Every bookcase tells a story. In Gladys Berejiklian’s corner suite, which overlooks yet another CBD construction site, the shelves display three of her most precious mementos, tucked away in corners. Two are deeply personal: a child’s drawing of her in a superhero cape, done by a friend’s son when she first went into politics; and a Madam President Barbie doll, still in its box, a gift from a beloved friend who lost a battle with cancer. The third, sitting on the shelf below, is the one with the sting. It reminds her of how thin the line can be between defeat and victory. Set out on flimsy paper and framed, it's the official record from the electoral office of the votes cast in her electorate of Willoughby the first time she stood for office, in 2003.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian faces a tough task to win the upcoming election. Credit:AAP
Her margin was just 144 votes – a margin she has since increased significantly. It's a daily reminder, she says, of “a lesson that I learnt 16 years ago: never take anyone for granted”.
Measured on diligence and hard work alone, that lesson seems as much at the forefront of her mind as ever. She rarely stops, to the point that some of her friends suggest she try and build in more downtime. But along with the busyness, the relentless drive to get things done, the frenetic schedule and the seemingly effortless mastery of facts and figures, comes a reputation for micro-management. There is also criticism that her office operates in a “bubble”, and that she takes advice from too narrow a circle.
More significantly, there is growing concern, even among some of her strong supporters, that the government lacks an overarching narrative beyond offering "more of the same" as it heads towards the state election in just under 100 days’ time.
For Berejiklian, it will be her first campaign as party leader and toughest test yet. “We are trying to counter history,” she concedes. “The last time you had a Coalition government in the state that [successfully] went for a third term was in 1971, nearly 50 years ago.” Yet she claims, Pollyanna-like, that she is looking forward to the contest. “Really, state elections are positive in that they give you a voice, an opportunity to express where you have come from, what you are doing now and what you are going to do into the future.”
That outward confidence is not, it seems, widely shared. “Petrified” is how one former senior Liberal official describes prevailing sentiment inside the party.
Another talks of the Wagga Wagga byelection, held in September, as a “shock out of the blue for everybody. Overnight, people went from being convinced she would win to thinking she might lose. What it showed was the fragility of their hold on power.”
That seemingly safe Riverina seat, Liberal-held since the 1950s, went to an independent, Joe McGirr, on a massive 22 per cent swing away from the government. It was a sharp reminder that only six seats stand between the Coalition and minority government, with marginal seats such as Coogee, East Hills, Lismore and Upper Hunter at risk. A strong push by One Nation, under the Mark Latham banner, also increases the threat of a fragmenting conservative vote in the state’s regions.
Berejiklian does have the ingredients of a good message to craft for voters, her closest supporters insist. The state’s budget is in enviable good health, there is $80 billion of infrastructure being built, and NSW has the lowest jobless rate at 4.4 per cent.
But there is a counter narrative building as well: congestion, overdevelopment and the rising cost of living, a perceived tone-deafness on the part of a government too driven by a quest for deals with the private sector, and a lack of coherence around strategy and vision.
The toxic state of the federal party is not helping and Labor’s exploitation of the state government’s commitment to spending $1.5 billion on demolishing and rebuilding Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park and refurbishing Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush feeds the narrative that Macquarie Street is out of touch with the everyday concerns of ordinary people. The state’s economic performance – top of the pack a year ago – has slowed as the downturn in the Sydney property market starts to bite.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has saids she accepts the "strong message" sent in the Wagga Wagga by-election loss.
“I get the sense around town that there is frustration with the lack of direction,” says one well-connected former insider. “There is a vision to sell, they are just not selling it. This is frustrating to people currently in government as well as outside it. The electorate is tired, they don’t particularly want to hear from politicians. I don't think you can sit there any more and say, ‘this is what I have done for you in the last four years, we have achieved all this stuff'.”
Another says the government has become victim of its own infrastructure boom. “Government doing stuff has become the new normal for NSW,” the former senior party figure says. “They have poured billions into infrastructure, but people are saying, ‘don't tell us what you have done, tell us what you’re going to do’. That is where she needs to step up: what’s next.”
An MP concurs. “I think we are lacking direction. Mike [Baird] had poles and wires and he made that a referendum issue, and while we don’t necessarily need to take an issue like that to the election, I think lots of members are asking for something tangible.”
Berejiklian rejects these criticisms. Yes, she says, incumbency now is “far more challenging, absolutely … I accept, and always have, that people bank what you have done for them. But the most frequent positive feedback our government gets is that we get things done … By and large people want us to keep going”.
She mentions talking with a triumphant Daniel Andrews at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting this week. “I said ‘why did you get re-elected?’ and he said ‘because I’m getting things done’."
She cites that conversation in support of her own strategy. “Our infrastructure spend is twice theirs … which other government in the world is building three light rail lines, four metro lines and road projects?” She moves on to spruik her and deputy premier John Barilaro’s plans for growth and greater connectivity in the regions, and lauds the new Western Sydney “aerotropolis” taking shape near Badgery’s Creek.
“That's a 20-year vision for greater Sydney which would see a new city, the ‘parklands city’ as we currently call it … [as] the centre for defence, robotics, trades, agribusiness … So when you are standing in Parramatta you won’t be looking east for the best jobs, you will be looking west for the best jobs.”
She insists the government has a good message to sell on caring for the vulnerable: combating domestic violence, investing in social and affordable housing, and mandating jobs for Aboriginal youth on infrastructure projects in the region. “I really think our success story is in that story about social progress.”
Her latest foray into population policy, suggesting the state should halve its migration intake, is also an “attempt to change gears” a senior Liberal admits. “If there is one person who can say we need less immigration and not look a racist, it has to be Gladys.”
