Mary Draper

Mary Draper was the oldest in a family of 9 children. She born in 1945 in Sydney but grew up in Brisbane. She describes her mother as a committed, serious, intelligent and intellectual Catholic. Her father was a teacher in the state school system and was also a Catholic, although Mary does not believe that he was as committed as her mother.

Education was in the Catholic school system. Unlike most of her fellow primary school students, Mary finished year 12. She was a good student and got good results at school. She was also selected as possessing leadership qualities early in her life. While at school Mary became the leader of the school’s Young Christian Students (YCS), and then became the leader of the Brisbane Young Christian Students.

Early in her life Mary enjoyed the challenge of new ideas, and her ability to think deeply about issues. She remembers being very excited by the ideas for renewal of the church arising from Vatican 2, reading widely and discussing the ideas with her mother who was equally interested.

Her parents’ attitude was to give the children lots of freedom. They lived by the sea, and the children spent lots of time wandering the neighbourhood, the cliffs and beaches and making up cricket teams.

Both parents were very committed to education and there was an expectation that the children would go on to university. However, the Catholic school that Mary attended saw university as a ‘sort of necessary evil’. They gave students several pieces of advice – ‘If you have to go to university, don’t join the Newman Society (the Catholic university society)’; ‘if you have to go to the university, don’t go to the Newman Society orientation camp’; and ‘ if you have to go to university, don’t have anything to do with Humphrey McQueen because he will lead you astray’.

Mary says: Needless to say, the first thing we did was to join the Newman Society and go to the orientation camp – but it wasn’t so easy to meet Humphrey McQueen.

While at school Mary had wanted to enter the convent and become a nun – an ambition she says was ‘my romantic missionary sense’. However, as she was completing her school education, one of her brothers died and her parents did not want her to go into the convent because that would have been too much loss. She agreed to wait for a year, and enrolled in university.

At university Mary enrolled in an Arts degree, with 5 units of maths, because she loved maths, had done science at school and expected to go into science. As a teenager, she had wanted to do medicine but her parents had made it clear that they couldn’t support that because of financial pressures, and because ‘I was a girl and there was no point in me doing medicine because I would only go and get married.’  She challenged this thinking, and was sent to vocational guidance who advised that ‘yes, you could do medicine, but have you thought about nursing….’

During her first year at university, Mary started to have doubts about becoming a nun but her parents were keen for her to stick by her original decision and enter the convent. After a few months as a novice Mary decided that this was not for her. However, the convent would not accept that she wanted to leave. She believes that her leadership of the Young Christian Students made her ‘a catch’ for the convent, and explains their reluctance to accept that the convent life was not for her. After a period of internal struggle and unhappiness, Mary asked to see a priest from outside, who was a chaplain at the university, and he helped her to leave. Mary’s mother had died during this period, and by the time Mary left the convent she was quite distressed.

Within months Mary stopped going to church and moved away from the Catholic faith. She had been an avid follower of Vatican 2 – it was an exciting time for the church. She says that ‘it was interesting intellectually – a sense of a process of renewal, making contemporary, making relevant.’  Within the convent, she used to keep Vatican 2 material hidden under her mattress. She says that ‘the convent did teach me one thing – it taught me about rebellion’.

While Mary is no longer a Christian, she believes that her Catholic upbringing left an important legacy. It influenced her in two ways. ‘In some respects, while one has given away faith and the church, there are values that are part of who you are, and a sense of commitment. Those values are about the communal community rather than just yourself…. And a sense of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” ’.

On her return to university, Mary enrolled in an Arts/Social Work course. She graduated in social work and taught in social work departments of universities. But by then she knew that her interest lay in policy rather than case work. After working for a year in an acute psychiatric unit, and then as a Senior Tutor at university for a few years she went to Tasmania and worked in the policy section of the government’s welfare department. She then got a job in the Tasmanian Public Service Board as an Equal Opportunity Inspector.

Mary had become involved in the women’s movement in Brisbane. It was 1965 and the time that Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in protest at not being served because it was against the law for them to be in a public bar. Mary was active in a women’s group that set up a women’s centre and she attended the national conferences on Women and Politics and Women and Health. In Hobart, Mary continued to be involved the women’s movement and helped set up a women’s centre.

In 1983, the new Victorian Labor Government advertised for a Women’s Adviser to the Government. Mary applied for and was given the job.

Melbourne was a city in which Mary always had been intent on living in, so she was glad to move there to take up her new job. By now she had a daughter Clara, who was 6 years old.

Her new job as Director of the Women’s Policy Coordination Unit was in the Premier’s Department. She says describes the position as being a ‘leadership role and an advocacy role’ and its job was ‘to get up a policy agenda across the Government – and that was the priority’. Because ‘there were a diverse group of women and diverse politics’  Mary had to make sure that she wasn’t politically aligned within the Party and had to manage a lot of interests as well as try to pursue a women’s agenda.

It was a new position and the job was ‘exciting and very, very hard’. It was engaging, and very stressful… it was tough… there were lots of expectations on you, lots of politics going on around you, and it had an impact on your career because the wins that you got weren’t always appreciated by those around you’.

Mary was a single parent, and the stresses and strains of her job were having an impact on her daughter. Mary vividly remembers Clara saying to her ‘I know your job is really important and that it makes a big difference for women, but I really wish you weren’t doing it’. Mary left the position after 4 years. Clara visibly thrived when Mary had more time and energy to give to her.

