A popular, hardworking premier; a steady hand through a crisis – but some progressive and trust credentials left wanting

Goodbye Gladys: editor-in-chief Gary Nunn examines the legacy of the NSW Premier after her resignation. File photo.

The Sentinel’s editor-at-large Gary Nunn looks back on the premiership of Gladys Berejiklian.

The shock resignation on Friday of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian ironically coincided with her jointly topping Australian Financial Review magazine’s annual power list.

It was the first time in 21 years the PM hasn’t topped AFR’s power list.

The magazine splash aged very badly, very quickly. But it was also telling of a premier whose presence has punched above the weight of her predecessors. 

Three major themes will define her legacy: Covid-19, the bushfires and a major infrastructure overhaul. 

Your politics will partially dictate your opinion of her leadership through all three, but there’s one thing many pundits and members of the public seem to agree on: she was a relentlessly hardworking, largely sensible and passionate premier.

The pandemic saw Gladys Berejiklian become a mainstay of daily life in NSW through her 11am Covid-19 press conferences. File photo.

A steady hand in the state’s darkest days

The bombshell and uncharacteristically emotional resignation was a detraction from a premier widely regarded as a steady hand in her stewardship through the crisis of the pandemic. But, as with all leaders, she isn’t without her critics.

ICAC’s decision to investigate her ends an 18-year parliamentary career of milestones. 

Leading the Coalition to victory in 2019 was historic; a 50 year landmark third term win. 

She was the first ever woman to be elected premier of NSW (Kristina Keneally became the first female premier for Labor in 2009 by challenging the leadership of Nathan Rees).

It was a meteoric rise from a migrant background; at primary school, Berejiklian couldn’t yet speak English.

Upon election in 2019, she expressed pride that “someone with a long surname, and a woman, can be the premier of NSW”. 

She shares that mantle with Queensland’s Labor premier. 

“She was largely a popular premier,” says John Warhurst, Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. “Partly because she had lots of money to spend!”

That money came from the housing boom and the sale of NSW electricity poles and wires under her predecessor, Mike Baird. 

But her stability may partially be optics: she never really faced a strong opposition. 

“NSW state Labor was in crisis for much of her time in office,” Warhurst says. 

“A weak opposition made her look strong as premier.” 

NSW Labor has cycled through four leaders during her tenure: Luke Foley, Michael Daley, Jodi McKay and now Chris Minns. Few have been able to cut through.

NSW Labor has failed to stand for much during Berejiklian’s time in office. It supported a Racing NSW ad being shone on the Sydney Opera House despite 309,000 people signing a Change.org petition against it, it applied very little pressure to roll back the controversial lockout laws, didn’t support the introduction of pill testing at music festivals and its leader, under Luke Foley, voted against voluntary euthanasia. 

With such lack of vision, it’s hardly surprising Berejiklian enjoyed “invincible” popularity, especially from swinging voters.

Yet, the allegation Berejiklian used her position to bestow upon her former boyfriend and his associates improper benefit isn’t the only whiff of corruption on her watch. 

She infamously said she was happy to accept commentary that she was pork barrelling because it’s “not illegal” to “curry favour,” after prioritising taxpayer funded spending sprees in Coalition held seats.

Dr Stewart Jackson says there’s a long history of governments doing this. “It’s still prevalent,” the Senior Lecturer in Government Relations at the University of Sydney tells the Sentinel

Whilst fronting the (appropriately) arduous media pack daily through the pandemic, she looked somewhat foolish after making pointed remarks clearly referring to Daniel Andrews locking down his whole state hard and fast, when not doing so herself resulted in rapidly escalating infections in her own.

That said, she showed up so much during NSW’s darkest days of the pandemic, some of her characteristic phrases, “please know” and “I can’t stress enough” entered into popular culture parlance and memes.

Simultaneously, she won acclaim for NSW’s comprehensive QR code contact tracing and charting a strategy of living with the Delta variant by pushing vaccinations as the best and quickest safe pathway to freedom, based on Doherty Institute modelling.  

The pandemic gave her the opportunity to demonstrate, largely, grace under fire. But her premiership featured other hits and misses.

Despite some missteps, Gladys Berejiklian projected grace under fire during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. File photo.

The environment

Whilst juxtaposing with the chaotic and lost NSW Labor Opposition, Berejikian’s work ethic and willingness to show up and take responsibility contrasted sharply with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

At no point was this more stark than when, fresh from holidaying in Hawaii, Morrison infamously said, “I don’t hold a hose, mate,” about his inability to lead during the bushfire crisis.

Whilst he appeared to have his feet up at the worst possible moment, Berejiklian seemed, even to her critics, to have her sleeves rolled up.

She was largely buffered from his neanderthal buffoonery of lobbing a lump of coal around in parliament and infamously saying, on vaccines, “It’s not a race.” For her, it very much was one. Allegations emerged that she privately called him an “evil bully”.

“She clearly stood up to Morrison,” Prof. Warhurst says. 

On the climate change related bushfires, again, the juxtaposition is largely on her side within her own party.

“She hired a great Environment Minister in Matt Kean, whose talk of hitting meaningful climate change targets contrasts with the federal government’s lacklustre response,” Dr Jackson says. 

“But there’s a lack of movement around other environmental issues – being partners with the National Party, they’re still promoting mining,” he says.