But again, seasoned hands worry about the scatter-gun approach to messaging . “They are focusing on too much,” says one veteran. “Instead of your 20-point plan, just pick five, or six. They do need a game-changer on transport.”
Privately, Berejiklian’s office also comes in for some criticism, as does the Liberal party state machine led by director Chris Stone. Although her senior staff are well respected and loyal, they are seen as outmatched by the team that Labor has put in place around new leader Michael Daley, which now includes Bob Carr’s former chief of staff Kris Neill, and Eamonn Fitzpatrick, a veteran of many ALP campaigns at both state and federal level.
“Pound for pound, compared with Daley’s, you tend to think that Gladys’ team is not the A team; it's a nice team, but a B team,” says a party warrior. “There is a general belief that she needs to sharpen the axe, get a political hardhead in there, and one or two in the state party office as well.”
A senior government source describes her private office as “stacked full of staffers from the north shore”, while another MP likens it to Scott Morrison’s “Canberra bubble”. “I look at that office and wonder how many people who work there have had the same life experiences of the majority of the state.”
Her circle of advisers includes former leaders Barry O’Farrell and John Brogden, as well as, occasionally, her immediate predecessor Mike Baird. Among ministers, she is particularly reliant on her (moderate) factional praetorian guard, Matt Kean and Don Harwin and is close to Victor Dominello. The Minister for WestConnex and Sport, Stuart Ayres, is hugely influential with Berejiklian – too much so, many say.
Barilaro is also someone to whom she listens, according to senior Nationals. A senior Liberal MP says Berejiklian and Barilaro are a “good combination” because the Nationals leader has “the fire in the belly to push her … in some ways he supplements the gaps in her leadership and she needs that”.
A number of Liberals would like to see her take more risks, not just with the grand government narrative but with how she markets herself. They want to see her make more of the tale of the child of Armenian migrants, a welder and a nurse, whose eldest daughter began school with almost no English but ending up as dux before reaching the heights of state politics.
“She really struggles to talk about herself,” says one friend. “I think part of it might be a fear that if one part of her private life is open, the whole thing might be open.” Another MP says he has known her for 20 years but “I don’t know the first thing about her personal life”.
A party veteran says: “Voters tend to vote for those who they trust, and in order to trust you have to know someone. The danger is that even though Gladys has been in place for a period of time, people don’t feel as though they know her or what she stands for. People want ‘authentic’ parliamentarians and authentic means sharing a bit more about themselves.”
But long-time friend and current Australian ambassador to Washington Joe Hockey says that for Berejiklian to make more of a show-pony of herself cuts against the grain of how she was raised. Hockey, a fellow Liberal moderate whose own father is Armenian, describes the Armenian-Australian community as “very socially conservative, and extremely family focused. Much of community life centres around the Armenian church and Armenian schools”. (Berejiklian attended Armenian school on Saturdays.)
“She was the highest achiever supported by an incredible family, with traditional expectations for their three daughters,” Hockey adds. “Gladys has fought all her life against stereotypes but 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.”
She and Hockey met when both were working in then treasurer Peter Collins’ office 25 years ago. She has stayed with him in Washington – “hanging out with my kids, to get away from things.”
He says her upbringing has left her with a “deep humility. It doesn’t surprise me that she would say ‘I don't want to talk about myself’ because that is Gladys.”
But, he concedes, “it's not a particularly successful formula in the modern age for a politician to be reluctant to talk about themselves and focus more on what they are doing”.
Berejiklian insists she does drop anecdotes about her life into events such as school speeches. In a factional sense she is very much an insider, having been part of the machinations of the moderate group inside the Liberal party since university days. But she insists she “feels like an outsider … Look at my gender, and the composition of the parliament, look at my background, look at my education … How many politicians have a surname as long as mine, who are women in leadership positions, who have a migrant background and were public school-educated? I’m an outsider in politics full stop.”
That narrative could play well in the electorate if she amped it up, her supporters believe. They also wish she would fly the flag more as a progressive Liberal, on issues like the environment and women.
Many were horrified at her failure to dress down Alan Jones over his on-air bullying of Opera House chief Louise Herron when the controversy about advertising the Everest horse race on the building’s sails was at its height.
“She should have told Jones ‘Relax, we will get to an outcome, but can you please not talk to a senior public servant like that',” says a senior Liberal. It was, he says, a lost opportunity to tap into a wave of outrage from female voters.
Berejiklian seems uncomfortable when challenged on why she does not openly advocate more in this area. It is “non-core” business. She seems to take the view that if she makes a signature virtue of her gender, that will somehow undercut the job of normalising women in senior roles.
“The best thing I can do for women is do a good job, so that people regard me as a good premier,” she says. “But I feel that if I push the woman thing, it’s not going to help women. Right? It might help me personally, but there are a number of issues which I have spoken about which haven’t been picked up, which I will continue to speak about, which support women, women and choices, especially women who don’t fit into the traditional mould … [there are] many ways behind the scenes in which I’m making a difference for women. But to do more you don’t always crow about it because it sets you back.”
She adds, “there is no such thing as a perfect leader. Of course there are things I’m not [so] good at or don’t have, but no leader does. I don’t know anybody that has got the full package. But I’m quite happy and comfortable with the things people attribute to me…. hard-working, competent, economically savvy, personable, a different background person”.
Berejiklian is tough, but at times there is brittleness as well. What she does possess, according to Hockey, is an integrity he’s rarely seen matched in public life.
“I have never seen someone more determined to do what is right rather than what is in her own interests,” Hockey tells the Herald. “It's really hard in modern politics to be an advocate for positive policy, it's easier to bring things down. But that’s not in her play book. She is an advocate and a do-er. Whether that's [the winning formula] will be determined in March.”