Chief Minister keynote address to the YWCA Canberra ‘Round the world’ breakfast.

Iacknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region.

  • Frances Crimmins (MC), Executive Director, YWCA Canberra
  • Jane Alver, President, YWCA Canberra
  • YWCA members and guests

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you this morning – where we gather in celebration of the efforts of so many over the years to campaign for gender equality and empowerment for women and girls – in this instance through World YWCA Day – an important day for us to celebrate achievements to date and to re-commit to the battles and the campaigns ahead.

I would like to acknowledge at the outset the contribution made by the YWCA internationally, nationally and locally.

This organisation is an important point of unity in the global women’s movement and today’s fundraising is a real and tangible gesture of solidarity and support for projects in other countries

For us locally the YWCA has been present in the Canberra community for more than 80 years at the frontier of the development of an infant city, representing women’s interests and delivering programs in children’s services, community development, housing, youth services, personal and professional training and women’s leadership.

It is also an honour to be asked to speak with you today about my own leadership journey and perhaps provide some insight into my own experiences & what I’ve learnt during my time to date in politics.

It’s  important to say at the outset that leadership comes in various forms and roles and this morning, before I dwell on some personal reflections of my own journey I will outline – briefly (in convenient busy woman – dot point style) what I understand about leadership but also what qualities I believe make a good leader.

What Ive learnt about leadership

First of all it’s important to acknowledge that leadership comes in all styles and sizes. There is no “one size” fits all -

(Just as well as I’m pretty sure that the sporting leaders of today would not relish the reading component of my job about as much as I would enjoy the physical training side of theirs.)

  • You will find leadership occurs at every level of organisations not just in the top positions
  • Leadership does not equal popularity
  • Leadership takes courage
  • Leadership does not make you the most important person
  • Leaders make mistakes
  • Every leader is unique and bring with them their own skills
  • Women are great leaders

Now, what qualities make a good leader? And yes I do measure myself against these qualities – not exclusive and in no particular order

  • a good leader is always honest
  • a good leader is a decent kind person
  • a good leader is a punctual and polite person
  • a good leader is able to bring people with them
  • a good leader must listen
  • a good leader learns and seeks advice
  • good leaders have mentors
  • good leaders pick the right battles to fight
  • good leaders make decisions (even the hard ones) and sticks to them
  • good leaders work hard and always leads by example
  • good leaders need emotional intelligence
  • Good leaders never shirk responsibility
  • good leaders need good communication skills
  • good leaders will find a solution to every problem
  • a good leader always admits when they were wrong or when they don’t know the answer
  • a good leader needs a always retain a sense of humour

When I was in year 10 – our year book had a series of awards to students – you know the type, “most likely to succeed” “will end up in jail” I was awarded – the cool, calm and collected award – sounds fine doesn’t it – although the awards were sarcastic – so what my peers recognised in me was my ability to panic in a difficult situation – not really the quality one really looks for in a Chief Minister.

My point with sharing that snippet of my history with you is that – I never consciously set out to be a leader, nor did I ever think I had the right qualities to be a leader.

Growing up I was never in anything like the SRC or other student leaders groups. I never sought the limelight and I shunned public speaking of any type. I was an average student who never did anything bad but never anything brilliant either.  Overall the type of student  teachers like to have in their class but rarely remember once you graduate.

I left Yr 12 wondering what to do with my life and in the absence of any other option or direction – I continued on to University. Luckily I had done well enough in school to get into ANU where I spent 3 luxurious years studying politics and sociology. Oh those were the days although of course at the time I never enjoyed it as much as I should have.

I’ll spare you my life story this morning – instead I’ll focus on a few examples from  my life which have helped shape my leadership journey to date and I’ll begin with my early career in the not for profit sector.

Armed with a political science degree I spent 10yrs working in the not for profit sector in various roles, with children, with adults with a disability, in the advocacy movement and finally for a trade union. Somehow, almost subconsciously and certainly without any firm decision on my part my “leadership” journey had begun both professionally and personally.

I spent the majority of that decade arguing for improved rights and voices for vulnerable people, for the majority of the time it was for those with an intellectual disability – closing down sheltered workshops and large residential institutions. It was a job that required me to have difficult conversations with managers and stand up and speak up when I saw something wrong.

As a young woman, this was sometimes a thankless task that often bought me into conflict with others – usually higher up in organisations than me – but luckily for me I had a firm view of social justice and fairness that guided me into always doing what was right – not what was easy.

It was during this time that I learnt

  • the importance of knowing what you wanted and having a plan on how to get there
  • never shirking from doing what’s right or speaking out when I saw something unfair or wrong happen
  • always treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve, regardless of their situation.
  • Make the most of opportunities when they come up

Running alongside my career I became increasingly interested in politics. Whilst I’d completed my degree in political science but I myself had never got involved in a political organisation.

Perhaps not surprisingly to many of you – my political leanings were left of centre and I’d voted Labor in both the 1990 and 1993 federal elections but until I was 24 I was unsure of my long term loyalty to the Labor Party and the need to become a card carrying member was a big one (something that still challenges me from time to time!)

I can’t remember what incident finally tipped me into filling out the forms but by 1994 I had and my journey – took another twist (again, theres a bit of a theme happening here – as I had absolutely no idea where this would take me, I had no political ambition – and if someone had said I would in 2011 become the Leader of the ALP in the ACT I would have sought psychiatric help for that person and for me probably!)

When I was 26 my world fell apart. My beloved father had died 18 months before and after an intense year of mourning his loss I had just gotten back on track –I’d settled down with my partner and was happily enjoying the second trimester of my first pregnancy when my partner was killed in a road accident.

