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Gladys Berejiklian has ruled well but she skipped an ethical exam

If any other Australian leader had given Monday the kind of evidence Gladys Berejiklian did to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, they'd probably have been out of their position by the end of the day.

Gladys Berejiklian
On what we have heard this week, she has fallen short of the standards that should be expected of a premier.

The NSW Premier was protected, in the immediate term, in part because the disclosures about her five-year secret relationship with disgraced former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire seemed so bizarrely out of character with her unsullied past and apparent conservatism in her private life.

She was a highly competent Premier, especially during COVID. Her fire-proofed pandemic.

Her political success this year is definitely one reason why the Prime Minister is standing with her. As Scott Morrison said repeatedly, during the coronavirus outbreak, NSW set the "gold standard."

But Berejiklian's personal and political reputation should not obscure the seriousness of Maguire 's actions, or rather her inactions.

She didn't just make a bad judgement about a sub-optimal boyfriend which can be written off as having "stuffed up" her personal life. She made a series of decisions that were inappropriate.

Colleagues' secrets

When in 2015 she changed the nature of her relationship with the then member for Wagga Wagga from friendship to a "close personal" one, she failed to disclose this to colleagues.

Her supporters say her private life was no other business. If her relationship had been with the plumber down the street who was unconnected with government, that would be absolutely correct. It's another thing whether those concerned include a senior official, who later became premier, and one of her party's MPs.

The Premier could affect the fortunes of the MP; the MP could use the relationship, even if undeclared, to further his own interests by suggesting he could deliver access.

As Berejiklian said, there's nothing wrong with two parliamentarians having a personal relationship. But, given the position of one of them, in this case it should have been put on the record — at least to cabinet colleagues.

When Maguire fell foul of ICAC in 2018, Berejiklian should have admitted the relationship late, informing senior colleagues, so there would be no time bombs. Certainly she should have broken off the connection with Maguire immediately, rather than continue it until this year, when he was back in ICAC 's sights.

Most compromising however, is the material captured by phone taps of Maguire 's conversations with Berejiklian.

Maguire told her developer lobbying. The practices listed would not have been illegal — Berejiklian points out that MPs are permitted to participate in business — but they would be very awkward for any premier.

Berejiklian definitely appeared uncomfortable and on two occasions said "I don't need to hear".

She explains her apparent dismissiveness of what Maguire said with his big-note as boredom. It sounded, however, more like she did not want him to give her information she preferred not to receive. She had a deaf ear for clues to pick up.

Imagine the reaction if Morrison had provided such evidence, or been humiliated by such recordings. People would not be looking for reasons to excuse him.

The line that everyone makes mistakes in their private life — "people have all made personal decisions I 'm sure they regret, that's human," Morrison says — won't wash.

Is she being given a softer run?

Berejiklian can be forgiven for initially being taken in by Maguire. But persisting with the relationship after it was discovered is certainly harder, if not impossible, to justify, regardless of her explanation, he was in a "very dark place." After this, she expelled him from the Liberal party and pressed for his removal from Parliament in 2018.

To maintain that additional, stricter criteria are extended to woman leaders can always be valid, but it doesn't suit this case. If anything she is being given a softer run.

Morrison said "it would be a bit of a decision" to replace her.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lauded her honesty and also said, "Last year, from the bushfires to now the pandemic, her leadership in last state was tried and checked under the hardest conditions, and she excelled." And, he pointed out, "Let's be frank—leaders in her quality aren't readily identified."

If the point is that the alternatives on offer — and it is not clear who would become leader if she went — wouldn't do as good a job, that might be a valid argument on strictly utilitarian grounds (although if she survives, this scandal will make it much more difficult for her to govern effectively).

When you compare how the NSW and the Victorian Governments handled the pandemic, NSW was far ahead (notwithstanding Ruby Princess's debacle).

Yes, she'd be hard to replace. But this should not be confused with a clear-eyed interpretation of her conduct over Maguire's legal defects.

Trust has risen, but last?

We've seen declining trust in political institutions in recent decades. The pandemic has led people to reattach to these institutions and all Australian leaders — Morrison and the premiers — saw their ratings rise.

What we don't know yet is whether trust will collapse when the pandemic subsides.

If politicians seem to clutch their noses while the whiff of impropriety or wrongdoing is in the breeze, they are trifling with public confidence in them and the political system. They are treating the voters with contempt.

This week's ICAC hearings reinforced the case for federal integrity. But the reactions of Liberal politicians show why they want it to be relatively toothless.

It is not being suggested Berejiklian, whose leadership hangs by a thread, has directly participated in misconduct; her appearance at ICAC was as a witness in an inquiry into Maguire 's possible misconduct.

But on what we have heard this week, she has fallen short of the standards that should be expected of a premier. Federal and state colleagues who are defending her are being tribal or expedient or both.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.

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