Three days on from former Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s shock resignation, and the dust shows little sign of settling.
Thousands of Australians are anguished. They’ve written love notes and cards, they’ve posted messages of heartbreak and fury all over social media and they’ve even signed multiple petitions to have Gladys Berejiklian reinstated as NSW’s leader.
I am not without understanding or empathy toward these actions.
Like most others, I felt blindsided by Berejiklian’s decision on Friday to step down as Premier while the state ICAC investigates her relationship and conduct toward disgraced former MP, Daryl Maguire.
I felt genuine sadness when she delivered her resignation speech and reflected on her deep commitment as leader.
“When the chips were down in the past years, in particular during the drought, bushfires and then COVID, we stood alongside each other. We have grieved and supported each other during these tragedies. I hope you know that you will remain foremost in my thoughts,” she told the people of NSW.
At no point did these words ring hollow.
You don’t have to agree with all of Berejiklian’s decisions or politics to acknowledge and respect her as an exemplary leader in many ways. Throughout the pandemic, Australians have turned to her for information, advice and a sense of solace. Mostly, she has delivered.
But, (and this is a big but), to only acknowledge this one part of the picture while furiously scrubbing the other less favourable markings away, would be a disservice to women everywhere.
Gladys Berejiklian made the right call in stepping down.
The Gladys love-fest that’s exploded in recent days has been deeply unsettling. It shows a country willing to accept corruption at the highest levels of government in exchange for dedication. But when did these two things become mutually exclusive?
What it says to me, is this: Australians are so used to sub-par leadership at this point, that we’re willing to compromise– in a big bloody way.
We’ve become desensitised not only to dodgy operators like Daryl Maguire but to alleged rapists like Christian Porter or accused exploiters of power like Alan Tudge. We’re so used to our PM brushing things under the rug and scratching his head, that our capacity for outrage has dwindled down to nil.
We’re so used to terms like “rorts” and “pork-barrelling” and “sexual misconduct” and “bullying” and “cover-ups” that we don’t bat an eyelid when our state’s Premier could have been funnelling tax-payer money into questionable dealings for years.
We’re quick to blame the situation on a “bad relationship” without recognising what a profound and anti-feminist insult that is to Gladys Berejiklian who’s arguably one of the most astute politicians of our times.
Berejiklian categorically reiterated on Friday that she has “always acted with the highest level of integrity” denying any wrongdoing.
“History will demonstrate that I have always executed my duties with the highest degree of integrity for the benefit of the people of NSW who I have had the privilege to serve,” she said.
And if these are the findings of NSW’s ICAC then I will be the first to breathe a sigh of relief and welcome Berejiklian’s return to public office in whatever form that may take.
But to pretend there isn’t billowing smoke in this story, with a likely fire to be revealed, would be folly.
The ICAC hearing this time last year, was illuminating. A series of intercepted phone calls were played during Berejiklian’s appearance and exposed Maguire telling the then Premier he stood to benefit considerably if land owned by racing heir Louise Waterhouse near the new Western Sydney airport was rezoned.
The payment would be enough to pay off “about half” of his $1.5m personal debt, Maguire relayed in one phone call.
She responded: “I don’t need to know about that bit,” to which Maguire hastily agreed, “no, you don’t”.
The NSW ICAC is now probing whether Berejiklian breached public trust when she awarded grants to several community organisations between 2012 and 2018 including The Australian Clay Target Association (ACTA) in Wagga Wagga which Maguire was a member of.
Berejiklian was right last week when she concluded that to remain as leader during this investigation would disrupt NSW at a time when stability is imperative.
We are on the COVID home stretch, but any wrong-footing at this point could propel us backward.
She showed her true essence as a leader by making the decision she did; prioritising the wellbeing of her state opposed to her own personal agenda.
Perhaps this same high-standard of leadership and integrity will be exposed during ICAC’s investigation.
But till then? We need to respect Berejiklian’s resignation and move on.