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Gladys Berejiklian: The wrenching personal tragedies of New South Wales Premier

Gladys Berejiklian’s ‘secret’ twin sister died at birth and she hails from a family who fled a genocide where more than 40 of her relatives died, before her parents sought a better life in Australia. 

The New South Wales Premier, 49, may seem like a familiar presence to most voters due to her coronavirus warnings broadcast daily throughout the state.

But the nation is now taking a good look at Berejiklian, who along with Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, has played an outsize role leading the fight against the pandemic. 

While Premier Berejiklian’s work ethic, cautious instincts and her success (so far) in staving off a second coronavirus wave are well known, voters may be less familiar with the NSW leader’s personal backstory. 

Surprisingly for a politician, Berejiklian rarely speaks about herself, with details about her family’s past dragged, begrudgingly, out of her over several years. 

The two biggest insights into the Premier’s personal life emerged in a 2018 speech where she was instructed to talk about herself, and in a lengthy newspaper interview prior to the last state election.

As the Ottoman Empire massacred its Armenian subjects during World War I, Berejiklian’s grandparents fled the tiny, landlocked Caucasus nation for the Middle East. 

‘More than 40 of my relatives were among the 1.5 million Armenians massacred in what became the first genocide of the 20th century,’ Berejiklian said in a landmark address to The Sydney Institute. 

‘All four of my grandparents were orphaned and witnessed untold atrocities.’ 

Her mother, Arsha, was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and her father, Krikor, in Aleppo, Syria – a city now known for a more recent humanitarian crisis.

Berejiklian’s mother and father migrated, separately, to Sydney in the late 1960s, met and later married at an Armenian Orthodox church in Chatswood, in the city’s north. 

They worked as a nurse and a boiler-maker/welder – her father working on the Opera House during its construction – and settled in suburban North Ryde.  

Gladys, the oldest of three sisters Rita and Mary, was born on September 22, 1970. 

She spoke Armenian at home, attended public schools, was her high school captain and carried the burden of being the first-born to parents ‘obsessed’ with her attending university.

‘I was extremely competitive and wanted good marks but from the talk of the kids I hung out with in our neighbourhood, I was doomed,’ Berejiklian said in her speech.

‘Based on what the local kids told me, every kid who went to North Ryde High got bashed up and was forced to take drugs. 

‘This petrified me. I didn’t even know what drugs were but I was pretty sure they were bad.’  

But she went on to study at university and became the president of the state’s Young Liberals.

In 1996, she wrote a letter to newly elected Prime Minister John Howard, demanding a meeting – and was shocked when he said ‘yes, sure.’

She then worked as an executive for the Commonwealth Bank and was elected to the NSW Lower House for the seat of Willoughby in 2003, before becoming transport minister in the O’Farrell and Baird governments.

In that landmark speech, Berejiklian admitted that sharing her personal story was ‘not something that comes easily to me’. 

Indeed, news reports at the time said fellow party members saw her reluctance to share a bit of her personal life as a weakness. 

‘In public life, part of my M.O. has been to not stray from core business – after all, I have been elected to do a job, and to do it well,’ she said.

But even then her remarks were quite reserved compared to the deeply personal admission she later made to a reporter.

Berejiklian, who is not married and is extremely close with her siblings, told The Weekend Australian magazine last year that there was something else that drives her – the loss of her twin sister.

‘I’m very lucky… for me every day in life is a bonus,’ Berejiklian was quoted saying.  ‘I had a twin sister and she didn’t make it. It was just luck that I came out first. 

‘Imagine if you had a twin; you came out first, they didn’t make it, I feel like I’ve got to justify my existence by sacrificing. So I don’t care if I’m not happy all the time. I feel like I’ve got to work hard.’ 

Berejiklian said she only learned she had a twin when an acquaintance came over when she was a child and asked: ‘Where’s the other one?’ A birth certificate describing her as the ‘elder’ of twins later confirmed the truth.

Arsha Berejiklian told The Weekend Australian that she didn’t tell Gladys about her sister, as she didn’t want to upset her.  

As for the present, Berejiklian and her government continue to battle the coronavirus crisis with the Premier warning on Monday, as ever, that the state’s residents should not fall into complacency and get tested if they have virus symptoms.

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