By Billy Cantwell
SYDNEY, Australia (North Shore Times) — Gladys Berejiklian has become the Australian state of New South Wales’ 45th premier after being elected unopposed as Liberal leader on Monday, January 23.
The 46-year-old Member for Willoughby was first elected to the NSW Parliament in 2003.
“I wish to pledge to all my constituents that for as long as I have the honor and privilege to represent them in this place that I will always put my local community first,” Berejiklian told the NSW Legislative Assembly when she made her maiden speech on May 6, 2003.
“More than ever before we turn to our local communities to offer and to receive support, to effect necessary change and to define and express the type of society we are,” she continued.
Community is a key preoccupation for the new NSW Premier, the first female Liberal politician to lead the state.
In that maiden speech, she quoted the great Irish political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke, who said, on being elected to Westminster in 1774, that a representative should “live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention.”
Will the wishes of her Willoughby constituents attract her unremitted attention as Premier? Time will tell whether their concerns, especially in the key areas of school overcrowding, council mergers and population growth, will have great weight with her.
In her maiden speech, she identified those concerns from the comfort of the opposition benches.
“The unique character of our local neighborhoods in Willoughby is being threatened by this Government’s heavy-handed approach to planning and development,” she told the Legislative Assembly in 2003.
“The wishes of the local community and the character of our neighborhoods need to be considered in the wake of inappropriate blanket policies such as State environmental planning policy.”
Berejiklian now leads a government that seems determined to introduce its own blanket planning policies, especially in the area of medium-density housing.
Six weeks before her maiden speech, at the age of just 33, she had won the seat of Willoughby previously held by her first political mentor, the former NSW Liberal Party leader Peter Collins.
Collins recalled last week that he gave her a part-time job after she “walked in off the street” into his electorate office.
“She’s standout competent,” Collins told The Australian on Friday.
But her standout competence is just part of the story.
Her elevation to the top job in NSW politics is testament to her hard work, dedication, loyalty and single-mindedness.
But her political success is also a feather in the cap of Sydney’s egalitarian, multicultural society.
Her parents emigrated to Australia in the 1960s — dad Krikor from Jerusalem and mum Arsha from Syria. Gladys still has living relatives in the troubled city of Aleppo.
Her parents met in Sydney and were married in the Armenian Orthodox Church in Chatswood in 1969.
Gladys was born a year later, in 1970. Two sisters followed, Rita and Mary.
The family was heavily involved in the activities of the local Armenian community and young Gladys attended Armenian Saturday school at Willoughby primary school. She joined the 2nd Willoughby Girl Guides.
After school, she earned a bachelor of arts and graduate diploma in international studies from the University of Sydney, and a master’s of commerce from the University of NSW. Politically, Berejiklian was a rising star from an early age, being voted president of the NSW Young Liberals from 1996-97.
During her political career, she has gained a reputation as an intensely private person. She is single and has no children, facts that seem to command more attention than if she was male.
In a rare comment about her image, she confided to the North Shore Times back in 2011 that she was regularly approached by stylists and public relations people offering their services or giving advice about her look.
“I know I could do more in this area but I just don’t care that much,” Berejiklian said at the time.
”People try to pull you in all different directions but I’m comfortable with who I am. I think the further removed from yourself you become, the harder it is to do your job because you’re always trying to be someone you’re not.”
In 2003, the Member for Willoughby concluded her maiden speech thus: “I am particularly moved by the words of Johann von Goethe (1749-1832), who said, ‘Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you will help them to become what they are capable of being.’”
Many political observers and Liberal Party colleagues believe that Gladys Berejiklian has become what she is capable of being. It will be fascinating to see what she does with her premiership.
Before becoming premier, Berejiklian was the Treasurer of New South Wales and Minister for Industrial Relations in the second Baird government, and Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Hunter in the first Baird government. She was also the Deputy Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party between 2014 and 2017.
Her grandparents were orphaned in the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Berejiklian spoke only Armenian until she was five years old, when she began learning English. She has remained involved in the Armenian-Australian community, serving a term on the Armenian National Committee of Australia. In 2015, she attended a commemoration ceremony in Yerevan for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Prime Minister of Armenia Karen Karapetyan sent a congratulatory message to Berejiklian.
He wrote, “On behalf of the Government of Armenia and also personally, I cordially congratulate you on the occasion of assuming the premiership of Australia’s New South Wales. We are happy that the Armenian community in Australia, being actively engaged in the country’s social-political life, has its significant contribution to Australia’s development in various aspects, where your productive activities can be assessed as exemplary. I hope during your tenure new impetus will be given to the development of Armenian-Australian relations and the decentralized cooperation between our cities and provinces. Taking the opportunity, I wish you all the success and new achievements for the benefit of the welfare of the friendly people of Australia and the reinforcement of Armenian-Australian friendship.”
(Armenpress and Wikipedia contributed to this report.)