Sydney: Gladys Berejikian: Can She Fix It?

Shelley Gare

Sydney Morning Herald

Aug 25, 2011

Photo: The new Transport Minister is being talked up as the state’s
next premier

She has one of Sydney’s toughest, most thankless tasks – fixing
up the mess that is our train, bus and ferry system. But the woman
renowned for “stalking” people to get ahead is not only relishing
the challenge, she’s being talked up as our next premier. Shelley
Gare meets transport minister Gladys Berejiklian.

Once a week, Jill Lester’s personal assistant would appear in the
doorway of her office at the Commonwealth Bank in Martin Place in
1998 and announce, “That woman is on the phone again.”

Lester, then running corporate relations, would shake her head in
amazement. Sometimes, she’d agree to take the phone and talk to the
persistent caller who had a name that was hard to pronounce, let
alone spell: Gladys Berejiklian. She was 27, studying for a master of
commerce degree and determined to get a job in Lester’s department,
which included government liaison.

For four months, the calls kept coming. “It was always this cheery
voice,” says Lester. “Never upset or haranguing. She’d just keep asking
me, ‘What can I say to convince you I’m the best person?’â~@~J” She
laughs. “What could I do? It was one of the best appointments I ever
made. She did everything she could and more. She just turned out to
be … Gladys.”

Sydney is now finding out for itself what Lester means by that. Five
months ago, that woman – Berejiklian (it’s Armenian, pronounced
Ber-a-jik-lee-en) – was sworn in as the state minister for trains,
buses, ferries and all the other bits of transport a cranky, cynical
electorate has come to love to hate. It’s a portfolio that her boss,
Premier Barry O’Farrell, politely calls “critical” and that her
colleagues reportedly describe as “a triple-decker shit sandwich”.

Says former Labor transport minister John Watkins: “There aren’t that
many portfolios where you can actually spoil the day of thousands
of people”.

The job is relentless – another day, another crisis. Trains break
down. Ferries falter. Overcrowded buses sail past crowded stops. Major
growth areas lack rail. But Berejiklian says she isn’t losing sleep,
even if some days she wakes to something unexpected and wonders:
how do I fix this? “Public transport can make or break a city. At
the moment, it’s breaking us.”

Up at 5.45am, often not in bed until after midnight and with the keen
eye for transport detail that comes from being the shadow minister for
four years, she is described by colleagues as a formidable operator.

Even Labor opposition leader John Robertson, the previous transport
minister, says that as his shadow, she was a “very impressive

Yet, one afternoon, Berejiklian shows another side. She keeps a promise
– albeit reluctantly because her personal life is very off-limits –
and instructs her government driver to take me past a neat, dark-red
brick house on a large, green suburban block in North Ryde. Hunkered
down in the front seat so the much-loved occupants of the house –
her migrant parents, Krikor and Arsha, who have lived there for 36
years – won’t spot her, she moans: “My parents will be aghast if they
know we’ve driven past and not gone in.”

Well, I say brightly, I’m all for visiting. Fat chance. Berejiklian
turns around and pleads: “Can you please not write anything that’s
going to upset my mother?”

Is she joking? This from a 40-year-old woman who recently turned on
Robertson in Question Time, accusing him of having spent too much
time knifing his colleagues to do his transport job. Then she rounded
on the new and junior Labor MP for Keira, Ryan Park, giving him a
verbal clip over the ear. (“I don’t want to be too mean to them,”
I overhear her telling another MP at one stage, “but then I get into
the rhythm and I can’t stop.”)

Despite that, she seems, on first impression, to be overwhelmingly
nice. Friends, colleagues and even rivals attest to a list of
qualities that would satisfy Queen Victoria. She is hard-working,
fair, organised – it saves time, she says briskly – enthusiastic,
sincere and loyal, they say. Also ferociously focused. She catches
a bus in to work two or three times a week and nips around on public
transport whenever she can.

Former opposition leader John Brogden remembers her turning up to
his office in 2003, as a brand new MP, with a business plan for her
Willoughby electorate. “I said, ‘I’m going to frame this, Gladys,
because this is the first and the last business plan for an electorate
I’m ever going to get.’â~@~J”

Yet there is something of the Jane Austen heroine about her: not
so much the flirty Elizabeth Bennet as the cautious but passionate
heroine of Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood. Sitting with
colleagues one morning in Parramatta, she croons Blue Moon while
waiting for her cup of skim-milk mocha.

