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Desperate for a superstar, Scott Morrison is doing all he can to reconstruct a halo around Gladys Berejiklian

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Some ideas are so stupid, you just know they’re a work of genius.

Take Scott Morrison spruiking Gladys Berejiklian for the federal seat of Warringah.

As long as she remains under a cloud from the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, it seems daft.

Conventional wisdom is straightforward. The prime minister is trailing in the polls. He needs to refresh, to promote the image of a government not falling apart as it seeks a second decade in office but brimful of energy and great new ideas.

It’s not easy. All governments accumulate embarrassments. But the Coalition’s front bench has delivered a stench of them. Normal practice would see Morrison seek to put maximum distance in the public’s mind between his brand and its ethical failings.

Related: Branded a ‘liar’ by the French, Scott Morrison’s slipperiness is now on show for the world to see | Hugh Riminton

Instead, he seems determined to pursue the candidacy of the former NSW premier. If he succeeds and Icac then finds against her, it gets nasty fast. Just as the Coalition campaign machine seeks to make everything about the economy, Morrison’s ethical misjudgements would again be a central focus.

His failure to bring on a promised commonwealth integrity commission will appear stark.

Voters would inevitably be reminded of “sports rorts”, which temporarily derailed the career of the minister Bridget McKenzie after the ONAI found the projects allocated funding were not selected on the basis of Sports Australia’s merit based recommendations. Or “carpark rorts”, involving the same prime ministerial staffer; $400m of taxpayer money splashed, as the auditor general reported, primarily in marginal Coalition seats rather than in areas recommended by the department on the basis of actual need.

Gaze across the front bench and there is the energy minister Angus Taylor. When an allegedly forged – and undeniably false – document turned up for his use in a parliamentary attack on Sydney’s lord mayor Clover Moore, it almost seemed too much. He denied he or his office had altered the document, insisting staff had downloaded it from the council website and wasn’t personally interviewed by federal police before they decided not to proceed with an investigation, instead answering questions through his lawyer.

While whistleblowers are pursued to the point of destruction for revealing dubious practices by agents of the state, the former attorney general Christian Porter slopes into retirement with citizens having no acceptable explanation for how an MP can declare he received substantial sums (speculated to be up to $1m) in donations for legal fees from a blind trust with neither Parliament nor the public any wiser about where it ultimately came from.

Morrison’s dilemma, on its surface, is a simple one. Recent federal elections have been tight. He needs every hope to come home.

He needs a superstar candidate to win back Warringah and reinvigorate his line-up as so many of his MPs race for the exit.

Six months ago, that would have seemed to be Berejiklian.

She seems an odd choice now.

The prime minister is doing all he can to reconstruct a halo around her. In parliament, he has cast Icac as a “kangaroo court” – an “abuse of process” and an “absolute disgrace”. He has portrayed the release of taped conversations between Berejiklian and her lover Daryl Maguire as prurient and unseemly – “just awful”.

Many in NSW still like and respect Berejiklian for her handling of the pandemic and for turning up through fire and flood while men around her prioritised their holidays. Many punters doubtless felt awkward and embarrassed for her as her private life was exposed.

But she was in a secret relationship with a politician who has since admitted before Icac to using his position to make money. In those circumstances, it’s reasonable for Icac to question whether she should have had “a reasonable suspicion of corruption” to be reported.

The tapes played before the Commission found him freely discussing unspecified deals that would clear his debts. She says she “wasn’t always listening” and insists she had no reason to suspect him of corruption. But she listened enough to promise $170m on a hospital project in his electorate in one exasperated throwaway line.

Berejiklian denies any wrongdoing and insists she always acted in the best interests of the people of NSW.

Public money, folks.

Related: Gladys Berejiklian’s Icac performance has horrified federal Liberals – but only for exposing ‘normal’ political practice | Hugh Riminton

Against that, we have a prime minister who believes in miracles. And is desperate enough for bold plays.

What if Berejiklian stands for Warringah and wins it? And with it, helps Morrison to another term? What if Icac decides there is indeed “nothing to see here”. Or it delays its findings until after the election, which for the moment is all Morrison calculates he needs.

And what if Berejiklian in the meantime gains a pre-election prominence justifying frequent reminders from the prime minister of just how awful corruption commissions can be: look at what they did to “our Glad”!

That alone could help blunt the growing calls for a properly functioning federal anti-corruption commission, a real point of difference currently being exploited by Labor.

Gladys wins. Morrison wins. The Icac can is kicked down a country road.

Ethics be damned.

It’s genius.

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