Catherine Carter, ACT Executive Director, Property Council of Australia, 14 February 2014
CARISSE FLANAGAN: Welcome to the first Landmark Women for 2014. We are very excited to have you all back again. We have a very good program over the next six months - and hopefully the year. Next month a lady you all know very well, Carolyn Forster, who is going to tell us her story which goes far beyond the Friends of the National Museum, which will be very exciting.
Following that we have Kaarin Anstey. She is a professor from the ANU. She is the head of the department of ageing and research and she has a specific interest into Alzheimers’ and dementia. I think it will be a very interesting talk - I am not implying anything. In June I am really excited about Julia Newton House, the CEO of CARE Australia, who will be joining us. I am just waiting for a confirmation for our May speaker but, as soon as I know, I will let you know.
Two things today: the free concession for our members who are concession cardholders for Landmark Women is going to continue. It is partly a fantastic thank you for so many of you who have been attending Landmark Women, some since 2005 when it began, and we are hopefully going to offer some more free events for our concession cardholders in the future as well. At the moment we are also offering it for ‘Get messy with grandma’ for some of those people who attend that with their grandchildren.
Lastly today, we have Jason, our staff photographer, and he is going to be taking photos of the event today. We are trying to capture some more fabulous smiling faces to use on the website and in our promotional material. If you do not want to be photographed, that is quite all right, just let Jason know. But if you are fine with it, Jason will talk through with you the consent form that he will get you to sign afterwards.
As you know, with the change, the wonderful Sandy Forbes has stepped aside - although she is actually pulling all of the levers in the background by giving me all of the lists of the people to invite to this event – and she is no longer the person who is actually standing up here and introducing the speakers. That job has now gone to Monica Lindemann. She is the head of the development team at the Museum and the membership falls under the development unit now.
MONICA LINDEMANN: Thank you for that very warm welcome. There are a lot of exciting events for Museum Friends members in the coming months, which is lovely. Thank you, Carisse. Thank you all very much for coming out today.
It is my very great pleasure to introduce to you a woman who you probably will recognise, the face of property in Canberra, Ms Catherine Carter. Catherine is the ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia. She is responsible for all aspects of the organisation’s operations, policy development and public affairs in the ACT. She has been with the organisation for nine years. As you may well imagine, the property sector is a male dominated sector so it’s very impressive she has made such advancements in this particular area of industry.
Catherine is a great supporter of the National Museum of Australia. She is a very strong advocate for development and engagement with public spaces and spruiks the Museum’s beauty and physical spaces amongst her members, which I am very pleased about. Catherine is also a regular columnist with the Canberra Times and the Canberra City News. She frequently explores issues surrounding development in our national capital and the built environment. She was a recipient of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year Award in 2010 for the community and government category. Please join me in welcoming Ms Catherine Carter to the podium. Thank you. [applause]
CATHERINE CARTER: Thank you, Monica, and thank you to the National Museum of Australia for inviting me here and a very warm welcome. I want to acknowledge my good friend Kathi Zarka who works here with the Museum - she is sitting down the back - who probably was the first person to introduce me to the wonders that this Museum is. I have come over here a few times for work purposes - Property Council members built the National Museum. I come over quite often with my children. Every meeting that I expect to go for half an hour or hour has ended up being half a day. It’s a very wonderful resource that we have in Canberra, and one of the things we can be proud of.
Yes, I do work in the male dominated property and construction industry. I was reminded of that fact yesterday at a lunch that we held. Only 13 per cent of the industry is populated by women. Only 13 per cent of workers in the Australian property and construction sector are women. It’s been an interesting journey for me not only working in the sector but also representing the property sector to government.
Let me tell you a little bit about where I work and what I do. As Monica mentioned, I am the executive director of the Property Council of Australia, which is the leading advocate in this country for the $600 billion property industry, and I head up the office in Canberra. The Property Council counts the bulk of the nation’s major investors, property owners and developers as well as the industry’s professional service and trade providers among its members. In Canberra we have a very diverse membership. It is not only developers, owners, builders of commercial, industrial, retail and multi-unit residential properties typically but also lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants, valuers, planners, sustainability consultants - anyone that is involved in the built environment.
My role is to represent industry and industry interests to government on issues from taxation, infrastructure, housing affordability, sustainability and so on - planning as well. In the ACT the property industry is very dynamic and very diverse. The industry generates almost 25,000 jobs across Canberra and is actually the second largest employer after government. I think that is a fact that is not often recognised. The other thing that people very likely don’t see when they go around Canberra is we have the country’s third largest office market after Sydney and Melbourne. This is a statistic that is often quoted at our Property Council events: there are 2.5 million square metres of commercial office in Canberra. It doesn’t look like that because Canberra is very spread out geographically, but we are a very significant property market and about 60 per cent of that is occupied by the Commonwealth government so we have an important relationship there.