She likes to say of herself that what you see is what you get but
there are still surprises. She started school hardly able to speak
English but emerged 12 years later as captain. She led a successful
campaign against the proposed closure of her high school, North Ryde
High, and staged a sit-in in the principal’s offices. Her appetite
for political activism whetted, it never occurred to her to join
anything but the Liberals.

As a good Armenian daughter, she didn’t move out of home until almost
30 but Lester wasn’t the first employer she determinedly “stalked”. As
a university student, she got wind of a junior part-time job in
the office of the then state member for Willoughby, Peter Collins,
later NSW treasurer. She faxed for three weeks until he, too, caved
in. “She made herself indispensable,” says Collins. “And shot up pretty
quickly. She ‘got’ politics from the day she walked into my office.”

The woman who is still given to exclaiming “Wooow!” is now spoken of
as a future premier. “Absolutely!” says O’Farrell. But he also says,
“Her weakness at times is that she sells herself short.” (She doesn’t
see a problem, saying with no hint of satire, “I don’t think I’m as
good as people think I am.”)

Friends and colleagues say you underestimate her at your peril. What
would happen if you did, I ask one of her mentors and long-time
friend, federal shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, who also has an Armenian
background. “She won’t cop fools; she’ll get rid of them,” he says.

“But she’ll be very nice.”

When I repeat that to Berejiklian over tea (she doesn’t like the taste
of coffee and rarely drinks alcohol) at a cafe in Chatswood Chase,
she seems abashed but still laughs. Loudly. “That’s pretty true,”
she agrees.

Earlier, she had told me about one of the government’s major
initiatives, an integrated transport authority to ensure all transport
agencies and their staff work together. Change in culture comes from
the top, she said, seemingly backing the layers of bureaucrats who
have been criticised for transport failings.

Just eight days later, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that two
deputy directors-general were leaving. The minister smiles but adds
precisely, “Everybody has a chance to reapply. They chose not to.” A
fortnight after that, it was announced that the entire Roads and
Traffic Authority would be abolished.

“I’m only talking to Gladys”

Gladys is a simpler name than Berejiklian and on election night in
March, Barry O’Farrell ensured we wouldn’t forget it. Berejiklian was
on the ABC’s panel, alongside host Kerry O’Brien. With the Coalition
claiming victory after 16 years in opposition, the cameras zoomed
in on O’Farrell celebrating at Parramatta Leagues Club. To O’Brien’s
guffawing astonishment, a triumphant O’Farrell refused an interview,
booming instead, “I’m only going to talk to Gladys.”

Within seconds, “I’m only talking to Gladys” was all over the
twitter-sphere. By the next day, it was on T-shirts.

She still thinks it’s funny, just as she thinks it’s funny that she
once turned up in Parliament wearing a purple velvet jacket and former
premier Nathan Rees sent an anonymous note around the chamber saying,
“The magician wants his jacket back.”

“I wasn’t ever the cool girl and I didn’t care,” Berejiklian explains
as we take a morning train to Parramatta. “I always felt my strength
was being smart … I didn’t want to force myself to be something
I wasn’t. Except I found that my attitude in the end made me a bit
of a cool person because I was myself and people liked that. So I
actually learnt a great lesson in high school.”

The other important lesson came from that school protest: “I learnt
about strength in numbers, arguing for something collectively. I
learnt a lot about how to make a noise.”

So far, and it’s early days, she seems to have a comfort in her skin
unusual in female politicians, who so often can come across as brittle,
flirty or motherly. Says John Brogden: “There are two things I think
Gladys would never play on: her gender and ethnicity. She is the
Elvis of the Armenian community but she’s not defined by that.”

“People go in to bat for her,” says Hockey, who thinks of Berejiklian
as his little sister. “She’s just someone for whom you’d do a lot. I’d
walk over cut glass for her – and I have!”

Still, how can someone so apparently nice rise so fast? “You don’t
get anywhere in politics unless you’re a bit tough, a bit focused,
a bit ruthless,” says John Robertson. “And I don’t think Gladys is
any different.”

There is evidence of a hard-headed sensibility. As a leader of the
moderates faction, her switch of support in 2007 from then leader
Peter Debnam (backed by the right) to O’Farrell (a moderate) after he
finally declared his candidacy, ensured O’Farrell got up. Then, says
O’Farrell, she was crucial in helping him bring the warring factions
together. “Gladys can read a room; she can see a train wreck – sorry,
shouldn’t use that analogy – she can see political problems coming.”

