A beaming Gladys Berejiklian has appeared for the first time on the election campaign trail in one of the Liberal Party’s most at-risk seats, dining with Penrith MP Stuart Ayres and his wife, federal Senator Marise Payne.
The former premier posed for a selfie with the under-fire Ayres – who holds Penrith on a razor-thin margin of 0.6 per cent – and Payne after the trio shared a meal at local Chinese restaurant Happy Inn.
The photograph shared on Ayres’ public Instagram profile raised eyebrows among election watchers observing that the woman once credited as having “saved Australia” from the pandemic was yet to lend her profile to the man who succeeded her, Dominic Perrottet.
“Happy Inn always a good choice for a fun dinner,” Ayres wrote in a caption to the photograph shared on Wednesday night.
The dinner took place three days after the Liberal Party’s official campaign launch, where Berejiklian was a notable absentee. Former prime ministers Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull also did not attend.
Perrottet on Thursday was coy about Berejiklian’s first appearance in the campaign, brushing off the suggestion he had been snubbed and insisting he enjoyed her strong support.
But Liberal insiders say there is tension between the pair, especially from Berejiklian, dating back to her final days in office before she was forced to resign over an ongoing corruption inquiry.
Berejiklian has kept a low profile since her resignation amid the ICAC probe, which is yet to hand down its findings into whether she breached public trust or encouraged corrupt conduct during her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire. Berejiklian has insisted she acted with the highest integrity while in office.
During a debate on Wednesday, both Perrottet and NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said they did not believe Berejiklian was unfairly treated by the corruption watchdog. However, Perrottet said he believed NSW was in a better place because of her leadership.
As leader, Berejiklian enjoyed huge support for her stewardship through the COVID-19 pandemic, with her likeability and popularity rebounding after her ICAC appearance.
Asked on Thursday if he would ask Berejiklian to join him in other marginal seats, Perrottet said he would always accept her support.
“If I could have Glad out every day, I would … she’s obviously very busy. She’s a senior executive at Optus,” he said.
“She was a great premier of NSW and to see her campaigning in Penrith, I know will make a real difference.”
In his own safe Liberal seat of Epping, Perrottet suggested it was unlikely the former premier would make an appearance before polling day on March 25.
“If Gladys came to Epping – that would say something.”
Perrottet holds the north-west electorate on a comfortable margin of 11 per cent.
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