In early September 2017, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, spent a busy morning visiting sick and dying children at Sydney’s Westmead hospital when her phone rang.
On the other end of the line was a jubilant Daryl Maguire, then the Liberal member for Wagga Wagga. It wasn’t what you might imagine a typical call from a local MP to the state’s premier would sound like.
But then, as was made painfully clear during a week of excruciating evidence before the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac), not much about the newly public “close personal relationship” between the two of them was typical.
Instead of concern about some local issue, or a gripe about negative media coverage, Maguire spoke excitedly, laughing and joking with the premier about his hope for a big payday.
“William tells me we’ve done our deal so hopefully that’s about half of all that gone now,” Maguire said down the line.
The premier replied “that’s good”, pausing for a split second before adding: “I don’t need to know about that bit.”
Maguire agreed. “No you don’t … you do not.”
The exchange, picked up by wiretaps, lasted no more than 30 seconds.
But it is packed with meaning.
Did Berejiklian turn a blind eye to Maguire’s actions?
Maguire, now infamous for his outside wheeling and dealing, was actually underselling himself. This week, he told Icac that at the time he believed the potential sale of a vast swathe of farmland held by the racing heiress Louise Waterhouse near the proposed Western Sydney airport in Badgerys Creek would in fact net him up to $1.5m, enough to pay off the personal debt he had been, as Berejiklian put it this week, “obsessed” with.
For the premier, it reflects a remarkable juxtaposition. Visiting sick children one minute, listening to a sitting MP who she had been in a years-long secret relationship boast about his questionable property dealings the next.
But it has also given rise to the question that has gripped the state’s parliament this week: did Berejiklian turn a blind eye to Maguire’s actions?
Berejiklian and Maguire have different takes on what the words might have meant.
Maguire told Icac on Friday morning that he had deliberately tried to protect the premier from knowing too much. He knew his activities could place her in conflict, he said, given the state government’s immense interest in the Badgerys Creek site.
“Obviously there’s conflict of interest and all of that stuff,” Maguire said. “I considered it might make things really difficult for her.”
His concern, he bluntly admitted, was that she would discover things that would not “reflect well on her”. But according to Maguire, it went both ways. He agreed with counsel assisting the commission, Scott Robertson, that there were certain things Berejiklian “didn’t want to know” about his business dealings.
Berejiklian, though, has maintained that she was likely disinterested in Maguire’s talk of fanciful business dealings and money woes.
“I have no direct recollection, I can only surmise, but I probably would have firstly not regarded it as interesting to me,” she told Icac during her extraordinary appearance on Monday.
“It was not something I paid particular attention to, and I would have also potentially regarded it as more pie-in-the-sky and speculation.”
Berejiklian has spent the week insisting she has done nothing wrong, and framing her only failure as a personal one. She trusted the wrong man, she has said, and allowed herself to be betrayed and tricked.
So far, her colleagues are standing by her. But all spills begin with words of loyalty.
The question for Berejiklian’s immediate future is: can she weather the storm?
The Labor leader, Jodi McKay, is doing all she can to dial up the pressure, culminating with this question in the last question time of the week on Thursday.
“Daryl Maguire has today given evidence to Icac that he sought your guidance and reassurance on solving his major financial problems. Will you admit that you were his sounding board for corruption?” she asked in parliament.
A furious Berejiklian dared McKay to make that remark outside the chamber, which she later did.
Not only were such questions “wrong”, she said, they were “extremely offensive”.
Berejiklian’s efforts to compartmentalise her failings to her personal life will be tested.
Journalists are digging through past interactions between Maguire and Berejiklian and this week stories emerged revealing the former Wagga Wagga MP reportedly brokered meetings between the premier and two convicted criminals to discuss gaming policy, and with the then Wagga mayor who wanted funding for a roads project that ministerial staff vehemently opposed.
A relationship that predates 2015
Maguire was ecstatic. The long dry Sydney summer of 2014 was almost at an end and the member for Wagga Wagga, again, believed he was in for a payday.
A $5.8m property sale, brokered by Maguire and his Chinese business partner, was set to earn him a tidy windfall.
There was only one person he wanted to tell.
“Hawkiss good news,” Maguire texted Berejiklian, the then minister for Hunter, using an Armenian term of endearment.
“One of my contacts sold a motel for 5.8 million I had put her in contact so I should make 5k.”
The future premier of the state was gleeful in her reply.
“Congrats!!! Great News!! Woo hoo.”
The exchange is the earliest between Maguire and Berejiklian placed into evidence before Icac this week. Though Berejiklian has said her recollection is that their “close personal relationship” began in the period around the 2015 state election, private evidence given by Maguire on Thursday and published late on Friday afternoon suggested the date may have been as early as 2013. But in any case, the 2014 exchange is followed by many, many more.
All week, private phone calls and texts between Maguire and Berejiklian, spanning a period of several years, were aired to the world from the seventh-floor Icac hearing room in Sydney’s CBD.
The recordings present Maguire as a man hopelessly compromised. Deeply in debt, the inquiry painted a portrait of someone who used public office to make a buck while scrambling to find a way out of a $1.5m hole. And a man with a penchant for sharing his financial woes with his “Hawkiss” despite her protestations.
“No well I am poor I’m telling you, 1.59 million poor,” Maguire told Berejiklian during one conversation in September 2017. “Just repeat after me, 1.5 million.”
Berejiklian replied: “I’m not going to say any such thing.”
Until the Icac hearings, Berejiklian was riding high. She emerged from bushfires, a global pandemic and internal Coalition ructions with the image of a strong, competent and dedicated leader, a straight-edged policy wonk above the usual muck of NSW politics.
