Louise Sylvan was born and raised in Canada – in a small prairie town near Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. She had two brothers, and was the youngest in the family. Her mother and grandmother provided strong female role models – her mother was a teacher, a profession she continued through her whole life, with only short breaks to have children. Her grandmother had been one of the leaders in the suffragette movement.
Louise’s father was a prospector. He was also a strong figure in her life, although he often worked away from home for up to 4-6 months at a time. Louise describes him as ‘a great outdoorsman, trained by the indigenous people’. She remembers walking in forests with him, and he would be absolutely soundless. He was a great hunter and sometimes Louise would accompany him on hunting trips. She recalls that he and a friend once walked, in the middle of a Canadian winter, from one of the northern river towns all the way through to Yellowknife, just with chocolate and food from hunting.
Education was in private schools, because the family had French origins and wanted to retain its French/Canadian roots, so the children were sent to schools which had French as one of its main languages of teaching. As well as having a strong element of culture in her education there were quite strong expectations for academic performance. Louise believes that expectations for children are very important – and for her there was no question that she could be whatever she wanted to be.
After finishing her schooling, Louise studied business administration and commerce at university in Alberta. She then took a couple of years off, and worked for a bank as a management trainee at a time ‘where there were no such things as women management trainees in the banks’. She found it fascinating but although she learned a lot about finances she also learned that she didn’t want to be a banker. She moved east, and completed a Liberal Arts degree before doing graduate work in public administration and policy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. After completing her MA, Louise ran the University of Victoria’s cooperative education program, where students, through the course of their degree, spend half their time with employers and half at university. This arrangement had good results for both students and employers. Retention rates for women taking traditionally ‘male’ subjects such as engineering, physics and chemistry were higher than normal because they provided opportunities for women in business and demonstrated that it was possible for them to have a career in those professions.
While at university, Louise met and married a visiting commerce scholar from the Australian National University. They decided that Louise was more transportable than he was as a tenured academic, so Louise migrated to Australia in 1983, but not before she had visited Australia and checked that there were career opportunities available for her.
She initially coordinated the Australian National University’s extension and public affairs program. However, in 1987 a national health consumer organisation, the Consumers’ Health Forum (CHF) was established by a group of non-government organisations, with financial assistance from the Commonwealth Government. Louise became its inaugural Executive Director. She describes the Commonwealth Health Department at that time as being ‘constructed according to providers’ and the Minister, Neal Blewett needed a little help in ‘overcoming the strong provider dominance. CHF was there to speak for consumers rather than have those provider bodies speak for consumers which they purported to do’.
Establishing a new organisation was a challenge that Louise enjoyed. She was soon immersed in a number of policy debates around the financing and regulation of health care. Under her leadership, the organisation took a particular interest in the processes of government decision making and their impact on the lives of people and access to medical services and products. CHF advocated strongly for greater transparency and rigour in decision making processes around the approval and marketing of pharmaceuticals and the government subsequently asked CHF to provide a consumer representative on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Pricing Authority – a prestigious, high level committee which was not traditionally seen as being of interest to consumers.
The new organisation was not welcomed by the medical profession, and there were attempts to marginalise it. However, CHF’s work had a big focus on research: using an evidence base for its work made it hard to undermine its credibility. A hotly contested issue at that time was the establishment of Medicare as the financing system underpinning the universal provision of health services. Medical organisations were highly critical, but CHF supported Medicare after a rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits for consumers of public and private funding systems. Its work was influential in the framing of the debate, and the subsequent bedding down of the Medicare system.
Louise was challenging some of the powerful vested interests that dominated the provision of health services. She had a personal stance that ‘you could go very hard on the issues and disagree very strongly which didn’t mean that those people were the enemy – it simply meant you had a public policy disagreement with them.’ It was quite a sophisticated positioning for a new consumer group, but while there were disagreements, there was a lot of respect for the processes that the organisation was using as the bases of its positions.
After nearly 3 years with CHF, Louise moved to Choice, a high profile, and independently funded consumer advocacy organisation. She was initially the head of policy and chief lobbyist but after 4 years became its Chief Executive. The Choice job was attractive because it was independently funded, and therefore free from any constraints imposed by government funding.
