Why some Libs sniff an early exit for Berejiklian,but the timing is likely hers to choose

State Political Editor
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When January 23 ticks over next year,it will mark a major milestone for Gladys Berejiklian. The first female NSW premier to be elected in her own right will notch up five years in the job. Berejiklian already has the title of the second longest serving Liberal premier,only eclipsed by Robert Askin who was in power for a decade.

Five years will give Berejiklian perks that come with being a long-serving premier. The car,the driver,an office and staff. (Over the years,Nick Greiner and Bob Carr have each cost the taxpayer as much as $400,000 a year).

She’s back:Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press conference,her second appearance this week,even though she had indicated they would stop as of last Friday.

She’s back:Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press conference,her second appearance this week,even though she had indicated they would stop as of last Friday.Janie Barrett

To stop his one-time opponent Kristina Keneally from receiving those sweeteners after her 15 months as Labor premier,the Liberals’ Barry O’Farrell,once in the job,introduced rules that a premier must be in power for five years before receiving any taxpayer-funded fringe benefits.

“There is no entitlement for short-term premiers,” O’Farrell declared in 2011. After years in opposition,O’Farrell might have thought he’d easily clock up five years. That wasn’t to be. He managed three before falling on his sword at the corruption watchdog over avintage bottle of wine.

O’Farrell missed out but his protege,Berejiklian,could reap the benefits. In fact,many of her closest allies (as well as her adversaries) have been eying January 2022 as a likely exit date for Berejiklian. While the entitlements are unlikely to be a motivating force for her,with a host of milestones under her belt and a looming election it would be a logical time to hand over the reins.

The thinking has been that she could steer the state out of the latest COVID crisis,perhaps even emerging as the first Australian leader who managed to work out how we live with the virus. Then Berejiklian could give her successor,tipped to be Treasurer Dominic Perrottet,12 months of clear air to campaign for a tilt at a fourth term for the Coalition in March 2023.

But that theory has hit a stumbling block. Berejiklian’s ministers are in a state of heightened anxiety over increasing talk that their leader is being hauled back before the Independent Commission Against Corruption to answer more questions about her disgraced former long-term boyfriend Daryl Maguire. So concerned are some ministers,they are convinced Berejiklian’s demise could be just weeks away.

This may be a case of her detractors willing it to happen,rather than it being a realistic prospect. Berejiklian has not confirmed she has been called to the ICAC (it would be illegal for her to do so). She has always maintained she is not a person of interest before the corruption watchdog. Pressed again on Wednesday about whether she was a focus of the ICAC,her response was forceful:“No!”

Also triggering concerns among her colleagues is her increasingly scattergun approach,not a usual Berejiklian trait. The Premier stunned everyone when she began a press conference last week with an announcement that her daily 11am COVID updates were ending. This need not have been a big deal,but she made it one.

Her decision only served to convince some of her more conspiratorial colleagues,who were already convinced she was about to face private hearings at the ICAC,that there was a more sinister reason behind her sudden change to the briefings. On Monday,Berejiklian was back for the 11am briefing. And again on Wednesday.

Her refusal to meet the mayors of the 12 Sydney COVID hotspots had also been an uncharacteristic political misstep. Berejiklian eventually met them this week,but Cumberland City mayor Steve Christou told ABC’s Radio National on Tuesday that she had been “dragged there kicking and screaming”. Christou said her invitation was only extended after Perrottet’s office stepped in and offered to meet them.

Berejiklian remains popular in the electorate. Published opinion polls predate the worst of the Delta outbreak,but the most recentHerald Resolve research had her as the preferred premier for 55 per cent of voters. It’s hard to imagine any other leader surviving a scandal such as she did. O’Farrell clearly didn’t think he could survive his.

Her popularity,and the fact she is female – there is no other senior Liberal woman in cabinet – make her male colleagues acutely aware that bringing on a leadership challenge would be a terrible look. So,Berejiklian stays until the time of her choosing. She survived ICAC round one. She may well assume she can survive another round.

The ICAC has brought down two Liberal premiers – Greiner and O’Farrell. The calculation among Berejiklian’s party supporters,perhaps presumptuously,is:Would the publicly funded watchdog risk a third?

If Berejiklian has any concerns about further ICAC hearings,she has not revealed them to her cabinet. One senior minister describes it this way:“She has dug in like a tick. She is as tough as an old boot but also as stubborn as a mule.”

An ICAC hearing may well be wishful thinking on the part of some colleagues but Berejiklian’s internal support is starting to erode. Increasingly viewed as isolated from much of her ministry,even her supporters fear the government is directionless. If that view cannot be reversed,the Premier will find herself in an impossible position. And that may be the factor influencing her decision:stay or go.

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Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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