Gladys Berejiklian will be remembered for his resilience, level-headedness, crisis management skills and administrative ability as head of NSW – and of course, the ICAC investigation that toppled him.
Decent, determined and hardworking, she was able to waver in the face of adversity.
Berejiklian has left a legacy of economic achievement and major infrastructure construction. She achieved a major milestone both personally and for women by becoming the first female NSW Premier to win a general election.
Read more: Berejiklian collapse derails career built on accountability and control. Who will take his place now?
Energetic, effective and politically shrewd
Of Armenian descent, Berejiklian began his career in politics working for former Liberal leader Peter Collins. She was a leader of the moderates bloc and was the chair of the Young Liberals. After a stay in banking, she was elected MP for the former seat of Willoughby, Collins in 2003. She proved to be an energetic, effective shadow transport minister.
Berejiklian influenced Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell, who became a mentor. When O’Farrell became chief in 2011, Berejiklian served in a significant transportation portfolio.
Because of his strong performances, he was seen as a potential future premier. However, when O’Farrell resigned in April 2014 after mishandling the ICAC investigation, Mike Baird had the numbers in the party room. Berejiklian, who was personally close to Baird, withdrew from the competition and was elected deputy leader. She was Treasurer and Minister of Industrial Relations in the Baird government.
Berejiklian’s time came when Baird resigned in January 2017 – he was elected premier unopposed at the end of January 2017.
Berejiklian’s policy direction was similar to that of his predecessor, with an emphasis on economics, infrastructure and public sector reform.
Like Baird, the Berejiklian was a small “L” liberal on social reform. She had a less outgoing personal style than Baird but was able to convince voters that she was trustworthy, capable, and sensitive to their needs.
The premier stabilized the government and showed it still had purpose and dynamism. He showed his political shrewdness by quickly pulling off unpopular local government reforms, which had been a factor in Baird’s downfall.
The premier survived two rounds of threatened by-elections in April 2017, a sign that anti-government sentiment that marked the end of Baird’s term had subsided.
Sydney’s Serpentine Politics
The serpentine politics of Sydney’s sports and stadiums left Berejiklian the wrong way in late 2017. It announced that both the Allianz and Homebush stadiums in Sydney would be demolished and renovated together at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.
It was a huge miscalculation that would upset Berejiklian. Public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with a general theme being that it was a gross misuse of public funds to rebuild two stadiums, one only 17 years old, instead of funding important community facilities. Premier held back on the demolition of Homebush but much public outrage about Allianz remained.
In her campaign for the March 2019 election, Berejiklian largely followed the government’s record.
The economy was performing well compared to other states, public finances were in the best shape they had been in a long time, and the infrastructure budget for the next four years was close to $90 billion. Labor leader Michael Daly, the leader of his campaign, opposed the demolition and reconstruction of Allianz Stadium.
While not a flashy or magnetic campaigner, Berejiklian remained “on message” and came across as honest and conscientious. The result was a triumphant victory for him. The government’s two-party preferred vote was 52% and its primary vote was 42% – 9% higher than that of Labor.
The premier had convinced enough voters that the government had made significant achievements to its credit and was better equipped to deliver more in the future.
Bushes and COVID . Through
The final years of Berejiklian’s tenure were marked by efficient management of major crises. Like other parts of Australia, in January 2020, NSW was devastated by a devastating bushfire season that claimed 25 lives.
Unlike Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Berejiklian emerged from the bushfire crisis with a heightened prestige.
As political commentator Nikki Sawa, writing in The Australian, puts it:
When there was a fire in NSW, he made it a point to be there every day, standing next to fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons, supporting him and allowing him to do his job. He visited the affected communities. His embrace was accepted. No one refused to shake hands.
As the bushfires had not stopped, the state was plunged into another crisis with the outbreak of coronavirus. Berejiklian responded in the same way, this time with Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant by his side.
The second NSW COVID outbreak proved more difficult and unpredictable to manage, but by the time of his resignation the situation was coming under control.
Although he was criticized by some for his handling of the crisis, Berejiklian’s calm, competent, conversational approach appears to have resonated among voters.
ICAC’s Operation Keppel
The ICAC’s Operation Keppel was investigating whether former Liberal MP for Wagga Daryl Maguire engaged in conduct that included a breach of public trust.
The public hearing began in September 2020 and Berejiklian appeared as a witness in October.
In a revelation that generated a widespread tsunami of shock, it was revealed that Premiere had been in a “close personal relationship” with Maguire since 2015 which recently ended.
Previously, Berejiklian’s public figure, who had never been married, was a prominent career woman tied to her job.
Berejiklian said he had no intention of stepping down because he had done nothing wrong and that most voters were sympathetic.
The general attitude was that he had made a miscalculation in his personal life, was not an uncommon occurrence, and did not deserve to be punished by losing his job.
As reporter Deborah Snow wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald,
There was relief within the government that the crisis was turning out to be a misogynistic love affair rather than an integrity scandal.
declaration of one ICAC Inquiry Whether the premier had engaged in conduct that involved a “breach of public trust” as his relationship with Maguire resulted in his resignation.
She could have stepped aside until the outcome of the investigation, but instead decided to take the same course as O’Farrell, who decided to do the honorable job and walk.
Read more: The long history of political corruption in NSW – and the downfall of MPs, ministers and prime ministers