Choice, she says,’ is an expert body in its own right and was strongly positioned in the market. ‘One of the things I like is the discipline of the market – it’s a nice way to work. It’s nice to be able to speak to the private sector as a private sector organisation which survives on the basis of its products offered in the market. If it fails it fails on the same terms as they do. That was something the private sector could understand and respect. It enabled a quite different kind of relationship which I thought was increasingly necessary with the way the political dynamic was emerging. I thought that the private sector – peak bodies in particular – needed to work with consumer organisations and environment organisations and to some extent come to agreements that then confronted governments with no place to hide . And I thought that was a really important place to go’.
It was an era of market de-regulation and an emphasis by government on opening up markets and increasing competition. Louise was realising that the consumer movement could play a vital role in increasing competition in the market place. She saw a lot of opportunities in the newly deregulating markets, and thought that ‘the consumer movement should stop standing at the barriers saying it shouldn’t happen, and start to deal with the fact that privatisation was inevitable – it was happening all over the world.’
Louise had realised that the private sector, particularly the peak bodies, needed to work with consumer and environment organisations and come to agreements that ‘then allowed governments no place to hide’.
The Government’s deregulation of banking meant that Louise could draw on her interest and experience in the financial sector. Deregulation was happening with very limited protections for consumers and it was ‘just begging for some really strong consumer advocacy’. As well as providing advice to consumers about choosing products such as banks, mortgages, and interest rates in the deregulated market, Choice was also a powerful advocate for increasing transparency and disclosure in the market. A bewildering array of products and services were being offered. They were hard to understand and even harder to compare.
Louise lobbied for greater consumer protections, and emphasises that these were ‘not safety protections in the normal way that consumers have always lobbied for – but they were protections to enable the market to work’. That she says, ‘was language the government hadn’t understood before – that it wasn’t simply a matter of deregulation and the private market will simply deliver. It doesn’t deliver if consumers can’t choose in an informed way, and the government had failed to enable that to happen. So its own policy was being undermined by its lack of strategic focus on consumers in markets, and their empowerment. So this was the first time that what was considered a consumer ‘protection’ was positioned within enabling competitive markets to operate.’
Louise also stresses that the new financial service industries were selling products that, in many cases were one off products such as superannuation, investments and mortgages. They could not be treated like any other product in the market place where people can easily tell the real price and can change their supplier if the product is not of sufficient quality. By contrast, financial service products are complex, hard to understand, difficult to compare and attract large transaction costs if changes are made. For consumers, the consequence of a wrong choice can be devastating.
The financial services industry did not like the level of sophistication shown by the consumer movement – they were the ones who used economic arguments, and were uncomfortable with the consumer movement moving into that space. However, government was swayed by the argument that ‘the kind of consumer protection in these deregulated markets was very different to that which had been asked before – that they needed to look at the markets from two perspectives – the supply side and the demand side to drive the competition that enables markets to be competitive. ‘
There were also problems for consumers in the deregulation of the telecommunications industry. Choice anticipated a repeat of the limited attention given to consumer empowerment in the financial services sector and moved quickly when changes started happening. Choice was hired by government to prepare an initial decision making fact sheet for consumers, which was an important piece of work. As in the financial services sector, they advocated for and helped establish an industry Ombudsman as a statutory body funded by industry levies.
In 2003 Louise was approached by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, to stand as Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. He wanted to nominate Graham Samuel as the Chair. However, some of the State governments were not comfortable with this, but eventually agreed that a ‘package’ of Louise and Graeme Samuel would be acceptable.
The move to the Commission was not something that Louise had planned – her career seemed to be taking her to the international arena and at that time she had become the President of Consumers International where she was doing a lot of work globally.
However, a move to the Commission would be a logical one for her, and she accepted the appointment. It was a chance to contribute in a completely different way. She had not worked within government before, and says that ‘being a regulator is different. When you’ve got a stick you get to be a lot more careful. It’s not just talking any more – its talking with a lot of power behind you, so it was a very different role and one that was amazing to be able to do’.
After 5 years with the ACCC, Louise was appointed as a Commissioner with the Productivity Commission, a body which she says ’is an important institution for the debate about good policy’ and a ‘really powerful proponent for good governance’. Good policy and good process has always been a passion for Louise and she says that joining the Commission ‘felt like home territory for me’. Louise was involved in a number of major enquiries, including the Annual Review of Regulatory Burdens on Business – Business and Consumer Services, the Economic Structure and Performance of the Australian Retail Industry and Gambling. As a Commissioner she was required to overview every one of the projects referred to the Commission by the Government and to debate the processes and recommendations arising from each of the reviews.
