Earlier this week, Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party publicly put their weight behind the prospect of preselecting former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in the seat of Warringah for the upcoming federal election. Despite the ongoing ICAC inquiry that saw Berejiklian voluntarily resign as premier and leave NSW politics, even Liberal heavyweights, including former prime minister John Howard and former NSW deputy leader Bruce Baird, openly voiced their support. As a popular Liberal politician, Berejiklian was seen as the last hope of winning back this seat.
This week of speculation abruptly ended when Berejiklian pulled the plug on the whole idea as she was "going in a different direction", walking away from politics to pursue a career in the private sector. Why, then, was Morrison so adamant Berejiklian should contest this seat?
Warringah made headlines in the last federal election when its most notable member, former prime minister Tony Abbott, was unseated by independent candidate and former Olympic athlete Zali Steggall. Once a safe seat for the Liberals and their predecessor conservative parties, who had held Warringah since Federation, Stegall won it on a strong platform advocating action on climate change, mental health, and corruption.
The upcoming federal election will be a tight race. The Coalition must keep all 76 seats they currently hold to form a majority government. Thirty-three of the 48 seats held by the Liberals are in Queensland and Western Australia - two states which re-elected state Labor governments by a landslide. To offset any potential losses there, the Coalition's focus is now on NSW. Warringah will be one of many seats it wants to regain.
The Liberals only have one shot, and they need a star candidate. Steggall is a popular politician, but so, too, is Berejiklian, despite the ICAC investigation. As one Liberal source disclosed: "The only candidate who can win back the seat for us is Gladys. She is a rockstar in the electorate."
It's unsurprising, then, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg publicly pressured Berejiklian to put her hat in the ring. If she won, she would have been celebrated as a Liberal hero.
Yet the ICAC investigation is still hanging over her head. She must wait until December 20 to learn of its initial recommendations, and the findings will not be known before the federal election, as they are likely to be released in the second half of 2022. It's unsurprising, then, that she would want to lay low, rather than contest a high-profile seat in the next election.
That Morrison wanted Berejiklian to run demonstrates his flippant disregard for ICAC. But that's part and parcel for a Prime Minister who has consistently undermined the integrity commission process.
If Morrison had his way, Berejiklian would have shouldered all the risk, and the Liberal Party would have received all the gains. The term "glass cliff" has recently been coined, to refer to the frequency with which women seem to gain leadership positions during times of crisis or risk. In politics, this scenario typically involves the preselection of a woman for a hard-to-win seat.
The risk in Berejiklian's case lay not in the winnability of Warringah, but in the potential pitfalls an election campaign presented to her personal reputation. She has maintained a low profile since the announcement of the ICAC inquiry and her subsequent resignation. Running as an election candidate would have thrust her back into the spotlight.
Professor Michelle Ryan, director of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at the Australian National University and a co-author of the glass cliff concept, believes this would have been a risky move for Berejiklian. While Berejiklian's circumstances don't necessarily foretell electoral failure, Professor Ryan told me it would have potentially set her up for "precarity and risk in terms of her reputation and the ability to control the narrative".
"It would put her directly in the public eye at a time when she might want to be out of the limelight until the ICAC findings are handed down," she said.
Berejiklian has not been an active participant throughout this discussion - we did not hear a peep from her until yesterday, when she ruled out the entire idea. Instead, the issue has been framed by Morrison, Frydenberg and other senior Liberal Party men who wanted a saviour - despite the risk that their champion may tumble over the glass cliff.
Yet again, Liberal women have to deal with men trying to make their decisions for them, rather than being able to own their own narrative.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow in politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.