NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is resisting pressure to sack Arts Minister Don Harwin but the frontbencher could still face a $1000 fine for staying at his Central Coast holiday home amid coronavirus restrictions.
On Thursday morning, Ms Berejiklian ordered Mr Harwin to return to Sydney, after he was sprung at his Central Coast holiday house despite bans on non-essential travel.
Mr Harwin had reportedly been at his million-dollar holiday home in Pearl Beach for three weeks, despite authorities pleading with Sydneysiders to stay out of regional towns because of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Harwin’s main residence is an apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – more than an hour from Pearl Beach.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Harwin rejected he was “tourist” and claimed he’d spent most of the past four months at Pearl Beach.
The 55-year-old said he’d chosen to move out of Sydney for health reasons as someone with comorbidities and a history of respiratory problems.
NSW is the Australian state hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, and authorities – including Ms Berejiklian – have spent days warning people not to go away over the Easter break.
On Thursday, Ms Berejiklian conceded “the perception is horrible”. She said she had been made aware of the situation a few days ago.
“I regret and apologise to everybody that somebody from my team took this action,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“It’s not just about sticking to the rules, it’s about making sure there’s a perception that everybody is sticking to the rules, including members of parliament.”
She said Mr Harwin had broken no rules because he went to his holiday house before NSW’s tough social-distancing shutdown was announced in March.
“[But] they are very serious circumstances and I don’t want to take away from that,” she said.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said he would ask for an explanation from Mr Harwin.
“If it doesn’t stack up, I’ll ask for a ticket,” he said.
“We have evidence in terms of photographs, and if the explanation doesn’t stack up we will let you know and give him a ticket for $1000.”
NSW Labor is calling on Mr Harwin to resign or, failing that, for Ms Berejiklian to step in and relieve him of his ministerial duties.
“He’s been selfish and he should be brought to account,” shadow arts minister Walt Secord said.
Ms Berejiklian, however, said she wasn’t inclined to sack a minister on the basis of a potential fine but would wait for police to first establish the facts.
“If someone is shown to act in a way which is against the ministerial code or against the laws of this state, of course I’ll take action,” she said.
Officials across the world have been caught flouting self isolation rule, including Scotland’s chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood who resigned after she was busted going to her beach house.
In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark was caught mountain biking. That’s not banned under NZ’s strict rules, but the fact he drove several kilometres – in a van emblazoned with an image of his face – to do it is.
Mr Clark kept his cabinet job but was demoted by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after admitting a second lockdown breach – driving his family 20 kilometres to visit a beach.