A winter’s day lunch held in July last year overlooking Sydney’s harbour showed off the city at its schmoozing best. It was also a snapshot of the kind of corporate, government and media mash-up which runs NSW, with little real accountability.
Here was a chance for business leaders to mingle easily with government representatives in a premium networking event. The main attraction was NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian who would be expounding on her vision for the state, fireside chat-style with the ABC’s Leigh Sales.
The event was organised by Corporate Club Australia which, despite its national corporate name, is a NSW government entity run out of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
Price of entry? The club’s gold members shell out $15,000 a year for events including the premier’s lunch.
For silver members it’s $10,000. Or you can just pay $5000 for a lunch membership, which gets you 10 seats at the event.
The takings are meant to help fund NSW’s Australia Day activities. It’s also marketed as an opportunity for companies to “align with an iconic network of organisations”, with a range of feelgood events staged throughout the year.
Among the club’s 60 members and supporters are Qantas, American Express, Endeavour Energy, GIO Insurance and Sky News. A smattering of NSW government departments is also represented.
There’s nothing shady about Corporate Club Australia. Far from it.
It has a networking and money-for-access model which the NSW government has used for a decade.
Billed by the club as an “acclaimed political journalist”, Sales has been engaged by the government agency to do chat-style interviews with the premier for three years, with the blessing of the ABC. An ABC spokesman said that Sales’ involvement over the previous three years had been approved “in accordance with ABC guidelines”.
But the corporate club events also present a set of potential conflicts of interest and ethical minefields for the NSW government, which it has shown itself incapable of handling.
Forget the corruption of individuals. If nothing else the ICAC’s investigation into crooked former MP Daryl Maguire and his secret links to Berejiklian has revealed a system with holes big enough to drive a tractor through — a situation all the more remarkable because the anti-corruption body has been exposing corruption in NSW politics for 30 years and making recommendations for change.
ICAC’s Maguire hearings have produced several surprises for those who have been lulled into believing the NSW government has cleaned up its act.
Want to do some commission-producing deals on behalf of a property developer as well as be a local member? No problem — and you only need to declare it if it’s a conflict of interest. (But if you’re worried about that, it’s OK, see the next point.)
The pecuniary interests register that has no meaning
Government MPs need to publicly declare their pecuniary interests for the sake of transparency. It’s a noble aim but, as the Maguire case demonstrated, you don’t have to tell the truth. Maguire got away with it for at least five years before ICAC — not the government — caught up with him.
The pecuniary interests register no one checks, including the premier
In a brilliant piece of circular argumentation, Berejiklian explained to ICAC that it is made “abundantly clear” to every member, every parliamentary secretary (which Maguire was) and every minister that they must report their pecuniary interests to the parliament or to the premier.
Berejiklian agreed that she was responsible for government probity. At the same time she conceded she had never checked the official declaration Maguire had sent to her. Why? Because it was up to MPs to declare their interests and she “assumed” Maguire had done that.
Political donations from property developers
These have been banned in NSW since 2009. Then ICAC revealed large-scale breaches in 2014, prompting further vows to halt the money flow. But this didn’t stop Maguire organising a drop-in visit to Berejiklian’s office for a property developer. Nor did it stop him taking commissions for work with a property developer.
At the same time, the NSW Electoral Commission has argued that underfunding has threatened its ability to carry out compliance checks on political donations.
Not ‘intimate’, thanks
The premier has taken semantic contortions to a new level this week as she’s waged a campaign for her survival.
Her affection for Maguire was such that she lost her judgement when it came to trusting his word. Yet she wasn’t so close as to be in an “intimate relationship”. That would have meant she was bound under the ministerial code of conduct to declare his interests along with her own.
Section 11 of the ICAC act? Best not to know
The premier conceded that she was “aware” Maguire had business interests outside parliament — but not aware enough that she would be obliged under section 11 of the ICAC Act to inform the corruption body.
Get caught? Not a problem
Under NSW electoral funding laws you can be prosecuted for failing to declare political donations. But the law does not compel disclosure even if a person is found guilty of not disclosing, according to the electoral commission. In 2018 six local councillors were convicted. The maximum fine was $4000. Done.
And if all else fails…
The government dictates how much money ICAC has to operate — it must beg the premier for more if it wishes — which is precisely what occurred while ICAC was investigating Maguire between 2018 and 2020.