Shane Fitzsimmons tells a story from the hideous black summer of 201920. He and the NSW Premier were visiting a community just south of Batemans Bay. “As we were leaving,” the former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner recalls, “a lady came up to the Premier and said, ‘We’ve got no communication here and I have family who will be worried about me,’ and while she was speaking, others standing around said that they were in the same situation too.” So Gladys collected their phone numbers, and “as soon as we got back into mobile range, there she was in the back seat of the car and you could hear her on the phone: ‘Oh hello, it’s Gladys Berejiklian here. Yes, I am the Premier, but I’ve just been with such-and-such and they wanted me to give you a call and let you know that they’re doing okay.’”
Shane chuckles with genuine affection. It was a classic Gladys moment – calling into play the winning combination of diligence and concern that earned her the trust of the state during that terrifying fire season and then the pandemic.
“There were,” Gladys says with characteristic understatement, “a lot of difficult days that summer,” driving up and down the coast, looking trauma in the eye, sweating on the lives of firefighters, farmers, people in blazing towns.
“There would be times when Commissioner Fitzsimmons would let me know that there were fire crews missing or people in houses who weren’t accounted for,” she remembers. “There were some frightening moments. The first day of the year was confronting. Commissioner Fitzsimmons and I went to Malua Bay and there were people who had fled for their lives just hours before and gone to the evacuation centre. It was chaotic.”
Then there was the rebuild, which is immense and ongoing. It will, Gladys says, take years. She recently visited fire-affected communities again, more than a year on, and says that “for those people who have been impacted, it’s still very real, very raw. It’s like losing a loved one – everyone else moves on and you’re still grieving.”
Gladys will never forget a certain date: January 25 last year. The smoke had barely cleared from the summer’s firestorms – in some places it hadn’t – when Australia’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Victoria. Again, the level-headed Premier rallied. She put a crisis team in place because “as horrible as the bushfires were,” she says, “they’d taught me the importance of having a whole-of-government response.’”
Those were testing times. Initially, fears the virus would take hold as fiercely as it had in Europe looked set to be realised. The Ruby Princess was inexplicably allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and release its passengers on March 19 – an event ultimately linked to almost 900 cases of COVID-19 and 28 deaths. Then COVID ran rampant through NSW nursing homes, killing 28 elderly residents – it was nothing like Victoria’s 655 aged care deaths, but it was heartbreaking for the families involved, as was the separation of the elderly from their families during lockdown. During the statewide lockdown, Gladys fronted the cameras daily. Small, wiry, wide-eyed and determined, even when she had bad news to deliver, she gave the impression that the state was in safe hands.
She knew that every decision she made would be critical but she didn’t flinch, and at the end of the day, her own conscience was her toughest critic.
“I made a decision to say: this is life and death; I don’t really care what people think; I’m just going to do what I know is right … Everybody has an opinion, everyone is telling you how to do your job. I knew the people I could trust and should take advice from, and I thought, ‘The buck stops with me’ … You know the saying, dance like nobody’s watching? I wanted to lead like nobody was watching. I didn’t want to look back and regret any decision I’d made based on fear or what people might say.”
Behind the scenes, Gladys had personal worries too: for friends and family living in Armenia who’d contracted the virus, and for her mother, Arsha, who is 81, and her father Krikor, 88.
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