In what seemed like it may turn out to be another ‘do as I say rather than do as I do’ political saga, NSW deputy premier John Barilaro has been cleared on Thursday, 7 May, by a police investigation for contravening lockdown travel regulations.
He has been criticised by opposition politicians, who said he should not have driven 125km from his home in Queanbeyan, near Canberra, to a weekend getaway property around two hours’ drive away, at a time when he has been vocal in calling for people in metro areas not to travel to regional NSW because of the pandemic.
At a media conference earlier this week the deputy premier admitted making the trip, but denied he was in breach of regulations.
Incident turns into a parliamentary political football
However, at the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the state government’s response to Covid-19, the incident became a political football, with Labor’s Walt Secord taking Barilaro to task.
He asked whether Barilaro was being “hypocritical”, especially after he criticised the former NSW arts minister, Don Harwin, who resigned in early April after travelling between his Central Coast beach house and his Sydney residence.
Speaking on Thursday, 7 May in state parliament, Secord stated: “He [Barilaro] said he drove 125km to build a cubby house. That was his reason. I don’t see how a cubby house is essential work … don’t you think he should be brought to account?”
In his response to Secord, NSW health minister Brad Hazzard said: “I am here to answer questions on public health. I will not be drawn on that as it is under investigation by the police, as you just told me … We are here to answer questions on keeping the public safe and you are only interested in playing politics.”
Deputy premier wanted to consider his political future
The apparent motive for Barilaro’s trip to what he has called a ‘farm’ and some others have referred to as a ‘luxury estate’, was to consider his political future and whether to run for a federal seat, as well as to build the cubby home for his young son.
Part of the reason for the public and political furore is Barilaro’s statement in late March, carried in the Sydney Morning Herald, which pleaded with Sydneysiders to stay away from regional NSW until the end of the year amid fears that offers of cheap accommodation would encourage people to escape the city.
“If you live in the regions you must make the tough call to tell any friends and family in the city you’ll see them at Christmas, no sooner,” Barilaro said. He added that this was critical in stopping the spread of COVID-19 to the regions.
Was Barilaro’s trip any different to that of Harwin’s?
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian previously went on record to say that Barilaro’s trip was well within the rules.
But others may argue that the letter of the law can be very different to the spirit of the law. Particularly given Harwin’s decision to fall on his sword after being fined $1 000 for staying at his Central Coast holiday home in breach of a COVID-19 public health order.
Harwin maintained that he had received formal advice that his living arrangements complied with the direction for people to stay at home, and that he acted in accordance with those orders.
But he said the controversy over his getaway was a “distraction” for the government at a critical time and he would not allow his circumstances to be a distraction from that work.