Back to me, and how did I get into a job like this. When I look back at my life and particularly at my childhood, and I have had an opportunity to reflect over this in the last few days as I was thinking about coming and speaking to you, it’s perhaps no surprise that I am working in what is perceived by many to be a very tough, blokey industry. My father was a career army officer and a career army officer absolutely through and through. I don’t know if many of you have had marriages, relationships, friendships, brothers in the army but, if you do, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
After graduating from Duntroon in the early 1960s, my father progressed up the ladder to ultimately become a general in the Australian Army. And he was what he was: he was an army officer; he was a product of his time and really quite conservative in his views; but perhaps surprisingly he was also a very great inspiration to me, and I was very close to him. He always said to me when we were growing up and to my brother and sister, ‘You can do anything.’ That was always a lesson we grew up with. But I do remember very distinctly one day when I was growing up, he compared himself to me in a way that I thought was very unfavourable and I remember being very insulted by this at the time. He said to me, ‘I think you’re like me.’ I think he must have said that to me when I was a teenager so I was just appalled. But what he said to me is, ‘You are not necessarily the most popular person’ - I think that was the bit I didn’t like - ‘but you are the person that people go to because you are reliable, you are tenacious and you get things done.’ I rolled my eyes, but on reflection I actually think he was right about that. I actually think I was quite like him.
That ability to persevere even when times are tough, to work hard and to do what I say I am going to do has certainly helped me through my career. They are attributes that I think are very important. I like to think also I add something of myself into the job that I do. I am not exactly my father and I am also not a man. I hope the attributes that I bring are compassion, intuition and empathy. At an event we had yesterday, one of our speakers spoke about emotional intelligence, and I certainly think that’s something that women bring to the roles they perform in life. I hope it’s something I bring as well.
I want to tell you about my mother as well. My mother’s life was quite instructive too. My mother grew up on a farm in Western Australia, a very isolated property, and she was a painfully shy young woman. That shyness really remained with her for most of her life. But in spite of that she had an incredible and somewhat incongruous sense of adventure. In the 1960s she climbed mountains in New Zealand alongside Sir Edmund Hilary. She actually photographed those experiences and wrote about it, and it was quite widely reported around the world which I always think is remarkable - she really was terribly shy. I think that was because of the way she had grown up.
She later trained as a nurse and delivered babies by herself in the middle of the bush and in the middle of the desert. She had many stories about that. She eventually joined the air force as a flight officer and served in Borneo and Malaya where she met and married my father. As I said, she was a very adventurous person in spite of her shyness. I have photos now of her parachuting from planes in the air force. She retained all her life quite a passion for skiing and for mountain climbing. In fact, when we were children, one of my father’s postings was to New Zealand, a place called Wairouru. For me it was one of the most special times of my life because we were near to Mt Ruapehu, which is a big skiing location in New Zealand, also Mt Ngauruhoe which erupted on the day we moved to Wairouru and stripped the paint from the car which I remember. It was always my mother that would carry our skis up to the mountain and take us up there, and surprisingly not my father who was a bit more intimidated.
One thing about my mother, it stung her all her life that her parents hadn’t been able to afford to send her to university. She had topped the state in Western Australia the year she finished high school. Perhaps because of that and other reasons, she was very determined that she would never teach my sister and I to cook. She was very particular about that because she never wanted either of us to have a life where, as she probably saw it, we would be chained to a life of domestic servitude. She felt very strongly about that. I guess her reasons for having that view must have been what she had seen and experienced growing up on the farm. Going to university and out into the world and not cooking was always on the cards for us. I now think it’s a pity because I can’t cook at all and I don’t cook. But I do enjoy food very much so I enjoy my friends like Kathi Zarka who is a wonderful chef.
I think while my mother would have dismissed the term, I actually think she was proto-feminist - I think she was an early feminist. If I had put that to her, she wouldn’t have agreed but I think in fact she was. Looking back, I can see that I had two parents who provided a daily demonstration that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. But I have to say that my childhood wasn’t easy. Again, that is something I have reflected on as I have been thinking about what I wanted to say to you today.
