McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership Oration: Gladys Berejiklian and Sally Capp on lessons learned during COVID-19

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 21, 2020

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp. Image supplied

A focus on meeting the needs of the public has driven the decisions of New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp during the coronavirus pandemic, the two leaders have said.

In a panel discussion for the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership Oration on Monday, they spoke about the need for strong bipartisan leadership in 2020.

Berejiklian has been named McKinnon Prize Political Leader of the Year in 2019, while Capp has taken the title of McKinnon Emerging Political Leader of the Year. Their leadership has been tested by COVID-19.

During the pandemic, Capp has learned the most important things as a leader have been maintaining a focus on essential services, understanding exactly what people in the community expect and need, and delivering on those expectations and needs.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image supplied

For the NSW premier, the biggest lessons have been learning to lead with courage, to be as adaptable and flexible as possible, and knowing that “it’s okay to stuff up” as long as you learn from it and move forward.

On balancing decision-making between doing what’s right and doing what’s popular, Berejiklian said the pandemic has shown her that it’s important for leaders to surround themselves with a good team and to ignore the critics.

“Earlier on I discovered some resilience and courage I didn’t think I had in actually not caring what people think about the decisions I make, so long as I make the right call for the community,” she said.

“And also, I rely heavily on good people around me, experts, colleagues, people who’ve done emergency management responses before.”

Capp noted that while Victorians will head to the polls for the local government elections next month, she has remained focused on her role in the pandemic response.

“It’s absolutely critical here in Melbourne that we spend every moment making sure that we are thinking about planning and delivering as many good outcomes for Melburnians who are going through one of the most extreme situations any of us have ever experienced,” she said.

“And we know that the health response is the priority, but we do have to balance that, as Gladys was saying, with livelihoods. And being in local government, really it’s the strong voice of our local business owners, their teams, and people that have been impacted particularly by economic hardship that are the loudest and the people we’re talking to daily.

“It’s a matter of channeling all of that — not just the feedback but the passion and the energy and the emotion — and making sure I’m representing that well in terms of what we can do as a capital city council but also being that chief champion into other levels of government that have more resources than we do but nonetheless are as focused on the City of Melbourne, its scale and the influence it has on state and national economies.”

Berejiklian touched briefly on the NSW National Party leader John Barilaro’s recent threat to end the coalition over a koala protection policy, noting that during a crisis like COVID-19, her “tolerance levels aren’t what they normally are”.

“I’m normally a very tolerant person, I tend to bring people together, I tend to work on a consensus basis,” she said.

“Everybody has different leadership styles, but during a pandemic my tolerance levels are far reduced. And premiers have lots of power — as do prime ministers — and you exercise them when you need to, and that’s what I did.”


Read more: NSW government avoids shakeup over koala policy … for now


The national cabinet has been a beneficial process, Berejiklian said. However, during the panel discussion she again called for the state borders to open — an issue which has divided state and federal leaders for weeks.

Berejiklian also described her relationship with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews as “really really good”, noting that the two leaders regularly communicate with each other.

“We get on very well, we have different views of things, of how things should happen. I’m much more robust in opening up the economy and making sure we’re going at full pace, and that’s just a philosophical difference,” she said.

“Having said that, he had different challenges than I did. But I would argue, putting police in charge of a lot of the compliance and logistics really supported the NSW efforts, and then [NSW] Health was able to focus on what they did, and again I think that learning came from the bushfires and has stood us in good stead.”

Capp said not being involved in the national cabinet discussions has been “frustrating sometimes”. As a consequence, the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors has been “reinvigorated” to be used as a lobbying and advocacy platform, particularly for engaging with the federal government, she said.

Meanwhile, the state government and the City of Melbourne have built a close relationship, as their “ability and need to work together has certainly been heightened during this crisis”, Capp noted.


Read more: Opinion: local government needs a voice at the national cabinet


Reflecting on the NSW Ruby Princess and Victorian aged care debacles — where the responsibilities of state and federal governments have been somewhat unclear — Berejiklian said she hoped the pandemic would pave the way for permanent reform to increase accountability.

“In the pandemic, each level of government had to assume responsibility in areas they’ve never had experience,” she said.

“So mistakes were made. But I also feel that hopefully this will support the reform process moving forward because accountability is very black and white, not grey, but in a lot of federal state relations there’s a lot of grey. I’m someone who likes to know what I’m responsible for. I’ll manage it well, but the grey is what is challenging.”

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