Long before he was a gleam in the eye of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Daryl Maguire was the kind of MP some of his colleagues would go out of their way to avoid.
“He was a creep,” recalls one. “More or less as soon as I got into parliament he started giving me advice on how to minimise my tax or talking about this allowance or that allowance; he was into everything. I stayed a million miles away from him.”
Another claims that Maguire, then the state Liberal member for Wagga Wagga, would try to interest parliamentary colleagues in buying “trinkets” he had imported from China. “He was always hawking shit around the parliament,” this MP said. “I thought he was an odd dude.”
But whatever warning signs others picked up, nothing rang alarm bells for Gladys Berejiklian, who told a journalist she’d seen Maguire as a “generally likeable person, down to earth”.
On the face of it, it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely match: she, the driven, academically high-achieving and politically precocious daughter of a conservative Armenian migrant family who soared to the highest public office in the state; and he, 11 years her senior, the one-time manager of a Wagga Wagga Harvey Norman franchise, who never rose beyond the rank of parliamentary secretary throughout his 19 years as an MP. Yet this was the man Gladys Berejiklian secretly hoped to marry.
Last week’s revelations about a secret relationship of at least five years’ standing between the pair shocked even close colleagues, who had no inkling of their leader’s long-term amour.
Inside government, there was initial concern that Berejiklian’s leadership could be in immediate jeopardy. Yet that quickly began to ebb in the face of what one Liberal MP described as an “avalanche” of support for the beleaguered Premier.
“In the court of public opinion it was virtually one way traffic, overwhelmingly in her favour,” the MP said. Messages of goodwill flooded into her offices, with people such as listener Clare, phoning in to Ben Fordham’s breakfast program on 2GB on Monday to pour out sympathy. “You have my respect,” Clare told the Premier. “You are not the only woman who has made that mistake.”
There was relief inside government that the crisis was playing out publicly as more of a titillating love-gone-wrong scandal than a probity scandal.
There was a “disconnect”, said one senior Liberal, between the political and media class “who have been sitting there poring over every word [in the ICAC evidence] and the people out in the ‘burbs who have seen only tidbits and are just hearing about a dud boyfriend, thinking ‘poor Glad, hasn’t she been harshly done by’.” Her credibility had taken a hit, this source said, “but I don’t think that’s filtered out into the public”.
That sense of relief was not to last. On Thursday came a fresh grenade from One Nation Upper House MP Mark Latham, who asserted Maguire had had a key to Berejiklian’s North Sydney home for “many years”, and that “while cohabiting, came and went as he liked, as recently as last month”.
Didn’t that demonstrate, Latham went on, that they’d had what amounted to an “intimate personal relationship” and that she should have thus declared his various business interests?
The significance of Latham’s claims – repeated by Labor in the lower house and which Berejiklian immediately denounced – was immediately obvious to anyone who’s been following the fine detail of the Premier’s various ruminations on the nature of her relationship with Maguire.
Under the NSW Ministerial code of conduct, ministers have to avoid knowingly concealing a conflict of interest with the “potential to influence the performance of their public duty”, including conflicts which might involve family members. Besides the obvious categories of spouses, de facto partners, parents, children and siblings, “family member” is defined by the code as “any other person with whom the Minister is in an intimate personal relationship”.
But what constitutes an “intimate personal relationship”? It remains unclear. An ICAC spokesperson told the Herald, “what may constitute an ‘intimate personal relationship’ in any particular case will depend upon the individual factual circumstances pertaining at the relevant time”.
Maguire had been in Berejiklian’s ear about his various business dealings for years. It was also clear from the evidence that Maguire was desperate to clear himself of debt and to set himself up in a post-parliamentary business career. Berejiklian has been adamant she’s never done anything wrong, and that his copious communications to her about his business affairs and financial situation had been of little interest and no relevance to her.
Indeed, she seemed to find the very notion offensive. “If you’re suggesting that I cared about his financial position, I reject that completely,” she told counsel assisting the ICAC, Scott Robertson. “It had nothing to do with me, I’ve never relied on anybody else in my life, and I wouldn’t start then.”
She conceded to the ICAC that theirs had been a “close personal relationship” and later confirmed that the pair had been considering a future together. But at a press conference after her appearance before the corruption watchdog she was at pains to deny that her and Maguire’s private bond met the threshold of an “intimate” personal relationship.
Several days later, that narrative took an arresting turn into Mills and Boon territory. In a soft interview with the Sunday Telegraph‘s gossip columnist last weekend, Berejiklian opened up about her feelings for the disgraced MP, confessing she’d fallen in love with him and had hoped it might lead to marriage.
But by the next day she was telling Fordham on 2GB that “he wasn’t my boyfriend, he wasn’t anything of note. I certainly hoped it would be but it wasn’t sufficiently substantial … I didn’t want to introduce anyone to my close network unless I knew it was the real deal and I didn’t feel it was at the time”.
In what some colleagues consider a severe lapse of judgment, she also chose to subject herself to the grubby interrogations of shock jock Kyle Sandilands the same day.
