New Australian state leader sticks to lockdown timetable

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The new government leader of Australia’s most populous state said Tuesday he would stick with a timetable of starting to reopen New South Wales next week.

Dominic Perrottet was treasurer in Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s government when she announced last week she was resigning because she was under investigation by a corruption watchdog.

He defeated Planning Minister Rob Stokes in a ballot of lawmakers in their conservative Liberal Party 39-5 on Tuesday to become the next premier.

The leadership change comes at a critical time of the pandemic as New South Wales attempts to emerge from a lockdown that began on June 26.

There was speculation that Perrottet, who is more conservative than his predecessor and an opponent of lockdowns, would lift restrictions early.

Perrottet, who at 39 is the youngest premier in the state’s history, said he planned to reopen the economy to fully vaccinated people from Monday.

“We are a week away from opening up our state,” Perrottet told reporters.

“Our focus is on one thing only — that’s keeping people safe, getting the economy open, getting people back to work, and getting businesses back in business,” he added.

New South Wales’ COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations peaked last month as vaccination rates rose to 67.5% of the population aged 16 and older.

But infections and numbers of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital are expected to rise again as pandemic restrictions are eased.

Berejiklian announced her resignation after the Independent Commission Against Corruption revealed on Friday it was investigating a five-year secret personal relationship she had had with former government colleague Daryl Maguire.

ICAC, an independent state-based public sector watchdog, said it was investigating whether there was conflict between Berejiklian’s public duties and her relationship with Maguire, who resigned from Parliament in 2018.

The relationship became public last year when Berejiklian gave evidence to an ICAC investigation into whether Maguire used his position as a lawmaker to gain an improper benefit for himself and his associates.

Berejiklian will be investigated over government grants awarded or promised to community groups in Maguire’s electorate.

Berejiklian has denied any wrongdoing, but said remaining in office while under investigation would be a distraction for the government at a critical stage of the pandemic.

Berejiklian’s resignation was followed by the resignations of Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Transport Minister Andrew Constance.

All three will be replaced at by-elections which have yet to be scheduled.