How quickly we forget.
Gladys Berejiklian had her ‘sliding-doors’ moment with Matt Kean a year into her premiership.
Kean – a politically dangerous potential usurper – made a catastrophic error in full view of the public. Better still, he managed it entirely on his own merits.
No one tricked, trapped, baited, orchestrated, or coerced him into embarrassment. It was simply the gift of a self-made catastrophe.
For those who have bleached the event from memory, allow me to re-scar you.
The political episode began in 2017. To celebrate surviving a year as premier without any fatal wounds, Berejiklian performed a spring clean of her cabinet which resulted in Kean’s appointment as Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation.
At the time, Matt Kean was in an on-and-off relationship with Malcolm (the bonking ban) Turnbull’s senior media adviser, Caitlin Keage. While she was away with her family on a Christmas break, Kean was exchanging in sordid txt messages with the MP for Miranda, Eleni Petinos.
“Miss me huh?” asked Petinos.
“Yep, really need to f**k you,” replied Kean.
Mercifully, he was rebuffed on this occasion and this is the extent of the txt messages posted on Instagram by Keage captioned, “When your boyfriend cheats on you when you’re away with the family.”
“Just got your Christmas card – you’re absolutely gorgeous – love you xx,” added Petinos, a few days later, confirming that Kean’s earlier indiscretion wasn’t a random shot in the dark.
The irony of a senior media adviser using social media to out a cheating boyfriend in charge of ‘better regulation’ is not lost…
In the world of #metoo, this misstep by Kean could have easily been a fatal stumble onto his own sword.
Thankfully for all involved, politics has never been about morality – it’s about factional aspiration – and Kean was considered a rising star of the Photios project. A lot of effort had been poured into his existence and he enjoyed the insurance policy of belonging to the same faction as the leader of the party.
Kean has often been thought of as a political anomaly. He is a Green in everything but name with environmental and energy policies that contradict the electorate. Gladys Berejiklian – who is wrongly assumed to be a conservative – didn’t tolerate Kean’s existence, she supported it.
Michael Photios is a Liberal powerbroker long considered by many to be the most powerful kingmaker in New South Wales politics. He resigned from his official position as head of the party’s left faction in 2017 to ‘shut down attacks’ regarding his influence over Berejiklian.
“The powerbrokers and lobbyists who pull the strings in the NSW Liberal party have decided Gladys Berejiklian will be their Premier,” said then-Opposition Leader Luke Foley.
Berejiklian has been a devout member of this faction for a long time, firmly pinning her as a left-wing moderate, not a conservative. Photios has long been credited with helping the moderate faction rise from obscurity in the 1980s to the dominant movement placing premiers and prime ministers into power.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported comments from Liberal sources at the time which implied Photios did not wish to become the story.
“He’s taken a decision to remove the perception, real or otherwise, of his influence around the government,” said one.
“There’s no doubt he’ll still be the puppet master…” added another.
Photios came under increased scrutiny as the relationship between politicians, lobbyists, and developers got on the nose of voters. At the time of his resignation, it was reported that Photios’ firm ‘PremierState’ was on a $20,000+ monthly retainer with corporate clients like Telstra, The Star casino, and the Hotels Association. He is the ever-present name that hangs around the Liberal Party regardless of his official standing.
Berejiklian’s factional power has shielded her against what should be the free and open debate of parliament. New South Wales has seen factional power dictate political policy. This was never more evident than during the #KoalaKiller fiasco when the forces of factional power closed ranks against members of the National Party that dissented. The incident nearly rolled Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who ended up taking a four-week mental health break.
“It was a fascinating example of their [the moderate faction] behaviour. It was a concerted, strategic and manipulative effort to take him out,” said a cabinet minister at the time.
“No one instructed us to do anything, but no one tried to stop us either,” said another minister involved in the political attacks against Barilaro.
Berejiklian’s developer problems were not contained to the ICAC investigation circling her ex-boyfriend.
O’Farrell was another scalp taken by ICAC. He resigned his premiership the day after appearing at a corruption hearing under allegations he was later cleared of. The charge was temporary but the damage proved permanent. O’Farrell will be forever known as the politician slain over a bottle of Grange. As far as anyone can tell, the poor bloke didn’t even get to drink it.
Of course, the real issue at ICAC was not a bit of pricey plonk – it was about the $100 million dollar Obeid-linked Australian Water Holdings contract. At the time, Photios confirmed that Australian Water Holdings boss Nick Di Girolamo hired him as a lobbyist that attracted a retainer fee of $5000 per month. It was Girolamo’s notorious $3000 dollar 1959 Penfolds Grange Hermitage that brought down O’Farrell.
Photios also confirmed that he was offered a $1 million success fee if Sydney Water Holdings signed off on the Public Private Partnership tied to former corrupt powerbroker Eddie Obeid. Photios rejected the offer stating that he did not engage in success fees.
