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Ros Kelly: a life after politics

30 May 2014

Larke Riemer Anna Bligh And Ros Kelly

(Ros Kelly pictured above right with former Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, centre, and Director Westpac Women's Markets, Larke Riemer at a lunch in Sydney in April 2014.)

Via email we’ve decided that 5pm Sydney time is the best time to ring for “a chat”.

It’s 8am in London, when I ring, and the former Federal politician (a Labor Minister in the Hawke and Keating governments), Ros Kelly, has begun her day. 

She’s feeding her dogs, doing this interview with Australia by phone, and supervising the tradesman fixing the garden sprinklers as well as the electricians working on a job in the 300-year-old house near Harley Street in central London where she now lives with her husband, ex-Westpac head David Morgan.

Ros, who proudly says she has worked all her life and that “multi-tasking” best describes her activity levels, has lost none of her Australian charm in the four years she’s lived abroad.

“I was always so busy working. This is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to live away from Australia,” she says to me with a light laugh.

It’s a laugh that will punctuate our hour-long chat at various intervals throughout, lending a note of fun to it.

“I’ve been privileged to have worked in all sectors of business and public life and I think that’s unique,” says Ros of her diverse career in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

Beginning as a secondary school teacher, Ros Kelly quickly moved into politics. She was elected to the then advisory Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly in 1974 where she remained until 1979. In 1980, she was elected to the House of Representatives, eventually resigning from Federal Parliament in 1995 following a well-publicised incident over sports funding and due process. Having become passionate about environment and sustainability through working in her government portfolios, especially in relation to the mining sector, Ros went on to work in private enterprise as a consultant, eventually ending up with Environmental Resources Management.

“Politics,” Ros explains, “definitely has more pressure and more profile but each sector [public, private and not-for-profit] is rewarding in its own way.

“Politics is pretty straight forward and we all know the history of that,” says Ros.

Ros Kelly has a number of firsts against her name, especially in politics. She was the first Australian Federal MP to give birth while in office (1983) and in 1987, she was appointed Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, making her the first female Labor minister from the House of Representatives: “I was the first female minister in the House of Representatives to answer questions. There was a [female] minister in the 1940s but she never answered questions.

“I was the first minister with a portfolio in the House of Representatives, and the first female Defence minister. In fact,” continues Ros with a slight laugh, “I was the first [woman] in all the portfolios I held because there hadn’t been any [women] before me.

“It’s really lonely being the first and the only one,” she admits, her voice now tinged with sad reflection.

“Luckily,” she continues, “I don’t have to do firsts anymore because there are so many more women doing things. In fact, I now consider my role is to ensure women don’t have to be firsts at anything anymore.”

During her time in politics is when Ros discovered her absolute passion for the environment, “in the sense of solving the conflicts, the problems, particularly in relation to mining”.

“I could see,” says Ros, “that unless they [the mining industry] came to the table to negotiate with stakeholders, they were going to constantly fail.

“My journey with the mining industry around sustainability in the private sector began there in politics.”

Considering the debate that has recently raged in Australia around mining and a mining tax, Ros is sanguine: “I think it always goes two steps forward one step back. You see that with any debate. Sustainability is about considering every stakeholder – whether they’re in a social, environmental, or financial context. The smart companies understand 24/7 media and social media mean you have to be a partner with the community. You cannot be an opponent because you won’t get your projects up.”

Ros has also had a long working association with the not-for-profit sector, including chairing the NBCF (National Breast Cancer Foundation) for 6 years. She is on the organisation’s future strategy council, and considers the not-for-profit area, where she does most of her work now, to be the one in which she will continue working in the future.

“In 2001 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Once I got through it - and never one to do things by halves - I set about immersing myself in the NBCF.

“That was an amazing experience to be able to help and support research, and to deliver education to women who were diagnosed after me so they could be even better informed, and increase their chance of success,” says Ros, whose tenure also coincided with NBCF’s work on, and launch of, the Regsiter4 program.

“Register4 is a national online database of women and men who want to fast-track cancer research. By joining you help researchers spend less time and money on finding subjects and more on actual research,” explains Ros, noting Westpac’s long-term support of the initiative she helped to begin.

