Signals from a careful commuter

She’s got the toughest job in the government and she’s famously shy about her private life. For some she’s going to be the next premier, for others she’s the politician with the unpronounceable surname, but for a woman who ought to have the weight of the world on her shoulders Gladys Berejiklian is travelling light.

“I am very customer-focused,” she smiles when asked how the job of fixing Sydney’s transport woes is going.

“If I get presented with a proposal the first thing I ask is: how does it help the customer?”

So far the customers appear to be giving her the benefit of the doubt. But for how long? A year and a half into her ministry, Gladys Berejiklian, member for Willoughby, NSW Minister for Transport, knows public patience can’t last.

But if she is feeling anxious she isn’t showing it.

We talk over a Friday lunch at the New Shanghai restaurant, downstairs in Chatswood Chase. It’s in the middle of her electorate and she knows people everywhere. There is even a baby to admire. The place is as busy as … well a Chinese restaurant in Chatswood and Berejiklian wastes little time on the menu. “I’m starving!” she exclaims and immediately suggests the Rainbow Beef as a specialty of the house. We settle for that with stir-fried green beans and some salty prawns and dumplings. I suggest the eel. She’s not keen but I go ahead anyway and end up being the only person who has a go at it.

We sit close together on stools at a small table that is soon crowded with dishes and chopsticks and her preferred tipple of green tea. As we talk I notice her acknowledge people with a discreet wave of the hand or a smile. Such is the political life.

Up close, Gladys Berejiklian is friendly and warm and knows her ground. She is polite and makes time. She is interested and asks questions, despite glancing at her BlackBerry to remind her she has six meetings in a row after our lunch. It’s a punishing work schedule that begins early and finishes late. It can make a mess of your health but she looks well and says she gets to the gym.

I don’t comment on her clothes but do notice a silver necklace with a name I can’t read. I politely inquire; “It’s my name in Armenian,” she replies with a laugh. “I had a bet in the office that you would never bother asking about it!” I feel suitably chastened.

Berejiklian is well aware that success in the transport portfolio is one of the key measuring sticks by which Barry O’Farrell’s government will be judged.

But what does success mean?

Well for a start she won’t be rushed. “I understand that people want me to announce things but that was what Labor did. Announce things all the time and never do anything. I won’t do that.”

In Victoria, Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal counterpart, Ted Baillieu, has earned the sobriquet “Timid Ted” for his hesitancy on the path to reform. Critics level the same charge against O’Farrell. He’s too cautious; he won’t get on with things.

As Nick Greiner once exasperatedly said to me about O’Farrell, “Look, Barry is Barry.”

Berejiklian bristles at the idea that O’Farrell might go down in history as a do-nothing Premier. “Barry will be remembered very well,” she says firmly. “He is doing a lot behind the scenes and making the decisions that set the solid foundations for the future.”

After 16 years in opposition and with a landslide on his lap it was O’Farrell who last year famously brushed aside an interview request from the ABC’s election-night host, Kerry O’Brien, with the words, “I’m only going to talk to Gladys.”

So if the proverbial political bus rumbles along doesn’t she have the inside running over the Treasurer, Mike Baird, for succession? She has seen this coming and her political discipline kicks in. She doesn’t smile and I get the message.

“Barry is my boss. I don’t agree that I have a more favoured relationship with him than others. He has good relations with all the Cabinet.”

What about leading the party one day?

“I don’t have time to take my eye off the job I have,” she says. “I don’t want to speculate about the future leadership. I am concentrating on getting the best job done that I can.”

For a person who’s been in politics for so long she is strangely reticent about her private self and is especially reserved about the issue of gender in politics.

I ask around these issues until she says, “look I’ve asked you twice, so please …”

But I can’t resist. After all it’s been the week from hell for misogynists. Julia Gillard has given them a pasting in Parliament and all over the world her speech has been tweeted, bookmarked and applauded. So what did Gladys think?

“I haven’t watched it.”

Really? I look at her but she is quite resolved. It seems hard to believe.

I get a sense of how determined she can be.

“I am not comfortable talking about politics through gender. I have always felt that the best thing you could do as a woman was to do the best job possible.”

Yes, but surely she has experienced what many talented women feel, the everyday, commonplace condescension that accompanies the successful woman?

“As far as the Liberal Party is concerned I have never experienced any discrimination,” she replies with a smile.

The daughter of Armenian migrants who fled from Syria and Jerusalem in the wake of the Armenian genocide and arrived separately in the late 1960s, Gladys grew up in the midst of the biggest Armenian community in Sydney, centred on Willoughby. The eldest of three sisters, she studied hard and stayed at home until she was 30. She worked her way up in the Commonwealth Bank, was interested in politics from an early age and had Peter Collins as an early mentor. She is a close friend of the federal Liberal MP Joe Hockey. There’s an Armenian connection there, too.

She speaks her parents’ language and has a strong sense of her heritage. She worries as they have relatives in Aleppo and Syria now is a dangerous place.

Berejiklian is single and elsewhere she has said that perhaps she will meet the right man some day. I don’t ask her about it. It’s a tough enough question for anyone in her position and politics doesn’t give you any privilege on the answer.

Right now she is struggling with trying to prioritise Sydney’s transport options. There seem to be so many projects and where is the capital coming from to fund any of them?

I suggest to her that from the outside it looks as though O’Farrell is hedging his bets on transport and setting up two competing streams of advice. First there is her Transport Ministry and then there is Infrastructure NSW, set up in the middle of last year under the leadership of Greiner, which has just produced a major report to the government recommending the WestConnex roads project as its priority. The Premier says he will go ahead with the WestConnex proposal. But Infrastructure NSW has plenty to say on buses and light and heavy rail, too. So where does that leave Gladys?

She insists there is no conflict. That Infrastructure NSW was always going to be used as a vehicle for identifying the key road project and that’s what it has done.

So how does she want to be remembered after the first term?

“I want the Opal card rolled out across trains, buses and ferries so it is available for most customers.

“I want to finish the Inner West Light Rail extension, I want the South West Rail Link well under way and construction happening on the North West Rail Link.”

I ask about how it can possibly take so long for an integrated ticketing system such as the Opal card to be introduced when other cities have their Oyster (London) and Octopus (Hong Hong)? She sighs and I gather has asked the same question.

She says she has been on the front foot with the bureaucracy. “The first decision I made as minister was to cut the number of agencies, from 10 to four. I’d been planning what I wanted to do so it was very early when I did that.

“It’s taken a while to get the bureaucracy right – now though they know that every proposal that comes to me needs to show the benefit to the customer.”

She is “absolutely committed to the North West rail project”, agrees that light rail can “move more people and is definitely better in some places”, but adds that “a quality public transport network is one where modes are integrated and you have the right mode in the right place”.

She’s no ideologue, “There’s no one answer to Sydney’s transport issues. We will need everything – heavy and light rail, buses, ferries, cars, active transport and most importantly integration between all of these.”

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