Who would have thought that when Gareth Ward became the disabilities officer at the University of Wollongong, that – fast forward almost 20 years – he would be the first NSW Minister for Disability Services who actually had a disability?
Not that disability is what comes to mind when you meet Gareth.
His albinism has left him legally blind, but this is a man on rocket fuel, whose passion for his job, verging on obsession, has swept all before him.
His appointment as Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services makes him the second UOW alumnus to serve in the NSW Cabinet (after Matt Brown, the previous Kiama MP served as Minister for Housing and Tourism and, briefly, as Minister for Police).
It’s one of the toughest jobs in government with responsibility for issues such as child protection, homelessness, foster care, volunteering, disability services and juvenile justice.
The job is the latest promotion – but surely not the last – for a Gerringong boy who joined the Young Liberals at the age of 16 and who has never looked back since.
Some people take what they can from university, and then move on. Not Gareth.
“I applied for other universities, but Wollongong was the one that I wanted to go to,” he says.
“It had a good reputation, one that was well regarded in the fields of study that I was enrolled in – arts and commerce.
“Even though some people look at other universities with a bit of ritz and glitz, the reality is that an education from Wollongong means that you can do anything. And there are plenty of examples of that.
“I don’t think that a brand matters, but reputation does matter and Wollongong has an outstanding reputation.”
These are not just empty words either.
Gareth’s connection with his alma mater continued well after he left in 2009.
He has employed and mentored a long list of alumni in political and managerial roles because he says that when you employ a UOW graduate, you are guaranteed a quality candidate with a good work ethic.
He lays claim to effectively founding Liberal Party politics at the university, setting up the Liberal Club and running a successful campaign to dominate the Student Representative Council in 2002, on a campus that had the reputation as of the most left wing in the nation.
“I decided to form the Liberal Club because I was active in the Young Liberal movement and I thought, let’s provide an alternative,” he says.
“Let’s run for student office, let’s try to influence the student polity and culture and be a part of that.
“You should have that vibrant festival of democracy in student politics. I think that’s very important.”
After he left, he served as a graduate member of the University Council for four years, became the youngest ever councillor on Shoalhaven City Council at the age of 22, worked briefly as a paralegal, and then as deputy mayor.
He was pre-selected as the Liberal candidate for Kiama in 2010 and profited from the anti-Labor landslide of 2011, becoming the first Liberal MP for the seat in history.
Since then, he has cemented his position until, in the March State election, he won every booth and sits on a healthy margin of 12 per cent.
While he has been called a “South Coast powerbroker” in the media, he is also a leading moderate and is good friends with another UOW alumnus – Ryan Park – who is the Labor Shadow Treasurer.
“Some people see politics as about leadership, and that’s fine, but first of all, you’re a public servant,” he says.
“Your job is to get good outcomes for your community. That was my focus as a councillor, it’s my focus as a member of Apex in Bomaderry, and that’s my focus as a state government minister.”
Although his achievements are his own, he is quick to stress that this is no solo effort.
“The fact that I have been able to achieve those things is due, in no small part, to the well-rounded education that I got at the university,” he says.
“I don’t just mean what I was taught in class. It was also the essence and flavor of the UOW experience,” he says. “It was the clubs and societies, it was the leadership and mentoring that so many people take on.
“We are sometimes told by the people who come from Sydney that they are a little bit of a cut above. Well not true. We punch above our weight, and demonstrate it all the time.”
Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Commerce, 2009