Carolyn has been Chair of the Consumers’ Federation of Australia and has represented consumers on a number of bodies, including the Banking and Financial Services Ombudsman Board, the Legal Services Board and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Consumer Advisory Panel. On Australia Day 2013, Carolyn was awarded an AO for “distinguished services to the community through the protection of consumers”
Carolyn was born in Melbourne in 1956, the eldest of three children. Carolyn’s father was brought up Catholic, but rejected it vehemently as an adult. Carolyn now describes herself as an atheist.
Carolyn went to public schools in Burwood, Melbourne. After leaving school she enrolled in business studies, but dropped out after a few weeks, and after a stint on the checkout at Safeway, got a job doing clerical work. This first real job was supporting the operation of a main-frame computer, in a business that provided outsourced accounting and other services. She went on to another clerical job in the computer centre at Swinburne Tech, and then to the Commercial Bank of Australia as a trainee computer operator.
At that time, I had a strong feeling about social justice (as you’d call it now). It was a bit of a dream that I would get involved in something like that, and I made a few attempts at doing some volunteer work. But things really happened when I was sharing a flat, and we moved out and the landlord kept our bond. Through the process of fighting that, I became aware of the Tenants Union and I began volunteering there about once a week.
Her volunteering at the Tenants Union continued for 3 -4 years while Carolyn continued to do her day job as a computer operator. She says that the volunteer work was “her dream come true – it was really exciting.” The Tenants Union was the only legal service at the time that was taking proactive legal action, rather than just defending clients. In the extract below she describes the sort of work she was doing – as she moved rapidly from just answering phone calls to providing advice to consumers.
In 1981, Carolyn came across a short term financial counselling position at Footscray Town Hall – “I don’t know why I thought I could do it, but I applied and I got the job.”
There was no training at all, but the lawyers I rang for help didn’t have any experience either in this area. You were struggling through with these clients and learned on the job.
Carolyn met her partner of 30 years, lawyer Denis Nelthorpe, during their time as volunteers together at the Tenants Union. By this time they were living together, and Carolyn discussed her consumer credit problems with Denis at home. Denis was doing criminal cases at the time and knew very little about consumer and debt law – but he helped where he could. She and Denis began to realise that there was a need for a credit legal service – and after discussing it other friends and colleagues (including Dick Gross, Alison Maynard, Michael Pearce, Bev Kliger and Paul Bingham – all of whom have gone on to successful careers in the consumer and legal areas) the group applied for Legal Aid funding to set up a Consumer Credit Legal Service.
For some years, the volunteer teams of financial counsellor and lawyer worked successfully together – in much the same way as Carolyn and Denis did at home.
Denis and I met over social justice issues. It is probably still one of the key things in our lives that we relate over (apart from the kids), and for both of us – our professional lives would have been different if it wasn’t for the other.
Carolyn continued to work as a financial counsellor for about 5 years. I asked her whether she had ever thought about doing law herself.
I’ve thought about it occasionally but I don’t regret not having done it. There would have been some advantages but I may have missed some opportunities. For instance, I’m currently on the Legal Services Board, appointed for my consumer experience and expertise, and I couldn’t be on that Board if I was a lawyer.
In 1987, she authored a practice manual for financial counsellors, for the Financial Counsellors Association, and then ran training about the manual. And then she got pregnant.
Even at that time, I don’t think I ever saw myself as having a career, or being a leader. I think I just got passionate about the ideas of consumer and social justice. I got pregnant and left the Financial Counsellors’ Association, and in my mind, I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do after having children. It’s funny to think about that now – it’s only a little over 20 years ago but the idea that a woman might just take a short break and return to work was probably still quite a radical thought!
But in a way that worked out quite well for me because after about 9 months, I got lots of bits of different work.
Carolyn was on an appeals board for building disputes, she did some teaching at TAFE in community development, helped TAFE develop the Financial Counselling diploma and undertook a few short term education projects, as well as writing consumer articles for The Age. During this time she also completed a post graduate diploma in education and training, thinking that she might focus more on this area.
This varied part time work life continued for about 7 years, with Carolyn using part-time and occasional childcare as necessary as she didn’t have family nearby. Carolyn sees it as a really valuable time for her, and although she found juggling part time work and childcare arrangements somewhat stressful, she was pleased not to be working full time.