“She will let managers manage,” says Collins, “but heaven help anyone
who tries to fudge figures or thinks she won’t remember something
she’s asked for.”

She will need to be tough. In the time it takes to prepare this story,
there are umpteen news stories about transport mishaps; the first
Waratah train – over a year late – hits the rails; and I almost miss
an international flight when airport line trains are suddenly halted
at Central. At least I later learn from Berejiklian that passengers
are entitled to hop a taxi, courtesy of RailCorp, to get them to the
airport on time. That morning, though, as trains dumped more and more
passengers on the platform, there were just muffled announcements
and confusion.

It’s the bane of her life. In mid-April, when peak-hour trains were
delayed for more than nine hours after a signal failure at Sydenham,
Berejiklian’s first alert was not a phone call from RailCorp but a
text message from a friend.

Just weeks into the job, she insisted on facing the media alongside
RailCorp boss Andy Byford. There was criticism of her “deer in the
headlights” expression and her jaunty red jacket. “It was suggested to
me by some” – she grimaces here – “in some parts of the universe that,
why did I bother?” But, she adds, “I love the job I have and I’m very
lucky to have it. When commuters need you, you should be there.”

Professor David Hensher of the University of Sydney’s Institute of
Transport and Logistics Studies warns that the public has a patience
threshold with a new regime of about six months. Some media and
transport experts have already criticised the lack of detail, the
pace, priorities and Berejiklian’s faith in some bureaucrats. “I’m
hearing her deliver the same lines that I used to when I was being
fed them by the bureaucrats,” says Robertson. “I think, ‘You sound
like a minister now.’â~@~J”

Berejiklian insists that she and O’Farrell will “under-promise and
over-deliver”. In July, The Daily Telegraph editorialised about the
light rail network extension, with the heading “Just do it, Barry”.

“Well, you can’t just do it,” she says. “We’re talking about at least
hundreds of millions of dollars on that one project alone. You’ve
got to plan properly.”

“The most opinionated person in the family”

At school, Gladys and her younger sisters, Rita and Mary – still her
best friends, she says – stood out in the then mostly Anglo-Saxon

Her media adviser, Lisa Mullins, formerly the state political editor
of The Sun-Herald, recalls writing a piece in which her interviewee –
now her boss – told her about starting school with so little English.

“Once a child could write a full sentence, they got this banner on
the back of their chair that said ‘sentence maker’,” recalls Mullins.

“Gladys was the last child to get one. I still think of her peering
in the classroom window every morning before school to check her chair.

When she finally got it, she said she was so proud.”

Berejiklian’s mother always encouraged her to answer questions in
class, to speak up. “She was making sure I got practice in speaking
English but I interpreted it differently,” she says. “I’m probably
the most opinionated person in the family.”

There are only about 50,000 Armenians in Australia and most live
in Sydney, with many in the Willoughby electorate. It’s a close
community, shaped by what is known as the 1915 Armenian Genocide at
the hands of the Ottoman empire. It sent Armenians fleeing to the
four corners. Children learn that family matters, you work hard and
you give back to the community.

Krikor and Arsha Berejiklian migrated here separately from the Middle
East, met, fell in love and married in 1969. Gladys arrived a year
later, named after her paternal grandmother.

Her father worked as a welder, then for a steel construction company;
her mother was a nurse. Each Saturday, Arsha still cooks family lunch
and the three daughters descend, along with relatives and friends,
on the single-storey home where the sisters grew up. “Can you imagine
my poor father?” exclaims Berejiklian. “One bathroom and four women.”

Her love of liberalism, she says, was shaped by seeing how hard her
parents worked. She calls herself a progressive Liberal, a republican
who organised a rally against racism during the Pauline Hanson years.

“My parents always said to me, ‘If you study hard at school, you can
do anything in the world’.”

She did a bachelor of arts at Sydney University, studying politics
and history, then – while working for Collins – a diploma in
international studies and finally, studying at night, a master of
commerce at the University of NSW. She moved into banking in 1998
because she was advised to hedge her bets or, if set on politics,
to get private-sector experience.

“In my heart of hearts, I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. She
had joined the Young Liberals in 1991 and was soon picked as a future
president. “I wasn’t confident socially but I had this quiet confidence
about being able to achieve what I wanted.”