I had the upbringing of a typical army kid, there was a new posting and a new school every couple of years and believe me I attended every kind of school along the way. I attended a tiny two-room Catholic school in remote Victoria with some very harsh nuns. I went to an enormous public high school in America and ended up at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in England. Many studies, most examining the characteristic of military brats in the United States, have found that the itinerant life of the army teaches resilience. Military brats tend to have very good social skills, a high level of multicultural awareness and a strong affinity for careers that serve others. They can also feel like outsiders that prevents them from developing emotional attachments to specific places. I have to admit, and I wasn’t sure whether I would say that because I don’t like it, that that actually sounds like me. My childhood taught me to be resilient, adaptable and how to mix with many different kinds of people. But moving as frequently as we did was very disruptive, and I never had a connection to home or a sense of place or where I belonged when I was growing up. Particularly when we were overseas, people would say, ‘Where are you from?’ and I would say ‘Australia’ but I didn’t belong anywhere. My father was originally from Queensland and my mother from Western Australia and I had never lived in either state, so Australia was my home but I didn’t feel a great connection at the time. It’s ironic actually when I think about it that my job is representing an industry that is responsible for creating places for people - or maybe it’s not so ironic.
My first real job after finishing a bachelor of communications was working as an adviser to a New South Wales government minister, which I did for about five years. Getting married brought me - somewhat reluctantly, I have to admit - to Canberra. I picked up work initially working for a small Commonwealth government agency and then later worked doing public affairs work for the Real Estate Institute of Australia for a few years. After I had my babies - I have today 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who are the joy of my life. After I had the babies I was looking for new opportunities and a role at the Property Council presented itself to me as the perfect mix of advocacy and government relations, policy and commercial activities because we do everything.
I have to admit that I initially took the job at the Property Council not because I was at that time passionate about property but because I felt it was a good job and a good opportunity. The Property Council even then had a reputation for professionalism, influence and evidence-based research. I knew I could make a solid contribution to that.
Over the nine years that I have worked for the Property Council though - it stuns me that I have been there for nine years; it’s extraordinary to me - partly because of my job, probably very much because of my children, Canberra has very much become my home. The truth is I now find it difficult to think about moving back to Sydney where I was, partly because you develop a different way of looking at things. I loved working and living in Sydney and I was in choirs and went to the theatre. But now I go back to where I used to live and I go, ‘The pavements are only this wide.’ It’s different with kids.
In Canberra I found my sense of place. I have become passionate about ensuring that my community, the one that I live in, is the best that it can possibly be. I see the positive contribution through my work that the property industry makes to people’s lives. People rarely think about the impact that buildings have on the way that we live, but of course we spend probably 80 or 90 per cent of our lives in buildings. Buildings are the shelter from the storm. They are the place we live, they are the place we work, they are places that we go to like today to come together and meet. For most people, their home is the biggest investment they will ever make in their lifetimes. I think property is also a bricks and mortar representation of the homes of their family, their values and their lifestyles. So buildings are very important.
As I mentioned earlier, at a broader level the property sector is a very big employer, 25,000 jobs, putting a huge amount of money into the ACT economy. It is certainly more than pays its dues. Property contributes more tax than any other industry, around $600 million a year and about half of all the ACT’s tax revenue. The property industry plays a central role in the future of our city. I feel personally passionate about working with government and industry to create a city that enhances our health and well-being, encourages creativity and innovation - that is one reason I like being here at the Museum so much - and is economically vibrant which is important as well. I feel very strongly I would like for the property industry, government and the community to work collectively together to create a city that is diverse, inclusive and has opportunity for people who live here.
My passion is easy to articulate. It’s easy to write down, it’s easy to speak about in some respects, but it’s much harder to achieve. I work in an industry that is predominantly populated by men, 87 per cent of them so the ABS tells me, and there are days when this makes my job a pretty tough gig. It’s a tough job. Testosterone levels are high and they peak at the senior levels. Very few workers in our industry at that senior level are women. There are very few women developers, CEOs or board directors. The number of board directors is tiny. In Canberra there are actually three women developers and that is miraculous. In some cities people just can’t identify them at all. I have to say I had no idea how tough my job would be before I became the public face of the Property Council in Canberra. As I have said, my father was a general and I have worked in high octane environments in government and politics so I thought I knew how to operate in robust workplaces. I thought I had been there and done that. Yet the first year in my job, I cried a few nights, I went home and I cried because the people I worked with were really hard.
Canberra, as I said earlier, has the country’s third largest office market, much of which is in private hands. In spite of what people think, I often read in the Canberra Times that developers are aliens that fly in from another planet to concrete over Canberra in an evil way. That is actually not true. The majority of developers in Canberra live here and have lived here for generations. They are citizens who live here and educate their children here and want their children to live here. They are very much part of the community.
A part of that is there are a couple of very high net worth people in Canberra with significant property assets and highly vested interests. It would be very easy in my job to be influenced or charmed, I suppose, into promoting individual interests rather than a collective industry view. As a lobbyist, I was engaged in forceful discussions at a government level but also in the background sometimes with my members as well, the people I represent.
