Revelations that New South Wales police are investigating sexual violence allegations against Liberal MP Gareth Ward have plunged the Berejiklian government deeper into minority government and could reverberate in the approaching Upper Hunter byelection.
The news, which broke on Thursday afternoon, is also inflaming tensions within the Coalition, particularly as the 22 May byelection was triggered by allegations of sexual misconduct by a Nationals MP.
The new, unrelated revelations have the potential to highlight standards of behaviour in the NSW parliament in voters’ minds as they go to the polls on Saturday week.
Police said in a statement on Thursday that detectives from the child abuse and sex crimes squad had established “Strike Force Condello to investigate allegations of sexual violence-related offences against a 39-year-old man”. The incidents were reported to have occurred from 2013.
Ward has strenuously denied the allegations and said in a statement that he has not spoken to police. He has stepped aside as minister for family, community and disability services and from the Liberal party.
With the Nationals hoping to hold the highly marginal Upper Hunter seat, the deputy premier, John Barilaro, has called for decisive action on Ward.
“It’s Groundhog Day – this is how I started this byelection,” he said.
“When accusations were made in the House about an individual … and it was the former member for Upper Hunter, Michael Johnsen, I dealt with it within two-and-a-half hours in benching him,” Barilaro told 2GB on Thursday, even before the identity of the MP was known.
Johnsen was accused of raping a sex worker in 2019 at a secluded lookout in the Blue Mountains. He has flatly denied the allegations.
But on Friday, Berejiklian was treading cautiously, saying: “As I understand it, he has not been contacted by police and the extent of any allegation is unknown.
“I have spoken to him and he denied any wrongdoing. He was very categoric that he had not been contacted by police.”
Berejiklian’s treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, said: “Gareth has done the right thing in standing aside.”
After the existence of the investigation into Johnsen was raised in parliament by Labor’s MP for the Blue Mountains, the former Nationals MP acknowledged he had spoken voluntarily to police but was yet to be formally interviewed.
Despite denying the allegations, Johnsen agreed to take leave from parliament within hours of them becoming public. He resigned a week later amid further allegations of lewd text messages.
In March 2020, Ward had to be escorted home by police after being found naked outside his Potts Point apartment in Sydney’s inner east.
When police arrived, Ward was standing in the doorway of another unit, which they determined was his residence, and they escorted him inside. Police said they were called to the unit around 11:30pm in response to a call that a naked man was trying to get into an apartment that wasn’t his own.
Police said Ward “appeared to be disorientated” and called paramedics, but he refused to be taken to hospital.
The minister has issued a statement saying he was “disorientated” because earlier that day he had been under a “general anaesthetic for a procedure” in hospital. No action was taken.
In 2017 while on holiday in New York, Ward alleged he became the target of an extortion bid after paying US$100 for a “normal, standard massage” at his hotel.
He said two men who came to his room at the InterContinental New York in Times Square made clear “more was on offer”, and he asked them to leave. They then told the partly undressed MP they were underage, began filming him and threatened to put footage on the internet unless he paid US$1,000, Ward told the ABC at the time.
Ward, who is legally blind, said he was “terrified” of being bashed and took the pair downstairs, saying he was going to get money from a bank machine. Instead, he sought help from a hotel concierge, who called the police, and the men fled.
Berejiklian needs Ward’s support from the crossbench if she wants to continue to pass legislation. Even with his vote, she has just 46 votes in the 93-seat NSW legislative assembly.
But she has some options to craft a working majority: there are three Greens, three Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and three independents.
Ward’s electorate of Kiama is a safer seat than Upper Hunter, with a 12% margin, but the south coast is volatile and the federal seat of Gilmore has regularly changed hands.
“It’s very disappointing,” Berejiklian said on Friday. “But as with all disappointments in life, you just keep moving forward.”