Is time running out for the NSW Premier?

Used with permission of Alan Moir,

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian is facing increasing pressure, externally and internally, over her links to alleged corruption and her brazen normalisation of pork-barrelling.

An Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry has been looking into whether she was aware of alleged corruption by close associate and former Liberal MP Daryl McGuire.

A Legislative Council inquiry is still trying to uncover the process by which her office made decisions to allocate at least $100 million from a $250 million council grant scheme to Coalition dominated councils ahead of the 2019 election.

Berejeklian’s admission in late November that pork barrelling is “not an illegal practice” and that all governments routinely “make commitments to the community in order to curry favour” shows she is fighting back.

But will she be successful? It appears that some Liberal Party MPs are conducting a head count in case.

She was attempting to defend her office’s direct involvement in the allocation of more than $100 million from a $250 million Stronger Communities Fund to fund projects in Coalition seats ahead of the 2019 state election.

This was only confirmed after documents she ordered to be shredded were recovered through a forensic investigation of computer records.

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who is leading a Legislative Council inquiry into how the grants were approved, said Berejiklian’s order to shed the approval emails showed she was directly involved.

“All the Office of Local Government got to ‘sign off on’ from the Deputy Premier’s office was a dollar amount and a project name — there was no comprehensive assessment provided,” Shoebridge tweeted on December 9, as the hearing resumed.

Futher, he said, the “funding approval that we are told is the approval for the Wagga grants was signed about 5 months after the Premier announced the projects!”

The Wagga Wagga “project” — a $5.5 million grant for the Australian Clay Target Association’s clubhouse and convention centre — is connected to the disgraced Maguire whose dodgy “business” dealings led Berejiklian to stand him down in 2018.

“We’ve had the premier all year ducking and weaving, trying to deny her role in approving these projects,” Shoebridge said. “We now have it in black and white that the premier was approving project after project after project.”

NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay said on December 8 that the premier had shown her “real priorities” by not giving “a single thought to allocating $250 million in grants on the basis of need”.

Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey on November 27, asked why, if Berejeklian was relaxed about using taxpayer funds for political purposes would she care that Maguire was also misusing taxpayer funds.

“The premier plainly thinks she is untouchable; that the absence of any widely-accepted successor and her popularity over the handling of the pandemic — Ruby Princess tragedy notwithstanding — means she can act with impunity, even if it means admitting to voters she uses their money to suit her own political agenda, not for the betterment of NSW.”

Referring perhaps to NSW Labor’s time in government, he said the “bad old days of NSW are back, after barely being gone for five minutes”.

Jamie Parker, NSW Greens spokesperson on anti-corruption matters, criticised the government’s funding cuts to ICAC. “The funding of independent agencies shouldn’t be controlled by the very politicians they are supposed to police,” he said on November 10.

“The premier says she isn’t holding funding back, but in the last 12 years ... ICAC has applied for increases in recurrent funding seven times and only been fully successful twice.

“This is another example of this government’s woeful track record implementing anti-corruption reforms. In early 2018 they committed to increase protections for whistle-blowers who disclose to the ICAC, but two long years later there has been no action.

“The only people who benefit from a weak ICAC are corrupt politicians and public officials who seek to use public office for their own personal profit,” Parker said.