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She's steered NSW through fires, floods, a pandemic and had a secret relationship outed - but Gladys Berejiklian is still standing resolutely strong

The Weekly talks to the Premier about her personal and professional challenges and how she's stronger because of it.

By Samantha Trenoweth
Shane Fitzsimmons tells a story from the hideous black summer of 2019-20.
He and the NSW Premier were visiting a community just south of Batemans Bay.
"As we were leaving," the former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner recalls, "a lady came up to the Premier and said, 'We've got no communication here and I have family who will be worried about me,' and while she was speaking, others standing around said that they were in the same situation too."
So Gladys collected their phone numbers, and "as soon as we got back into mobile range, there she was in the back seat of the car and you could hear her on the phone: 'Oh hello, it's Gladys Berejiklian here. Yes, I am the Premier, but I've just been with such-and-such and they wanted me to give you a call and let you know that they're doing okay.'"
Shane chuckles with genuine affection. It was a classic Gladys moment – calling into play the winning combination of diligence and concern that earned her the trust of the state during that terrifying fire season and then the pandemic.
"There were," Gladys says with characteristic understatement, "a lot of difficult days that summer," driving up and down the coast, looking trauma in the eye, sweating on the lives of firefighters, farmers, people in blazing towns.
"There would be times when Commissioner Fitzsimmons would let me know that there were fire crews missing or people in houses who weren't accounted for," she remembers. "There were some frightening moments. The first day of the year was confronting. Commissioner Fitzsimmons and I went to Malua Bay and there were people who had fled for their lives just hours before and gone to the evacuation centre. It was chaotic."
Then there was the rebuild, which is immense and ongoing. It will, Gladys says, take years. She recently visited fire-affected communities again, more than a year on, and says that "for those people who have been impacted, it's still very real, very raw. It's like losing a loved one – everyone else moves on and you're still grieving."
Gladys had one of her hardest tests in the summer of 2020 (Corrie Bond)
Gladys will never forget a certain date: January 25 last year.
The smoke had barely cleared from the summer's firestorms – in some places it hadn't – when Australia's first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Victoria. Again, the level-headed Premier rallied. She put a crisis team in place because "as horrible as the bushfires were," she says, "they'd taught me the importance of having a whole-of-government response.'"
Those were testing times. Initially, fears the virus would take hold as fiercely as it had in Europe looked set to be realised. The Ruby Princess was inexplicably allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and release its passengers on March 19 – an event ultimately linked to almost 900 cases of COVID-19 and 28 deaths.
Then COVID ran rampant through NSW nursing homes, killing 28 elderly residents – it was nothing like Victoria's 655 aged care deaths, but it was heartbreaking for the families involved, as was the separation of the elderly from their families during lockdown.
During the statewide lockdown, Gladys fronted the cameras daily. Small, wiry, wide-eyed and determined, even when she had bad news to deliver, she gave the impression that the state was in safe hands. She knew that every decision she made would be critical but she didn't flinch, and at the end of the day, her own conscience was her toughest critic.
"I made a decision to say: this is life and death; I don't really care what people think; I'm just going to do what I know is right … Everybody has an opinion, everyone is telling you how to do your job. I knew the people I could trust and should take advice from, and I thought, 'The buck stops with me' … You know the saying, dance like nobody's watching? I wanted to lead like nobody was watching. I didn't want to look back and regret any decision I'd made based on fear or what people might say."
Behind the scenes, Gladys had personal worries too: for friends and family living in Armenia who'd contracted the virus, and for her mother, Arsha, who is 81, and her father Krikor, 88.
"I didn't see them for weeks. I didn't hug them until recently. It was a year without any physical contact," she says, which must have cut deep, not only for them but for Gladys, who lives alone. "I visited them in the driveway and they were in the kitchen. I remember spending Easter by myself, which I'd never done because we do a lot of religious things and it's a very important time for my extended family. I worried about my parents every single day."