But my father was right: I am tenacious and I just wasn’t going to fail. I wasn’t going to let anyone beat me. So to get through I stuck to some personal rules which have served me well, I think. In my industry I have no favourites and no partiality. I never comment on specific developments or developers and I always, where best I can, seek to identify issues of commonality. I do strive very sincerely - and I do think about this - to be honest, sincere and direct. The other one that is important is I always try to do background research and be sure of my facts. That’s really important.
I learnt to interact with different people and effectively communicate with everyone from bureaucrats to builders. All of them are very highly skilled and all of them come with their own particular communication style and agendas. I don’t know how to describe this except to say I suppose I have learnt to be a concert master who brings everyone together to ensure that we speak with a common voice and that we are saying the same thing.
The Property Council is very much one of those sink or swim organisations where a lot is demanded of you, but it also encourages and rewards people who are innovative and who work hard. I remember when I first joined the Property Council, my husband’s friend at the time headed up Greenpeace. I had heard about the Property Council and we had a very formidable CEO based in Sydney. I asked this colleague, ‘What’s he really like?’ And he said to me and this was very good advice and it proved to be true about the CEO and also about the Property Council, ‘This is the toughest job you will ever have and they will get more from you than you thought you had to give. If you that doesn’t suit you and it’s not you, just walk away and leave and never look back. But if that’s you, there will be incredible rewards.’ For me that’s true.
Before I joined the Property Council, reading government budget papers I have to say was not my favourite thing, and it still isn’t. In the first year of the Property Council I couldn’t have written a brief on what was in budget papers like this. I remember two years after that, my boss phoned me and said, ‘I want a brief by 4 o’clock on what’s in the budget.’ I remember my reaction was typing, typing and swearing, after that happened I realised I had just done something with a lot of ill grace that I wouldn’t have been able to do two or three years prior. I realized, in fact, that the job had given me opportunities to grow in ways that I found very satisfying.
One thing that is fantastic about the Property Council is you can achieve great outcomes. That motivates me. I work very hard and very fast, and on multiple projects and issues, which is challenging but very stimulating. My job is exciting. One of the best things is that I work with really smart people, which I like, and I have the opportunity to be creative. That is one of my secret reasons for coming to the National Museum all the time.
I have learnt to embrace my job on my own terms. I have never been, and I am not, one of the boys. Instead, I believe I have earned respect by working hard, being honest, being smart and getting on with the job. Now I would actually say to anyone that working for the Property Council and in the property industry is the best job I have ever had.
This is a lesson, I suppose, that I would share with other women in my industry: with passion, drive and commitment it is possible to be successful without compromising other things that make life so rich and special, including the importance of a quality life outside work. For me, what makes my life special is my children - number one, two, three all the way to 50 and 100 - it’s my children.
There are examples of women who have succeeded in the property industry and they are smart, skilled women who are in positions of leadership and influence. Some of them that I would name and they may or may not be known to you – Romilly Madew due who was my predecessor in my role. She now heads up the Green Building Council of Australia. She is now on the world stage. Local female developers like Louise Morris from the Morris Property Group and Maria Efkarpidis from Rock Developments. You may not see these people as you walk around in your everyday life, but they are creating very special places with a lot of commitment. Dorte Ekelund who heads up the ACT government’s environment and sustainable development directorate. And then just yesterday, as I alluded to, I had the extraordinary privilege of hosting a panel discussion at a Property Council lunch. The people that were there were Carolyn Viney, who is CEO of Grocon which is Australia’s largest private development and construction company; Sue Kent, managing partner of King and Wood Mallesons, which is one of the world’s leading law firms; and, funnily enough, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, Chief of the Australian Army. He is not a woman but he’s a champion of women’s rights and their role in the workplace and of course a general, which brings me full circle back to my own father.
I was very taken by General Morrison yesterday. He was the most remarkable person. If you ever have the opportunity to go and hear him speak, I strongly suggest that you do. He came in the room, and I spoke to him for about ten minutes before we went to go to the panel discussion. He was very kind. He said to me - I hadn’t known this – that he had worked for my father for a number of years and he said a lot of very nice things about my father. But the thing to me that was remarkable about him, and it is something I would like to focus on more myself, is that he was very present when he was talking to me. He had just come from a ceremony at Parliament House where they awarded a young man with the Victoria Cross, and it was the 100th Victoria Cross. It was a very significant, solemn, important occasion not only for the Defence Force but also for the country. I knew he had done that and he spoke a little bit about it. But when he was talking to me, he was completely present. He didn’t look at his watch. He didn’t indicate that he wanted to leave or go anywhere. I was the one who said, ‘We better go now.’ The most extraordinary individual, and I am hoping to meet up with him again soon. But also David Morrison is someone who is working to implement and effect change in the Defence Force and give women more opportunities.
