Gladys Berejiklian is the former Premier of New South Wales and a member of Optus’ Executive Team as Managing DIrector, Enterprise, Business and Institutional.
During her time as Premier, Ms. Berejiklian’s government was criticised for 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.
ICAC Hearing & Daryl Maguire
As part of the NSW ICAC’s investigation into Daryl Maguire, Ms. Berejiklian was called to provide public testimony regarding their relationship. Ms. Berejiklian has originally requested to have the NSW ICAC hear her testimony regarding her relationship with Mr. Maguire in private due to the “humiliation and harm” the evidence may cause. This request was denied by Assistant Commissioner Ruth McColl who stated that the matter was in the public interest.
Two grants in particular were investigated during the hearings, one for a $5.5 million upgrade to the Wagga Wagga Clay Target Club and a $20.5 million project for a recital hall at the Riverina Conservatorium of Music.
During the hearing, a phone call between Ms. Berejiklian and Mr. Maguire, dated to July 30th 2018, was played. The recording included a discussion of Mr. Maguire’s top 3 funding suggestions:
Mr. Maguire: “You just throw money at Wagga.”
Ms. Berejiklian: “I’ll throw money at Wagga, don’t you worry about that.”
Mr. Maguire had earlier admitted that his relationship with Ms. Berejiklian had provided him “greater access” to the Premier with regards to projects he advocated for.
In another recording Mr. Maguire was heard bragging to a colleague regarding "tens and tens and tens and tens of millions” of dollars being put aside to projects in his electorate.
During another phone call, Mr. Maguire could be heard pressuring Ms. Berejiklian to promise him a stadium to be built in Wagga Wagga:
"Stuart's talking about putting one Dubbo…F*** them. Wagga's where it's gonna happen..."Keep listening to me and (Wagga) will be like the blazing star of the southern universe."
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 incidents 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 cases 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 "little or no information about the basis" for such selections with the only records of project 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, let's 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."