While the situation was unparalleled, Gladys responded in exactly the way her constituents had come to expect of this conscientious daughter of migrants. She had begun kindergarten at five with no English, but had graduated dux of her high school; she went on to lead the NSW Young Liberals, work as a senior executive in the Commonwealth Bank, to be the first woman elected Premier of NSW. She had always quietly, unassumingly excelled. In the media, she was referred to as head prefect, girl scout, even Saint Gladys. Until suddenly her halo slipped.
Gladys worried about the impact COVID would have on her family and friends, at home and overseas. (Corrie Bond)
In October last year, not long after her 50th birthday, the Premier appeared before the Independent Commission Against Corruption (she was not accused of any wrongdoing) and admitted she had been in a "close personal relationship" with the former state member for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire, who was under investigation for allegedly using his position in parliament to further his business interests.
It was a relationship that her critics insisted should have been disclosed to the parliament; Gladys maintained that the relationship was not sufficiently close. And indeed members of parliament were not the only people taken by surprise. Neither the Premier's parents nor her sisters, Rita and Mary, with whom she is close, were aware that she was seeing Maguire.
At the time, she says, she wasn't sure enough of the relationship to introduce Maguire to her family. Now, she tells The Weekly, she wishes she could have alerted them before the hearings.
"I couldn't. I wasn't allowed. There was a process in place … I just knew I had to deal with it myself." Which she did, with stoic resolve.
"Hands down, this has been one of the most difficult days of my life," Gladys confessed after the hearing, appearing tired and uncommonly confessional, dressed in subdued black with a bottle green blazer.
"I stuffed up in my personal life," she said, "and I accept that. It is very difficult for someone in my position to have a private and personal life … Had I known then what I know now, clearly I would not have made those personal decisions that I did. I trusted someone that I'd known for a long time and I feel really, really let down."
Speaking so personally to the media was not easy. The invasion of her privacy was, she says now, an immense challenge.
"But that's the thing about public life. Even if you're a very private person, which I am – I'm still very private – even so, there's nothing about you that's off limits, unfortunately. Sometimes it verges on disrespect, but that's just the way it is and you have to accept that."
There were calls for her resignation, which seemed extraordinary given the esteem in which she'd been held just days before, but Gladys dug in her heels. "If I had done something wrong," she insisted, "I would be the first one to consider my position. But I haven't."
And her ministers, by and large, stood by her. "This is a human being who has worked her socks off for this state and deserves enormous regard and respect," Transport Minister Andrew Constance said.
But a month later, just as it looked as though the whole affair might blow over, Gladys was in the firing line again, this time for failing to self-isolate while waiting for the results of a COVID test. It was a breathtaking act of hypocrisy, entirely at odds with the message she had been delivering to her constituents, and confoundingly out of character for "by the book" Gladys.
"I stuffed up my personal life - and I accept that." Gladys on the revelation of her relationship with former State Member for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire. (Corrie Bond)
Then, that same month, came the most extraordinary events of all. The Greens revealed that more than 95 per cent of the NSW government's $252 million Stronger Communities grants scheme had been allocated to councils in Coalition seats. About which Gladys, who could not be faulted for her candour, admitted that "all governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour … The term pork barrelling is common parlance."
Greens MLC David Shoebridge replied: "If this is politics as usual, then the Greens fundamentally believe politics needs a deep, deep clean-out." And observers questioned the Premier's fitness for leadership if this was the type of behaviour to which she was prepared to turn a blind eye.
The Weekly asks Gladys now whether the fact that "pork barrelling" is common practice makes it acceptable. She hesitates and we put it another way: is it fair to give greater benefits to people who vote for you, or who you'd like to vote for you, than to people who need and deserve them?
"Absolutely not," Gladys responds vehemently. "But I also feel you need to be honest with the public on how things do and don't work. Because that's the only way you're going to get real change. I don't know any political party that doesn't make promises at elections. Whether we like it or not, it's part of the system."
Stacking the odds in a grants scheme and making an election promise are not necessarily the same thing – or they shouldn't be. And Gladys at last admits that more protocols could be put in place to ensure taxpayers' money isn't used unfairly to sweeten up voters. But the political roller-coaster didn't end there.