Moderating a panel session made up with Australian leaders of this calibre, two of them were women, was probably and quite genuinely one of the highlights of my career. If I think about working in the Property Council and what makes a good day, yesterday was absolutely outstanding.
The secret ingredient to all women like that that I have met, and presumably also to men but I am thinking about women, is all of them appear to have an internal belief that they can do it and they are determined to work hard to achieve it. No doubt that goes for General Morrison as well.
I do acknowledge that the toughness of the environment in which I work can be a restriction to women who don’t have that built-in resilience and stereotypes and mis-perceptions about the construction industry continue to dissuade women from seeking careers in the property and construction industry. The bad old days of men downing tools when a woman walked onto the construction site may be gone, and I have heard some shocking stories about that, but there is still much to be done before the property and construction industry is harnessing the full potential of 50 per cent of Australia’s work force. As another leader in the property industry Carol Schwartz has said, it is not possible that 50 per cent of the population have 100 per cent of the brains.’ Although then one of the panellists yesterday said, ‘Yes it is, because the 50 per cent being women do have 100 per cent of the brains.’
For example, the starting salary for female graduates in the construction industry is $9,000 less than their male counterparts. This points less to overt discrimination and more to the fact that women aren’t traditionally taught negotiation skills and to value their own worth. Again I can’t recall the words he used yesterday, but General Morrison said something that was very interesting, ‘Men are promoted on potential. Women are promoted on demonstrated performance.’ I am going to take that thought and do something with it.
Bain& Co.’s 2011 report What stops women from reaching the top found that 90 per cent of men in senior leadership positions are more likely to appoint or promote someone with a similar style to their own - well, that’s not surprising. This mini-me attitude has resulted in leaders promoting people just like them, despite the fact that diverse perspectives deliver the best outcomes. Organisations which value diversity and inclusiveness have been found to reap the financial rewards. Research by McKinsey & Co. has found those companies with a higher proportion of women in the top tiers of management perform better than those who do not.
One of the things that I am very interested in and working on a lot in my own role is promoting, leading, having a discussion about how we get better at actively developing and advancing women through mentoring programs, alternative role options and flexible career paths. There is certainly a very long way to go before we will see women having equal representation around the boardroom table in my industry, or on construction sites or in senior roles, but I am an optimist. After all, I am here. The way I look at it is - this isn’t an original thought but I do think it: if you are born in Australia, you have already won life’s lottery. One in four people in the world live without electricity; one in three have no access to basic sanitation; the World Bank tells us that someone who earns more than A$12,000 a year has more than 87 per cent of people on the planet. Nearly three billion people live on less than $2 a day, which is A$830 a year. So here we are in Australia, the nation with the world’s highest median wealth, and all of us live in Canberra, which is a city with the highest average incomes and the highest education levels in the world’s richest country.
We live in a young, vibrant city bursting with potential. Canberra is a place of optimism, discourse and debate. It is ripe with talented, educated people, is quick to adopt advances in technology, and it’s a great place to establish innovative industries in education and research. It’s a city designed to set new standards in planning, development, industry and liveability.
In my opinion, we have a golden opportunity to leverage the highly talented, highly educated pool of Canberra women to improve diversity, boost productivity and build better, more profitable businesses. But actually more than that, we have a golden opportunity to leverage the talents of both men and women to build a world-class city of which we can all be proud. Thank you. [applause]
QUESTION: Thank you, I am greatly interested in what you have been saying and in the qualities that have got you where you are. I wonder if it’s impertinent to ask you: do you know your Myers Briggs personality type? Are you introvert or extrovert? Are you J or B?
CATHERINE CARTER: I am an ENTJ, which actually horrified me when I first did the test because it is also described as the general. It is someone who likes to be in charge and rallies all the troops. I don’t know, I am my Dad and my Mum. I would be very happy if you asked me anything at all. Please ask me anything. There is a lot of discussion in Canberra all the time about housing affordability, infill, urban density, do developers force people to live in concrete dog boxes? I would love the opportunity to talk to you, so ask me anything you like.
QUESTION: My question is about Katy Gallagher and the money that they had to repay the person in wherever it was over in Gungahlin, the court case.
CATHERINE CARTER: The stamp duty.
QUESTION: Can you explain that a little bit more to me? I just don’t get it.
