The aborted ‘Gladys for Warringah’ campaign demonstrated the Liberal Party’s contempt for propriety and morality in public life.
When politicians resign or retire from politics, particularly where this decisions is unexpected, they often frame this in moral or aspirational terms – “having achieved all that they set out to do in public office they are now stepping aside to explore other opportunities” or “spend more time with their family”. In contrast, it is rare that such announcements make mention of the moral failings, errors of judgment or political compromises that may have hastened their decision or characterised their tenure of office.
Sometimes, however, the circumstances of a politician’s resignation or retirement, or the language that surrounds it, speak so loudly of the morality of politics and public office that they should not be quickly consigned to history but should demand reflection on what it is we want from our politicians and our political systems. The formal announcement by the ex-Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian that she is retiring from politics is one such example.
Berejiklian’s announcement followed a month of sustained lobbying from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison for her to contest the federal seat of Warringah on the grounds that she would be the ‘ideal person’ to win back the federal seat of Warringah for the Liberal party from Independent Zali Steggall – who won the seat in a landslide from long-term sitting member Tony Abbott in 2019. Condemning the ongoing Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into Berejiklian as ‘awful’ and ‘shameful’, in making his public appeal to Berejiklian, Morrison declared that in his view Berejiklian was a person of ‘great integrity’ and that the people of Warringah would welcome her ‘having a crack’ at winning the seat.
While the push by the Prime Minister, Abbott and others to have Berejiklian stand as a candidate for Warringah was ultimately unsuccessful, it is worth recalling exactly why Berejiklian’s integrity was at issue and reflecting on what her potential nomination as the Liberal candidate for Warringah says about the Prime Minister’s own judgment and integrity, on what Berejiklian’s political legacy may ultimately be and about the morality of contemporary politics.
Over the past year Berejiklian has faced questions regarding whether her decision to direct millions of dollars to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music and the Australian Clay Target Association against departmental advice amounted to pork-barrelling and whether her (undisclosed) relationship with ex-Member Daryl Maguire constituted a conflict of interest and could have misled the public.
In each case Berejiklian has denied any wrongdoing – nonchalantly defending her actions as completely consistent with public expectations of politics, politicians and democracy.
In testimony to the ICAC, Berejiklian objected that, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that as treasurer and then premier, her personal relationship with Maguire had no potential to influence the performance of her public duties and need not have been declared.
Likewise, when brazenly acknowledging that the $140m Council Grants program was used to serve the interests of the Liberal Party, Berejiklian noted that: “It’s not something the community likes … but it’s an accusation I will wear,”….“It’s not an illegal practice… …..“I don’t think it would be a surprise to anybody that we throw money at seats to keep them,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, that’s democracy.”
Berejiklian was, of course, right that the Australian public would not be surprised to hear that incumbent governments will throw money at seats to retain government. Indeed it would a surprise if after the revelations that the Commonwealth’s $100m Community Sports Infrastructure grants program, $389m commuter car parks scheme and $8.5m Safer Communities Fund were all manipulated for the benefit of the government prior to the 2019 federal election that anyone would think otherwise!
But she is wrong about liberal democracy, she is wrong about what constitutes the legitimate use of public money, she is wrong about the irrelevance of public service, she is wrong about the need for transparency in public office and about the management of personal interests and she is wrong about the link between ethics and law.
(Mis) using public funds for political gain is not about democracy but about the abuse of power and government. Unethical practices may not be illegal simply because governments and parliaments lack the political will to make them so. Personal interests undoubtedly may pervert public duties and create conflicts on interest. And public servants must, first and foremost, serve the public and not their political masters.
So how could Berejiklian have responded in a more ethical way to the accusation that she should have recused herself from any role in making decisions about allocating funding to Wagga Wagga because of her relationship with Maguire? She could have said:
“I want to state clearly that this is not Daryl Maguire’s fault, although he clearly sought to use his position and his relationship with me for personal and political gain, but mine. For I should have recognised, declared and managed what was undoubtedly a conflict of interest. And by not doing so I corrupted proper process, misled others in government and public office and ultimately did not live up to my own standards and the standards that should be expected of politicians and political leaders. And for that I am truly sorry.”
And what could Morrison have said about the ICAC inquiry into Berejiklian’s behaviour and her role in the allocation of council grants that could have reassured the public that politicians were interested in the probity of our political system? Perhaps something along the following lines:
“While I have made clear my concerns about the ICAC, these types of inquiries undoubtedly shed light on issues of public importance – in this case the way that governments allocate public funds. The Premier has already acknowledged that she and her party engaged in pork-barrelling — an accusation that, rightly or wrongly, has also been directed at grants programs administered by my government. These are not new concerns, nor partisan ones. Indeed, there is no doubt that state and federal governments – from both sides of politics, have long used the public purse to influence the community, curry favour and buy votes. While, as the Premier has said, the fact that pork-barrelling occurs may not surprise anyone, it is also clear that this is not a practice that the community supports. So I want to give an undertaking to the people of Australia that, from today, with me, this practice will stop. That from today distribution of government grants and support will be determined at arms-length — not on the basis of self-interest, but on merit.”
But neither responded in this way. Each put self-interest above public interest. Strength above grace. Power above humility. Politics above ethics. And by doing so the PM and the Premier disrespected public office, eroded the status of women in politics, confirmed the public perception of moral decay within political life and, possibly worst of all, normalised the corruption of political process. Berejiklian and Morrison are not the first politicians to have done so – and, sadly, they won’t be the last. But by acting in this way their political legacy will be marked not by genuine political achievements but by their contribution to moral turpitude.
There are precious few moments where the morality, dignity and importance of public office and political discourse is visible. Precious few. Some politicians, perhaps including NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who has initiated a review to ensure that government grants “achieve value for public money, are robust in their planning and design, and adopt key principles of transparency, accountability, and probity”, appear to recognise the degree to which politics has become diminished and disrespected and see the need for radical action to regain public trust. (Although only time will tell whether the new Premier also has more to lose by challenging the foundations of political self-interest.)
Others, including the Prime Minister, and the ex-premier, appear not to. Berejiklian made clear her views about democracy and public service in her brazen defence of pork-barrelling and her denial of a conflict of interest in the distribution of public funds. And by focusing his ire on the ICAC rather than on Berejiklian’s own conduct and on the political system that has implicitly and explicitly enabled political self-interest, corruption of process and pork-barrelling, and by promoting Berejiklian as the right person to ‘regain’ Abbott’s seat, it seems clear that the Prime Minister does not recognise or does not care about the degree to which public office and civic duty has been degraded. As the world struggles to reimagine itself in the shadow of the pandemic we should be clear that the kind of democracy and moral life that Morrison and Berejiklian support is not the kind that Warringah, NSW or Australia needs. Not now. Not ever.