NSW Gladys Berejiklian abortion bill leadership spill
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a NSW Liberal premier in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a career-ruining Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) appearance.

Nick Greiner (who invented the NSW ICAC) and Barry O’Farrell were both felled by it. Now Gladys Berejiklian, whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should have made her untouchable, is battling for her political future. 

Yesterday ICAC dredged up details of a five-year relationship with disgraced former state MP Daryl Maguire who is at the centre of a corruption probe.

Berejiklian is vowing to soldier on.

“Without question, I stuffed up in my personal life,” she conceded at a press conference yesterday afternoon. 

But Macquarie Street is a hive of anxious speculation — ambitious “insiders” were anonymously briefing journalists about Berejiklian’s demise from the minute her testimony dropped. A no-confidence motion is set for today. The plotters say (or hope) she won’t last the week. 

Whether or not she survives, ICAC has blown up her well-curated public image, showing us a side of a premier we barely knew. Berejiklian, painstakingly quiet about her private life, so eager to project an image of sober good judgement, has been undone by … a bad love affair. 

The girl guide

When Berejiklian led her party to another election win last year (the first female NSW premier to do so) supporters were quick to paint it as an anti-racist victory — the daughter of Armenian immigrants triumphing over a bumbling white male Labor dinosaur.

While that was an absurd conclusion to draw about an election that returned Mark Latham to parliament, there’s no question Berejiklian stands out in the NSW Liberal world.

She spoke only Armenian until she was five, was educated at Peter Board High — a now-defunct comprehensive in Ryde (peak middle Sydney), a far cry from the blue-blooded legacy politicians who dominate the state party.

At her first campaign in 2003, Berejiklian was told to drop the long last name from her corflutes.

Legend says she got to the top through diligence, grit and being a bit of a square. Young Gladys was a girl guide and perennial high school dux. Now she’s a teetotaller and workaholic.

She studied international relations at the University of Sydney, joined the Young Liberals and eventually became state president.

After a few years in the staffer class, and a few more in finance with Commonwealth Bank, Berejiklian was tapped to run for Willoughby, a safe Liberal seat on Sydney’s north shore. In her maiden speech she quoted Edmund Burke and talked about traffic congestion. 

The fence-sitting moderate

As an MP, Berejiklian has always radiated ordinariness. In a Macquarie Street bearpit known for bloated egos and petty feuds, that has meant her steady rise to the top was, until yesterday, relatively untainted.

The few missteps have hardly stuck. After the Liberals returned in 2011, Berejiklian took over transport. She introduced the Opal card, a much-needed moderniser of Sydney’s public transport. By the time Sydneysiders were getting fed up with interminable delays and cost blowouts on the many rail projects she inaugurated she’d moved on to treasurer. 

Two years later, when Mike Baird quit as premier, she took over with barely a whiff of dissent.

Berejiklian is so carefully calibrated with her statements it’s sometimes unclear where she sits politically. In fact she’s a moderate, with views many on the party’s right find repugnant. She believes in climate change and a republic. She’s pro-choice. For opponents such as Alan Jones her rise to the top is the result of feverish factional cunning. 

Jones is partly right. Berejiklian became premier thanks to a pragmatic marriage of convenience to deputy Dominic Perrotet, a conservative Catholic father of six. She tactically keeps the torpid Police Minister David Elliott close in spite of his constant gaffes.

And that factional wheeling and dealing has allowed her to get a lot done. Last year NSW finally decriminalised abortion. While Berejiklian was a supporter rather than a driving force, it underscored her strong leadership. When a bunch of hard-right backbenchers tried to stage a coup over the bill, nobody showed up.

We’ve been reminded of that strength throughout 2020.

The Berejiklian government failed the country during the Ruby Princess fiasco but it turned around and delivered an enviable response to the rest of the pandemic. When John Barilaro threatened to blow up the Coalition last month over koala protections, Berejiklian stared him down. Barilaro retreated with a whimper.

But the ICAC probe is different. That Berejiklian had a secret five-year relationship makes her seem a bit more normal. That she continued it after he resigned from parliament in disgrace looks bad. That she was caught on tape while he waxed lyrical over lobbying for land deals looks worse. 

The legend of Berejiklian’s hard work, pragmatism and discipline got her to the top. But legends are fickle things.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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