CATHERINE CARTER: Truthfully I am not fully across the issue. When you purchase a residential property or any property there is a stamp duty component that is payable to the government, and the question was: What is the stamp duty based on? Is it just the land component, which was sold to people, or the land and the dwelling? The people, I don’t know which way round, were asked to pay stamp duty on one component and then both components. Then it was appealed and it turned out that it was the lower amount which was significant. This potentially leads the way for other people in a similar position to get money back and creates – [inaudible] I can’t comment. I don’t really know. I think it was a new situation. But the headache for the ACT government is now that they potentially owe new home owners hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
QUESTION: My question is about what control the Property Council has over the rise and rise of high rise in Canberra. Given the choice. I think I would rather high rise than urban sprawl but I wonder if there is a happy medium. I live on the north side and all of a sudden we have these 20-storey high places that look a bit out of place. I wonder what you think.
CATHERINE CARTER: I really love that question. Thank you for asking. The Property Council has no control, zero control. The Property Council is an industry body that represents our members. Do our members have control? No, they don’t have any control either. All they have is the ability and the right to construct what is in their crown lease. The ACT government has a stated policy position of 50 per cent infill, 50 per cent greenfields development. Now in fact I think infill development is probably about 10 per cent and greenfields the rest.
There are a couple of things I would say. There is a very interesting study that was undertaken by the Grattan Institute a couple of years ago. It found - I think these figures are right - that 45 or 47 per cent of Australians want to live in a detached home on a quarter acre block. But that’s actually 72 per cent of housing stock in this country, which means there is a huge unmet gap for people who don’t want that home on the block. They want an apartment, townhouse, terrace row housing, lofts in old industrial buildings and so on. The discussion in Canberra is very fraught and if you believe the pages of the Canberra Times, the community and government are generally at war with each other.
But I think the reality is different. I think people’s view of apartments and so on and the aesthetics is quite often subjective. I do think Canberrans by and large want quality. That is something they should expect and ask for. The Property Council supports and promotes our members who do excellent projects, I suppose, and we don’t support the rest. I live in an apartment with my children and a dog. This is often extraordinarily surprising to people. But I work a lot. I used to live in a house on a really big block with dead gum trees up the back and I can’t handle it. For me, living near to my kids’ school in walking distance from amenities. This is my personal life. It is what I chose. I wasn’t forced or strong armed by a developer. But for me, it’s exactly what I want to do right now - probably not forever. I don’t know if that has answered your question. Does the Property Council have control? No, we don’t.
QUESTION: This might sound completely naïve, but what do you do for developers? I think you made a comment just a minute ago that you don’t represent every developer; is that right? Do they join?
CATHERINE CARTER: Do any of you belong to other associations like the nurses?
QUESTION: Do you mean the unions?
CATHERINE CARTER: Anything. Why do you join? The Property Council of Australia is an industry body. We don’t control what our members do. We don’t have power to make the government or them do anything. But what we do is we take their collective views and we lobby government. So issues that we talk about - here’s an example. Capital metro that the government has announced. The government think that is going to cost about $650 million and they have ideas around how they think they are going to get the money, who is going to use it and so on. Our members build infrastructure like that, so we go and talk to government and we say, ‘All right. We accept this is a political reality. You are committed to it. But how can we assist you to get the best bang for your buck, not blow out your budgets? What kind of development do you want along the transport corridor? Let’s talk about housing along there, how do we make that a reality?’ We talk about tax, because it’s a fact the property industry is overtaxed. We say, ‘When you do this, these are the consequences and here maybe is a better way to do it.’ That’s what we do. I never go and say ‘developer Mr A wants this’ - never, ever.
QUESTION: You can refuse to accept people as a member –
CATHERINE CARTER: Potentially, yes.
QUESTION: Or you can refuse to represent certain?
CATHERINE CARTER: We don’t represent individuals so that doesn’t arise. In fact, one of the things in my job - I know people now and I have known them a long time. Everyone is self-interested. It is just a truth. After a while you work out what they want. Some are very charming and some are trying to get whatever. But as long as you stick to good policy outcomes - that’s the way forward.
QUESTION: Going way back, was your reluctance to come to Canberra because your father had not enjoyed it in the 1960s?
CATHERINE CARTER: Yes.
QUESTION: That is interesting because for an old Canberran it was the most exciting time. Young Canberra was developing.
CATHERINE CARTER: It is funny that you say that. It actually wasn’t so much my father but my mother. She thought it was very boring. We only lived here when I was much younger for two years, 1980-81. Because we had lived in some amazing places, she didn’t like it.
One of the most fascinating things about my job - these people probably aren’t known to you – is that a number of developers in Canberra are second, third, fourth generation Canberrans and some of them have the most fascinating stories. I have often said to a couple of the older ones, ‘When I quit this, I am going to write your biography,’ because they are such fascinating people. John Notaras, I loved him, I was so fond of him. They are owners and developers. His grandfather moved to Queanbeyan when he was 13 from Greece in 1920 something. There are incredible stories around a lot of these people. Many of them started with cafes, shoe shops, they were real estate agents. If you have been in Canberra, you know them. They are the most fascinating people.
