Rachel was born in Sydney in 1961, but moved to Perth when she was 13.
My interview with Rachel focused on leadership issues – and how she had experienced leadership within the voluntary conservation movement, the WA Greens, and a Federal Senator. Rachel’s professional achievements are detailed at the following website: Further info about Rachel
Rachel had some involvement in political issues at University (studying for a BSc in Agriculture), participating in anti-nuclear marches, and then immediately after University began working for the Western Australian Department of Agriculture. Rachel’s family had strong agricultural connections in England. Rachel describes her grandmother, who lived with her family, as a very strong woman, and Rachel grew up hearing stories from her about the family farming activities.
After a time in this job, Rachel felt the need to work in an area more closely connected with environment protection. She was successful in her application for the paid position of Coordinator of the Western Australian Conservation Council (WACC) – the peak body for conservation groups in the west. Rachel held that position for 16 years.
At first, she was WACC’s only staff member, and “had to be lobbyist, advocate, project manager, researcher submission writer, newsletter editor – jack of all trades”. As the Conservation Council began to attract more funding, the organisation’s Executive became more focused as an advocacy body, and recruited (volunteers) with expertise in particular areas. Rachel says that once these “power houses” got on the Executive, they tended to attract other people with advocacy interests.
During her time at WACC, managing work and family life was very tough. Fortunately, her son was able to be with her in the office and travelling for his first 18 months. Her husband at the time was studying, and she was reliant on the support of parents and her parents in law to pick up her son, and fill in when Rachel was working long hours. Her father was particularly important – working close to Rachel’s office, and being available to pick up her son, and be a backup. There was always at least one member of the family at her son’s school events. Despite this, Rachel still has some regrets about events that she missed, although overall she feels that her son was not disadvantaged by his mother having such a demanding working life..
Rachel says that her commitment to her job was sometimes seen as “selfish” by her then husband, and that it was a contributor to her marriage breakdown.
Rachel was approached to enter politics – she says it would not have occurred to her otherwise – and she had two runs at the Senate for the Australian Greens. The first time she was able to take long service leave from WACC to participate in the campaign. During the second (successful) attempt, she needed to resign from WACC about 10 months out from the election (meaning that she was out of work for 18 months because once she was elected to the Senate, her opportunities for work were very restricted before taking up position). During that time Rachel had to borrow money from the Greens to support herself and her child.
Rachel’s leadership role changed when she went to Canberra as a Senator.
In Canberra, Rachel is the Australian Greens party Whip which means she is responsible for getting people into the Chamber at the right time for decision making amongst other organising activities. She is also in charge of her parliamentary office, a Greens spokesperson on a range of issues and Chairs the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs and is a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.
With all of these leadership tasks, Rachel has only had limited leadership training herself. This was organised through the Mittagong Forum, a national meeting of environment groups, originally organised by Peter Garrett when he was President of the Australian Conservation Founcation. Rachel had a few days training over about a year, which she says was not really enough for the challenges that she has to confront now.
One of the areas that was most challenging for her was developing the confidence to be able take actions that might be unpopular “It took me a very long time to learn to take the responsibility of say this is how it shall be – I didn’t want to offend people”
Rachel admires the leadership of WA women like Beth Schulz. Sue Graham Taylor, Joan Payne and Jo Vallentine. She says each of these women is dedicated, humble and very willing to give of their time. For those women, and for Rachel herself, she says “It’s not leadership for leadership’s sake; it’s leadership because that’s how you can achieve things.”
Click here to listen to Rachel’s response when I asked about her perspectives on non-hierarchical leadership
I’d be really interested in your thoughts on the issues raised in Rachel’s interview.