In the midst of the recent allegations of sexual harassment in federal parliament, a former NSW state government staffer, Dhanya Mani, revealed that she had complained twice to the Premier's office of alleged sexual harassment and assault by a parliamentary co-worker, but that there had been no significant investigation, nor support for her personal recovery.
While Gladys has not responded to Dhanya's specific allegations, she has set former minister Pru Goward to work on an inquiry into the state parliament's complaints processes.
And she tells The Weekly: "I commend these brave women for coming forward and telling their stories. People in every walk of life should be thinking, 'Is my workplace a safe place?' And if at times it fails employees, are the processes there to protect people?"
It is testament to the quite extraordinary trust Gladys had built with her constituents through the bushfires and COVID that these snowballing scandals made chinks in her armour but didn't land a body blow. In fact, the most recent NSW polling gives the Premier a 75 per cent approval rating.
"My parents, my sisters, my extended family, my close friends were there for me "- Gladys on the support she received through her testing year. (Corrie Bond)
It has been a harrowing 18 months but today, sitting outside in the autumn sunshine, watching her sisters chatter and prepare for The Weekly's photo shoot, Gladys has the space to reflect on all she's learned. COVID, for instance, taught her that she's rational, almost to a fault.
"You go through testing times in your life, but it's clearly not on public display the way it has been," she begins. "I know now that I'm more rational than emotional. I've got both. I've got the empathy and compassion, but when everything hits the fan, I'm quite a clear thinker, which you don't know until you're tested, right?"
Gladys has also learnt that there are people in her life who she can count on. Who, we ask, would she ring if she was having a tough time?
"I tend not to ring anyone," she confesses. "I tend to process a lot of things myself."
And who would ring her?
"Lots of people," she laughs, "but that's my nature. I've always been like that. I've always been the one people ring to help them through, and I don't mind. That's just the way I am. I've discovered I'm quite a strong and resilient person. When you really get tested, you realise what kind of person you are."
This past year, however, through some of her toughest days, Gladys says she has "never felt unsupported. My parents, my sisters, my extended family, my close friends were there for me. Professionals and colleagues in the public service supported me, too … And whenever I'm going through a difficult time, the response from the public is phenomenal. I get people sending me gifts and things they've made, and beautiful cards. I'm fortunate that, in my job, I get to see the worst of circumstances, but the best in people. That heartens me … So I never feel alone, I never feel isolated, I never feel woe is me – never ever."
Her sisters have pondered publicly whether she never feels alone because she is a surviving twin – her twin sister was stillborn. Gladys acknowledges there's an impact, but believes it's more of a driver: "I do feel you have a pang of survivor guilt, so you have to justify your existence a bit more."
That sense of company that Gladys carries with her perhaps has something to do with her faith.
"I'm a very religious person," she admits, "and yes, that helps me through. I'm a very Armenian Orthodox girl … but for me religion is a private thing. I'm quite progressive socially. So even if I don't subscribe to a certain way of life, I strongly believe that individuals should be free to make their choices in life as they want to, irrespective of my views. I'm very conscious of the importance of separating Church and state. I have my private faith, but I don't feel that should be imposed on anybody else."
Gladys also likes her own company and savours the end of every day.
"That's my thinking time, when I get home, when I'm quiet and still and reflect," she says. "I tend to be very hard on myself, but also very honest. I think, 'What could I have done differently? What more could I do?' And I might think about the coming months and years, too."
But perhaps the Premier's sense of companionship stems most profoundly from being grounded in her community.
"I just feel … I don't know," she muses. "I always believe there's good in society and in people. I've witnessed in my job the kindness of strangers. I think it has something to do with my personality as well. I'm someone who has trust in the people around me and forever has trust in my sense of community. I always feel that there's someone caring
for someone … I hope part of our COVID response will be being kinder to each other, more considerate. And I hope we've learnt that a neighbourhood isn't necessarily just the people who live next door."
Read more in the May issue of Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.

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