In spite of vowing never to work at a university again, Mary spent the next 10 years working in an academic environment. However, while working at RMIT she won a contract to do some work for the Health Issues Centre, a Victorian independent not for profit organisation that promoted consumer perspectives in health care. Her job was to spend a year investigating the impact on consumers of casemix funding for hospitals. Mary had been interested in health financing issues, and for some time wanted a chance to work on health issues. So this job was for her.

Through this project Mary concluded that the move to casemix funding, while it had potential as a financing system, also had the potential to further entrench some of the problems currently being encountered by consumers, particularly in relation to discharge from hospital and the services provided after they are discharged. She identified a range of areas that needed to be addressed to improve quality of care for consumers, should casemix be introduced.(Casemix, quality and consumers. Health Issues Centre, 1992)

This was an important piece of work for the whole health consumer movement, and it led to Mary’s involvement with the Consumers’ Health Forum and the broad health consumer movement. She became an effective champion for improving the quality of health care. She presented papers at the annual National Casemix Conferences and was appointed to represent consumers on a national committee looking at quality of care issues. The work of that committee led to the establishment of the Australian Council for Safety and Quality in Health Care, which later became the Commission and is now established as a permanent body.

Mary has also represented consumers on a number of other committees. The one she is most proud of was a National Health and Medical Research Council Working Party on Clinical Practice Guidelines for Diagnosed Breast Cancer. She and another consumer representative were able to significantly influence the content of the guidelines so that the concept of quality of care included important issues for women such as the availability of information to enable their decision making and support for their lives.

Mary’s work on casemix was followed by consultancies for the Australian Government’s Consumer Focus Collaboration examining issues relating to patient satisfaction and involving consumers in improving quality of hospital care. Then, in 1998 the Victorian Government established an Effectiveness Unit within the Quality and Care Continuity Branch. Mary became the Manager of the new Unit – a position she held for 4 years. During that time she was responsible for policy and program development in evidence based health care, maternity services, consumer participation and information, clinical risk management and infection control. She also led the implementation of Community Advisory Committees for health services and the publication of Quality of Care reports by each health service. It was a big agenda, but Mary says that she had a great team working with her. It built on her experience in the women’s and health consumer movements, as well as her term as Women’s Adviser in the Premier’s Department.

After 4 years, she took up a position with the Royal Women’s Hospital – as Director of Clinical Governance – a job she held for 7 years. While there she aimed to generate a more open and just culture that learned and improved when anything went wrong. She used the hospital’s Quality of Care report as a way of bringing greater transparency and improving measurement of treatment and outcomes. She insisted that achievements could only be described in the Report if sound evidence was provided.   

After 7 years, Mary was approaching what is regarded as ‘retirement age’. While she had been successful in her role, she had concluded that quality and safety improvements within hospitals need to be led by clinicians, and that career paths in that area needed to be created. She resigned from the hospital, and set up her own consultancy business.

In 2010 Mary took up the position of Chair of the Health Issues Centre, the organisation where her health consumer advocacy started. The organisation undertakes policy analysis and advice and advocates from a consumer and equity perspective. It is the first organisation in Australia to provide leadership training for health consumers. However, it faces considerable challenges in terms of its funding and future role.

Mary’s life has equipped her for health consumer leadership. Not only was she the oldest of 9 children, but, while still at school took on significant leadership responsibilities within the Young Christian Students in Brisbane. Her career involved significant leadership positions, and she is now the head of a significant consumer organisation, the only one that offers leadership training for health consumers.

However, she has never had any formal leadership training. She says that while other people had recognised her as a leader at a young age, she felt she was pushed into it without any support. She has had to learn through her ‘lived experience’ and says that if she were to redo her career she would make time for more education and skills development.

Having been involved in policy development and implementation throughout her career, Mary says that she now prefers to work on policy and strategy. It draws on her strengths and she finds it interesting and challenging. Mary is a good thinker and a good strategist and agrees that she is an ‘intellectual’ leader. She says that her ability to think through and communicate complex issues is something that others have valued in her – ‘it’s not just the writing – it’s putting the thoughts out there’. Throughout her career she has enjoyed thinking things through and then offering solutions. She is ’always interested in strategy – working out the best way to go about something.’

Mary also emphasises the importance of listening ‘sometimes it’s hearing the story from the inside, and sometimes it’s listening to other people’s analyses. She likes listening to clinicians, ‘trying to work out their language and what motivates them, and how to get them onside.’ She also enjoys ‘finding connections and connecting up issues’.

Understanding and respecting constituencies is another leadership quality that Mary stresses. Your credibility, she says, ‘comes from listening and respect for others, and acknowledging that your ideas have come from listening, connecting and communicating back’. She acknowledges that leaders can never do everything that people want, but that it’s important to keep faith with the constituency  – its ‘a mixture of doing your best, knowing you had a constituency and an accountability. It’s a social movement, and it keeps you honest.’

Mary does wonder about where the future leaders of the health consumer movement will come from. She says that ‘our generation came through the movement – and many from the women’s movement. We all came with some interesting skills but we also learned a lot and we’ve been very effective. It’s now a question of continuing to nurture and continually review and plan for succession.’

Interview by Kate Moore

Comments very welcome below

About Jane Elix

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