Why does Gladys Berejiklian seem so invincible?

May 31, 2021
Fix NSW transport rally in 2017 against the NSW government's private road tollway frenzy. Photo: Peter Boyle

As another New South Wales Labor leader bites the dust — goodbye Jodi McKay, we hardly knew you — it is worth asking why “reliable Gladys” is so immune to criticism?

Just last year, Paul Barry on ABC’s Media Watch noted how journalists struggled to get Berejiklian on the ropes. Yet, as Premier, she is far from scandal free, given questions about what she knew regarding her former friend, disgraced MP Daryl Maguire’s business interests.

For many, her denials presumably wouldn’t pass the pub test.

Her government adopted ecocidal policies that contributed to the horrific fires of 2019–20. It repealed the Native Vegetation Act 2003,  cleared 7000 hectares of native vegetation and cut funds for Fire and Rescue NSW. Nor did she respond adequately to the crisis, instead downplaying climate change.

Yet, somehow, Berejiklian remains popular. Undoubtedly there are a myriad of reasons for this including media bias and her lauded handling of COVID-19.

A lot is, of course, Labor’s own fault: its history of corruption (the spectre of Eddie Obeid), its patronising opportunism (from opposing the proposed greyhound racing ban to fear mongering about China and promoting anti-Asian racism) and, of course, its inability to connect to the working class.

But, another factor is the way that Berejiklian uses identity politics, framing herself both as a progressive but also as evidence of progress. In this, she follows the playbook of United States President Barrack Obama.

In a recent podcast, leftist historian Daniel Bessner described how Obama used his own existence as evidence of US progress and exceptionalism. As Bessner noted, for Obama “his very being demonstrated progress”. Thus, one could feel good about Obama because one could feel good about oneself, about one’s nation.

As Obama famously put it: “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible”. Sound familiar?

On winning the 2019 election, Berejiklian praised her state: “A state in which someone with a long surname – and a woman – can be the Premier”. (In fact, her last name is an asset: the difficulty in saying it keeps the electorate, and the media, on a friendly first name basis.)

Using herself as the prime example, she appealed to a sort of progressive patriotism, claiming: “What is most important to me is that, no matter what your background – where you live, what your circumstances – everybody in this state has the chance to be their best”.

Given this similarity, it is worth noting how Obama’s popularity among some voters didn’t survive his second term. Many Obama voters switched to former United States president Donald Trump in states such as Michigan. 

Despite the broad appeal of Berejiklian, resentment is always under the surface. Capitalism generates it. Even in progressive NSW, just look at the fact that One Nation is still around

This is why a class-based analysis is so important, and why the left must find ways to bypass the spin and organise with those in struggle. After all, spin such as Obama’s and Berejiklian’s hides the tensions at the heart of the capitalist system.

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