“We have contracts with the private sector on roads, rail, schools, hospitals and a whole range of things. How would it look if I rang an independent contractor and said, ‘Oh, there is an election coming up, I need to interfere in what you are doing and breach your contract so it doesn’t look [bad] for me? How would that look?”
NSW voters had been sleepwalking towards the March 23 election until Opposition Leader Michael Daley threatened, on air 11 days ago, to sack radio talkback king Alan Jones and other members of the SCG Trust over their relentless campaign to have the Allianz stadium in Sydney’s east knocked down and rebuilt.
As one senior Liberal put it, “the Jones moment was a moment of sheer electricity in the campaign that has not been replicated since”.
For next 48 hours, Berejiklian seemed unsure how to handle Daley’s lightning bolt, doing everything she could to avoid the topic.
But by Friday of that week, she’d rediscovered her mojo, giving a feisty press conference insisting that her government had managed the economy so well, voters could have it all: stadiums and billions of dollars’ worth of services and other infrastructure.
“It all changed at that press conference,” a well-placed Liberal source tells the Herald. “About 5pm the day before, some senior Liberals met and concluded she had to take Labor on. She couldn’t bury the stadiums policy by ignoring the s-word. She had to take it on and defend it as a minor part of a rich and promising tapestry [of many infrastructure projects]. She was told, take the gloves off, put the small target philosophy aside, talk up your record and call out Labor for its lies.”
Did she take much convincing? “No, apparently she had come to much the same conclusion.”
The stadium saga is long and complex but in its simplest version, Berejiklian’s predecessor, Mike Baird, back-pedalled on an Allianz rebuild and gave priority to the ANZ stadium at Olympic Park instead.
Then Berejiklian became premier, and in the face of mounting pressure from her Sport Minister Stuart Ayres, the SCG Trust board, and Jones, she pushed Allianz to the front of the queue and opted for a total rebuild rather than refurbishment.
It didn’t pass unnoticed that Jones had belittled her in early 2017 as Baird’s replacement, calling her a “bad choice” for premier.
“Let me put this to you straight,” I say. “People say you were trying to curry favour with Alan Jones.”
“Wrong, absolutely wrong,” Berejiklian replies.
“Are you scared of Alan Jones?”
“I’m not scared of anybody. If I was scared of anybody I wouldn’t be in this job.” Jones doesn’t want her to move the Powerhouse museum to Parramatta either, she points out, but she is boring ahead with that equally contentious move. “I stood my ground on that. I would do it again, a hundred times over.”
‘That’s just the way I am’
That morning, the Herald had met the Premier outside her modest-looking two-storey home on the lower north shore. First stop for the day is the breakfast show on FM radio station The Edge.
Here she gets to revel a little in her status as a role model for young women, getting a sympathetic introduction from the program’s co-host, Emma, who points out that if successful next Saturday, Berejiklian will be the state’s first female premier elected in her own right.
The pair find common ground over the Allianz stadium controversy.
Berejiklian: “For all the girls out there, the stadium experience is appalling, they have got 300 men’s toilets, they have only got 48 for the ladies”.
Emma: “What is that about? We need to pee as much as the guys!”
By 7.40am the Premier is bustling out of the studio, security detail in tow, and is headed for the next stop: a factory tour and small business policy announcement with the MP for Oatley, Mark Coure, who is hanging onto his seat by both sets of fingernails.
We pull over to a patch of dirt on the side of the road, waiting for her advance party to get to the factory first. From a nearby intersection, the pillar-box red Daley bus suddenly appears, emblazoned with its giant “Schools and hospitals before stadiums” mantra. She barely gives it a glance. But you wonder if it doesn’t haunt her dreams, as well.
Berejiklian, her admirers will tell you, is possessed of what former mentor Joe Hockey calls “deep humility”. “Politicians are notoriously narcissistic,” another long-time backer says. “But she is genuine, and with genuine integrity. I have never seen someone as accessible with as small an ego.”
