Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced an abrupt end to her daily 11am appearances before the press to provide the state with Covid-19 updates, and present her roadmap out of lockdowns.
Ms Berejiklian says that from now on, relevant coronavirus information will be given via video link by herself, Health Minister Brad Hazard and other ministers ‘as required’.
The decision follows a journalist’s questions to the Premier about whether she is the subject of a fresh corruption inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption – questions which Ms Berejiklian refused to answer.
Many Sydney-siders, who remain in lockdown for the foreseeable future, see the Premier’s decision as abandonment of her duties at a critical time, with the ‘mythical’ pathway forward being ambiguous and uncertain.
Abandoning NSW when she is needed the most
There is little concrete information right now about when Greater Sydney will reopen, or what the road map ahead looks like.
And to the frustration of many who are struggling from the effects of 11 weeks of lockdown, Ms Berejiklian’s vaccination target keeps increasing.
Shortly after the commencement of the Greater Sydney lockdown on 26 June, the Premier stated that magic number to consider ending lockdowns was 70% of vaccinated adults.
She later clarified that this referred to 70% of adults who were “double vaccinated”.
Ms Berejiklian then said the 70% double vaccinated figure would lead to the government handing some of our freedoms back, but would not comment on ending lockdowns.
Recently, she dropped the term ‘adults’ when referring to the 70% figure. This has led to speculation that it may include those who are over the age of 16 years and, given the recent push to vaccinate 12 to 15 year olds, the figure may well be adjusted in the future to encompass everyone the premier says should be vaccinated.
Even more recently, Ms Berejiklian stated that the easing of restrictions on industry, community and the economy would occur at 80% double vaccination levels.
And just days ago, she declared that, [w]e are keen to see that first dose rate hit 80 and above and get as close to 90 as possible.”
It’s all very uncertain, and the target seems to be changing constantly.
The frustration amongst much of the community is palpable, with no end in sight to restrictions which are destroying the mental health of both adults and children, leading to increased rates of domestic violence offences, and devastating businesses as well as the economy as a whole.
Many believe one of the reasons for Ms Berejiklian abrupt end to facing the media is that the ICAC has recently upped the ante in its investigation into her former boyfriend, Daryl Maguire.
ICAC has been pursuing Mr Maguire for several months as part of Operation Keppel, examining alleged corrupt activities while he was a member of parliament in New South Wales, some of which he has already admitted to.
Last year, at a public ICAC hearing, Ms Berejiklian gave evidence saying that she had been involved in a ‘secret’ relationship’ with Mr Macguire for several years.
Although telephone intercepts played at the ICAC hearings established beyond any doubt that Ms Berejiklian was aware that Mr Maguire sought payment over a property deal during his tenure as MP for Wagga Wagga, ICAC insisted that Ms Berejiklian was not part of their investigations.
One of the exchanges between the pair was as follows:
Mr Maguire: “…good news. One of my contacts sold a motel for $5.8 million I had put her in contact so I should make $5k ”.
Ms Berejiklian: “Congrats!!! Great News!! Woo hoo.”
In another, Mr Maguire talks to the Premier – not for the first time – about his land deal at Badgerys Creek.
Mr Maguire: “William tells me we’ve done our deal so hopefully that’s about half of all that gone now,” Maguire said down the line, referring to the deal and paying his debts,
Ms Berejiklian: “that’s good”, pausing momentarily before adding: “I don’t need to know about that bit.”
Mr Maguire. “No you don’t … you do not.”
Documents show that Ms Berejiklian had dinner at Mr Maguire’s Wagga Wagga home with a business associate he partnered with to run a cash-for-visa scheme, despite telling ICAC that she was ‘shocked’ to hear of the scam.
When both the relationship and the telephone intercepts became public, Ms Berejiklian suggested she was a “very private person” who had made a “poor choice”.
But for many, there were still important questions around what she knew about Mr Maguire’s business dealings, how much she turned a blind eye to and, whether in doing so, she acted corruptly.
Failure to declare conflict of interest
In March this year, the NSW Upper House referred Premier Glady Berejiklian to the state’s corruption watchdog, asserting that the NSW Premier failed to declare a conflict of interest when dealing with road upgrades.
Since then, concerns have been raised about other decisions made by Ms Berejiklian in relation to Mr Maguire. ICAC was due to report its Operation Keppel findings in December last year, but it postponed the release in order to conduct further inquiries.
It has subsequently been reported that ICAC has issued Section 22 orders — these are ‘Notices to Attend and Produce” to members of Ms Berejiklian’s staff, as well as to other senior NSW ministerial offices and government departments, relating to documents and electronically held information. ICAC investigators have also visited NSW Parliament in person.
ICAC investigators are understood to be focusing on a $5.5 million grant that was awarded to a shooting association in Mr Maguire’s electorate after Ms Berejiklian intervened in the assessment process.
The grant was sought for the Australian Clay Target Association’s clubhouse and convention centre in Mr Maguire’s former electorate of Wagga Wagga.
Documents suggest that Daryl Maguire wrote to Ms Berejiklian asking for help in funding the project and one references a request from Ms Berejiklian to reassess the project, which had initially failed a cost-benefit analysis.
Illegal shredding of documents and pork barrelling
Ms Berejiklian’s office has also been implicated in several other corruption scandals over the past 18 months.
One of these involved her office shredding and deleting at least three documents that were related to the distribution of $252 million in Stronger Communities Fund grants: 95 percent of which were allocated to councils in Coalition seats in the lead up to the last state election.
Despite the State Archives and Records Authority (the ‘SARA’) finding that Ms Berejiklian’s office dad acted illegally, it decided not to refer the matter for prosecution.
The pandemic has created a good distraction
As to the Premier’s relationship with Mr Maguire, a significant question that still hasn’t been answered is why the couple’s personal relationship was not formally declared under the NSW Ministerial Code of Conduct.
Ms Berejiklian has repeatedly stated that she is “not a person of interest”, but when asked about the ongoing ICAC inquiry earlier this week, she urged journalists to just “let the agency do its job.”
There is no doubt that the Covid pandemic has provided a significant distraction, taking focus away from corruption inquiries, although the ICAC claims it is determined to continue with its investigations.
As a result, the Premier may still have important questions to answer, which could seriously damage her credibility in the eyes of both her party and the people of New South Wales.