I don’t tell you this story to illicit pity or sympathy – I tell you because in explaining my leadership journey – this event in my personal life plays a central role.

To say I hit rockbottom is an understatement. I was wiped out, unable to function, to work, to communicate, to eat – the only thing I was capable of as it turned out – was to grow a baby (thankfully for the baby (now almost 17) that was something my body did automatically and without instruction)

During these months post the accident and prior to the baby’s birth I became a recluse living alone and withdrawing pretty much completely from the world – I had to work to pay the bills but that was it -  it was during this time in my life I learnt  very important lessons about grief, loneliness, isolation, resilience, strength, recovery and hope ( and in that order)  and whilst you wouldn’t wish what happened to me on your worst enemy – this time in my life helped shape the person I have become – and the hard lessons I learnt during this time remain with me today and make me a better person and a better leader.

On May 16th 2011 I became the 8th Chief Minister of the ACT in my 10th year as a Member of the Legislative Assembly. How on earth did this happen? It began in the year 2000 when I was asked to run by the “faceless” women of the ALP as a female candidate for the 2001 territory elections.

You see, the Labor Party was on track to win the election under the leadership of Jon Stanhope but with the potentially embarrassing (for the party of AA) possibility of no women being elected as the 6 sitting MLA’s were all men.

I agreed to do this on the understanding that I wouldn’t win. But as history has shown I did win (by a handful of votes) in 2001, then with an improving majority of votes in 2004, 2008 and 2012. I went from someone who didn’t know Jon Stanhope in 2001 to his closest ally and confidant and his deputy for 5 years.

I worked hard, I learnt on the job, I listened to my instincts, I was a team player, and I was loyal to my leader on every occasion (something quite rare and seemingly underrated in modern day politics). I rate it highly.

I chose these four examples of different periods in my life to give you a quick understanding of what has influenced me and how important life experience is to develop the skills that enable me to do my job today.

These four examples I’ve given are all very different experiences, yet each one has exposed me to situations which have equipped me with a range of skills I use on a daily basis.

Now it would be remiss of me not to comment on what I see as the continuing decline of women leaders in Australian politics – especially as I said earlier it was the lack of women in politics that originally got me involved all those years ago.

18 months ago I stood on the tarmac at Fairburn to welcome HRH The Queen to Canberra.  For the ceremonial welcome the Queen accepted the federation guard salute, behind her stood Her Excellency the Governor General Quentin Bryce, behind her stood the Prime Minister, the Honourable Julia Gillard and behind her was me.

It wasn’t until I was standing in my position that it dawned on me that all the important people in the line were women – what a moment to cherish. If nothing else it was symbolically important for our country and for Australian women of the past, present and future.

In reality though how short was that moment? – it seems now like an interruption to the normal programming – not to fear balance has now be restored with only Her Royal Highness the Queen and myself left in the very unlikely event that that lineup is reconvened.

Just three short years ago when I became Chief Minister – I joined 2 other state leaders who were women. Anna Bligh and Lara Giddings. Kristina Kenneally had recently lost the 2011 state election in NSW. The Prime Minister of Australia was also a woman – and for a brief period of time – just some 8 months or so – 4 out of 9 of Australia’s First Ministers were women.

But how the landscape has changed – Kristina in 2011, Anna went in 2012, Julia in 2013 and Lara in 2014 – leaving me the lone woman sitting at the COAG table.

This dramatic decline in female political leaders has happened incrementally and almost without comment. Whilst the changes to individual positions have attracted attention –this loss of female representation at this level has been largely accepted as reverting back to the normal state of play.

44% of First Ministers being women declined to 11% in the space of  just 18months. This is a dreadful result.

Can you imagine the outcry if this had happened to men and there was only one of them sitting around the most powerful decision making table in the country?

This is dreadful result because it also confirms what women politicians already know – that the political world is still seen as man’s world where women can come and visit but not necessarily seriously play or at least not play for long.

We cannot allow women’s participation in political life to slip backwards with such complacently – (don’t get me started on the the federal cabinet) as women continue to fight for the right to hold political office in some countries it is just as important for us to remained focused on what is needed here – whether it be in local government, state or territory government or in the national parliament. And we want those women not just to hold a seat – we want them to have influence, to be the decision-makers, the leaders, the first amongst equals.

As we continue to campaign for gender equality we must not overlook the political arena as a place where women have campaigned and won their right to be there. Regardless of some of the odour hanging around the political profession at the moment parliaments are where important change happens – It’s where the laws are made about participation, equality, safety, human rights, industrial relations, child-care, parental leave – all the things that matter to women, to mothers – these issues are debated and decided in various parliaments across the country and women should be leading those debates. We cannot and will not be pushed aside and marginalised. If anything – the forces which seek to push us aside – should instead inspire us to fight even harder to be in the main arena.

There is no doubt that whilst much has changed to encourage women into various occupations over the past 50 years there is still a great deal that needs to be done to encourage equality across society and that we must maintain momentum towards the equality goal – in leadership roles, income levels, education, personal safety and general independence – for women and girls in Australia and for women and girls across the world.

Women of my generation – who have benefitted greatly from the feminist campaigns of previous generations – must inspire and support the next generation of women leaders to step up and take the baton for the next leg of the ongoing equality relay race.

Your attendance here today shows me that this is not only possible but probable. I wonder how many future CM are sitting in this room today?

The list of applicants for the Great Ydeas grants confirms that there will be a few and this fills me with enormous optimism.

The ambition, innovation, and courage in many of these projects is a sure sign of the outstanding qualities already well-developed in young women across our community.

To all who have entered and particularly to the winners, soon to be announced, congratulations.

I hope that you have found what I’ve shared with you today interesting and that in some way it helps you in your own leadership journey.