Updated: Sep 4, 2022
Gladys Berejiklian is the former Premier of New South Wales. Her government has been criticised in regards to the $250 million council grants program, The Stronger Communities Fund. The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) discussed the fund as part of a recent forum on pork barrelling which is to be followed by a report on pork barrelling and how it relates to corrupt conduct.
Media Coverage During ICAC Hearing
In October and November of 2021, amid much media attention covering Ms. Berejiklian's ICAC hearing attendance and her relationship with Daryl Maguire, both the The Australian Financial Review and The Australian released articles criticising the powers of the NSW ICAC and, to varying degrees, defending Ms. Berejiklian.
The Australian Financial Review released an article suggesting that activities such as pork barrelling, which Ms. Berejiklian engaged in, are merely the "business of politics." The article also suggested that while these incidences should be investigated by the media and scrutinised by voters, they do not meet the definition of 'corrupt,' and appeared to lament a third premier being ousted due to an ICAC investigation. The article also suggested that incidences such as the Sports Rorts affair were only "political scandals," and not "instances of public corruption for private gain."
In an article published in The Australian, Sharri Markson discussed Ms. Berejiklian NSW ICAC's powers in damaging political careers. Ms. Markson also criticised Ms. Berejiklian not for her actions revealed by ICAC, but instead for not reforming ICAC's powers prior to her ICAC attendance.
Another article, by Janet Albrechtsen, also criticised ICAC's legacy of damaging political reputations:
"ICAC has a long history of besmirching good people, damaging their reputations through show trials beamed into our living rooms. ICAC hearings kick off a frenzy that others turn into a bigger, more public witch hunt, leaving innocent people damaged, the subject of gossip and innuendo, hounded by those with their own agenda."
Ms. Albrechstein also highlighted that Ms. Berejiklian had, at the time of the hearing, not been accused of any corrupt or criminal activity:
"Berejiklian has not been accused of any wrongdoing by ICAC. Nor is there any evidence of that. Nothing. Nada. And yet some are calling for her to step aside, or even resign."
Berejiklian Staffers Shred Documents, Got "Cash Out the Door In The Most Politically Advantageous Way"
In February of 2022, the New South Wales auditor general, Margaret Crawford, released a report on The Stronger Communities Fund. The report revealed that in a 2018 briefing note, Berejiklian's staff stated they were working to "get the cash out the door in the most politically advantageous way."
Furthermore, in January of 2021, it was revealed that Berejiklian's office had broken the law when staffers shredded documents relating to the program. The State Archives and Records Authority did not find any evidence that the destruction of documents took place under "explicit instruction" by any member of government and did not take legal action. The report was, however, passed on to the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC).
Allegations of Pork Barrelling
The auditor general report also stated that The Stronger Communities Fund "lacked integrity," with more than 95% of the funds being awarded to councils in Coalition state seats and the selection process not following any consistent guidelines. The report detailed that Ms. Berejiklian identified 41 projects totalling $142 million (more than half the total spending of the fund) and made personal selections regarding projects with "litte or no information about the basis" for such selections with the only records of projects approvals being emails from staff.
In June of 2022 the chief commissioner of the NSW ICAC, Peter Hall QC, described The Stronger Communities Fund as a "clear example of pork barrelling." Mr. Hall conceded that it was "quite permissible" for politicians to make decisions regarding funding allocations wherein they would hope to gain political advantage provided it still served the public interest. However, Mr. Hall suggested that The Stronger Communities Fund did not meet this criteria:
“But if you get a decision, lets take the Stronger Communities grants fund case, I mean there’s no argument, there is in fact, as the auditor general’s report discovered in that case, a document, which is a briefing note to the premier’s office and that briefing note was to the effect ‘we’ve got the money out the door and it’s hitting the political target...I mean you couldn’t have it any clearer than that as to what the motive was. So that was, you’d almost say the sole motive [or] the sole purpose of that exercise was political or electoral and that’s clearly on the other side of the line.
In November of 2020, in the wake of early criticism regarding the Stronger Communities Grants Fund, Ms. Berejiklian defended the selection of funding allocations by insisting that the use of pork barrelling was not illegal.
"It's not an illegal practice. Unfortunately it does happen from time to time by every government. I don't know any political party that at some stage hasn't made commitments to the electorate. That is what our process rightly or wrongly is part of ... it's not, unfortunately, unique or uncommon to my government."