As the inquiry into Gladys Berejiklian begins, here’s a list of all the things she’s facing, and the questions she needs to answer.

 

 

Today, the investigation of Gladys Berejiklian will begin. This time last year, Berejiklian landed in some spectacularly problematic goop, as it became known that she had a ‘close personal’ relationship with Daryl Maguire, a regional Liberal politician who resigned in disgrace in 2018.

As The Guardian outlined, “During a morning of stunning revelations, the inquiry heard intercepted phone calls in which Maguire told Berejiklian that he potentially stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars if land owned by the racing heir Louise Waterhouse near the site of the new Western Sydney airport was rezoned. The payment would have been enough to pay off “about half” of his $1.5m personal debt, Maguire told Berejiklian in one phone call. Berejiklian responded: ‘I don’t need to know about that bit.'”

Lauren Pezet of The ABC noted in 2018, “The member for Wagga Wagga had been embroiled in a corruption saga after he admitted to seeking payment to help broker a deal with a Chinese property developer during evidence at the ICAC inquiry into the former Canterbury City Council.”

At the time, Berejiklian was ‘deeply disappointed and shocked’ when she read Mr Maguire’s evidence at ICAC. Wind the clock forward two years, and today (also at the ICAC), Berejiklian confirmed that the relationship began in 2015, and lasted until a few months ago.

Fronting the media, Berejiklian said that while she “stuffed up in my personal life and I accept that…(but) there is huge separation between personal life and public office.”

As Jodi McKay, the Labor member for Strathfield, said today on Twitter, “The questions are piling up. Why have property developers been lobbying inside her office? Why have they been given her private email address? Why did she have a secret off the books meeting with a developer?”

 

 

What the state needs (and this will ascertain whether Gladys stays in power) is refinement. Berejiklian can easily separate herself from Maguire by outlining her knowledge of his actions and supplying a timeline. Two crucial blanks need to be filled in.

As Former Federal Agent and Political Commentator Carrick Ryan put it, “Is it reasonable to believe Gladys was unaware of the corrupt actions of Maguire whilst she was in a relationship with him? Then; when she became aware of the investigation into Maguire, did she either end the relationship or disclose it as a possible conflict of interest? If so, when?”

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The initial report from the NSW parliamentary inquiry into state grant schemes distributed under the Berejiklian government doesn’t mince words in its assessment of how the Coalition has allocated public money in an attempt to consolidate its power and appease its supporter base.

The inquiry delved into the Stronger Communities Fund (SCF), which NSW Public Accountability Committee chair David Shoebridge described as a fund established to assist councils created as a result of forced amalgamations that went on to morph into “a brazen pork barrel scheme”.

In his forward to the report, the NSW Greens MLC further outlines that SCF saw $252 million in taxpayer money handed over to council’s “on a purely political basis” in the run-up to the 2019 state election to reward Coalition-held seats and to punish councils that objected to the mergers.

The SCF was established in 2016 to ensure ratepayers didn’t foot the bill for council mergers. However, its guidelines were revised in mid-2018 to permit Coalition heads to simply hand out the money without the constraints of any transparent criteria, an application process or assessment.

Under the scheme, the projects funded were approved by NSW premier Gladys Berejikilian, deputy premier John Barilaro and then local government minister Gabrielle Upton.

And, as Shoebridge further notes, if any of the funded projects did prove beneficial, it was “by accident not by design”.

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The report makes thirteen key findings. These include that 95% of the $252 million – or $241 million – was allocated to Coalition-held or marginal seats, in what was a “clear abuse of the grants process”.

NSW Office of Local Government (OLG) deputy secretary Tim Hurst indicated at an inquiry hearing that of the $252 million, Berejiklian allocated $141.8 million, Barilaro signed off on $61.3 million, while Upton oversaw $48.9 million.

And of the three, only Barilaro appeared at the inquiry when requested to.

The committee found that the mid-2018 revised guidelines didn’t detail how projects would be identified or assessed but were rather designed to facilitate certain legal disputes being resolved, to curry favour in Coalition seats and to punish those councils who opposed the amalgamations.

In place of official funding briefs, the premier used working advice notes to approve project funding and then her office destroyed these records, while the deputy premier didn’t even bother to keep records in regard to which projects he allocated funds to.

 

A case in point

Two instances were identified where funds were allocated to deal with legal disputes. One of these involved the provision of the largest grant: $90 million to the Hornsby Shire Council. This was distributed without “any due process or merit assessment” for purposes outside of the original SCF scope.

Having not undergone an amalgamation, the Hornsby council wasn’t eligible for the SCF scheme prior to its revision. But following this, funds were handed over at great speed with $50 million allocated to rehabilitate a former quarry at Hornsby Park and $40 million for the Westleigh recreation area.

On 27 June 2018, the revised guidelines were approved. OLG deputy secretary Hurst contacted the Hornsby council that day to advise that it had become eligible for funding under the scheme and requested it make an application.

On the following day, the council received the relevant paperwork. The application form included pre-populated sections that detailed the name of the projects to be funded and the amounts. The OLG approved the payment that same day, and two days later, the council received it.

The Public Accountability Committee found that this money had been granted to Hornsby Shire Council to compensate it over the loss of a substantial part of its ratepayer base, when the land was handed over to Parramatta City Council during the amalgamations.

A similar payment of $16 million was made to the Parramatta council, which appears to have resulted in its plan to sue the Hornsby council being dropped. Parramatta had sought to take its neighbour to court over funds it refused to hand over as a result of the mergers.

 

Further investigation recommended

Chief among the recommendations made by the report authors is that the NSW Legislative Council “refer its concerns regarding the inappropriate design and maladministration of the Stronger Communities Fund” to both the ICAC and the NSW auditor-general for further investigation.

The report suggests that NSW State Archives and Records reconsiders pursuing legal action against the state premier and her office after it found they had illegally destroyed records detailing the allocation of the SCF funds, as the oversight body had previously asserted it wouldn’t be doing so.

The committee also recommends the Good Practice Guide to Grants Administration be reviewed and updated with its requirements being enforceable, as well as the auditor general having increased investigation powers, and that a central website be established to detail funding schemes.

The Public Accountability Committee also wants to see the government overhaul the way that grants are provided to local councils so that a funding formula applies, which links to existing council documentation and considers the needs of regional and remote communities.

 

Something’s got to stick

A senior policy officer in Gladys Berejiklian’s office told the committee in October last year that the SCF grant allocation documentation that Berejiklian had signed off on had been destroyed by her office. And via a forensic recovery process, copies of the documents were obtained on 26 November.

On that same day, the premier appeared before the press and admitted that her government had engaged in pork barrelling, however, she asserted that it was “not illegal” and it’s a common political practice.

“Governments in all positions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour. I think that is part of the political process whether we like it or not,” Berejiklian assured the constituency. She added that she’s aware that the public is not particularly comfortable with the pork barrelling.

The public, however, is getting increasingly uncomfortable with the premier’s participation in the practice, as since last November, she’s been caught up in further currying favour scandals in regard to NSW arts funding, as well as the distribution of bushfire relief.

 

 

 

Paul Gregoire contributed to this report.

 

 

 

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