Gladys Berejiklian’s defence of pork barrelling is only the latest serious failure of judgment

Anne Davies
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

When a politician no longer can see right from wrong, when they make repeated poor judgments, when they actually think political expediency is a legitimate excuse, it’s time to go.

All the more so when the politician is the leader of a political party. Because the moral values of the leader set the tone for the entire government.

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian’s energy, commitment and dedication to the job has been admired by many. But there is more to being a leader than just working hard.

There are now three recent examples of behaviour that seriously call in to question her fitness for leadership.

Let’s start with the easy one.

She failed to follow her own rules about self-isolating while waiting for the results of a Covid-19 test, despite sternly telling us to do just that, never mind the inconvenience of possibly losing income. It shows an arrogance and “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.

Berejiklian also failed to level with either the public or her colleagues about her relationship with a man who has admitted to conduct that could see him face criminal prosecution.

The premier says she did not know the details of former Wagga MP Daryl Maguire’s business affairs, but the evidence suggests she knew generally he was helping broker property deals. She didn’t check whether he had declared this extra income, as the ministerial code requires.

Related: Berejiklian concedes $140m grant scheme was pork-barrelling, but says 'it's not unique to our government'

Berejiklian did not declare this, as most politicians do with their partner’s interests. She has said it wasn’t that sort of relationship, but what was it? And why the secrecy?

As the leader of the government, responsible for ministerial standards, that is seriously wrong.

The latest – brushing off rorting of a $250m community grants program as just politics – is the last straw.

Let’s start with a few facts about the Stronger Communities grants program.

One: many councils were unaware that the program had been broadened to allow non-merging councils to apply.

Two: there were no published guidelines or clear processes.

Three: 95% went to Coalition electorates. As the recovered documents showed on Thursday, the premier’s office simply asked Coalition MPs to come up with recommended projects in council areas in their electorates.

Four: some of the poorest parts of Sydney got nothing.

Telling the public that Coalition seats got more because they have more seats insults our intelligence. The Coalition has 48 seats out of 93, which is roughly half, not 95%.

Having covered politics for more than three decades, I can attest that pork barrelling – funnelling money into marginal seats in order to curry favour with voters – is commonplace in Australian politics.

But it doesn’t make it right.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption has recommended 12 principles for agencies running grants programs. It makes it clear that having a proper process is essential to managing corruption risk and conflict of interest risks in grants programs.

It’s a fine line between handing out grants for political gain of the party and using funds that delivers personal benefits.

It is easy to imagine a scenario where grants are used for personal gain such as wooing an MP to support policy or a candidate in a leadership vote.

Perhaps we should have objected more loudly when Berejiklian happily admitted it was fitting that her deputy, John Barilaro, was referring to himself John Pork–Barrel-aro during the last election campaign.

Taxpayers trust politicians with their money – yes, their money – and ask them to spend it wisely, fairly and in pursuit of the policies announced at the election.

They don’t expect them to use the funds to shore up their own political careers.

When I first met Berejiklian outside the high street shops in the Sydney suburb of Willoughby, back when she was first running for office, I was impressed by her candour, intelligence and determination.

Yes, the public has admired her work ethic and her leadership during the bushfires and now the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yes, she’s done a great job in addressing the public transport deficit in Sydney (although some projects have gone over budget).

But now I seriously question her judgment. I wonder who Gladys Berejiklian is. I wonder what else is going on in the government and whether she has the moral authority to ensure the highest standards of probity.

If Berejiklian really thinks the way her government ran the Stronger Communities fund is OK, in my view, it’s time to go.