In 1997, when her younger child was about 3, she took a part time policy officer job at the Consumer Credit Legal Service (CCLS). Denis had finished his time as Coordinator there about 3 years earlier and was running the new Consumer Law Centre of Victoria.
I remember saying to someone that I never want to run one of these places – the stress of it! But there was quite an upheaval at the CCLS about 2 years after I started, I was asked whether I would step in as acting Coordinator. Even at the time, I said I wasn’t working 5 days a week.
Carolyn’s temporary appointment as Coordinator was somewhat controversial, particularly among some staff, in part because Carolyn wasn’t a lawyer. Carolyn turned that perception around, and she went on to be appointed permanently, a position she held until 2006.
In that year, the Consumer Credit Legal Service and the Consumer Law Centre of Victoria merged to form the Consumer Action Law Centre, an organisation of over 20 staff members. Carolyn strongly supported the merger proposal but felt apprehensive about the commitment required to run this bigger Centre. She told the Board that while she supported the merger, she would not apply for a role at the new Centre.
However, she eventually applied for the new CEO job as a job-share arrangement with Catriona Lowe. In the extract below, Carolyn explains how the job-sharing has worked for her – “It is very like a marriage”.
Part time work is very important for Carolyn, and is an important component in ensuring the job-share arrangement with Catriona is sustainable.
We both want it to work. I don’t want to work full time. The fact that I’m part time means that I can do other thing personally and work-wise. With my other work commitments, I’m probably working 4 days per week. But I can get what I want out of work without working 5 days, and I have personal interests and hobbies that I like to do, and with one child still at school, it is sometimes nice to be able to have a little time to spend on family things.
Carolyn makes jewellery and is very passionate about her creative work. She sees her part time work as allowing her to have a more balanced life.
I asked Carolyn about the differences between women and men leaders in the consumer movement.
It’s hard to generalise of course – but I do think that there can be subtle differences. In a way for Catriona and me, our position has the ego, rather than us. We committed to giving priority to the internal functioning of the centre and to the employees – on the basis that external engagement won’t have a long-lasting impact unless the Centre itself robust. While there is some tension between external and internal demands, I think we’ve been successful in building an experienced and skilled team – where we are not the only ones who have a high external profile. For example, a number of other employees regularly front the media.
Carolyn has not had any leadership training for the considerable leadership work she is now doing.
You almost have 2 separate jobs. As I mention above, you are very involved in the policy and advocacy and media – that general promotion of your campaigns and services. But you’re also managing an organisation and staff. In bigger organisations, you have a CEO and an Operations Manager. Not in community organisations, where your role is just so vast. You have to keep your eye on all the human relations responsibilities, and on all the political and advocacy work.
Carolyn and Catriona both do both jobs– depending on the day of the week that any particular event occurs. She says “The tricky thing is that small things happen with staff that are important- we both keep a word document open all the time where we jot down everything that’s happening.”
Carolyn admires Joan Kirner and Christine Nixon – “I don’t think I’d have the strength that they had to take quite a lot of criticism, and they both ended up in positions where it was very hard to win.” Joan Kirner’s co-authored book The women’s power hand book was her first purchase after she was appointed to her first leadership position at CCLS. Carolyn says that Joan Kirner certainly felt that women brought special skills to leadership, but was aware they faced particular challenges.
I tend to see myself as an accidental leader – it has been my strong interest and passion in the area and the organisations that has led me to leadership positions. Without strong leadership – from Board and management – I have seen some community advocacy organisations lose their way. While I may not have planned to be a leader, I think I have been successful in working with others to build and (where necessary) change the direction of organisations.
I asked Carolyn what she could see for herself in the future.
At the moment my role at Consumer Action continues to be exciting. After that? There have been a number of times during my life, where I’ve been privileged enough to be able to wait and see what happens next – rather than actively searching out what I’ll do. I’m quite committed to the consumer movement as well as access to justice. However, I might go on to do something totally different – I’ve always thought it might be good to do something with women prisoners, but I’m willing to just let it happen.
The story of Carolyn’s progression within the consumer credit and legal service organisations over the past 30 years mirrors the growth of the consumer credit movement itself. From very small beginnings, the movement has become an established voice for consumer protection, and Carolyn has taken on leadership roles which meet her own needs and the needs of the organisations she leads.