Gladys Berejiklian has resigned as the New South Wales premier and will leave parliament after the state’s anti-corruption watchdog revealed it was investigating whether she broke the law by failing to report the conduct of her ex-lover, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
In a bombshell announcement on Friday, Berejiklian said she had been given “no choice” but to resign as premier after the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) revealed it was investigating whether she had been involved in “a breach of public trust” between 2012 and 2018 because of her relationship with Maguire.
“My resignation as premier could not happen at a worse time, 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 history of NSW,” she said at a hastily arranged press conference during which she did not take questions.
“That is the Icac’s prerogative. Resigning at this time is against every instinct in my being and something which I do not want to do. I love my job, and serving the community, but I have been given no option following the statement issued.”
Berejiklian has consistently denied she acted improperly during her relationship with Maguire, and she maintained that on Friday: “I state categorically that I have always acted with the highest level of integrity.”
“History will demonstrate I have executed my duties again with the highest level of integrity for the benefit of the people of NSW, for who I have had the privilege to serve,” she said.
Insisting that she did not want to become “a distraction” for the government as NSW attempted to exit the three-month lockdown caused by an outbreak of Covid-19, Berejiklian said simply standing aside while Icac conducted its investigation was “not an option”.
“I cannot predict how long it will take the Icac to complete this investigation, let alone deliver a report, in circumstances where I was first called to give evidence at a public hearing nearly 12 months ago,” she said.
“Therefore, it pains me to announce that I have no option but to resign the office of premier. My resignation will take effect as soon as the NSW Liberal party can elect a new parliamentary leader.”
That decision is due to take place on Tuesday when the Liberals will hold a party room meeting. It is likely to be a crowded field. The treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, a conservative, has previously been touted as a potential leader, while the planning minister, Rob Stokes, and the transport minister, Andrew Constance, may also consider nominating.
On Friday Perrottett released a statement offering his “gratitude and thanks” to the outgoing premier, saying she had “always placed the wellbeing and welfare of NSW first, showing an unstinting dedication to public service and a great love for her community”.
The treasurer also suggested he was weighing up a tilt at the leadership, saying: “over the coming days I will be talking to my family and colleagues about how I can best serve the people of NSW”.
The commission – whose previous inquiries have led to the resignations of two other NSW premiers – said that in hearings beginning on 18 October it would investigate whether Berejiklian had engaged in conduct that constituted a “conflict between her public duties and her private interest as a person who was in a personal relationship” with Maguire.
At the centre of the investigation are grants to two organisations: the Australian Clay Target Association in 2016-2017, which Maguire had championed, and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga in 2018.
In its statement, Icac also announced it was investigating whether the premier’s conduct “involved the dishonest or partial exercise of any of her official functions”.
At question is whether Berejiklian breached the public trust by “refusing to exercise her duty” under the state’s anti-corruption law to report matters she “suspected on reasonable grounds concerned or may concern corrupt conduct in relation to the conduct of Mr Daryl Maguire”.
The announcement comes after Icac’s long-running investigation into Maguire’s conduct as an MP. 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.
Maguire, who has since left politics, made a number of admissions about taking commissions from property developers during his evidence last year, but Icac has continually delayed handing down findings. In December the corruption watchdog revealed it was taking “further investigative steps” as part of its investigation.
The October hearings were dominated by the shock appearance of Berejiklian as a witness and the revelation she had been in a secret “close personal relationship” with Maguire. Her relationship with Maguire ended only a few months before Icac began its public hearings.
The relationship ran for several years but was ended after Maguire was named as a person of interest in 2019 by the commission and was under investigation.
Documents subsequently obtained by crossbenchers under a call for papers revealed that Berejiklian, when treasurer, had taken a particular interest in grants made to Maguire for projects in Wagga.
She has denied any wrongdoing in the allocation of the grants.
Following her shock resignation, a number of politicians released statements wishing the premier well. The environment minister, Matt Kean, paid tribute to Berejiklian as a “remarkable person” who had led the state with “dignity, determination and poise”.
“NSW is a better place because of the way she touched each of our lives: day after day through the Black Summer bushfires and this pandemic she has been there for NSW,” he said in a gushing statement.
“Her tough decisions, and her courage to do what she thought was right has saved lives.”
The opposition leader, Chris Minns, who has managed to make some inroads into the Liberal government’s lead in the polls since assuming the job in June, thanked Berejiklian for her service to the state saying he “never doubted her dedication”.
But Minns signalled Labor’s lines of attack on a government that has now had three leadership changes in the decade since it was elected in 2011, urging the government to “focus” on “getting the state through the Covid-19 emergency”.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, with whom Berejiklian has had a number of public spats during the Covid-19 pandemic, released a statement wishing her “the best for the future”.
“Contrary to some public commentary, I have always respected Gladys and found her to be good company,” she said. “When Gladys Berejiklian became New South Wales’ first elected female premier, it was a significant achievement for women everywhere.”
The former federal treasurer Joe Hockey called it “an absolute tragedy for the people of NSW that Gladys has resigned” and took aim at the Icac.
“She has been the best political leader Australia has seen in years taking the state through drought, bushfires and Covid,” he tweeted. “Icac again pulls down a fine premier for something other than corruption.”