My husband grew up in Canberra. He is older than I am and he tells this incredible story. He has a memory like no-one I have ever met. He moved to Canberra with his parents - his father was a lawyer – and moved to La Perouse Street in Griffith which in 1958 was very bare. He remembers waking up in the middle of winter and seeing his mother crying because it was so cold, and a drover with a mob of sheep was taking them down the road for agistment at Manuka Oval. That’s fascinating to me about Canberra. And now I am part of Canberra as well which I really like. But sorry, there were some other questions.
QUESTION: My question is about the proposed city to the lake project. I see that as a really exciting vision for Canberra to increase its connectivity and the amenities in the city centre, including an aquatic centre, a new Convention Centre and sports stadium possibly. I have two questions: What is the position of the Property Council about that project? Second, what is your personal opinion about the likelihood that that vision will be realised?
CATHERINE CARTER: Actually my personal thoughts about this are the Property Council’s thoughts about this. The question was about the ACT government’s city to the lake proposal. Are you familiar with that? Do you know what that is about? The ACT government gets revenue from three sources: GST from the Commonwealth government, revenue from taxes and revenue from land sales. My view is the ACT government is very keen and committed to seeing the city to the lake realised because they can sell a bunch of sites down at the lake foreshore. I think in the long term it’s a very exciting vision.
I think in the short to medium term the concerns that we have are Civic is languishing. There is existing infrastructure there. There are a number of development fronts in Canberra that aren’t realised yet - Kingston Foreshore, Civic, along Braddon, Belconnen - that require attention and a great deal of investment. The Property Council’s view is my view that city to the lake is a wonderful plan to be realised but we would prefer to see the priority focused first on Civic because it’s a lot of money.
In terms of projects you just mentioned, a potential sports stadium and so on, the Property Council supports the view of the Canberra Business Council which is we need the Australia Forum, we need a convention centre and associated facility for the nation’s capital. It is disgraceful that the nation’s capital cannot host a COAG meeting here or be a meeting place for heads of state and meetings of that type. That’s what I think. That is what the Property Council thinks.
QUESTION: City to the lake [inaudible] realising that vision is not contrary -
CATHERINE CARTER: No, it is not contrary. I don’t know which the preferred site is now. It seems to change all the time. I don’t know. The question would be if the Australia Forum is the first one out of the gate, where is it going to be located and how do you locate it to the rest of the city? In the absence of other information, I don’t know.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your address and rundown on your life and that you are an army kid. There are so many of them in Canberra. What really fascinated me was your statement that property develops more tax than anything else.
CATHERINE CARTER: Fifty-five per cent.
QUESTION: There is never going to be a dip in that industry as there is in mining where all the tax has blown away at the moment.
CATHERINE CARTER: Here you go, I am going to say something in response to that. Property in Australia is many times larger than the mining industry. The Minerals Council of Australia, another industry group, have been extremely effective at representing their sector. Property, if you have a think about it, given where it is all other the country, is many, many times larger - I can’t tell you the factor.
One of the things I talk to the ACT government about and one of the things we are concerned about is we are in an economic downturn. Commercial construction has basically ceased in this city. Residential is very slow. Why are we in a construction downturn? Two reasons: One is that we are off the back of a property boom, and these things move in cycles. The Commonwealth government required a heap of new commercial buildings in the last five years, and those are there now. So we have gone off the back of a construction boom. Second we have a government that is talking about very significant job losses in the Commonwealth government, and this means right now for the ACT we are in a big downturn in the economy. When they rely on property, and 55 per cent of their tax comes from property, in an environment where there is not much construction and not much going on, we say ‘You have put all your eggs in one basket. This is a problem.’ When they don’t get revenue in from the sources they expected, that then impacts on the delivery of services to the community. That’s how it goes.
QUESTION: This is why they keep on developing more and more land?
CATHERINE CARTER: That is why they put land out.
QUESTION: More tax?
CATHERINE CARTER: More revenue - that’s unfair if I say that’s the only reason. There is still demand for new homes so on and so forth, but inevitably one of the reasons why homes are so expensive in Canberra is the land price. The ACT government is the monopoly land supplier. It’s a unique situation in Australia in that if you want land you have to go to the ACT government. There is the conundrum.
QUESTION: Complete change of tack, when you are working at such a high-powered level all day, do you have a method or a technique to change your hat, metaphorically, before going home to your children?
