Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Robyn Hendry, Chief Executive Officer, Canberra Business Chamber, 21 August 2015

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Good morning everybody. How are you this lovely, almost spring morning? It’s a beautiful day today. It is so lovely to have new faces here this morning. Welcome to our Landmark Women series that celebrates the lives and passions of distinguished women living and working in Canberra.

This month we’re really pleased to introduce to you Robyn Hendry, who is the CEO of the Canberra Business Chamber. Robyn has recently commenced in this position. She started in May this year in this new role, which is a role that has been created following the establishment of this new entity that combines the former Canberra Business Council and the former ACT Region Chamber of Commerce. It’s great that Robyn has been able to join us so recently new in this position with, as she said earlier, many things happening and lots of new things getting implemented, both as a result of her new role and as the result of this new organisation being created.

Robyn’s background is extensive, and she will obviously give you far more detail than I’m about to give you. But to give you a sense of her interest in Canberra and her passion as a Canberran, Robyn has worked in the tourism industry as a senior executive for over 20 years, and that work has taken her to promoting Canberra as a tourism destination. She’s also worked in New Zealand and in Papua New Guinea in a similar capacity. So she has a great understanding of what it is about Canberra that drives people here and the best of what it is in this region that we should be celebrating and acknowledging.

Prior to joining the Canberra Business Chamber, Robyn was the Chief Executive Officer of the Canberra Convention Bureau. I don’t know how many of you are aware, but there was recently a newly proposed convention bureau that was launched here at the Museum, a beautiful new design by an Italian architect. Robyn was instrumental in driving the need for Canberra to have a far more state-of-the-art and relevant convention centre to drive more attention to this beautiful city of ours.

She has been a senior manager, but it doesn’t stop there. Robyn has been in senior management positions in multinational hotel companies, in the food and beverage industries. She’s worked in human resources, general management and strategic development.

At the 2011 Tourism Awards, Robyn was awarded the ‘Outstanding Contribution by an Individual to the ACT Region’. You can see that Robyn certainly has a passion for the ACT and our beautiful city. Robyn is also very interested in the arts and culture in this town. Our paths crossed a few years past back when we were both on the board of the Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation, which is fundraising to support arts and culture in this country - it is almost this country. We now accept applications from people outside of the ACT, but it’s a fundraising program to support the arts in the ACT.

Robyn has been the former director of the Business Event Council of Australia. She’s also on the board of the Cultural Facilities Corporation. So Robyn is certainly someone who has many interests and a great passion for this town.

Her topic for her conversation today with us poses a very interesting question: Has Canberra hit its stride as a city? I’m sure that there will be lots of questions afterwards. Please join me in welcoming Robyn, who will give us an overview of her passions and her interests and her view of this fabulous town. [applause]

ROBYN HENDRY: Thank you for that very kind invitation, and it’s great to be here. I can see many of you share my need to have glasses. I’ve come to this realisation recently, so forgive me. I will have to use them to read a few words that I’ve got here.

It’s a great day out there, I agree. I’m envious of some of you who perhaps will get to spend more time in the sun than I will. I’m not sure what the weekend forecast is like, but let’s hope that this same crystal-blue sky. I think it really encourages big thinking, that big sky.

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say that, to refer back - and I learnt this during our centenary - Canberra was chosen because cold weather makes you think better. I’m not quite sure of that, and perhaps my conversation today will be testament to that. But that said, I do think big skies make you think bigger. So it’s lovely to be here.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to the elders past and present.

I love Canberra. I’ve been recycled into Canberra three times. I don’t know what that says about perhaps not having the opportunity to stay continuously but, anyway, I’m back and I’m here to stay, I think.

The first time’s a love story. I had a boyfriend working in Sydney and the boyfriend, of course, was looking at all his career opportunities. One of those, which he was excited about, was to go to Canberra to join the project team for the new Parliament House as it was then. I said, ‘Off you go, I’m far too busy to be worried about that and what you’re doing.’ But, of course, not too many months later I find myself commuting here and then I find myself moving here to study. That then boyfriend is now my husband, and we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary next year. That was probably worth the trip at that time. [laughter]

I ended up studying here so I’ve integrated myself in the young culture. We left Canberra at that point after Parliament House came towards the end of its process. Whilst I was studying and not involved in the city promotion at that stage, anyone who was anyone was expected with that new building, because of the controversy of the cost and no doubt lessons learnt from the Opera House, had to put on a hard hat and just walk anyone who was vaguely interested in the building through the building and tell them all the great attributes it has. My view is that it does have many, but I’m sure there was a time I knew exactly how many light globes were used on any particular floor or whatever, because it was either I didn’t see them at all or I joined some of those tours. Perhaps that’s why I’ve ended up where I have.