O’Farrell went on the record at the beginning of his term, warning lobbyists looking for political and financial advantages, “They are wasting their money. Those days are over…” It was O’Farrell that adopted recommendations from ICAC into legislation the same day as a few sharp comments related to Photios were made. Under the new rules, success fees for lobbyists were banned and an 18-month cooling-off period was introduced. O’Farrell also wrote to all lobbyists warning them that they would be removed from the lobbyist register if they overstated their political interest over the government.
During her role as Transport Minister, Berejiklian awarded a $60 million New South Wales government bus contract to PremierState – one of Photios’ clients – without putting the offer to tender.
“Such contracts have the strictest probity requirements and are awarded by Transport for NSW,” said a spokesman for Berejiklian.
The Sydney tram project that no one asked for was signed under Berejiklian’s watch. Sydney notoriously hates trams and previously ripped them up, preferring to put actual roads through their central business district. This tram project was particularly scorned as it ran parallel to an existing train line, offering nothing except for a major disruption to retailers along Pitt and George street. Acciona, the Spanish company responsible for the Sydney light rail project, engaged Photios’ firm PremierState for services related to the contract.
Essential delivery warehouses and access points were either destroyed or put on restricted time limits, creating chaos for businesses operating along Sydney’s most expensive retail strip. Hundred-year-old shops were lost as boarded-up walkways robbed them of customers for years. Many considered it a vandalisation of the thriving shopping area resulting in a finished product that created nightmare traffic conditions, reduced access, and bloody ugly trams. Outrage reached fever pitch when commemorative ancient Fig trees were felled along Anzac Parade to make way for the light rail. No one has forgiven the Liberal state government for these chainsaw projects.
Speaking of trashing historically significant monuments, Berejiklian spent years defending the hated plan to move the Powerhouse Museum from inner-city Ultimo to Parramatta. The Powerhouse Museum was not only a resource for locals, it served as a major cultural fixture and tourist attraction. Its unwanted relocation was set to cost in excess of $1.6 billion and would destroy not only the Powerhouse Museum, but two heritage-listed properties at the new site in Parramatta.
‘Mister Everywhere’ Photios wasn’t only crowning state premiers, he was bragging about installing prime ministers. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s stern warning to powerbrokers and lobbyists didn’t help win him any friends inside the moderates, paving the way for Turnbull’s knifing.
Berejiklian’s body armour has been to keep her distance from public scandal. It didn’t matter that she came from the same hated faction as Kean so long as she kept her paws clean at all times.
Despite all of the above, none of it stuck to Berejiklian thanks to a soft press and unusually forgiving political atmosphere from a Liberal Party that knew very well it didn’t have a better candidate.
Australians pre-Covid did not spend time scrutinising politicians. In fact, most people preferred never to hear from them between elections. It was a political atmosphere that suited Berejiklian and sustained her premiership for many years.
Covid and its relentless press conferences turned Australia into a hyper-politicised hellhole similar to the US where politicians and health bureaucrats became pseudo celebrities.
Once humans latch onto someone as a ‘celebrity’ the mob become fascinated with the whole side-show of their personal lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prince, a premier, or a prime minister – your life decisions become fodder for the public in exchange for fame.
Even so, women have more sympathetic leeway when it comes to the dating scene. It is unclear whether this is a relic of several thousand years of female victimhood or merely a convenient political tool.
Not everyone buys into the whole, ‘poor Gladys betrayed by a dodgy boyfriend’ line.
Berejiklian was the most powerful person in New South Wales for many years. Anyone in possession of that much power loses the ability to play the wilting violet card. It is insulting to suggest that she was dragged around like an accessory when her history within the Liberal Party is that of a predatory creature.
She made one serious error – Berejiklian failed to roll Matt Kean when she had the chance.
While factional pressure no doubt played a role in Kean’s survival, the decision ultimately rested with the Premier. Berejiklian – who was in Washington at the time with Keage’s boss, Malcolm Turnbull – insisted that she would not sack Kean over the incident.
“What I’ve read this morning is extremely disappointing,” Berejiklian said, before allowing Kean to wriggle off the hook.
As Kean’s green politics became more extreme and criticism gathered like a cloud of smog around him, Berejiklian continued to offer her support. As state treasurer, he will be in reach of the crown. If he’s smart, Kean will stay out of the Covid storm and allow Perrottet to weather the next year, ensuring that Kean’s final rise to power happens on a clean slate.
When it came to her own execution, some onlookers insisted that Berejiklian was ‘just another woman destroyed by the patriarchy’.
Berejiklian could have done what many men before her have and refused to surrender her position. There was no law that said she must resign as premier – it was a choice – her choice.
By leaving now, she does so with her reputation intact. Soon, people will forget about her disastrous record and remember her only as a tough woman unseated by the misadventures of the heart.
Kean? His adventures are only just beginning and I dare say we’ll need a longer word count to cover them.