Morrison says former NSW premier ‘very welcome’ in his team and calls anti-corruption inquiry ‘shameful’
Scott Morrison and senior Coalition ministers have doubled down on appeals for the former New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to run for the federal seat of Warringah.
On Monday, Morrison told reporters in Sydney that Berejiklian would be “very welcome” in his team and would be a “great” candidate for the independent-held seat, comments backed earlier by the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, and the environment minister, Sussan Ley.
Berejiklian faced a grilling at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption in November over whether she failed to report “a reasonable suspicion of corruption” by her secret boyfriend, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Nominations for the Liberal candidacy in Warringah have been extended to 14 January, a timeline that will allow Berejiklian to consider any recommendations for findings made in submissions by counsel assisting Icac by 20 December. The submissions will not be public.
Despite the ongoing Icac controversy, Berejiklian would walk into the Liberal nomination if she decided to put her hand up.
Morrison is particularly keen to recruit Berejiklian as the best possible chance to recapture blue-ribbon Warringah from independent MP Zali Steggall at the 2022 election in a bid to retain majority government. Berejiklian’s position is understood to have shifted from a hard no to a maybe.
A senior federal Liberal sourcesaid that Berejiklian’s appeal was crossfactional and she had “150% support” across the party, which is “keen to keep the door ajar” for her.
“I don’t think the issue is linked to Icac because it won’t have reported by then which is part of the problem [with Icac],” the Liberal said.
If Berejiklian decides not to run the next best contender is understood to be Jane Buncle, a Sydney barrister and Manly resident.
After announcing a recycling advertising initiative in Wentworth, Morrison told reporters the way Berejiklian had been treated was “shameful” and described her running in Warringah as a “great opportunity, if Gladys wishes to run”.
“If she wished to join our team, she would be very welcome. I have no doubt that whatever Gladys sets her mind to, she will be a great success.”
Asked about the fact Berejiklian is being investigated for whether she turned a blind eye to suspected corruption and breached her own ministerial standards, Morrison replied: “I don’t agree.”
“There is no suggestion of criminal conduct by Gladys Berejiklian – none whatsoever,” he said.
“We have seen … recordings of private conversations detailed intimate things that were paraded around in the media. What was that about?
“Was that about shaming Gladys Berejiklian? I thought that was awful.”
Recordings of phone calls between Berejiklian and Maguire were played at the NSW Icac hearing to test her assertion that she did not have a “reasonable suspicion” he was engaged in corrupt conduct, which would have required her to report the matter to Icac. Berejiklian says she has always acted with integrity and denies any claims she failed to report suspected corrupt behaviour by Maguire.
“Gladys was put in a position of actually having to stand down and there was no findings of anything,” Morrison said, in advance of any possible findings by Icac. Berejiklian resigned voluntarily in September.
“I don’t call that justice. What I saw was a pile on,” Morrison said.
“[Berejiklian] is a person of great integrity. If she wants to have a crack at Warringah for the Liberal Party, I suspect the people would welcome that in Warringah. We will let the people decide.”
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said he was “not going to comment on the outcomes” of Icac but the public hearings were “there for all to see”.
“I think people should allow those processes to take their course,” he said, labelling the speculation about the Liberal candidacy “absurd” and an “obsession by the media”.
Albanese said the people of Warringah had “rejected Tony Abbott” because of his policies and it “doesn’t matter who the candidate is”.
“The policies of climate denialism, the lack of funding for universities, the lack of support for Tafe, the failure on health, the failure on so many policy areas, the failure to have an anti-corruption commission at a national level will not be assisted, no matter who the candidate is.”
The shadow climate change minister, Chris Bowen, said Morrison’s attacks on Icac in parliament in November were “disgusting” and “undermined every single inquiry, investigation and finding Icac has brought down”.
“The Icac is not a smorgasbord, in which you can pick off the findings you like and reject the findings you don’t like,” Bowen told the National Press Club on Monday.
“The Icac is a statutorily independent body and should not [be] undermined by the most senior politician in the country … when they don’t like the fact one of their own has been brought into question.”
Bowen said a Labor premier under investigation would not get a “leave pass” from the media or opposition and warned Berejiklian “won’t get a leave pass from us” if she runs.
Earlier, Birmingham told the ABC’s News Breakfast he would “love to see” Berejiklian run but it was “entirely her call”.
Birmingham acknowledged “the issues she’s handling at present” with respect to Icac, but argued she had shown “exceptional leadership in public office” and “great integrity”.
“I think it’s pretty sad when Icacs go out and destroy reputations, do so in pretty murky ways, looking into relationships and other things.”
Ley told the ABC she would “love to see [Berejiklian] in the federal parliament because she’s an outstanding female representative”.
“She has also been a model premier when it comes to New South Wales and the coronavirus,” Ley said.
Ley said the Icac process “will take its course and I don’t want to comment on that process”.
She said her constituents were “horrified” by what they perceived as “public shaming” of Berejiklian. “A lot of people reached out to me directly to actually say, why is this happening to our premier who has done so much for us?
“And they were really quite angry on her behalf.”