Shock and fury as Premier’s hand reluctantly forced

Berejiklian, however, never saw a conflict of interest, insisting she’d always acted with the highest level of integrity and that Maguire’s ramblings to her had never raised a red flag.

She forcefully reiterated the declaration of her own integrity as she delivered a brief address announcing her resignation, infused with cold fury towards the ICAC for forcing her departure “during the most challenging weeks of the most challenging times in the history of NSW”.

“Resigning at this time is against every instinct in my being,” she said “but I have been given no option following the statement issued [by the commission].”

There were magnanimous touches too. She paid tribute to the “frontline heroes” of the state, its health workers and firefighters, and to the people of NSW who she said had made her “a better leader and a better person”.

The pallor and dark shadows under her eyes were uncharacteristic, testament no doubt to a long and troubled night. But there were no tears. And for the first time, after months of endless, hour-long press conferences through the Delta outbreak, there were no questions.

‘I can’t emphasise enough how many glass ceilings she has broken.’

Joe Hockey, former federal Liberal minister and later Australian ambassador to Washington

Berejiklian, for all her fleeting moments of girlishness, is as tough as they come, and the way in which she delivered that short, powerful speech proved it.

“She is as tough as nails, you knock her down and she gets back up again,” one of her senior ministers observed in private recently. “The problem is she is stubborn on the things that don’t matter, and flexible on the things that most people would choose to be stubborn about.”

Not taking others – particularly the ICAC – into her confidence earlier about Maguire clearly fell into the former category.

For all the cataclysmic ending of her parliamentary career, it’s hard to overstate Berejiklian’s achievements, both politically and personally.

So many briefings: Gladys Berejiklian faces questions during one of her many COVID-19  press conferences.

So many briefings: Gladys Berejiklian faces questions during one of her many COVID-19 press conferences.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

To have risen, as a woman from a non-English speaking migrant background, to the heights she did inside the cliquey and male-dominated world of the NSW Liberal party, testifies to her sharp intelligence, iron discipline, astonishing stamina and ability to learn and think on her feet.

Joe Hockey, the former federal Liberal minister and onetime Australian ambassador to Washington, who is also, like Berejiklian, of Armenian background, once explained that: “she was the highest achiever supported by an incredible family, with traditional expectations for their three daughters. Gladys fought all her life against stereotypes. She would never admit that because she would see it as a criticism of her traditional migrant upbringing … [yet] I can’t emphasise enough how many glass ceilings she has broken.”

Berejiklian has said she didn’t find out until she arrived at university that there was such a thing as a private school system.

When she was in her 20s, undertaking a masters in economics and working in the office of leading Liberal MP Peter Collins, her mentors encouraged her to run for the presidency of the Young Liberal party when the position came up.

Ground breaking: then premier Mike Baird and transport minister Gladys Berejiklian turn the first sod at the Kellyville Station for the Northwest Rail Link in 2014.

Ground breaking: then premier Mike Baird and transport minister Gladys Berejiklian turn the first sod at the Kellyville Station for the Northwest Rail Link in 2014. Credit:Geoff Jones

Despite some nervousness, she recalled later that “once I got on my feet, I was fearless, and there were not a lot of women around so I stood out. I went hell for leather”.

Going hell for leather was to be her style for the next 25 years.

Berejiklian’s family story was inextricably bound up with the Armenian genocide of 1915, which orphaned her grandparents, stranded her family in the Middle East and eventually saw her parents Krikor and Arsha come to Australia for a new life in the 1960s.

The future premier grew up speaking only Armenian at home until she was five years old. Her family, which includes younger sisters Rita and Mary, is close and Berejiklian has often referenced her own frustration in the last three months at not being able to visit her parents because of the lockdown.

Gladys Berejikilian and her parents, Krikor and Arsha, on Father's Day, 2020.

Gladys Berejikilian and her parents, Krikor and Arsha, on Father’s Day, 2020.
Credit:Instagram/Gladys Berejiklian

Neither Krikor or Arsha had an opportunity to finish high school, helping fuel Berejiklian’s own focus on excelling academically. She’s said she developed her thick hide at the then quite “rough” Peter Board High School in North Ryde, where she became school captain.