Yet the Premier is not without pride. Indeed, when she talks about herself she conveys a keen sense of her own exceptionalism: the self-discipline, stoicism, capacity for focus, thoroughness, and an unrelenting capacity for hard work.
She has a “high threshold of pain” she tells me, explaining why she told a gallery journalist recently that not only did she oppose pill testing, but she never even took Panadol herself.
“I just don’t like taking stuff,” she says. “I don’t like hair spray in my hair. I try and live my life simply and purely. That sounds a bit funny but that’s just the way I am.” She never went through a teen rebel phase. “If anything my parents probably pushed me to have it.”
She’s never lost a day of school, or work, owing to sickness. She concedes she is lucky to have enjoyed such good health. When did she last visit a doctor? She won’t tell me.
She is on the job seven days a week. According to one staff member, she has to be badgered into taking holidays. It’s as if at any moment, the whole edifice could suddenly be snatched away.
“You don’t know how long you have in public life … I want to make the best of it while I’ve got the role.”
Berejiklian revealed in The Australian recently that in childhood she discovered she’d had a twin who had died at birth. “I happened to come out first,” she tells me. “It could have been minutes between me being here and not being here.” It has left her with a driving sense that every day has to count.
The other thing that weighs heavily, she says, is the terrible toll the Armenian genocide of 1915 took on her extended family, leaving her grandparents orphaned and the family in limbo in the Middle East until her parents, Krikor and Arsha, came to Australia in the 1960s. Neither had the opportunity to finish high school. “You think ‘Gosh, look where my family has been, look where I have ended up.’ There’s got to be a reason for it.”
When Berejiklian started school here she had no almost English. She had to develop a thick hide going through Peter Board High School in North Ryde, where she became school captain. The school was “rough” she says, with a caravan park across the road. A number of students living in the park came from families wrestling with drug problems, and she saw the effects of disadvantage up close. She befriended some of those kids, one in particular, whose brother died of an overdose. “He was really smart. I don’t know what became of him, I’ve often wondered.”
Tough hide or not, she still seems to get easily needled. When she visited Newcastle recently, her testy interjections as a local reporter tried to grill Transport Minister Andrew Constance made her look thin-skinned, and defensive.
She doesn’t like the salesmanship side of politics. “If you are really here for the right reasons, you do your job to make a difference, not to show off.”
This morning she is tuning into FM radio to see if her small business package gets a run. When the bulletin reports Labor’s willingness to truck with the Shooters for preference votes, she complains that “If I was saying that, I’d be crucified.”
Berejiklian bridles at suggestions she is a control freak, even overseeing the detail of cakes for her staff.
“That’s going a bit too far,” she says. “But I’ve said to my staff, if my name is on something I need to see it. In my definition that’s not micromanagement … The public like to know they have a premier who doesn’t just rubber-stamp everything.”
She gets in a dig at Daley. “The Leader of the Opposition alleges he was given a list of who to thank in his first speech, including Eddie Obeid. I would never ever do that”.
She tackles the morning’s street walk in Mortdale with the same brisk efficiency with which she does everything else. Smiles, a few words with late-morning shoppers and store owners, and a pause to coo over a baby. She bends down to talk to one little girl, hanging off her mother’s hand. “You don’t know who I am, but you will when you are older”.
Outsider or insider?
Berejiklian didn’t discover until she got to university that there was such a thing as a private school system. That’s how different her world was to that of many of the Liberals she came to rub shoulders with later.
So arises what might be called the Berejiklian paradox. In some ways, she’s still the ultimate outsider – or at least feels herself to be so.
But in straight political terms, she morphed quickly in her 20s into a skilled party insider, who gathered powerful mentors, such as Hockey and Marise Payne, early, navigated the cross-currents of factional turmoil to emerge as Young Liberals president in 1996 and went on to win a coveted place in parliament.
