New South Wales’ new Premier Gladys Berejiklian has leapt straight into the most controversial debate raging in her state: how to make housing more affordable.
In her first press conference after being elected leader on Monday, Ms Berejiklian named housing affordability, local infrastructure and a strong economy as her three policy priorities.
The Premier also spoke of her public school background and the value of public education, saying she would be “the strongest supporter of Gonski”.
Ms Berejiklian, 46, is the first female Liberal premier in Australian history. Only Kate Carnell, Liberal chief minister of the ACT between 1995 and 2000, has preceded her.
Minutes into the press conference, her gender became an issue. Ms Berejiklian was asked if the fact she has no children will be a political disadvantage.
“Dominic Perrottet has made up for me, he has four kids,” she said of her newly-elected deputy.
She was also asked if she would be judged on the fact she is unmarried.
“I am not going to judge anybody on their personal circumstances,” was her response.
Asked if she was prepared for the type of questioning faced by former prime minister Julia Gillard, she retorted: “Sure, ask me one.”
Ms Berejiklian noted she’d been in politics for a long time and was prepared for whatever came her way. She first entered state parliament in 2003, and has held several important portfolios, including treasurer and transport.
She has a bachelor of arts, a graduate diploma of international studies and a master of commerce. Before politics, she worked as a general manager at the Commonwealth Bank.
Ms Berejiklian also recalled her migrant heritage. She was born to Armenian parents in Sydney, and said she spoke very little English when she started primary school.
She is aligned with the moderate faction of the Liberal Party, and has voted for same-sex adoption and stem cell research.
University of Sydney professor Rodney Smith, a political expert, said Ms Berejiklian is “very much a part of the moderate side”.
“On social issues, she sits to the centre left of the spectrum. On economic issues, she would be more to the right of the spectrum around things like a reduced role of government,” Professor Smith told The New Daily.
“She was seen as a generally competent transport minister. That was against the background of chaos in the transport portfolio towards the end of the Labor government. She oversaw significant reforms in transport. Some that are still being overseen, particularly around new rail projects.
“I think she’s seen, and this is true as her time of treasurer, as a safe pair of hands and someone who is on top of her portfolio. It will be interesting to see how that will translate when she’s premier.”
Labor went immediately on the attack. After congratulating Ms Berejiklian, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley took issue with her policy priorities.
“I note Ms Berejiklian’s comments about her support for education but you have to say in the job of treasurer where she could have done something about it, she hasn’t put the dollars in that are needed,” Mr Foley told reporters on Monday.
The Labor leader said Ms Berejiklian, as treasurer, had blocked solutions to tackle housing affordability that were brought to cabinet by Planning Minister Rob Stokes.
“She’s been the person in the government who has stubbornly insisted that boosting supply is the only policy tool to solve housing affordability,” he said.
“Well it’s not, because it hasn’t worked.”
Meanwhile, former NSW Labor premier Kristina Keneally said she had no advice for Ms Berejiklian but urged the media to restrain reporting on her shoes, hair and dress.
She described Ms Berejiklian as an experienced political operator who understood the gender dynamics of NSW politics.
“I am confident she knows exactly what it means to be a woman in the NSW bearpit,” Ms Keneally wrote in The Guardian on Monday.
As for Ms Berejiklian’s priority of a strong economy, that may be easy to deliver. She has inherited Australia’s strongest state economy, according to the Commonwealth Bank.
But Professor Smith said the new premier may find it difficult to carve out a new path, given the government’s full agenda and her pivotal role as treasurer under Mike Baird.
“Her role will be to oversee the continuing projects that have already been announced. If they run into difficulties, she will start to wear the blame.”
– with Luke Henriques-Gomes, Jackson Stiles and AAP