Jenni Mack was born in 1960 grew up in a happy, easy going, stable family environment in Sydney. Her mother was a stay at home parent who was very involved in community work. Her father, Ted Mack, was a government architect. After some questionable planning decisions by the North Sydney Council he successfully ran for local government and became Mayor of North Sydney. He then became a high profile, independent member of the NSW Legislative Assembly in the 1980s, followed by a period as the Member for North Sydney in the Commonwealth Parliament in 1990.
It was an era of political and social change, and public interest issues were ‘the flavour of the day’ in the Mack household. Discussion about politics and current affairs were a normal part of life. Jenni remembers her parents giving a party for the 1972 elections, when she would have been 12. She remembers the children at that party lined up in the backyard heartily singing the Labor Party campaign theme song ‘It’s Time’. She also recalls her childhood being influenced by the newly emerging feminist movement, and challenging her father for allowing her mother to do all the housework and bringing him breakfast in bed.
Jenni was educated at the local schools – Neutral Bay Primary School, and the Cremorne Girls High School. She describes herself at high school as being in a slightly rebellious but high achieving group of girls who were an intellectual challenge for the teachers because ‘we were questioning things then’.
After leaving school at 17, Jenni spent a year travelling around Australia. She fell in love with North Queensland, but came back to Sydney to start a journalism degree. But she went back to North Queensland for a visit and ended up staying there for the next 10 years. During this time she met and lived with a man who was a chiropractor and naturopath with an established business. She helped manage the business, and also trained as a midwife with a group of homebirth midwives. She delivered her first child after only 12 months of training, when the registered midwife was unable to get there on time.
Jenni finished her journalism degree at the University of Queensland after travelling overseas for a couple of years. While studying she worked for a radio station and then a small newspaper in Brisbane. After completing her degree she worked on the Mackay Mercury where she had a column covering environmental and state and local government issues. By this time she was forming an ambition to work in advocacy and politics.
She moved to Brisbane where she had worked for the Mayor of Logan City, the second largest local government area, which even in 1990 had a population of 850,000. It was there that Jenni met Chery Kernot, a Democrat Senator who encouraged her to apply for a media position with the Democrats. Jenni’s application was successful and she moved to Canberra.
The new job was interesting and challenging. Jenni was very involved in the cut and thrust of the media side of working for the Democrats. She enjoyed the issues that she dealt with, but was less enthusiastic about the chaotic nature of the political process and the inter-party politics. However, she says ‘it was an incredibly privileged position to be in. I loved the extraordinary opportunity to see politics close up, and the Democrats in those days had the balance of power, so it was a very exciting time to be working in Parliament House.’
While there were some things she didn’t like, Jenni was comfortable in the political milieu. She says that her childhood and her father’s work had given her ‘a level of engagement with political issues’, so that in a sense life in politics was ‘like coming home – it was very normal, natural.’ She realises that ‘when you grow up in a political household you just absorb things from that background.’
And of course she says it was nice at personal level coming back because she hadn’t seen her parents that much in the past 10 years. Her time in Parliament House coincided with the time when her father was a Member of Parliament. She would have dinner with him regularly and talk to him about issues.
After nearly 3 years with the Democrats Jenni decided that it was time to move on. She considered three potential jobs, one of which was as CEO of the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations (AFCO). She discussed these choices with her father. He advised her to take the AFCO position, even though it was the lowest paid, because it would be the most interesting. She agreed, and went to work for ACFO. It was the right choice.
Jenni absolutely loved that job, and it was the start of her career in many ways. She loved the issues and she loved the people and the groups that she engaged with. She found that people in the community sector are very passionate and motivated and had values and ethics that she shared – they are she says ‘on the side of the angels’.
Although she dealt with a wide range of issues, there was an overarching theme to the work. It was basically about working with the policy and regulatory system and Jenni found that there are a suite of options that can be applied in different sectors – such as complaints mechanisms and codes of practice. Jenni stresses that a great strength of the consumer movement is its broad view and experiences which can be applied across a range of consumer products and services.
Jenni is now married and has two daughters, aged 14 and 11. She left full time work when she had her first child. She had grown up with a full time mother and loved being able to come home from school and talk to her. She wanted to do the same for her own children.
When her first child was 9 months old, Jenni was offered – and accepted – a Board position. She soon realised that it was an opportunity to do really interesting work, engage her mind, make a difference and still be there for her children. Over the years, she had taken on more board and advisory committee positions, and now has a full time load. Her daughters are in high school, and she thinks it is a positive thing for them to see that she is out there, doing things. While she may be away overnight, or sometimes for 2-3 days, at other times she is at home for them.