She insists she was lukewarm about party involvement while at university. She wanted to put study and a career first. But then, after finishing her first degree, “they needed someone to fill a position, and a friend of mine said do you want to do this’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t really, but I will have a go’.”
By then she was undertaking a masters in economics and business statistics and working in the office of leading MP Peter Collins. When the presidency of the Young Liberals came up, “a lot of people said ‘you are silly if you don’t do it, because its good experience’… Once I got on my feet I was fearless and there were not a lot of women around so I stood out. I went hell for leather”. (That includes touching base with each of the state party’s 53 branches.)
These days she is completely a “creature of the party” as one factional boss puts it. “She understands its forums, the different philosophies, the different tribes of the party. It’s one reason why she has held the whole show together.”
Berejiklian has been the beneficiary of the misfortune or change in life circumstances that befell the two men who preceded her as Liberal Premier.
The first was Barry O’Farrell, whose career ended in April 2014 over a bottle of Grange. Berejiklian had people urging her to run for the top job then against Mike Baird, assuring her she had the numbers. But she went out for coffee with Baird and returned saying she was no longer a candidate.
“She and Mike sat down by themselves, no powerbrokers, no advisers, and just decided as two friends who had respect for each other that this is what that they should do,” one insider recalls. “She demonstrated a real maturity that the government needed at that point.”
Berejiklian says, “Yeah, I did [ have people urging her to run]. But I knew … the right thing from the start was for me to support Mike and for Mike and I to be a strong team. Mike was ready, it was something that he wanted to do; [I] thought Mike would be the best premier and I should support him and bring the party together, which is what I did.”
Others say another factor influencing Berejiklian then was that Baird was much further in favour with the right-wing commentariat than she was. Her time was to come soon enough. Baird bowed out in January 2017.
‘Not on my watch’
Liberals were taking some comfort this week from the fact that the Coalition primary vote had edged up to 40 in the latest Newspoll, even though on a two-party preferred basis they were still evenly tied with Labor. The government is in a desperate battle to hang on to regional seats in the face of challenges from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers in the west, and the Greens and Labor in the north.
They are pinning their hopes on Berejiklian standing for stability, with a track record of getting things done – even though most of her flagship projects have yet to reach completion and have upset many local communities along the way.
The positive messaging will turn heavily negative against Labor in the last week of the campaign. Every reminder the Coalition can dig up, of the days of jailed wheeler-dealer Eddie Obeid and his cronies, will be flung at Daley.
At last Sunday’s Liberal campaign launch, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet rattled off a list of what was in the government’s Easter showbag: 170 upgraded and new schools, 100 new and upgraded hospitals; a new western metro and an airport for western Sydney.
Berejiklian strove for a touch of the Iron Lady: “We cannot allow Labor to jeopardise our future. Not this time – not on my watch,” she told the party faithful at Panthers, in Penrith.
Climate change warranted only half a line in her speech, an odd call given how much it has climbed up the list of voters’ concerns.
“It is complex,” a party source said. “Upper Hunter is in play, and it’s a coal town; even in Barwon [in the north-west] they think their problems are because of irrigation and cotton growers, they don’t see it as a climate change issue.
I remind the Premier of the words of her energy minister, Don Harwin, who in December said his federal counterparts were “out of touch” on climate change. Did she sanction those remarks? “I have no comment to add to that,” she replies. “All he did was reflect NSW policy.” She won’t engage further on the issue.
Berejiklian insists she is not spooked by polls. “I’ve been around long enough to know that things change very quickly, and a huge percentage of people decide on the day, so you just keep working hard.”
She’s been asked many times through this campaign how she will take a loss. The gist of her reply is always the same. “I don’t let myself think about it. I’ve got a job to do”.
But at a question and answer session with the NSW business chamber earlier this week, a flash of confidence slipped through. Would she be ringing Daley [to concede on Saturday] or would he be ringing her, she was asked?
“He will be ringing me.”
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.