PRESSING: Sean Nicholls says issues about transparency, political lobbying and ministerial disclosures are among the things Gladys Berejiklian should be addressing.
In the threeweeks since Gladys Berejiklian was sworn in as NSW Premier she has hit the ground running in at least a couple of respects. Shehas announced somepriorities – local infrastructure, housing affordability and a strong economy – and iscontemplating repairing the damage caused by unpopular policies such as forced council mergers. But there arealsoa few issues you are unlikely to hear the new Premier talking about with any relish.
They includehangovers from her time as a minister, challenges her predecessor Mike Baird either ducked or ran out of time to tackleand reforms in the area of transparency it seems no one has been willing to fix.
The first and most pressing is whether the Premier will come clean on when she wasadvised, as transport minister, of the real reasons for a$549 million blowout to the cost of the Sydney CBD light rail project. In December, the NSW Auditor-General revealed that in October 2014 Transport for NSW had reported that 94 per cent of the increase was “due to incorrect estimates” in the project’s business case.
Yet as transport minister Berejiklianissued a media release two months later stating the reason the cost had increased from $1.6 billion to $2.1 billion was due to “customer improvements to the original scope”such as longer trams and stops. The obvious question has been and remains: did she knowingly lie and then keep the truth from the public for two years? During her first media conference, Berejiklianoffered an aggressive defence to questions she knew she would be asked. The problem is, her answers dodged the central issue of what she knew and when. She would be wise to clear it up by releasing documents shedding light on the subject.
In the same broad category –call ittransparency and integrity – is the issue of political lobbying. It’s somethingBaird went some way to addressing after Barry O’Farrell’s demise, but which is looming as a far bigger issue for the latest premier.
From day one, Berejiklian has been accused by opponents and some Liberals of being too close to powerbroker and lobbyist MichaelPhotios. Photiosremains one of the leaders of Berejiklian’sLiberal left faction, to which she is fiercely loyal. His firm, Premier State, is registered to lobby the NSW government on behalf of a string of private sector clients including mining companies and alcohol and gambling interests.
Baird’s reforms tightened the rules for lobbyists and introduced regular publication of details of ministerial meetings, but they did not go far enough. Berejiklian has the opportunity to send a message about how serious she is about not only being a clean government but being seen to be one. She shouldfollow the advice of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and extend the requirement to parliamentary secretaries and ministerial staff.
Similarly, the issue of ministerial disclosuresneeds to be looked at to ensure they declare not only their own business, property and otherinterests but also those of their spouses and immediate family.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it would send a strong message about the type of leader she wants to be. The key to Baird’s early popularitywas his admission after the O’Farrell scandalthat changes needed to be made and to act swiftly to address the perception the government was in the thrall of spivs and backroom operators. Berejiklian has the opportunity to go one better and act without looking like she is being forced into it.
Sean Nicholls is state political editor.
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