’t criticise the ICAC for doing so, we defend their work and protect them.” 

Morrison is playing, according to Michelle Gratten, ‘the “whatever it takes” brand of politics’. The disingenuous part of all this is how much it erodes our faith in politicians in general.  

Since Morrison's election promise to enact a federal integrity commission, the Coalition has been actively undermining every effort to actually enact one. This is unsurprising as the myriad of Coalition corruption scandals would no doubt be of great interest to any independent body whose role it is to investigate them.  

Senior law lecturer Dr Yee-Fui Ng told The New Daily in 2020 that it is a simple fact that no government is going to want to enact legislation that would investigate its own MPs:

“It is not in their own self-interest to create a powerful body that could dig up the dirt on their own actions.” 

The Government has a draft bill, which has been described as ‘the weakest watchdog in the country’.

Independent analysis of it found that it:

‘...would not be able to launch its own investigations, hold public hearings, issue public findings or examine breaches of ministerial standards.’

The draft bill wouldn’t be able to investigate the $100 million “sports rorts” affair or the $660 million commuter car parks scheme. It would only be limited to investigating criminal offences, but not the raft of conflicts of interest or various ministerial code breaches that fall short of criminal malfeasance.  

Ironically, all these things are exactly what the Government has been up to its ears in. Yet, even with this weak excuse for an integrity commission, the Coalition has never actually released it. It refused to debate it on the floor of the house — even when Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor in support of enacting it. In the last week of Parliament, the Coalition even gagged debate on it when Labor voluntarily opted to bring it up. One wonders how little respect for the voters does it have.  

Zali Steggall was quick to call attention to this. With the public rightly being more and more disillusioned with politicians – on both sides of the aisle – it is “quite extraordinary” to think the Government is so blasé in undermining integrity.

Ms Steggall lambasted the Coalition and the Prime Minister in particular: 

“I think it’s quite telling that senior people in the Liberal Party are saying that this doesn’t matter, that the seriousness of ICAC is simply irrelevant to them. And it says how much they are out of touch with public expectations around integrity and trust when people want politics to be cleaned up.” 

Chris Bowen was right to highlight that if this was the opposite way around, the media would hound Labor — and rightly so.

Liberal MP Jason Falinski facetiously derided the Left for being against the voter ID bill, tweeting

‘What is it with the Left being opposed to integrity in our voting system?’

One has to ask whether or not Mr Falinski quite thought that through with his own Party refusing to show even a glimmer of transparency, especially in relation to transparency. It was revealed in October that the Government routinely failed to meet lawful timeframes in the majority of its freedom of information requests.  

With the upcoming election likely to be close, the Government is hoping that Berejiklian’s popularity will win out over her cloudy past. But surely the real loser is the voting public.

Between investigations into Victorian Labor’s branch stacking, Christian Porter’s refusal to reveal anonymous donors and now the Government’s steadfast refusal to contemplate a strong integrity commission, this has been a depressing year in politics.

Murkiness in the industry is bipartisan, no one can dispute this. However, if the Liberals decide to field Berejiklian in the 2022 Election with the cloud of corruption hanging over her head, all it will be doing is adding insult to injury. Australians deserve better.

Dechlan Brennan is a freelance writer advocating for mental health and welfare reforms in Australia.

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