Climate Council campaigns director Alix Pearce says the new leader should “end the expansion of new coal and gas projects”.

Then there’s her characterisation as the ‘koala killer,’ stemming from her controversial land clearing bill destroying koala habitat.

Graffiti on a Sydney wall depicting ‘Gladys the koala killer’. Photo: Meredith Stanton/Twitter.

Progressive social issues

On progressive social issues, Berejiklian presented a mixed bag.

She consistently refused to listen to Aboriginal woman Cheree Toka’s campaign to fly the Aboriginal flag permanently on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, claiming the “status quo” (under which it flies on the bridge 19 days a year) “serves us well”.

Yet she showed early support for the national anthem word change from “young and free” to “one and free”, stressing the importance of “respect” and “inclusiveness”.

It reeked of hypocrisy.

“That was a very bad look,” Dr Jackson says. “Her failure to send health teams to urgently vaccinate all NSW Indigenous communities echoes that lack of respect.”

Whilst she eventually lifted the lockout laws, it took the formation of an entire political party, Keep Sydney Open, to battle them.

She perpetuated a curious kneejerk strategy; her party is supposedly pro-business and against nanny statism; six years of lockouts decimated Sydney’s night-time economy and culture. 

Berejikian actively ignored and contradicted the advice of science and health experts such as Dr Alex Wodack and Professor David Caldicott, by falsely claiming that pill testing wouldn’t “deal with overdoses”, save lives or minimise harm, with dangerously over-policed policed parties leading revellers to partake in reckless activity such as ‘double dropping’ before entry. On this, she looked hopelessly out of touch with the reality of everyday young people’s lives. 

However, she did push through long overdue pro-choice reforms to abortion law, fiercely resisted by some in own party.

She described the introduction of same-sex marriage as “one of the most important … social justice decisions of our time”, naming her ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite a “no brainer”.

There were times she did listen, crediting 14-year-old Gidon Goodman’s Change.org petition with her decision to cut hospital parking fees.

And then there’s female representation in politics. 

“We’re losing one of two female state premiers, adding to the national deficit of women in leadership,” Prof. Warhurst says.

She defended Annastacia Palaszczuk when, from the comfort of his (very robust) DJ chair, Kyle Sandilands called the Queensland Premier “Three Chins”. Berejiklian responded: “I don’t know who you’re talking about; please be respectful.” The rebuff spoke to a level of class which defined her brand, even across oppositional political lines. 

“She might not be remembered as a highly progressive premier but she was far more progressive than some around her,” Warhurst says.

Gladys Berejiklian at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday, 2 March, 2019. The premier publicly backed the ‘yes’ campaign in the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. Photo: Gladys Berejiklian/Twitter.

Infrastructure and the economy

A strong hand as an economic manager, having been treasurer, Berejiklian oversaw major infrastructure projects, some of which were controversial.

The light rail has transformed how Sydney looks and runs – but it ran behind time and over budget, and has been criticised for travelling slowly through the city.

Similarly, the Sydney Metro project, the first stage of which was opened by the premier in May 2019, was beset by teething problems. However, the rapid transit system – announced during her tenure as NSW Transport Minister – will surely go down as a legacy project for Berejiklian, who, after decades of promises from other leaders to build a metro system, finally delivered.

The largest public transport infrastructure project in Australia’s history, the fully automated network will boast four lines and 46 stations once complete.

Motorways and tunnels were also built, but more controversial was the $2.2 billion plan to knock down then rebuild stadiums whose board contained shock jock and power broker Alan Jones, despite resistance from 223,000 signatories to a Change.org petition started by Peter FitzSimons.

It was another time Berejiklian appeared to serve narrow conservative interests rather than the wider people of her state. 

She was a “builder premier” Dr Jackson says, with her enormous public investment leaving NSW in a different place in terms of transport, as did her introduction of the Opal card scheme as Transport Minister.

Berejiklian was a “builder premier”, says the University of Sydney’s Dr Stewart Jackson. Photo: Gladys Berejiklian/Facebook.

In popular culture

The awkward, staged holding-Coke-can-ahead-of NRL-game picture goes down as a blooper, one that speaks to Berejiklian’s character: somehow managing to transform an out-of-touch moment into one that paradoxically builds affection.

That same principle appeared to work in her initial reaction to the Daryl Maguire affair – curiously endearing the public to her.

Who can forget her protective sister Mary Berejiklian telling her critics to “grow some pubes”, again humanising an otherwise sober politician?

“I’m sure every family has a Mary,” the premier quipped at the time.

There’s something about Mary. The premier with her sister, Mary Berejiklian. File photo.

But there was sometimes a gloating disdain for being held to account by newspapers such as the Newcastle Herald which cast her in a different light from the heroic hagiography currently circulating. 

Like so many NSW premiers from both parties, whether it’s a bottle of wine or a dodgy ex-boyfriend for whom you may or may not have undertaken political favours, corruption reeks. It seems something is rotten in the state of NSW. 

“When you resign you’re forever tainted,” Steward Jackson says. “What do we remember Barry O’Farrell for? That bottle of Grange.”

“In Berejiklian’s case, it’s probably a little unfair. If it’d been after she left parliament, we’d remember what she did, what she built.” 

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @GaryNunn1.