CATHERINE CARTER: Actually yes, I do and I try consciously to work at it. There have been times over the past couple of years where I got very overwhelmed. I go to so many meetings and I would be driving back in my car and I’d get pain in my chest because I was just thinking ‘there is this and that and so on’. I am not very good at it yet. It is just a simple thing and I try to work on it. I try when I am at work to be very present and to be very focused on what I am doing. I don’t mess around and get distracted with looking at funny jokes on email. My husband sends me all these link to the Guardian all the time with the latest news from Dr Who or whatever. I really like Dr Who but when I am at work it is just delete.
What do I do? I try to be very present when I am at work. One thing because I am the boss is that I don’t work on Tuesday afternoons ever, unless it is an emergency. I take my children to their music activities. It says in my diary 3 p.m. no meetings, and then I work the rest of the time. So I try to be very present. I often drive a longer way home than I need to because I want to get myself back in the mind of being at home rather than being at work. I want to think about something else. I work hours as I need to. I was talking to other women about this yesterday.
I think being educated and senior has some privileges which is I decide I am not working on Tuesday and I don’t think even public servants can do that so I am lucky in that way. My children are 11, and I had dreams over Christmas about how ten years of their life had gone and I thought this year it is about them. This year is reading with them in bed at night because when they are teenagers they won’t want me any more so I might as well get the time in now. Anyway, that is just what I do. Other people probably have better things to say than that.
QUESTION: I don’t know whether my question is going to be hard enough. As we look at all these apartments being developed and you have individual ownership for each unit, so the larger they are, the greater number of individual decision makers you’ve got. If you then wind the clock forward say at 50 years’ time and those apartment buildings are looking shabby, you’ve got a huge number of people to make a decision about revitalizing, etc. I am wondering whether, as we go into more apartments, there is another ownership model that will somehow keep buildings regenerated?
CATHERINE CARTER: That’s very interesting. I need to think about that. The first two things I would say from my experience as an apartment owner is we pay body corporate fees. I see active participation in the body corporate as being important for making reasonable, rational decisions for how we manage our funds and what we do around our building. That is just a personal observation.
The second thing is Australia is getting better at being very innovative in building and the built form. Issues that are discussed now, which just didn’t exist not even ten years ago - energy efficiency, environmental sustainability and an issue that makes me really cranky is the mandatory solar orientation of housing. The reason it makes me annoyed is that people I work with, the environmental consultants and the engineers, say you could build a house and hole in the ground and make it environmentally friendly, nothing to do with the sun if you have the right wall coverings, insulation, floor coverings and so on. There is still a long way to go, but I think industry together with the community are recognising the benefits of better quality homes.
As to another model of ownership, I am not familiar with others. I don’t know. If someone has an idea, they can tell me. One of the things we promote is salt and peppering developments so that, if you get a large multi-unit development, you might put aside a couple of homes for community housing so that assists those people potentially with others kicking in.
QUESTION: If I may continue that conversation, we are trying damned hard to downsize and can’t find where we want to go within our area of inner Belconnen.
CATHERINE CARTER: Did you send me an email a few days ago?
QUESTION: No. We have several competitors. It was one of those. That’s an aside. We have looked at a Stockland development, Ridgecrest, but the units are too small for us. It appealed to us because you buy your unit, you own it, and still the whole development is managed by a property manager under Stockland. I don’t know any more than that, but they have somehow found a method where you own your property, which is just the unit. They manage the grounds and we know for a certainty because the manager took us around that he goes around all the time looking at the condition of not just the units but the retaining walls, the paths, the seats, everything else and maintain it. Sure you pay for that, but is that perhaps a model?
CATHERINE CARTER: Yes, it is. In fact, I should have thought of that. It is a model. The benefits associated with that model are obviously very attractive because they maintain the grounds, they look after the facility, they maintain the landscaping and so on. The flip side of that, of course, is that you pay. We also have as part of the Property Council a Retirement Living Council. This is one of the problems going forward. We have an ageing population. Some, especially in Canberra, are in a fortunate position of being able to afford and pay for their retirement, but many don’t and there aren’t very many options.
Again, what does the Property Council do? We are talking to the ACT government about specifically identifying sites for retirement living, which are not on the urban fringes but in existing communities so that people can move to where they actually live and have a community. I was actually at a retirement village earlier this week. It was interesting talking to her because the retirement living sector is quite different from the rest of the property industry. She was very frustrated and was saying that the residents wanted six extra car parks, an ambulance bay and all this. She was saying, ‘They can have this but do they know how much it’s going to cost?’ Yes, it is very difficult.
CARISSA FLANAGAN: I think we are done. Can everyone thank Catherine for speaking to us today. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018