Jenni now works on a range of governing boards and advisory committees including those of Food Standards Australia, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Travel Compensation Service. She feels very lucky that she has been able to put together an interesting portfolio of work and still have time for her family.
However, such a busy life is not without its challenges when she and her husband both have to be away from home at the same time. But, she does have a good network of support. Her mother and another family member live nearby and Jenni has also worked hard to build a network of mutually supportive women in her neighbourhood who she can call upon if necessary – and who, of course, can seek her help from her.
Jenni sees it as important that women are seen to be in leadership positions as they provide role models for younger women. However, she points out that so far ‘there have not been many of us, and that is a problem.’
Jenni’s advice to other women considering taking on leadership roles is to not be afraid to ask for help in juggling roles as mother, part of a family and community leader. She says that women as a group are a bit shy about asking for help – but they need to push a bit harder over what help and support they need. She says than in her experience men are not shy of asking for things like additional income, but ‘you don’t see women do that too often.’ She says there is an unconscious bias towards women, and ‘we should take that head on. Young women should not feel shy about negotiating hard for themselves because the blokes do it all the time’.
She acknowledges that a leadership role is not easy, and it may not be achievable for everyone. However, ‘if you look after the foundations and make sure that there is a strong community behind you can start doing a little bit more and not be afraid to have a go.’
Jenni’s leadership style is very much a consensus builder. She likes to ‘ensure that she has the rest of the team with her’. Leadership, she says ’involves having a clear vision of where you want to go, a plan to get there and accepting that it it may take time but is about nudging things forward all the time’. While she gets great satisfaction from achieving change, she also enjoys the journey of identifying the problem, the possible solution, and the challenge of getting that solution accepted and implemented.
One of the Jenni’s most prominent positions is as the Chair of Choice, Australia’s premier consumer advocacy organisation. It is a completely independent, self -funded social enterprise. She sees the big challenge facing the organisation as being to ensure that it is around for the next 50 years and that it is as relevant to consumers in the market place of tomorrow as it is today. To do that, the Board has driven through a suite of reforms and the organisation is now taking a higher public advocacy profile.
Under Jenni’s leadership Choice is building on its focus of providing consumers with information towards campaigns that more actively harness the power of Australian consumers. It is encouraging and helping consumers to use their market power through targeted campaigns. In doing so, the organisation is directly challenging the practices of some of the biggest businesses in Australia. The organisation is, she says ‘pushing boundaries, being a bit disruptive, being innovative’. For example, Choice urged consumers to voice their dissatisfaction about penalty fees charged by banks. As a result the banks experienced significant consumer demand, and changed their practices. The Choice Big Bank Switch campaign is encouraging people who want to get a better mortgage deal to switch banks, and the Choice Big Bag Switch is trying to bring transparency to grocery pricing.
Jenni says that the reactions from the powerful vested interests are stronger today than when she first started her advocacy role and describes current the responses to Choice’s tactics as ‘particularly ‘vociferous’ and believes that it reflects in part the current political climate. In her 25 years’ experience of advocacy ‘we are now in the most polarised, bitter space of public discourse, and I think where we are as a country now is a very polarised and angry space….. . Powerful, vested interests feel they have more permission at the moment to push their weight and their might up against community voices’.
The push back from powerful interests can be intimidating, but Jenni is clearly motivated to keep going by her passion for social justice. She says there is ‘a satisfaction when you can speak out for those who don’t have power in their own right’. There are also some real achievements to look back on. She cites the financial services complaints scheme as one. Now, people who have a dispute with a financial service provider over amounts up to $500,000 can use a free, industry based complaints scheme and get a fair hearing without the use of lawyers. Another achievement is the banning, from July 2012, of commission based remuneration in financial services. Jenni met many ordinary people who were suffering after losing large amounts of money through commission based service scheme. She has a great sense of progress and achievement in seeing the end of that practice.
However, Jenni stresses that change can take time and it is important to be patient, keep moving forward and keep the end of in mind. For example, the campaign to ban commission based financial services dates back to 1992, and will have taken 20 years to achieve its aim. ‘I’ve learned that it takes time – some things require 10, 15 or 20 years, and you just have to keep plugging away, keep those little punches going and every so often you have to lob in something a bit bigger to kick it along’.