But the covert recordings have left a marked stain on her squeaky-clean facade.
‘I’ll be alright if we do this deal’
In many of the calls, Berejiklian seems distracted, almost bored. Like she’s humouring Maguire as he talks big about his money-making adventures, or vents about some bureaucrat or minister standing in his way.
In one call, on 25 November 2016, Berejiklian offers only “mmm” on seven separate occasions, as Maguire complains about the problems facing a company named UWE Commodities in which he had been hoping to land a board position while lobbying ministers on their behalf.
But the recordings become particularly fraught for the premier in late 2017.
The inquiry has heard that at this point, Maguire, still a sitting MP, is attempting to broker a massive land deal involving Waterhouse, who holds land near Badgerys Creek, the site of the Western Sydney airport, a project the NSW government is deeply involved in.
Maguire told Icac this week that at the time he believed he stood to make as much as $1.5m if the deal went through. It never did, but Maguire, who Berejiklian described as often “fanciful”, was optimistic on the call.
“Also good news we clinched the land deal!,” he texts on 6 September 2017. “For my Friends [tongue face emoji]. I should be back in the Black soon.”
The deal is again raised during a phone conversation between the pair later that day.
“And um yeah I’ll be alright if we do this deal with um if William gets this deal done at Badgerys Creek then I won’t have to worry about it too much, we’ll be in front again. Phil is going to China Saturday. Can you believe that?” Maguire says.
The next day, Maguire again talks to the premier about his land deal at Badgerys Creek, prompting the “I don’t need to know” comment.
It’s not until mid-October 2017 that Maguire name-checks Waterhouse herself. He mentions offhandedly during a call with Berejiklian that he’d had coffee with the racing identity.
“Oh yeah, how’s she going?” Berejiklian asks.
Maguire tells the premier of her “big problem”, a reference to Waterhouse’s land out at Badgerys Creek, which she wants to connect to the Northern Road, a major arterial road in the area. Doing so would increase the value of her land considerably.
“I took up to your office and said here can you help solve it,” he says. “She’s got a lot of property out at Badgerys Creek … and the planning department right, and, and [Roads and Maritime Services] and all them are saying look you know, we, we don’t want to plan that now, we’re too busy worrying about you know, the new housing and all this around Badgerys Creek.
“And she’s saying but, you know, I need a road, I need an access, give me an access. I’ll develop it myself, I don’t need you, right … and they’re resisting. She said I’ve been two years trying to get this road on.
“They just won’t do anything and I said OK. So I got Roads, I got Jock to come down and I got um, one bloke from your place there, got them to put their heads together and said look, why can’t you fix this?”
Berejiklian is heard only responding “mmm”.
A month later, on 15 November, the inquiry heard that Maguire again raises Waterhouse’s problem connecting the road to her land, asking the premier whether she received an email from the landowner.
Maguire told Icac that he had given out her personal email address and urged Waterhouse to contact Berejiklian.
“They’re all passing the buck,” Maguire tells Berejiklian in the recorded call. “So RMS is saying no, no, it’s the federal government’s plan and we have to deliver on it. Federal government’s saying no, no RMS are in charge of the roads.”
Berejiklian responds only “mmm” and “alright”.
‘Which little friend you talking about?’
Waterhouse’s dilemma is again raised in December, when Maguire boasts of making plans to introduce her to NSW planning officials.
Maguire later surprised the then head of the Greater Sydney Commission, Sarah Hill, by turning up to a briefing on plans for western Sydney with Waterhouse.
The inquiry heard that he berated the bureaucrats when they seemed unwilling to make the planning changes sought by Waterhouse.
“To be frank, I was angry,” Hill told Icac. “I felt either I had made a mistake [in not realising Waterhouse was going to attend] or had been put in a difficult situation and I didn’t feel comfortable with his comment to us, which really riled me.”
In February 2018, just months before Maguire was forced out of office when revelations about his private dealings were first made, the then Wagga Wagga MP was continuing to tell the premier of his private dealings.
“Apart from that ah, things are good. I introduced my little friend to them and um, they’ve, they were talking when I left them, which is good news,” he says. “You know my little friend?”
Berejiklian responds: “Not really, don’t, I don’t … I don’t need to know, who’s your, which little friend you talking about?”
Maguire says he’s talking about the friend “with the polished head”. “You don’t need to know what for but …”
Berejiklian again replies only “mmm.”
Maguire’s political career implodes four months later.
A separate Icac investigation examining alleged council corruption hears recordings that, for the first time, give a glimpse of his private dealings.
The wiretaps are played on 13 July 2018. He resigns from the Liberal party the same day but vows to stay in parliament as a crossbencher.
Berejiklian is on leave at the time.
Michael Daley, the acting opposition leader, urges her to immediately intervene, saying: “The premier needs to get on the phone today or do whatever she needs to do to tell Daryl Maguire that he won’t be sitting on the crossbenches for the next nine months, he needs to resign from parliament.”
In public, Berejiklian put pressure on Maguire to “to think carefully as to whether he can effectively represent the people of Wagga Wagga from here on in” and asks the former premier Barry O’Farrell, now a racing industry lobbyist, to help.
Maguire remained in parliament for almost three more weeks, before finally quitting.
His career was ruined.
Berejiklian told Icac she stayed with him out of compassion.
“He was someone who was in a, a very bad state,” she said. “After having known him for 15 years, I, I felt that I should check on his welfare and, therefore, for that reason, I maintained that association for that time.”
It remains to be seen whether that decision will come back to haunt the premier.