“When we moved to London I was too remote to continue as NBCF’s chair. I continue to be on its council, which is a think tank for ideas moving forward. When I return to Australia, which we will do, I will get more involved again,” says Ros, breaking our conversation with an apology. (She has to speak with the tradesman about the sprinklers and put coffee on for the many people traipsing through her home early this Wednesday morning.)

Quieting the barking dogs, she returns to our call, spinning off into her next career incarnation: the “exciting” project she has been involved with since coming to London.

For the past two years, Ros has been a Commissioner with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). It’s something, she says, dovetails nicely with the knowledge she gained as a junior minister for defence.

Appointed by the Queen to the CWGC role, she is a worldwide representative and the only female at present on the Commission.

“The Commission has responsibility for all the Commonwealth War Graves in the world,” Ros says continuing on to explain some of its history and significance.

“Before 1917, there was no formal guardian for our dead. Their comrades along the battlefields buried the fallen in no organised manner.

“The CWGC was first established in 1917 to take responsibility for the million dead of the British Empire in WW1.

“At the time it was very controversial to propose that all service people be treated equally, buried where they fell, with the same headstones regardless of class, rank or religion. Especially so in the UK, where the traditional system at the beginning of the war had some of the sons of the aristocracy returned to their estates, and considerably less care given to the rest.

“Now, the CWGC, which has six member countries, Australia, New Zealand, UK, India, Canada and South Africa, works at 23,000 locations in 153 countries across the world to care for the graves of the fallen and the memorials to those whose bodies were never identified or found. Every one of its sites is maintained to common standards of excellence, made possible by funding from the six member countries.”

Recently, Ros did a trip with some of the other Commissioners to Gallipoli, which she found “incredibly moving”, and which brought back memories of the very first memorial site she visited two years ago.

French Cemetry

“It was on the Western Front in France. There were these bones discovered and they quickly realised from tests they were Australian and so a new cemetery was built. I arrived at the site off this bus and just stood there. I was in tears. I suddenly realised how these kids must have felt. Seventeen year olds some of them, kids from Australian country towns… what a shock to their systems to end up on the Western Front, Gallipoli, all of these places with absolutely no perspective on it at all except having joined up for God and Country, and to be with your mates.”

With the various WWI commemorations beginning this year, Ros has been fulfilling any number of speaking engagements. Explaining what the commission goes through establishing and maintaining diplomatic relationships let alone the sites themselves, you can hear the levels of excitement and involvement build in what she has to say.

“Every week we get a security briefing. You can imagine in places like Gaza, for example, we need to know maintenance can be carried out and carried out safely,” she says, going onto acknowledge that, as yet, there’s nothing specific for the female fallen, most of whom would have been attached to the hospitals, especially in the early years.

“We’ve been interviewing for a CEO to take the CWGC into its next phase. I was on the selection panel and I wanted a woman and an Australian if possible. I even canvassed Australia’s Women on Boards organisation for possible applicants,” says Ros, who is unable to divulge anything more at the moment.

As for life in London, “there is a gym just round the corner and I’m now at a particular phase in my life when I can do the things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time before because I was working and raising children. I am studying music history and history, you name it.

“Life is a pile of different phases. There are the times when you’re raising kids and working, and you don’t have time for anything - even your girlfriends… My advice is don’t worry, eventually you’ll get there. When people ask what I’m doing in London, I say I’m doing my PhD on London. They all take it literally but in fact I am indulging myself like a PhD in every aspect of what London has to offer.

“Paul Keating [the former Australian Prime Minister] always tried to introduce music to me, but back then I was in a different phase. I had kids running through the house and a million other things to do and I was working. Music may have been on in the background but I didn’t have time to sit down and listen to Wagner like the guys did,” says Ros, a touch derisively.

“Paul Keating was in fact the closest thing I had to a mentor. Mentoring is something I do quite a bit of nowadays, but in my day it didn’t really exist. If I’d go to Paul to talk about something, he’d say, ‘just get on and fight Ros, get on and fight’. When I was first elected, he was quick to point out that I wasn’t there to keep my bum warm on the seat, but to do something. That’s about as close as I came to having a mentor,” laughs Ros as we wrap up and she prepares to launch into her London life.

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