In September 2011 Louise was appointed to head up the new National Health Preventive Agency which was established by the Australian Government to work with all levels of government on strategies to help people maintain their health. The new agency has some challenging goals in reducing risk factors for ill health, such as obesity and smoking and Louise is looking forward to the tasks confronting her. It will involve greater understanding of the barriers facing people in maintaining health. Louise stresses that ‘we don’t yet know what it is that will powerfully influence people to change behaviour – behavioural change is just about the most difficult thing that governments attempt to do’. She stresses that ‘if you exhort people, it doesn’t work’. Louise also points out that the problem of obesity and smoking is not evenly distributed across the population ‘there is a real alignment between lower economic status and ill health – and it’s primarily these chronic diseases’.
Louise has taken on some tough tasks during the course of her career, and has at times found herself subject to strong resistance from industry, and at times, personal attacks. She says that she has ‘never seen the task as being liked’. When she is attacked, she says that it ‘tends to make me think about whether I’ve framed something correctly – whether this is a not unexpected response’. She never attacks the person. ‘People who do that’ she says ‘have already lost the argument – they are scared at that point or they wouldn’t be doing it – they are out of things to do. So I take that as quite a positive thing’.
She says that you ‘build up an attitude in yourself which is strong, and that’s there’. She also acknowledges that she has also been lucky in the support that she has received, including that from her mother and grandmother. Her first husband provided a lot of support in the earlier part of Louise’s career. He died unexpectedly 1996. Louise has recently remarried and says that her new husband is just as supportive. However, in that period where she wasn’t married it was ‘a bit more difficult – there is nobody to download with and although you have your friends, there is nobody at home’.
Louise believes that it is important that the current generation of leaders are good role models and mentors for younger women. Leaders need to think about the career paths and challenges facing younger women. ‘A lot of them still have major family responsibilities which we need to deal with as employers – and it is hard because we want them there 24/7 and that’s unreasonable, so I try to temper that’.
She also stresses the importance of listening. ‘I’ve learnt a lot from others and as I’ve got older I probably spend less time talking and a lot more time listening to people, and trying to shape rather than dominate. That’s something good leaders do.’
Louise sees a difference between men and women in leadership positions. ‘Men tend to have a lot more ego on the table. That’s the nature of our society. And they are a lot less sensitive to many of the nuances of what is being discussed’.
‘All leaders, she says ‘need to have enormous integrity and concern for people, as well as some good, hard-nosed management skills. You don’t want soft leaders, but you want leaders who are not just ego driven and dominant because there is no place to work with those people’.
It is important that leaders are able to make the hard decisions. At Choice, Louise had to make some hard decisions regarding making people redundant. That was tough, and people in the organisation were upset. But it was Louise’s job to return the organisation to profitability and that is what she did. She says, ‘so it’s not all niceness. If you are appointed to lead an organisation – you have to do it in the end’.
Her advice to younger women is that gravitas matters. ‘They need to bear in mind that society still sees men and women as different and women still have to fight for their space and leadership. One of the really critical things that women have to distinguish between is being nice and open but also bearing in mind that gravitas matters. That is not domination – that is gravity – the ability to stand the territory as the leadership person with the right to do that. I’ve watched women in what I consider to be significant leadership roles give ground where they ought not to – by posture. I have watched women say ‘oh, and I just wanted to…’ You don’t need to apologise for asking someone a question.’ As an example Louise says that when she sat as a Productivity Commissioner in front of a hearing and people were giving evidence she would never apologise for asking a question or for interrupting them to say that that is immaterial and what I am asking you is this…. She says that ‘When women do that it is seen very differently to when men do that, so women have the added job of having to think about how they position that assertiveness, bordering on aggressiveness. Sometimes it is not seen as a sort of womanly thing – so I think their task is bigger. I think how they have to frame themselves is different.’
Louise also reflects on how Australia’s current Prime Minister has been treated and thinks that it would be different for a man. She cites the PM’s interview with Alan Jones and says that if it had been her she would have ‘slapped him around, frankly. There are times when you have to see that people take the space because you are female and they just need to be put back in their boxes. I think women find that hard. So my advice is always to take that position of gravity – you are in that job because you are good and you don’t need to defend that territory. You don’t need to apologise for holding that important job. So stand your territory – that doesn’t mean to be rude, it doesn’t mean to be inflexible or unreasonable. It simply means that you have a right to be there and it doesn’t matter what other people think about that.’
Interview by Kate Moore
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