She entered state parliament in 2003, standing for the seat of Willoughby and winning by just 144 votes. She later framed the original record from the electoral office of that vote, keeping it on a shelf in her Martin Place office to remind her, she said, “never to take anyone for granted”.

A protégé of former premier Barry O’Farrell (ironically himself brought down by an ICAC inquiry at which he forgot the gift of a bottle of Penfold’s Grange), Berejiklian was promoted to the opposition front bench in 2005, and held a total of nine shadow portfolios in opposition before the coalition was swept into government in 2011.

Once the coalition was in power she took on the heavy-duty portfolio of transport and was urged by some in the party to run for the top job when O’Farrell fell on his sword in April 2014.

But after going out for “a coffee” with then treasurer Mike Baird, she agreed to hand the baton to him, saying later “Mike was ready, it was something that he wanted to do. I thought Mike would be the best premier and I should support him and bring the party together, which is what I did”.

Future premier: NSW Opposition Liberal Party front bench in 2010: Gladys Berejiklian, Greg Smith,Pru Goward, Barry O’Farrell, Jillian Skinner, Mike Baird and Andrew Stoner.

Future premier: NSW Opposition Liberal Party front bench in 2010: Gladys Berejiklian, Greg Smith,Pru Goward, Barry O’Farrell, Jillian Skinner, Mike Baird and Andrew Stoner.
Credit:Ben Rushton

Berejiklian later became treasurer herself, and her chance at the top job came in January 2017, when Baird abruptly resigned after a political firestorm over greyhound racing.

Once she’d attained the leadership Berejiklian kept up her ferocious work ethic, tethering herself and those around her to a relentless schedule, and presiding over a massive infrastructure build which has been the key hallmark of her government. She continued the asset recycling strategies of her predecessor, and most recently was helping steer the coalition towards a more progressive stance on climate change. The main internal criticism from colleagues has been that she’s a micro-manager, too focused on tactics and not enough on a larger vision for the state.

At times her relationship with the Nationals has been fractious, to the point where she stared down its leader John Barilaro late last year after he threatened to lead his party to the cross bench over koala habitat planning policies.

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Berejiklian called Barilaro’s bluff, pressing the nuclear button and threatening in turn to lead her government into minority with an all-Liberal ministry if he didn’t back down.

It was an astonishing display of political chutzpah for a politician who has often been quietly criticised by colleagues for excessive caution. Barilaro took a period of leave, hit the reset button, and the two have worked for the most part hand in glove to battle the Delta outbreak, in the city and the regions.

The advent of the global COVID-19 pandemic brought out some of her best qualities as leader: her ability to connect and clearly communicate with the NSW public; her mastery of facts and figures; her sheer stamina in standing before the cameras day after day to explain how the state was responding; and the relentless energy she’s put into driving the state’s vaccination rate to the point where the easing of restrictions is due to start within a fortnight. That she will not be leader to see the state through this final, and in some ways, most perilous stage of its exit from a three-month lockdown must be a matter of bitter regret for her, as will her forced resignation only three months from clocking up five years as premier.

Along with Victorian counterpart Dan Andrews, Berejiklian played a key role in forcing the Prime Minister to accept the shutdown of schools and workplaces in March last year, when the first wave of the pandemic threatened to hit the country’s shores.

But on Friday, whatever past tensions between them, the Prime Minister was generous in his praise calling her a “dear friend” who had displayed “heroic qualities” as Premier. Notably, he added, he had always known her to be a person of the “highest integrity”.

Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian at a Liberal Party rally in Sydney in 2019. On Friday he called her a “dear friend” who had displayed “heroic qualities” as Premier.

Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian at a Liberal Party rally in Sydney in 2019. On Friday he called her a “dear friend” who had displayed “heroic qualities” as Premier.Credit:Brook Mitchell

The intense jockeying to decide on her successor got underway immediately after her announcement, with the factions moving to cut a deal.

Names being bandied around late Friday afternoon included Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Attorney-General Mark Speakman, Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Transport Minister Andrew Constance, with talk of Environment Minister Matt Kean or Police Minister David Elliott for deputy.

Berejiklian stays in parliament only long enough for the electoral commission to advise her on the timing of a by-election given COVID restrictions. At 51, she is leaving politics in her prime. How she will put this behind her will be fascinating to watch.

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