By -

The Premier of NSW is no stranger to addressing her constituents via video link on smartphone screens. After all, she did it for 45 days straight – aside from weekends – through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From March through May, Premier Gladys Berejiklian fronted cameras every weekday at 8am to deliver a press conference that thousands of Australians streamed live via social media, many of them on smartphones. As many as 89,000 tuned in to the live stream on The Sydney Morning Herald Facebook page (other media outlets recorded similarly high numbers) on 28 April, when she announced the date for schools to return on 11 May, and the first relaxation of lockdown rules for two adults at a time to visit other households.

It’s a ritual I’ve sort of missed, I tell the Premier, when she once again beams into my home through my iPhone screen. This time she’s dialled in for a private interview over FaceTime at the more civilised hour of 1.30pm. Whose idea was it to address journalists so early, every single day, during what was undoubtedly a hectic time for the state’s most powerful politician?

“Rightly or wrongly, that was my decision,” the Premier concedes. “Based on the fact that I knew everybody was going through a hard time. 

“I think when you’re going through a hard time, you want reassurance. You want to know that the people you have elected are in control; they know what’s going on and are able to give you information frankly, honestly, good or bad … Even if people didn’t agree with what was being done, they would be able to hear the rationale behind it.”

LSJ’s customary lunch date for this section of the magazine has had to be adapted to COVID-19 restrictions for the third month in a row. Restaurants are operating at reduced capacity and public transport – the Premier and former Transport Minister’s favourite mode of transport – is reserved for those who cannot work from home. So, we agree to a FaceTime interview instead. I apologise in advance for any drilling noises that threaten to interrupt our chat. I am working from home and the apartment next door has been undergoing noisy renovations.

“Oh, don’t apologise – that just means more jobs!” Berejiklian exclaims.

A bit of drilling seems insignificant when compared to the challenges the Premier has forged through in recent months. Since she became the state’s first elected female Premier in 2017 (NSW Labor leader Kristina Keneally had been appointed, but not elected, Premier eight years earlier), she has steered NSW through an historic drought, the worst bushfire season on record, and a coronavirus pandemic. 

As for jobs: almost 200,000 NSW residents lost theirs in a four-week period between March and April this year, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data. NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet conceded the unemployment rate rose to almost 8 per cent in the June quarter, largely due to coronavirus shutdowns.

“If you told me a year ago, ‘This is what you’ll go through, this is what you’re going to have to do’, I probably would have walked away and suggested I wouldn’t cope,” Premier Berejiklian says. “The isolation and the restrictions, working from home, all the changes everybody has gone through. 

“For me, the last six to nine months have been a real test in resilience. But also, proof of what we’re capable of. What everybody in NSW is capable of. What we have shown is that we are more resilient that I thought we were.”

Berejiklian used the word “unprecedented” on most mornings during her 8am COVID-19 updates. It seems to have become the theme of her term in office.

She declared a state of emergency in NSW three times during the bushfire crisis in December and January. During COVID-19, her government regularly broke new legal ground under the Public Health Act, introducing a succession of public health orders that placed extraordinary restrictions on civil liberties. Berejiklian is no lawyer: she has a background in banking as a former manager for the Commonwealth Bank, and university degrees in Arts and Commerce. But the highest lawmaker in NSW blazed a short course in legislating for state emergencies.

“Unlike the law, where everything is black and white, certainly the rule book of dealing with public health and public order is very grey,” says Berejilkian. 

“This time has tested civil liberties versus the greater good. I feel incredibly proud that even though people have accepted a huge cost on their civil liberties, they have chosen to respect the guidelines and the rules of the public health orders that have been put in place.”

The Premier has been subject to the same social distancing and travel restrictions that all NSW citizens have been required to follow. Though, for a self-professed stickler for rules – beginning in her youth when she was never a “cool girl” but was school captain of Peter Board High School in North Ryde – it has been straightforward. At Easter this year, she told journalists she had bought a treadmill instead of a holiday while intrastate travel was forbidden. She also revealed she had been sitting in the driveway to speak to her parents during care visits, instead of going inside their house and risking spreading coronavirus.

I query whether she has been inside her parents’ house since restrictions relaxed to allow up to 20 visitors in a home.

“I have been inside the house, but I’ve not yet sat down for a meal,” she replies. “But it happens to be my Dad’s birthday today and my sisters are organising a dinner tonight. I’ve been tossing up what I will do. I feel I could probably go inside and eat a meal with the family. It will be the first one in a while.”

Dropping details about her family life to the media would once have been unheard of for the notoriously private Member for Willoughby. She tells LSJ she was previously a politician who held her cards close to her chest. But just as other professionals have found their personal lives creeping into workplaces during the pandemic – lawyers appearing in virtual court from their bedrooms, children interrupting Zoom meetings – Berejiklian has let the steely façade fall away. 

In March, she tweeted a photo of a letter eight-year-old Ollie Fisher had written her, asking whether the Easter bunny would be allowed to visit during lockdown. She wrote back publicly to reassure NSW children that the Easter bunny would be exempt from restrictions. She even joined the fleeting “me at 20” social media craze and tweeted a photo of herself at her 21st birthday dressed as Superwoman. In an entertaining interview with Nova 96.9 – one which she would previously have seemed likely to refuse – she told radio hosts Fitzy and Wippa that it was a “big night” with “all my relos [relatives]”. 

“It was my 21st birthday party and I rarely wore anything outrageous like that,” she tells LSJ. “I wanted to shock everyone; I was a bit of a goody two shoes.”

image description
Premier Gladys Berejiklian spends a virtual lunch break with LSJ’s Kate Allman.

Revealing more of her human foibles to LSJ, she admits she may have joined most of NSW in accumulating a couple of extra “COVID kilos” because she has been walking less during lockdown. I reassure her of a widely accepted and highly scientific rule: weight gain doesn’t count in lockdown.

“I used to walk everywhere to meetings but at the moment all my meetings are on Zoom or FaceTime so I’m not walking as much,” she groans.

The Premier reflects that letting people in on personal details taught her powerful lessons in emotional intelligence and leadership. The public clearly loved it: a national survey conducted in April found 70 per cent of NSW residents approved of her handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I guess what the public got to see during the pandemic was a bit of a glimpse behind the scenes about what life being Premier is like and what I go through every day,” she says.

“I’ve learnt to shed that [guarded persona] and lead in a quite uninhibited way.”

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to deliver challenges to government in literal peaks and troughs. NSW was counting as many as 200 new cases per day during the peak of COVID-19, but that has since fallen to zero cases of community transmission for multiple days. It is a score card envied by countries like the US and UK, and even our southern neighbour state Victoria, which is reporting a worrying rise in cases at the time of writing.

The economic battle is by no means over: the government has notched up a $20 billion COVID-19 bill, and an economy that has contracted by 10 per cent. But as NSW glides down the base of an infection curve it worked tirelessly to flatten, Berejiklian takes a short moment to reflect on what she will take away from the tumultuous lockdown period.

“When you go through life and death situations, we all fear for the worst, and it makes us reconsider what is important,” she says.

“This time has been a journey for all of us to be reflective and introspective – to work out what are our core values and what we really value. Then focus on that. Not let little things bother us so much. It is certainly a lesson I hope to carry on for some time.”