Hot takes on Gladys Berejiklian’s ‘sex scandal’ abound — but it’s worth digging deeper than the reactions

For much of this week, New South Wales has been struggling to incorporate a shocking rush of too-much-information about its Premier, Gladys Berejiklian.

It might, at the beginning of the week, have been difficult to imagine that ICAC would be capable of genuine further surprise.

The institution is known for its trophy wall of premiers, having established its hand-biting credentials early on by scalping the very leader who created it.

Its investigations have since flushed out countless salty tales, from cash-grabbing ministers to credit-card-abusing Rear Admirals to a sullen and more or less constant perp-walk of venal local government figures of whom you’d previously not heard, all the way through to a museum curator who stole the teeth from a thylacine (Operation Savoy, 2002, true story) and another premier who forgot being given a delicious bottle of red wine.

In a state still bearing a whiff of the Rum Corps, ICAC has come to represent a queasily unsurprising periodic bulletin that: Yes. There are still public office-bearers out there who are bent.

But on Monday, in the course of hearings into low-level scammer (and 20-year provider of buttock warmth to the Liberal back bench) Daryl Maguire, a genuine bombshell arrived.

The NSW Premier, a notorious workaholic known by family, friends and colleagues for her fastidiousness in matters of personal privacy, admitted to having a “close personal relationship” with Maguire over five years, and concluding only recently.

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NSW Premier admits she had a close personal relationship with Daryl Maguire

Horrifyingly for her, the ICAC has seemingly endless tapes of the pair’s phone conversations, in which Maguire drones on and on about his schemes to take a clip on various developments, and Berejiklian under-reacts to a degree incredible to any sensible observer not already pre-marinated in New South Wales’ famous special shady-sauce.

As you would expect, “Grifter Wants A Wife” was an instant ratings hit.

And everyone with an internet connection became an instant Goggleboxer, with hot takes ranging from “Leave Gladys alone, who hasn’t kissed a frog?” all the way through to “Lock her up”.

A history of scandal

Sex (or sex-adjacent) scandals in politics are not uncommon. At state level, glancing around, one notes a substantial Wiener index of chaps brought down by their “human needs”, as Transport Minister Andrew Constance so skin-pricklingly put it on Tuesday.

John Della Bosca, who resigned after an affair. Former Labor leader Luke Foley, who resigned after sexual harassment allegations. Former Labor premier Nathan Rees, who left Parliament after allegations of an affair with a constituent. David Campbell, former NSW transport minister, who resigned after a TV network exposed his extra-marital visits to a sex club. Troy Buswell in WA, who resigned after sniffing a woman’s recently vacated chair (worse was to come). South Australia’s Mike Rann, who fought on after revelations of a past affair with a parliamentary bar attendant and was re-elected.

On the federal level, of course, there is rich precedent for sex scandal, the most memorable of which afflicted a deputy prime minister (Barnaby Joyce) quite recently.

In one celebrated (albeit retrospectively recounted) scandal, Hawke minister John Brown is notorious for having had relations on his ministerial desk … with his wife, Jan.

Most of them paid with their jobs, or at least the most powerful bits of their jobs.

But many of them came back.

Barnaby Joyce wears an Akubra hat and does the hang loose hand gesture with his right hand while speaking to media.
Barnaby Joyce’s personal life blew up into a national story in 2018.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

But it’s different for women

Sex (or sex-adjacent) scandals affecting women are much rarer. And the source of controversy tends to be, in almost every case, not goatishness in itself but the spectre of influence.

This is the intriguing mechanics of “sex scandals” in Australian politics; for men, the assumption is that they’ve outsourced their thinking to a crucial organ. For women, it’s assumed they’ve outsourced it to the bloke.

And if that bloke’s dodgy, then she’s very likely to contract a burning case of STD: Sexually Transmitted Disgrace.

While a great deal of Monday’s shock value is attributable to the fact that nobody — even friends and family, according to the Premier — knew that Gladys Berejiklian was in a relationship at all, the lasting issue and damage, of course, is to do with her proximity to his activities.

It’s not the first case we’ve seen.

A woman with red hair and glasses sitting in an office with her legs crossed smiling.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard’s love life was used as a political weapon.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

During and after her time in office, Julia Gillard — the only Australian prime minister to have been blessed with a personalised exit royal commission into her private life — faced questions about a long-ago relationship with her own Daryl, whose name was Bruce.

