While the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found on June 29 that former New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire had “engaged in serious corrupt conduct”, it is not going to pursue a prosecution against the former premier.
ICAC’s investigation centred on Berejiklian’s failure, as treasurer and p[remier, to disclose her personal relationship with Maguire when allocating funds to organisations which benefited Maguire. She also failed to report her suspicion of Maguire’s corrupt conduct.
ICAC focused on two multimillion-dollar grants issued to a gun club and a music conservatorium in Maguire’s electorate of Wagga Wagga while the pair were in a relationship.
It made recommendations to address systemic weaknesses in ministerial codes of conduct, training and grant schemes, but stopped short of seeking to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to charge her. It did, however, refer Maguire to the DPP.
These measures are designed to repair “public trust” in government when such trust is at an all-time low. Several years ago, the Australian National University’s Ian McAllister found 59% were satisfied with how democracy is working, down from the record high of 86% in 2007. More than half, 56%, believed that government is run for a “few big interests”.
ICAC’s findings underline how pork-barrelling, in one form or another, is par for the course in politics. Berejilkian famously declared in 2020 that pork-barreling is not a crime. She’s right, unfortunately.
This legal nicety would fail the pub test on what ought to count as criminal corruption under the law and which should be changed accordingly.
Professor Adam Graycar of Adelaide University noted in The Conversation on June 29, that confidence in the integrity of Australia’s political system has suffered several shocks in recent years including Robodebt and the sports and car park rort scandals.
“Then, of course, there is the ongoing PwC saga, where allegations of conflicts of interest have been raised, alongside a confidentiality breach.
“This catalogue of alleged activities stains our public sector (though PwC did not involve public officials) and must be investigated. They raise questions not just of behaviour, but go to the root of what is the public interest.”
Graycar said that a personal relationship seemed to lead to Berejiklian compromising her judgment. He said corruption in rich countries such as Australia “often involves conflicts of interest, the misuse of information and the purchase of government access”.
“The response from politicians typically has been ‘that’s politics’ or ‘if you don’t like it, vote me out at the next election’. These are not adequate responses to integrity breaches.”
Berejiklian is the third NSW Liberal premier to resign over allegations of corruption, after Barry O’Farrell (2011–2014) and Nick Greiner (1988–1992).
Twelve other Liberal and National MPs have resigned due to corruption, or were found to be corrupt by NSW ICAC, in the past decade.
NSW Corruption Inc continues to implicate former Labor and Coalition MPs over a long period of time. Former ministers in the last Labor government, Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, along with Obeid’s son Moses, were sentenced to prison in October 2021 over misconduct in public office.
The political system thrives on cultivating close relationships with corporations and using insider information to gain further financial advantages for MPs and corporations.
Government sell-offs of public assets for a song to their big business mates is another hallmark of NSW and national politics. Berejiklian and her Coalition predecessors encouraged the massive transfer of public funds to their corporate donors.
Since 2011, they privatised $82 billion of public assets including hospitals, TAFE, roads, public transport, electricity networks, rail corridors, public land and public housing.
Under her watch the bus network was privatised and public rail handed to the privately-owned Metro, a step towards the privatisation of Sydney Trains.
The Berejiklian ICAC saga is only the latest of a long series of corruption scandals which have plagued NSW and other state and federal governments over two centuries and more.
ICAC’s exposure of corruption is clearly not enough to stamp it out. While MPs are beholden to their big business mates, this corruption is bound to continue.