21 01 2009 - AUSTRALIAN STATE'S NEXT PREMIER AN ARMENIAN?
|Special from ARTHUR HAGOPIAN
If the Australian Liberal Party wins the next elections in the State of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian stands poised to get the nod for a coveted cabinet post, the first Armenian ever to come within touch of the circle of power in this country's most populous state.
She has already carved out an Australian first with her appointment as Shadow (opposition) Transport Minister. The prospective portfolio in a Liberal State government would be of a "toxic nature," as one columnist here observed, but that's still at least two years away.
In the meantime, she will have to content herself her current role, one she plays to a standing ovation among her constituents: scarcely a week passes by that she does not feature in some local publication or other, as she takes the cudgels to the ruling Labor party and castigates it for its shortcomings, and promises a better deal from her Party.
She concedes that as a Cabinet minister, she would have her hands full: "I don't deny that it will be extremely challenging, but I'm also chafing at the bit to make things better for people," she told one paper.
The wish and determination to make things better for people has been the guiding force behind her push for political prominence.
In the process, her steps seem to be leading her unerringly in the direction of greater future political clout.
“I hope I will have a chance to fix Sydney's transport problems from 2011! What the political future holds beyond that is your guess as much as mine,” she told this correspondent.
As Shadow "frontbencher" for the government of New South Wales, one of the five States within the Commonwealth of Australia, she has had ample opportunity to hone and demonstrate her savvy and finesse.
Why did she choose to join the Liberal party?
Although the Armenians of Australia are divided in their party allegiance (there are no actual statistics on voting patterns), she made her choice based on the very strong belief in the “right of
individuals to reach their full potential irrespective of their background - which is the essence of Liberalism.”
The fact that she is of Armenian heritage, and fiercely proud of it, gives her drive just that additional touch of impetus and momentum to keep her focused on her aim.
Gladys, who was born in Sydney, is also acutely cognizant of her family's keen ties to the Middle East where they grew up.
A gentle soul that adds polish to a steel will inside, she comes out as approachable and friendly (except when she lashes out at what she perceives the inadequacies and incompetence of the reigning Labor Party).
Her amiability has been attributed to her Armenian upbringing. But she has not let success and recognition go to her head. Unlike several high profile Armenians, she has opted not to change her family name despite the fact that for the common Aussie, "Berejiklian" is quite a mouthful.
The thought has never entered her mind, despite constant pressure from several quarters. She feels a change in her surname would give a totally false impression, diametrically opposed to her principles. However, she does not begrudge any Armenians who have opted for change, "that is their choice - it is just not something that I was comfortable in doing," she stresses.
While the temptation to change their first name in an act of accommodation is common among many Armenians settling in Western countries - "Harutiun" to "Arthur," "Khatchadour" to "Chris," "Garabed" to "Garo," "Hagop" to "James" or "Jimmy, "Hovhannes" to "John", surnames have generally been sacrosanct. Her Armenian linguistic skills make sure she can get the message across to her Armenian constituents, of whom there are plentiful in the Willoughby suburb of Sydney where she lives.
(Current estimates put the number of Armenians in Australia at 35,000 with the majority residing in the city's Northern Suburbs, of which Willoughby is a major hub).
Her interest in politics began at an early age.
“In my teenage years I developed a keen interest in public affairs and I believe that my Armenian background made me very aware of human rights issues and fighting for the underdog,” she told this correspondent.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, when her high school was being threatened with closure, she led the student charge to keep it open.
“This experience taught me that people can make a difference in the political process," she notes.
After she obtained her Bachelor's degree in political science everybody told her she should have "something to fall back on and that I would be more rounded with another career path behind me.” Her choice was an MA in commerce, and this put her behind the desk of a bank for 5 years.
Although her responsibilities can be daunting, she still finds time to mull over the tragic situation
in her parents' homeland which, despite her extremely busy Australian timetable, continues to exert enormous pressure on her thinking.
But she does not see any speedy solution to the crisis.
“I am by no means qualified to offer a solution to the Middle East crisis but believe very strongly in the two-State policy as the ultimate goal,” she says.
One of her uncles, Father Razmig Boghosian, who has Australian citizenship, had his 15 minutes of glory several years ago during the Israeli incursion in Bethlehem where he was abbot of the Armenian monastery. During one lull in the onslaught, he risked becoming a casualty and stepped out of his beleaguered compound, in a desperate cry for help, carrying a large handkerchief with the words “Help” stenciled on it, a scene vividly captured by a TV news team.
“We were very worried about him but also incredibly proud. He managed to make phone contact with us a few times during the ordeal,” Gladys recalls.
Her one visit to Jerusalem where her mother was born, evoked a lasting impression.
“I had an absolutely amazing experience,” she says, echoing the sentiment shared by countless visitors to what is considered to be the center of the world.
She also plans to pay another visit to Armenia where she was last six years ago. These two brief sojourns have helped enhance her love for the ancestral home. And urged her to further immerse herself in Armenian affairs, back in Sydney. One result has been her help in establishing the Australian-Armenian friendship group in parliament.
Her interests range from politics, to history, to the arts, particularly films and music. Her philosophy in life is simple: “Be good to others. Stay close to your family. Work hard. Be grateful for what you have.”
“Balance is very important in life. I believe that no matter what career path you have, balance ensures you remember what is most important in life,” she says.
And she believes in taking one day at a time – with no idea what the future may hold, but this in no way obscures her ultimate political design.