Bruce Wilson was a scammer too, skimming off union funds for his own enrichment. In the end, the question of Julia Gillard’s personal benefit came down to some highly specialised allegations of receiving a free, or cheap, wobbly brick wall at her then home.

For Cheryl Kernot, to whom the opprobrium of her ancient consensual affair with Gareth Evans adheres far more closely than it does to her partner in “crime”, the public interest justification has always centred closely around the proposition that she was “seduced” from the Democrats to the ALP as a result.

Fascinatingly, this version relied on the notion that Ms Kernot would not have made the decision to defect based purely on the hard-headed political reasons she adduced at the time; the same lens was not applied to Mr Evans, then or since. For him, as for most men in politics, an affair is viewed as a disappointing but temporary shift of air traffic control from above to below the waist, with normal arrangements resuming soon thereafter.

The “poor Gladys, blinded by love” defence, which necessarily implies a woman relieved of her personal agency by an overpowering tendresse, strays into the same territory.

But listen to the tapes, which feature a self-obsessed Muppet boring for Australia about his bank account. Blinded by this? The most powerful woman in NSW? Really?

In Berejiklian’s case, like Gillard’s, the question of personal benefit is flimsy. She stood to gain not a cent directly from Maguire’s activities; her putative reward was — at a stretch — the prospect of a debt-free cad with whom to embark on an uncertain conjoined public future at an undisclosed date.

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NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says she “stuffed up”

Until now, a reliable no-mess leader

The shabbiness of this prize, perhaps, is what triggered a selective outpouring of sympathy and support for the Premier from women.

In Berejiklian, we’d seen a high-profile woman slalom around many of the obstacles that have felled others before her.

Her childlessness was raised on day one of her premiership but seldom thereafter; perhaps she benefited from the nation’s hindsight on the repugnance of Gillard’s “deliberately barren” label, as applied by Bill Heffernan.

Not for Berejiklian the day-in-day out analysis of wardrobe or appearance; she chose a daily “uniform” of well-cut jackets, kept her hair always looking the same, and left it at that.

The principal recommendation of her private life was that she didn’t have one; Gladys was a reliable, no-mess leader. No fashion shoots, no partner to be ranked on the Denis Thatcher Handbagometer.

The most dangerous things about her were her oddball daily breakfast of Cheds crackers and her sister, Mary, who wore a sparkly dress to a campaign event once and told an online tormentor who made a jibe about the shape of Gladys’ nose: “Grow some pubes, and then we can talk.”

(“Every family has a Mary,” the Premier later calmly observed.)

A woman in pink waves as she hugs her father
Gladys Berejiklian on election night in 2019 with mother Arsha and father Krikorat and sister Mary at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth, in Sydney, Saturday, 23 March 2019.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

These are trivialities, however, compared with Berejiklian’s most important attribute: Work ethic.

Like many women at the summit of mountains made for men, she earned her place by dint of industrious application, and always being prepared, her homework done, her exterior composed, all potential womanly liabilities (tears, anger, wardrobe malfunction, personal life sharknado) contained with a discipline that would make Hillary Clinton herself proud.

Which may explain the sympathy for her, especially among women infuriated to see a woman defy gravity for so long, only to stumble on such a stupid hurdle.

Hard work and being good at her job were not, in the end, enough for Hillary Clinton (also a chronic STD patient) and they may not be enough to save Gladys Berejiklian, and that in itself carries a bitter message for other women.

Especially in an era remarkable for the elevation of sex pests and serial infidels, variously, to the leadership of our key allies, and the conga line of corporate blokes who’ve grabbed, groped, pilfered and blown up ancient Indigenous artefacts and still fancied themselves a chance to survive.

That Berejiklian could, having done so well for so long, lose it all thanks to a relationship with a man so clearly her inferior also unleashes a dark round of introspection about the romantic options for powerful single women in middle age.

The earlier-listed attributes, together, are what built around Gladys Berejiklian a cocoon of respect, deference even; they earned her the privacy she sought.

