Dominic Perrottet
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

If there is one thing Gladys Berejiklian can be thankful for, it’s icare.

The workers’ compensation scheme, now synonymous with scandal, may well be keeping her in a job, thanks to the stain it has left on her treasurer, the young and ambitious Dominic Perrottet.

Perrottet has long been considered an obvious replacement for Berejiklian, even before the explosive revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) last week threatened to end her premiership.

But replacing one scandal-ridden leader with another is a hard sell, even in New South Wales.

The 38-year-old member for Epping is unlikely to escape the shadow of icare, with more revelations likely to emerge in coming weeks, as a parliamentary inquiry continues to rake over thousands of pages of documents.

As the pressure on Berejiklian’s leadership continues, the question is: who is the least politically compromised for the job, and is the icare scandal — which is hugely damaging but not exactly the talk of pubs — enough to keep Perrottet in his place?

Does anyone icare?

Before Gladys and Daryl there was icare. In many ways it was the perfect scandal: a multi-billion dollar government agency that was being run like a big-end-of-town insurer, with little or no accountability.

The person who was supposed to oversee the agency was Perrottet, who set up the insurer in 2015 as finance minister.

But the agency’s rotten culture was exposed by a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and ABC’s Four Corners in July, which uncovered alleged mismanagement and the underpayment of as many as 52,000 injured workers.

Perrottet defended the agency, only to have an inquiry reveal even more damaging evidence, including undisclosed conflicts of interest and sham contracts for political operatives.

By August he was forced to apologise to workers let down by the insurer and concede there were serious issues that needed to be addressed.

The scandal has been particularly damaging for the treasurer, given it occurred over a significant period of time and touches on the core issues of credibility and accountability. But whether it resonated with the public enough to threaten his career ambitions remains to be seen.

The good

The good news for Berejiklian is that the icare scandal isn’t going anywhere.

An inquiry into the scheme is continuing, with around 25,000 pages of documents tabled to parliament in the past month, including further evidence of tendering practices.

In documents filed last week, the treasury revealed icare used money put aside for injured workers to award contracts of up to $10 million without approval from the board, including up to $6 million for a “writable wall” in the office, where staff could come and engage their imaginations.

More damaging revelations could emerge in coming weeks, as the government is forced to hand over any private emails that were sent between senior leaders of the government in relation to icare and other matters.

The bad

The bad news for Berejiklian is that she’s facing a new scandal, with the revelation that her government handed out more than $250 million in council grants, almost all in Coalition-held seats, in the months before last year’s election without any signed paperwork.

The council rorts, which first emerged earlier in the year, have the potential to damage both Berejiklian and Perrottet, as well as Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who approved $4 million in council grants for his own electorate.

Berejiklian’s former chief of staff will attend a grants inquiry on Friday to explain how the premier approved $100 million worth of grants without any paperwork.

Asked why the premier and deputy premier were directly involved in the scheme, Perrottet said in July it was ultimately NSW government funding.

“Politicians are elected to make decisions. It’s not the role of the public service, the role of the public service is to advise,” he said.

While Labor is unlikely to draw attention to the icare scandal while ICAC dominates headlines, it will no doubt be a factor in how the Libs respond to the question of leadership.

While Perrottet may once have been the perfect premier-in-waiting, it’s possible he’s now just another politically damaged Lib, marred by the same wave of scandals that’s undermining Berejiklian’s control.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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