She had to walk a careful path, though. She was a modern young
woman from a conservative family. Party friends, including Hockey,
told her if she wanted to be elected, she had to leave home. At 29,
Berejiklian moved into the Willoughby flat she’d bought two years
earlier with her banking salary. “It was a big move and my parents
eventually gave me their blessing. They understood. [But] it was like,
‘Does this mean you’re never going to get married?’â~@~I”

As we eat dumplings and garlicky spinach at the New Shanghai in
Chatswood, she addresses the question: has she ever been really in
love? “I think very few people would say they haven’t been but I’m
not going to tell you. I’m pretty philosophical. When I hit the big
4-0, which I did last year, I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I’m
at a great stage of my life. I’m really happy; I’m lucky to have a
great family, great friends, great job… great staff… I feel now
confident that at the right time, at the right place, I will meet
that right special person.”

A man? “Of course! I will meet the right man… but I don’t want to
offend people who aren’t heterosexual …”

“I’ve never tried to be one of the boys”

Berejiklian hasn’t yet had a big public test but her fight for
Willoughby taught her a few lessons about what it takes to win.

Collins had rung her in mid-2002, when she was rising through the
Commonwealth Bank’s retail ranks, to say he wasn’t contesting the
2003 state election.

She had always wanted to stand for Willoughby but hadn’t expected it
to be so soon. “That was tough,” she remembers. “Did I really want
to leave this great job, great money?” Besides, certain high-profile
Liberals weren’t convinced she could win the seat and were keener on
getting the popular Willoughby lord mayor, Pat Reilly, to stand.

“I think that was embarrassing to Gladys,” says Collins. “Some people
who were meant to be very close to her did not indicate the same
level of confidence in her that I did. I knew she would win.”

When Reilly didn’t contest (standing instead as an independent),
Berejiklian was preselected. Then Hockey discovered that polling was
a “disaster”. Quickly, thousands of dollars worth of posters focused
on the name Berejiklian were dumped. New posters promoting “Gladys”
went up and the “Gladmobile” – a white delivery van plastered with
posters – was produced. Berejiklian remembers having to drive it
around the electorate for a couple of hours every day.

She scraped through, winning by just 144 votes. By her third election,
last March, she had around 70 per cent of the electorate’s primary
vote. O’Farrell and Hockey won’t be pushed on whether Berejiklian
is the candidate for premier over promising politicians like NSW
Treasurer Mike Baird. But Robertson stirs it up, maintaining, “Barry
O’Farrell has made no secret of the fact that she’s Barry’s pick to
take over from him.”

Nor will she own up to premier ambitions, although she agrees –
laughing – others have aspirations for her. “I’m a bit of a quiet
achiever, I think. I’ve never tried to be one of the boys; I just do
my own thing and, in good time, the results show.”

Collins, who now heads government lobbying consultancy Barton Deakin,
speaks with the pride of an early mentor: “I think she is going to
prove herself to be one of the star performers of this government.

There are going to be a lot of people who only want to talk to Gladys.”


A transport masterplan will be released next year. In the meantime,
the six priorities are:

1. The establishment of an integrated transport authority, Transport
for NSW, to plan across all modes of transport, roads and ports and
to ensure that bus, train and ferry services can be co-ordinated with
the focus on customer service. “Each division is interdependent on
the other,” says Berejiklian, “so they have to get on.”

2. Creating the 23-kilometre North West Rail Link, from Rouse Hill
to Epping, to cater for the surge in new suburbs and business centres.

Construction, will have started by 2015, the time of the next election
(she can’t yet say when it will be finished). The link was promised
by the Carr government in 1998 with a finish date of 2010.

3. Creating the South West Rail Link from Glenfield to Leppington,
providing links to Parramatta, Liverpool and the CBD. Work started
by Labor but first track only laid in May. Due to open in 2016.

4. A feasibility study into extending the light rail network to the
universities of NSW and Sydney, Sydney Football Stadium and Sydney
Cricket Ground, Randwick Racecourse and Circular Quay.

5. Electronic ticketing, so one smart card will take a commuter across
buses, trains and ferries. Testing to start late next year.

6. Awarding a franchise to a private operator to run and maintain the
ferries while the government retains ownership and control of fares
and routes. In operation by end of 2012.

The issues yet to be resolved:

– How will train services cut by Labor be reinstated and be more
frequent and reliable?

– How will the new North West link affect other services?

– Will there be a second harbour crossing for rail?

– What will happen to make public transport travel within the CBD
faster and easier?

– What public transport will be provided for workers in the new
Barangaroo sector?

– Will the state government persuade the federal government to provide
funding for the North West rail link?

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS