Disclaimer: This interview was conducted much before the Christchurch terror attack.
Pawan Luthra (PL): Premier, you were born in Sydney to Armenian immigrant parents, Krikor and Arsha. Can you share with us some of the challenges and thrills of growing up in an immigrant family? In your eyes, how do these experiences translate to the Indian migrant families now?
Gladys Berejiklian (GB): Pawan, that’s a beautiful question to ask. I feel very lucky that my parents chose to migrate to NSW, to Australia. I am very proud of my heritage but obviously also I am also extremely proud of my family being very good citizens to this country. I think one of the main challenges I faced is because my parents were newly arrived when I was born as the oldest, we didn’t speak English at home and so I didn’t speak any English when I started school. I learned English at school. I think that is a similar experience to many perhaps in the Indian community that speak perhaps another language at home, and then learn English subsequently. But I am very grateful for that experience because I think being bilingual is very positive. In fact, through marriage we have some Armenian relatives from Calcutta. Calcutta used to have a very significant Armenian community and one of the largest churches of Armenian heritage is actually in Calcutta.
PL: Premier, with a surname like Berejiklian how difficult was it as a migrant attending mainstream events and functions?
GB: Wehen I was first thinking about running for public office, people said to me, “You should change your name,” and as a joke I would say “I did change my name, it used to be Smith!”. But I think people were worried for me – about what impact it would have, having such a long surname. But I felt confident in the people of NSW supporting people of different backgrounds, and I am grateful for that support. I have been a Member of Parliament since 2003 and I think most commentators don’t have too much challenge now in saying my surname. I especially want to send a message to younger people – be proud of who you are. Be proud of your heritage. Be proud of the name you were born into. Be proud of the family you were born into, because we’re lucky in NSW in particular we have a very tolerant society made up of immigrants. But apart from the first Australians, the Indigenous Australians who have been here tens of thousands of years, we are all migrants, all of us have a story. I think the key is really appreciating what we have here. My parents fled from countries which did not have the freedom that we experience here. They felt very strongly about education and making sure my sisters and I studied well and got a good education and worked hard and so those values of respect and hard work I think were engrained in us. And also the notion of giving back to the community. And I see that in the Indian community all the time. Not just people like yourself, but many people voluntarily giving up their time to support community activity and so many other things. I think that’s part of the migrant story of NSW – appreciating the opportunities that are here but also giving back and making NSW as strong as it can be.
PL: Turning now to the forthcoming elections, NSW economy is No 1 in the nation, with average surpluses of $1.3 billion expected over the next 4 years, and with low unemployment rates – yet the Labor opposition attributes this success to being at the right place at the right time, with the state benefitting from an unprecedented housing boom and asset sales and privatisation. Your response to that?
GB: Unfortunately that is completely incorrect. The best way I can demonstrate that is by saying when the Labor government was in office, NSW had the worst unemployment rate in the nation. We were 8th in economic growth; in jobs growth, we were last. And we turned that around and now we are the strongest in the nation. That doesn’t happen by accident; that happens because of hard work. We inherited deficits from the Labor Party, we inherited debt. We’ve turned that around. We’ve managed the budget and managed the economy which is why we are in a position to invest more in schools, in education, in jobs for all ages, especially for young people starting out. I am incredibly proud of that. Our economic record is second to none and many other states come looking to us for examples of how we achieved this. We have made some difficult decisions but it has resulted in a positive outcome. Our economy in NSW is very diverse. We don’t need to rely on just one part of it, we don’t just need to rely on the property market at all; it’s quite the opposite. We’ve ensured we have a very diverse economy so that if one part of the economy isn’t doing as well as the others it doesn’t affect the overall performance. And why is it that NSW was last under Labor, and is now the strongest in the nation?
PL: Premier, in spite of these economic achievements, polling is indicating that this election is going to be very, very tight.
GB: Well I think there’s obviously different sentiments across the globe in terms of how we respond to governments and institutions, and NSW isn’t immune from that. I think the public has expectations of what they would like to see happen, but I believe the people of NSW have a clear choice on March 23. They can support a government such as mine, a liberal national government that has turned the economy around, is providing jobs and security for the future and investing in those things that are going to give the next generation and the generation after, all these opportunities. When the Labor Party were in government for 15 years they didn’t build any infrastructure. They didn’t build the roads and the rails and the schools and the hospitals, we’ve turned that around. Because we know, that if we want our citizens to have good opportunities in the future and a good quality of life, we need to invest in these things that matter to the population.
PL: Let’s turn our attention to the Indian Australian community, which is now approximately 250,000 in NSW and growing. What strikes you about our community, Premier?
GB: I think what strikes me the most is your notion of respecting good citizenship. What really strikes me is how the Indian community is so generous in its support of NSW. What strikes me is that people feel very grateful to have a democracy where you can exercise your freedom, be proud of who you are, yet have all of these opportunities ahead of you. I think what really inspires me about the Indian community is its generosity of spirit, but also the giving. The community always contributes to making NSW stronger. I think work ethic and respect for family and education are things that really stand out to me in relation to the community. I felt that when I went to India. When I made my first official visit to India, what I felt with the community here, I felt when I met with proud Indians in India. I think the Indian community here has much to be proud of, and we have much to be grateful for. I’m grateful that the community makes such a strong contribution to our state, especially through not just your community organisation, but the professional organisations that Indian Australians represent. They are contributing to us having the edge in the future because we appreciate India isn’t just an important trade partner, it’s an important friend to Australia and I think the Indian community in NSW has played a very important role in providing that bridge. I feel we have an advantage over many other nations because we have a strong Indian community here in NSW, it gives us an advantage.
