Keeping up with the Berejiklians
Interview NAOMI CHRISOULAKIS
Three sisters crowd the kitchen, joking and jostling for space as their mother instructs them on the correct preparation of classic Armenian dishes. But this scene isn't unfolding for the benefit of a lurking reality-TV camera crew; instead, we're in an unassuming house on Sydney's North Shore, and the most famous sister – who is handing her mother lemons from her garden – isn't known for her social-media prowess, but for her politics.
"I have to admit I do watch [Keeping Up With The Kardashians]," Gladys Berejiklian, 48, says with a droll laugh, good-naturedly acknowledging the parallel between herself and Kim Kardashian's famous Armenian family.
"We're similar in that we're close to each other and we're involved in each other's lives." But reality-television drama? No, the New South Wales Premier insists, just the "normal" drama. "We're so comfortable with each other. We fight all the time – in a good way." Born in Sydney to Armenian immigrants Krikor and Arsha, Berejiklian and her two younger sisters Rita and Mary didn't speak English until they started school. It was a choice made by her parents in an attempt to preserve their heritage – both sets of grandparents had been orphaned in the 1915 Armenian genocide.
It worked: Berejiklian is still involved in the local Armenian community, despite holding one of the most demanding jobs in the country as NSW Premier. She's only the second woman to hold the position, and she'll be fighting to retain it at the upcoming state election in March of next year.
As she sits down in her study to talk to Stellar, Berejiklian admits she can only hope to have any time off over Christmas as she prepares to go to the polls, but insists she's used to it. "I don't get much down time. I count the amount of hours I get off in a week, as opposed to the other way round, but I accepted that as I took on this job. You don't know how long you've got the job for, and it's an incredible privilege so you make the most of it while you've got it. The only time I do get down time is when I come home; even if it's late, I need to wind down.
I read something or, more often than not, watch a TV program I've taped." There's not usually much time for cooking, but the family gathers every Saturday at Krikor and Arsha's – although Arsha never lets her daughters bring anything, and sends them home with leftovers. "Glad", as her family calls her, is usually last to arrive and first to leave.
"My dad's started to time it," she says. "You know, 'We're glad you turned up, but how long are you going to stay for today?' That's the first question I get asked." Her sisters keep her in line, too. "I get into trouble if I don't do something as much as they do. Growing up, I used to be the goody-two-shoes that did everything, and now it's shifted. They carry more of the load than I do, unfortunately." Today, though, they're full of praise for their big sister. "I don't know how she gets around to meeting everyone's needs," says Mary, the youngest of the clan. "As busy as she is, she will just drop everything if it means her helping me or my sister, or my mum or my dad. I haven't seen her for this week, which feels massive." As well as responsibility, she says there's lightness in her big sister, too. "People don't realise how funny she actually is. She has got the quirkiest sense of humour, but she keeps it to herself until you get to know her." She has needed it in recent months, as the federal Coalition faced leadership chaos and her Victorian counterparts got walloped at last month's state election. Whatever she worries about privately, publicly she maintains she's focused solely on her own challenges, not those of her Liberal Party colleagues in Victoria and Canberra. "I think you will always need to run your own race, and in New South Wales we've always stood on our own," she tells Stellar. "My attitude is: 'Keep focusing on what citizens want you to do on their behalf.' And that's always been my mantra, no matter what role I've had." She might not be worrying about the Victorian Liberals, but they're paying attention to her. Louise Asher, a former Member for Brighton who served as a minister and former Liberal Deputy Leader, first met Berejiklian when she was a "highly impressive" Young Liberal.
"She stood out from the crowd even then," Asher says. "The fact that Gladys is Premier of Australia's largest state tells female MPs in Victoria that the Liberal Party is prepared to vote for a woman as leader. She is an inspiration." Whether the voters of NSW will be prepared to back her in March is another question. But for her part, being a woman doesn't have much to do with it."I just focus on doing my job well, and I look forward to the day where women in leadership roles are not a novelty," Berejiklian says. "So my contribution to that effort is to do a good job regardless as a Premier, not a good 'female Premier'."