But Operation Keppel has smashed that to bits, opening up a treacherous new crevasse in which it’s now perfectly acceptable to ask the Premier questions about the exact nature of her relationship, or casually refer to her “boyfriend” or “lover”, as some newspapers felt boundlessly free to do when reporting on Ms Gillard’s pre-parliamentary relationship when she was prime minister.

The most electrifying element

An easy gauge of the general respect in which a leader is held is the kind of questions people think it’s OK to ask. (The moment in 2013 at which a radio host felt it appropriate to ask Julia Gillard if her partner was in fact homosexual is one of which I’m unshakeably reminded. The interrogator was later fired.)

Berejiklian is now someone for whom no question is now too graceless or intrusive.

None of this is necessarily exculpatory of the Premier, of course. I run through these factors at length in an attempt to explain the witches’ cauldron of responses, this week, to Operation Keppel, as ICAC bills the Maguire investigation (possible subtitle: “No Man Is An Island”). It is, indeed, possible to feel sympathetic for some aspects of a political figure’s situation while also condemning decisions they’ve made. And in this case, it seems worth sorting through what’s behind the different reactions.

Defeated Kristina Keneally during concession speech
Former premier Kristina Keneally had to stress that she was her own women when she took the top job.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

STD or no STD, and sympathy or no sympathy, the Premier is a clever, hard-headed woman. The “blinded by love” defence is not only implausible given the telephone transcripts, but insulting to her intelligence and personal agency. And personal agency is an extremely important factor in NSW, where a decade ago the first female premier — Kristina Keneally — got to her feet and felt obliged to assure her colleagues first and foremost that she was “nobody’s girl”.

By far the most electrifying and deadly element of the case against the Premier, once you strip away the prurient thrill, is her demeanour in the face of indications from Maguire that he is using his parliamentary position to make money off development deals.

At one point, she advises him not to tell her. At another — excruciatingly — she responds to the news of a fee with the words “Woo hoo … Great stuff”.

For most sensible observers, the sight of a leader — any leader — receiving with such equanimity the news that her elected colleague is collecting fees for side business deals is an open and shut case. And so it should be.

Not in NSW it isn’t, though. Not by a long shot.

An asymmetry of understanding

This explains the great divide between Berejiklian’s evident conviction that she’s done nothing wrong, and the public revulsion at seeing the seamy underside of NSW politics so casually laid bare.

The Premier says she assumed Maguire had disclosed the income, and for her that’s the end of it.

Because the stunning truth is that in New South Wales, you’re ALLOWED to run side hustles as an MP. So long as you disclose them. The guidelines go so far as to insist that “Engagement to provide a service involving use of a member’s position” be declared, alongside the usual requirements for declaration of organisational memberships, debts, general paid work and so on.

The basic backbench salary is $165,000, but MPs can earn more if they are ministers, parliamentary secretaries, committee chairs or designated other special jobs. The Sydney Morning Herald reported after last year’s State election that every single one of the Coalition’s 65 MPs — every single one — had been appointed to a special job carrying a pay bump between $10,000 and $110,000 annually.

Enough to prevent anyone needing to make a bit on the side? Evidently not.

But the Code of Conduct, adopted in March this year, is rather more prescriptive, ruling that:

“A Member must not knowingly and improperly promote any matter, vote on any bill or resolution or ask any question in the Parliament or its Committees in return for any remuneration, fee, payment, reward or benefit in kind, of a private nature, which any of the following persons has received, is receiving or expects to receive as a consequence: (i) The Member; (ii) A member of the Member’s family; (iii) A business associate of the Member; or (iv) Any other person or entity from whom the Member expects to receive a financial benefit.”

Whatever ICAC finds in the case of Maguire, the lasting breach is between what would be the ordinary public expectation — that it’s wrong for a serving MP to grease the wheels of a deal for a fee — and the apparent institutional view inside the Parliament, going all the way up to the Premier, that it’s wrong for a serving MP to grease the wheels of a deal for a fee and not declare it.

It’s quite the difference, and much of the controversy this week arises from this simple asymmetry of understanding, between represented and representative.

Well, one course would be to fix it; to initiate a reform which would simply forbid the side hustle. One assumes, glancing at the fate of Nathan Rees, the NSW premier who banned donations from developers, that the backlash against Ms Berejiklian would be significant if she chose to embark on such a reform. But as matters stand, the grimy culture of the NSW Parliament is something for which she has become a very public face.

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