09 February, 2008

HERALDSUN: Women take front seat in politics and industry

Olga Galacho
Herald Sun. February 09, 2008

Never before have so many women wielded as much clout over big-ticket government and business policies as they will this year.

Curiously, many of those seeking to influence the policymakers began their careers in the forestry industry.

Others have been handpicked for their telegenic qualities and their ability to project a certain image in front of the television cameras.

Federal Parliament's resumption this week will focus attention on how business and politics intertwine - and on the pivotal role some women will play in a number of important debates this year.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is expected to introduce her long-awaited workplace relations legislation while, across from her, deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop will argue the Coalition's position.

Ms Bishop like her counterpart has responsibility for workplace relations.

In revising the WorkChoices laws, Ms Gillard would have consulted the most senior leaders vouching for workers, employers and all that lies in between.

The most powerful of them are women, too: note Barbara Bennett, director of the Workplace Authority, plus Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow and her opposites Heather Ridout, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), and Katie Lahey, her counterpart at the Business Council of Australia.

The other major employer lobby group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), has an interim head, Peter Anderson, following Peter Hendy's recent recruitment by Opposition leader Brendan Nelson.

When BusinessDaily spoke to Mr Anderson, he said he had not made up his mind about whether to apply for the permanent position.

Asked if he believed ACCI might end up with a woman at the helm he answered: "I would be very pleased if there were a lot of women applying for the job."

He noted the increasing number of female politicians could encourage even more women to lead industry groups.

"There is no doubt that a conversation between a woman MP and a business woman would be different to a conversation between two men. Some women have a different manner . . . they bring a different language, a different tone."

THIS observation was played out on Wednesday when the Climate Change and Water Minister, Senator Penny Wong, delivered her first public speech since returning from the Bali talks to an Ai Group audience.

The irony of Senator Wong opting to make this debut with ACCI's rival could not have been lost on the chamber.

Its former chief, Mr Hendy, had often boasted about his role in scripting the Howard Government's WorkChoices laws.

The senator was not subtle on Wednesday: "It is not a coincidence that this first address is with the Ai Group . . . Heather has been an outstanding advocate for industry."

An effusive Ms Ridout had introduced her guest speaker with an equal emphasis on the good relations they had enjoyed in the past.

Relationships and consensus appear to be central to the way female figureheads of male-dominated organisations project themselves.

Yet many of them have connections or experience in an industry that traditionally oozed with conflict - forestry.

A raft of former pro-logging lobbyists have emerged to represent transport, cement, mining and energy groups - and it is no accident that they are all carbon intensive industries.

Mr Anderson agreed: "There do seem to be many women leading peak energy bodies and if there is any area where negotiating skills require an ability to compromise, it would be energy . . . otherwise, in the climate change debate there is going to be no agreement."

Hatched from the forestry incubator are three former Timber Communities Australia executives - Jill Lewis, who last month was headhunted by the NSW Trucking Association; Robyn Bain, now chief of the Cement Industry Federation and Dominique La Fontaine, who heads the Clean Energy Council, which includes gas, electricity and wind companies on its board.

A fourth ex-forestry industry lobbyist, Belinda Robinson, who used to lead plantation products council A3P, is chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

Gas industry promoter Cheryl Cartwright, chief of the Australian Pipeline Industry Association, was a former adviser to one-time Forestry Minister Warren Truss, who now leads the federal National Party.

In fact, most of these women have worked within the National Party at some stage and all of them have also rubbed elbows with Forestry Union strongman Michael O'Connor.

Ironically, the two most powerful women in the Rudd cabinet also have links to Mr O'Connor.

Ms Gillard was once his girlfriend, still cites him as a trusted adviser and has subsequently spoken against former Labor leader Mark Latham's restrictive logging policy.

Working closely with Ms Gillard as Employment Participation Minister is Mr O'Connor's brother, Brendan.

Also part of their team is Senator Wong, who will represent their portfolios in the Upper House.

Once a prominent member of Mr O'Connor's timber workers division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Senator Wong went on to advise the former Carr Government of NSW on logging issues.

Mr O'Connor conceded to BusinessDaily that he had had working relationships with all of these women to varying degrees.

However, he declined to be quoted on whether the anti-conservation position the former timber lobbyists had taken in the past would help to shape the carbon emission policies of the future.

Forestry expert and Australian National University academic Judith Ajani believes the parallels between the timber and energy resources sectors are many and explains why lobbyists can move comfortably between the two.

"Logging native forests for woodchips is a mining industry," says the author of The Forest Wars.

"These are both commodity industries, characterised by cost competitiveness and highly conflictual because they both involve the environment.

"If you've worked in forestry, you understand what makes other resource industries tick," she said.

Dr Ajani believes the high proportion of women representing the interests of resource companies is a strategy to keep the public's mind open.

"These are highly public industries, with high public concern and the women advocates are the frontline defence in the battle to justify a licence to operate."

Former forester turned cement promoter Ms Bain argues that it "makes sense that women have become the face of industry" as global warming moved on to the corporate agenda.

"The environment debate brought women to the fore when it was more of a social and emotional issue," said Ms Bain.

"When the environment became part of an economic debate, we moved with it and got ahead of the guys.

"We had a natural advantage . . . and we are not afraid of an emotional argument. Forestry certainly teaches you the art of negotiating."

She adds that if an advocate can survive forestry, they can survive anything.

"Cement is a walk in the park, it's easy compared to forestry's blockades."

The peak body for timber companies, the National Association of Forest Industries, continues to have a woman at the helm in Catherine Murphy, a former adviser to Opposition leader Brendan Nelson.

One time Queensland forestry lobbyist Dr Guy Pearse said it was no coincidence that pro-logging groups had women chief executives.

After decades of conflict over felling in the Tasmanian old growth forests to create woodchip exports, the timber industry wanted to distance itself from the aggressive tactics of forestry workers frustrated by blockading environmentalists, Dr Pearse said.

"They wanted to reinvent their image and make their leadership look as different to the flannel-shirted loggers as they could in the public's eye. It's called a telegenic appointment," said the author of High and Dry.

Trish Caswell, who has lobbied on both sides of the timber industry fence, firstly as the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and later at the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, said other industry groups went on to borrow the ploy of appointing female figureheads.

"There was a conscious effort to get women into those leading roles at the beginning of the decade," she said.

Organisations traditionally seen as dirty, tough and male-dominated in particular wanted to soften their image in the media, she said.

They have included the NSW Minerals Council, which recruited Dr Nikki Williams, and the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association, with Margaret Donnan at the helm.

Even renewable energy groups not tarnished with a polluting reputation have chosen to go with the "telegenic" option when appointing chief executives.

The Australian Geothermal Energy Association, for example, is headed by Susan Jeanes, and Environment Business Australia's chief is Fiona Wain.

But Ms Caswell is under no illusion that being the boss of a peak body is a sign that women are successfully taking their place in big business.

"While the role of an association has become more important, being the chief executive of one is not a mainstream power position in itself. You are not in the seat of power."

Business academic Vivek Chaudhri believes appointing leaders by virtue of their gender is counterproductive.

"There is a perception in some sections of the business community and in academia that in some circumstances, this swing has damaged opportunities for competent women," said the Monash University associate professor.

"If a woman higher up was not the best candidate for the position and she is looked at in not the best light, the consequences can be more damaging than just the wounded male response.

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