Those were the last pronouncements from Berejiklian on the relationship until Thursday, when Labor leader Jodi McKay pressed the Premier three times on Latham’s claims that Maguire had a key and access to her home as recently as last month.
Berejiklian reacted with fury, accusing McKay of repeating “things that are factually incorrect” and “aren’t even true”, though she stopped short of a blanket denial. She also accused McKay of “rank hypocrisy” for refusing to respect the ICAC processes.
Outside the house, one of her ministers, Andrew Constance, held a delphic press conference where he threatened to refer Latham and McKay to the parliamentary privileges committee and demanded they reveal the source of their allegations. Meanwhile in parliament, the speaker of the lower house had reminded MPs of the obligation to be “respectful of the sub judice rule but also of suppression orders that ICAC has made”.
Labor, frustrated by the truncated question time format that the parliament has adopted through the pandemic, now believe they have the chink in Berejiklian’s armour they’ve been seeking for days.
The Premier insists she has acted at all times with integrity, has done nothing wrong and is not accused of wrong-doing.
But McKay said it is inexplicable that she kept her relationship with Maguire secret – and indeed maintained a connection – even after he was forced to resign from the Liberal party and then from parliament altogether in mid-2018 after running afoul of an earlier ICAC investigation.
That probe, into Canterbury council, caught Maguire on phone intercepts from May 2016 trying to arrange a “cut” from a property deal involving Chinese developer Country Garden.
During last week’s questioning of Berejiklian, the assistant commissioner presiding over the inquiry, retired judge Ruth McColl, QC, pressed the Premier on why, in September 2017, she had not become concerned about Maguire telling her, amongst other things, that he was hoping to make a profit on a deal at Badgery’s Creek, where the NSW government had made a “very large-scale investment”. The Premier replied that she had not given much credence to Maguire’s musings.
“He would often talk about these mega deals and whatever else but they never seemed to come to fruition,” Berejiklian said. “So therefore it didn’t spark my concern because it was, it was known amongst colleagues and others that he talked big … [but the deals] never seemed to eventuate.”
She also stated that “I probably would have … not regarded it as interesting to me” and that she had always “assumed” ( wrongly, as it transpired) that Maguire would have made “all of his disclosures at the appropriate time”.
But McKay argues that Berejiklian has “lost all moral authority”, that Maguire’s pattern of behaviour should have rung alarm bells and that “in your private life you have a duty under the ICAC to disclose what you know and you have a duty to report what you know and she has not done that”.
The precise timing of when Berejiklian ended the relationship has also come under renewed scrutiny. Berejiklian told the ICAC that her relationship with Maguire ended in August this year. That was presumably on or soon after August 16 when she attended a then secret compulsory witness examination and most probably learnt the full extent of his alleged attempts to illicitly monetise his parliamentary office.
The Premier also stated that her last conversation with Maguire had been on September 13 this year. Asked by the Herald what that conversation had involved and what other dealings the pair may have had between August and September 13, a spokeswoman replied simply that “the Premier was a witness for the ICAC and has been more than co-operative”.
Berejiklian is indeed only a witness. Yet it remains open to the commission to offer commentary on the conduct of others, apart from Maguire himself. It’s a prospect that some senior Liberals are privately worried about.
There is also concern that Maguire’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings could now become the lens through which Labor will seek to hold up to the light a whole series of earlier government decisions. On Friday, for instance, a NSW parliamentary inquiry grilled Berejiklian’s former staff (who are not accused of wrongdoing) about six grants totalling $40,000 from the Premier’s discretionary fund, paid to Maguire’s electorate in 2017 and 2018. Those grants are part of a wider scheme which is rapidly becoming a major headache for the government.
Berejiklian has party room support, for now. If she can hold the line her colleagues, outwardly at least, seem confident she’s still the best bet to take them to the next election after her stellar performance during the Black Summer fires and through the pandemic. “It’s a crazy brave type of MP that would go one way when the electorate is going the other,” said a senior colleague this week.
Yet should that public support start to waver that calculation may change. Another observes, “I think she has earned the benefit of the doubt. .. But any [future] mistake, no matter how small, could be damaging.”
This week the Auditor-General warned that ICAC’s independence was at risk because its funding was effectively at the whim of government, with no transparency about how decisions affecting its budget were taken. This would be an opportune time for the government to demonstrate its bona fides by redressing that problem.
Meanwhile Berejiklian’s fighting instincts have been laid bare as never before. She stared down Nationals leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s threat to torpedo the government last month even as she must have been carrying some degree of private dread, knowing her secret was soon to emerge.
One colleague told the Herald this week that they believed Maguire had “groomed” Berejiklian, who was relatively naive in love, and that he’d “shown no interest in her until she became treasurer”. Maguire had dreamt big and was “devastated when he was not made minister”, the source said.
In his inaugural parliamentary speech in 1999, Maguire spoke of his “very humble beginning”, and of how his stockman-drover father, widowed at an early age, struggled to get his kids to school “hail or shine, on dirt and muddy roads”. His father had taught his kids that you “must earn people’s trust”. Maguire learnt well how to win trust – but not how to repay it.
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.