Gladys Berejiklian has resigned in extraordinary circumstances.
For most Australians, the news will come as a shock, given the focus has been almost exclusively on the state’s devastating Covid-19 outbreak and her handling of that.
So, how did we get to this point? What caused Berejiklian’s downfall?
And what comes next for the New South Wales government, which has, yet again, found itself ensnared by the powerful anti-corruption commission?
What happened today?
About midday, an email from the Independent Commission Against Corruption landed in the inbox of media organisations.
It revealed that Icac was investigating the conduct of Berejiklian between 2012 and 2018, specifically her involvement in grants handed to the Australian Clay Target Association in 2016-17 and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga in 2018.
The investigation is focused on any relationship between the grants and the secret relationship that existed at the time between Berejiklian and disgraced former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who had been advocating for the money.
Not long after Icac’s announcement, an email from Berejiklian’s office announced she would be making a “significant announcement” at 1pm.
She fronted the media, denied any wrongdoing and announced her resignation.She did not take questions from journalists.
“Resigning at this time goes against every instinct in my being and something which I do not want to do,” she said.
“I do not want to be a distraction from what should be the focus of the state government during this pandemic, which is the wellbeing of our citizens. It always has been and always will be.”
How did this all begin?
The remarkable events of Friday were precipitated by a damning Icac inquiry, known as Operation Keppel.
The aim of Keppel was to probe Maguire and allegations he sought to use public office and parliamentary resources to improperly benefit himself and others close to him.
The inquiry heard evidence last year that Maguire and Berejiklian were in a secret relationship for five years, which had since ended.
At the time, the Icac was focused on Maguire’s acceptance of commissions from property developers and his failures to disclose business interests. In October last year, Maguire admitted he sought to “monetise” his parliamentary office and “use his status” as a politician for his own financial gain.
It heard he sought to make a significant financial gain through the sale of racing heiress Louise Waterhouse’s land at the proposed western Sydney airport in Badgerys Creek, a development in which the NSW government was intimately involved.
The inquiry heard excruciating phone calls, secretly taped, between Maguire and Berejiklian, in which the Wagga Wagga MP discussed the deal and his potential windfall, and the premier replied: “I don’t need to know about that bit.”
The revelation was extremely damaging, but Berejiklian survived.
Keppel has not concluded its investigation nor has it handed down findings.
Why is Icac investigating Berejiklian now?
The Icac has shifted its focus. It recently began exploring a grant program that gave $5.5m to the Australian Clay Target Association in 2016-17.
The ABC has previously revealed that Berejiklian had a role overseeing that grant and that Maguire had advocated for the money and later attempted to personally benefit from the grants.
Those allegations are still being investigated by the Icac and Berejiklian has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
“I state categorically I’ve always acted with the highest level of integrity,” she said.
Documents subsequently obtained by NSW crossbenchers revealed that Berejiklian, when treasurer, had taken a particular interest in grants made to Maguire for projects in Wagga.
The Icac says it will investigate whether Berejiklian “was liable to allow or encourage the occurrence of corrupt conduct by Mr Maguire”.
The commission will probe whether her conduct represented a “breach of public trust” by placing herself in a position of conflict between her public duties and private interests “as a person who was in a personal relationship” with Maguire.
It will also investigate whether she failed to report reasonable suspicions that “concerned or may concern corrupt conduct in relation to the conduct of Mr Maguire”.
Where to from here?
Berejiklian is resigning as premier and will also leave NSW parliament.
The resignation will take effect as soon as the NSW Liberal party can elect a new parliamentary leader. Berejiklian says she wants to “allow the new leader and government a fresh start”.
Her resignation will also trigger a byelection in her electorate of Willoughby – a safe Liberal seat in Sydney’s north.
We also have the prospect of another damning public inquiry from Icac playing out. That inquiry will take place over 10 days from Monday 18 October.
The consequences of this resignation, coming as it does in the middle of a pandemic, cannot be overstated.
Berejiklian did not hide her fury at the Icac’s timing, particularly given the allegations are years old and have been explored in parliamentary hearings.
“Given the Covid restrictions, my resignation as premier could not occur at a worse time,” she said. “But the timing is completely outside of my control, as the Icac has chosen to take this action during the most challenging weeks of the most challenging times in the state’s history.”
We can safely expect the Icac will cop some blowback publicly for the timing of its hearing. It has now forced the resignation of three premiers, including Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell.
After each scalp, the Icac’s critics have come after it.
Who could replace Berejiklian as NSW premier?
The main candidate to replace Berejiklian is Dominic Perrottet, the current treasurer.
Perrottet, a former lawyer, is from the party’s right.
Perrottet’s name has been floated ever since the initial Icac revelations almost brought down the premier last year, though he has faced criticism through the iCare scandal that followed.
The names of Stuart Ayres, Rob Stokes, Matt Kean, Andrew Constance and Mark Speakman were also floated last year, when Berejiklian’s leadership was questioned.