The Secret Review – A Captivating Page-Turner by Alexandra Smith that Details the Rise and Fall of Gladys Berijiklian

As a West Aussie, it was a little bit bizarre peering over the border during the height of the pandemic and hearing the calamity of praise being heaped upon the then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. As I consumed a slightly unhealthy diet of ‘State Daddy’ memes and TikTok dances heaping questionable adoration on Premier Mark McGowan, I saw Berejiklian get donned ‘The saviour of Australia’ and ‘The most popular premier in Australia right now.’ In the game of political football, I couldn’t help but think after the mammoth Labor landslide election win in 2021, ‘I thought Western Australia had the most popular premier right now?’

Cynicism gave way to reason when I read Alexandra Smith’s The Secret, a fascinating political biography of Gladys’ rise and fall. A good political biography should feel like a coroner’s report, ascertaining how the many small cuts brought down a political giant, and Smith’s writing does just that. The Secret details Berijiklian’s political aspirations and her familial heritage, meticulously outlining her ethical beliefs and worldview, before shining a light on the path that lead her to become one of the most powerful people in Australian politics.

Berijiklian stepped into power following Premier Mike Baird’s resignation after mounting criticism over his leadership. Baird had fallen into the powerful position after his predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, was brought down by the contentious body that is known as the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). That entity would eventually lead Berijiklian’s resignation after she was investigated due to her ‘close personal relationship’ with Daryl Maguire, a pivotal figure in NSW politics who was subsequently investigated for possible acts of corruption. It’s this relationship that informs the title ‘The Secret’, with Smith’s page-turner working in service to inform why someone with as much ethical and political power as Berijiklian had would have their world unravel in the manner that it did.

Political biographies can either elevate, recontextualise, or further dismantle a politicians legacy. While I eagerly devoured Sean Kelly’s dismantling of Scott Morrison in The Game – a book that felt like an attempt to salvage body parts, only during the ordeal of documenting what remains did we realise that each one is tinged with a pall of death –, I equally appreciated the dry and frank writing by Smith. Here, Smith’s writing is often clinical, presenting facts without any air of a vendetta or angle of tearing down a fallen woman, instead allowing the reader to decide which side to fall upon.

One of Scott Morrison’s key defence mechanisms was the manner that he tried to distance himself from the role he was elected into, often stating that it wasn’t Scott Morrison who was making these decisions, but rather the necessity of the role that dictated the actions the role of Prime Minister, or Treasurer, or Minister for Home Affairs. As voters, we elect someone partially because of their beliefs, of who they have built themselves up to be, and how they act within a society. We do not get to choose which roles they will take in government, and ultimately, we can only hope that their life experiences inform the role they take in government or opposition to the best of their ability. For Berijiklian, The Secret makes it clear that each of her life experiences intimately informed every single decision she would make as a politician.

The Secret has an earnest fascination with what made Gladys Berijiklian tick, and most importantly, what gave her her humanity. If there’s one salient reminder that comes from reading The Secret, it’s that it’s easy to forget that politicians are people. Behind the headlines, the media releases, and the press conferences, all created in consultation with chiefs of staff, department heads, and other senior ministerial figures, there is a person who has decades of life experience behind them. They have their own beliefs, values, and morals, and Smith is keen to remind readers of the person behind the role.

We’re reminded of the hopes and dreams that Berijiklian had growing up, her dedication to migrants and marginalised groups, including her vital support of the marriage equality survey. Smith reminds readers of Berijiklian’s push for equality in politics, and highlights how the machinations of the political machine – a beast that so often chews up people who enter it with the best intentions and spits them out as cynical and jaded figures who seek the embrace of the private sector – brutalised her attempts at changing a masculine-dominant world.

Each struggle that Berijiklian faces is one that she often manages to overcome, and it’s here that Smith’s writing becomes curious and concerned, effectively asking, ‘How could someone so steadfast in her ways be brought down by a person so obviously untrustworthy as her once-partner Daryl Maguire?’ At its conclusion, The Secret effectively highlights how one torturous secret tarnished Berijiklian’s reputation as one of the most important political figures in Australia.

The drama and intrigue of Berijiklian’s government is fascinating enough by itself, regardless of which side of the political divide you stand on, but Alexandra Smith pulls back from critiquing her actions. This is both a blessing and a curse for those who might want something a little more salacious or containing pointed condemnation about Berijiklian’s life and political career. For those who supported her, this will be a riveting tragedy about an impressive political figure who was brought down by a genuine human emotion – and one we so rarely align with politicians public life –, love. For those who despised her, the plenty who called for the ‘koala killer’ to be stood down, The Secret will do little to change their mind.

For me, as an outsider looking into the political circus of NSW, I was intrigued and riveted, finally getting an understanding of why Berijiklian had managed to steal Western Australia’s lord and saviour Mark McGowan’s title of ‘the most popular premier in Australia’. Sure, I may not have agreed with Berijiklian’s actions at all, but The Secret was never written with that intention in mind. Instead, it exists to provide sense and reason to the actions of those we elect, and ultimately highlights the importance of the ICAC and its ability to stamp out corruption in Australian politics in all forms.

Review copy of The Secret provided by Pan Macmillan Australia.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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