PL: Recently in Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews delivered on an election promise to the Indian community there, when he got the ball rolling on an ethno-specific aged-care facility. His government will invest up to $14.5 million to purchase land for two new Indian aged-care facilities. There is a need for such government intervention to assist the migrant Indian community in NSW too. Is this something that you can progress for the Indian community in NSW post March 23, as NSW Premier?
GB: Definitely. We are definitely looking at all those opportunities. I know that we have supported a lot of the Indian community language schools, which the community is very grateful for. I learned to read and write in my parents’ language Armenian on Saturdays and I know many Indian children attend community schools outside of mainstream schools. So the government provided $11 million in funding to support all of our community language schools. We’ve also provided $1 million to support Indian organisations host major events which support the community and of course we’ve looked at all those options in terms of aged care and also other welfare opportunities for Indian community members. Of course we’re open to all of those things and I hope to have more detailed discussions with relevant organisations about that.
PL: Trade of goods and services between NSW and India is worth about $1.8 billion annually but the needle has barely moved in the last few years. Barry O’Farrell, when he was the Premier, committed to regular visits to India, but more recent visits to India have been rather sporadic. What is your strategy for igniting the trade relationship between NSW and India?
GB: I’ve been Premier for two years, and I was very pleased to go to India last year. The result of that delegation was extremely fruitful. We now have a system, for example, in IT in Mumbai, which is arguably the global leader in that field. We have an exchange program where Australian students and Indian students are studying in each other’s nations specifically to progress IT and to learn from each other and start-ups. After the feedback from many officials in India we actually sent a delegation over of primary producers because the hospitality industry is crying out for fresh produce from Australia. So we actually initiated many opportunities there. And I think there is increasing opportunities for those markets to grow. Especially with the Western Sydney airport, which can deliver freight produce straight from our farmers flown into emerging markets in India. What excites me about the new airport in Western Sydney is that you may very well find direct flights to cities which currently don’t have direct flights, and that’s a great opportunity for us to increase those trade opportunities with some of the larger cities which currently don’t have direct flights from Sydney. We have done a lot of work in the last 12 months in particular to really move the dial along as you well put, because the opportunities are endless. People to people, we did very well. Business to business, it has to be two-way. The main feedback I got from Indian business people in India was please make sure that it’s not just one way.
PL: Premier, a great segue into your Indian links. When you visited India last year as Premier, what struck you the most?
GB: What struck me the most is how focused all your officials were in really progressing the standard of living for many of your population and how committed you were to establishing greater progress in areas like education and tourism, to support the government in increasing the quality of life in many of your citizens. What struck me is the infrastructure spend. India is the largest democracy on the planet, compared to NSW, which is a fantastic democracy, but not of the scale! What struck me was how the country was moving forward, albeit the challenges are enormous of having a billion people all trying to move in the one direction. It’s very different to having 25 million people moving in the one direction. I was very impressed that irrespective of people’s backgrounds, there was a common aspiration to making India stronger and also improve your quality of life for many in the community. Encouraging women to work and participate more in the community – that really struck me as something everyone was pursuing.
PL: So a country of opportunity, very much like what the Liberal Party provides to the migrant community?
GB: I could not have said it better myself!
PL: You have attended many functions in the Indian community here – any which stand out?
GB: Oh, I love all of them. I love them because everybody feels so welcomed, whether you’ve been there once before or a hundred times before, that respect is there. I feel enormously grateful to experience that energy, to feel that vitality, to feel that deep culture. I especially love the ones that involve a lot of young people because the future is so bright for NSW when you look at the next generation of Indian-Australians making their mark in the world.
PL: You’ve got used to the many requests for selfies?
GB: Oh yeah I love it! It’s very good.
PL: Favourite Indian food?
GB: The vegetarian dishes are my favourite, probably vegetable dahl.
PL: Any Indian personality who has inspired you?
GB: Well I got to meet Sachin Tendulkar when I was in India. I thought this was a myth, but he said to me outside of India, his favourite place to play cricket is the Sydney Cricket Ground and that made me feel very proud.
PL: A couple of final questions before we conclude. Premier, you have said that in your spare time you enjoy playing golf, watching movies and reading books. How is your golf handicap these days?
GB: Oh, terrible! I don’t know how Donald Trump does it, playing 18 times since he’s been president, I’ve only played once! Hopefully that’s something that I can take up again in the future.
PL: Premier, looking back at the last couple of years, what would you conclude to be your personal triumphs?
GB: I would say making our economy the strongest in the nation and contributing to the future of young people through education, through our hospitals, and our roads and rail. We want to create a society that has the opportunity to work hard and be their best. I feel that having created a stronger community we’re now in a position to continue this massive investment and that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.
PL: And finally, why should the Indian Australian community vote for you and your party?
GB: Because we firstly appreciate the aspirations of the community and we are grateful for the contribution that the community makes. But also, I feel we reflect the values of the community. The work ethic, the contribution and support to education, the support of vulnerable people in our society is something my government feels passionately about. But you can’t achieve these things unless you run a strong budget and have a strong economy, because then you have the resources to put the money where you need it most. And I feel that my government has the capacity to do that. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to do that and I think the future is incredibly bright if we’re allowed to get this job done.