We left here to go to New Zealand. Again he got a job and we said it’s too good to refuse. I said, ‘I’m not actually wanting to leave Canberra.’ But, anyway, there you go. This is what occurred in my early career planning - not much as it would seem. Then I followed him to Auckland. You always think you’ve got one great job and the next one will be really elusive, but of course that doesn’t prove to be the case for many. I arrived in Auckland and tourism was booming there. Japanese people were coming in droves and hotels were springing up absolutely everywhere - here as well. I was a young person qualified in tourism. I certainly could easily find a rewarding role and did that.

Then after about three years there - this is a long love story I know; I will get to something actually worth saying soon - Greg finished whatever he was doing. He’s a project manager and engineer. The story’s not all about him, but at this point I’m starting to get a bit sick of dancing to someone else’s tune. He got offered to go back to Sydney and I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, that just won’t do me.’

He went back to Sydney and had to commute back to Auckland on the weekends. Eventually we got sick of that and he said, ‘Look, I can see I can’t shoehorn you out of here, but what if I took time off and we went to Europe for three months?’ That did it for me. Being a tourism girl you really do have to go on a trip every now and again, so we did that.

Anyway to cut a long story short, we went back to Sydney eventually, then to Papua New Guinea. I was in Papua New Guinea with Greg. He was general manager for a consulting company. We had a six month old. I’d come back to Australia, had a baby and popped back. I had a job in a multinational hotel company there and had got that in my own right prior to heading to Papua New Guinea. Then work said, ‘Would you like to go back to Sydney or Canberra?’

The idea of coming back to Canberra was delicious, actually. We had a house in Seaforth in Sydney. But thinking about two people working hard and needing to balance a six month old with that and Sydney traffic, and it hasn’t got any better, so needless to say we don’t have the house in Seaforth any more; we have a home in Canberra.

So that brought me back and I’ve worked out of Canberra since. As I say, I’m here to stay. I’ve since expanded the family and so on. It’s home to Greg and me and our two daughters: Charlie and Annaliese. Charlie is in year 11 at Radford College and Annaliese is in second year at ANU studying, what else in Canberra of course - economics and politics. Canberra has been very, very good to us.

I was conscious that this is the Landmark Women series and I did contemplate this question. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately and forgive me with my new frantic role, maybe I haven’t completely nailed my thoughts but I’ll let you in to a bit of conscious stream of thought, if that’s OK.

‘Has Canberra hit its stride’ is the question for me, ‘but have we also as women in Canberra hit our stride?’ Not to leave the men in the audience out, but I guess that’s the focus in a landmark women series.

I think women have played an absolutely vital role here in Canberra. Obviously in our community as teachers, as mothers, as employers, as employees, customers and advocates for change, we’ve clearly created a city or at least contributed to the creation of a city that is remarkable. Canberra is a city where generations of women have dared to question. We’re a progressive city. I think we’ve got many people before us that have led the way. The questions now are: ‘Have we as women in careers hit our stride as a city hit our stride?’

I reflected on these during our centenary in 2013 and as an economy, very tested recently, have we hit our stride? My role at the Canberra Convention Bureau - a lot of people mistake the convention centre for the convention bureau. The Convention Bureau is a tourism authority, and our remit was to attract business tourism here, which makes up of about 30 per cent of the visitor economy. It’s important from that point of view, but it’s also important because attracting conferences and business tourism here is how you showcase what the city does well. The legacy after people go is actually of greater value than the so-called tourism spend when they’re here.

I found that was a really important role. Now in my current role, my job, as I’ve defined it in my two and a half months doing it, is to talk up the economy, to ensure that we have a voice for business and we get conditions here for business that allow us as an economy to thrive. Getting up day after day, I was at the bureau for ten years and I’m sure I’ll be here more than hopefully two and a half months, unless I get any news when I leave here, I’m sure I’ll have no trouble continuing to march to this tune of talking up the attributes of Canberra.

In my new capacity I’ll lead a trade mission with the Chief Minister to the US in October, and that will be followed with another trade mission in November to Singapore and we’ll hit China early in the New Year. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk up our credentials. I’m very excited about the growth in our export industry here, and that goes to diversification of our economy.

I spent a few hours in a room with 30 or 40 very clever ICT people in technology and so on. I’m a girl who likes to work with people not machines. I’m pretty hopeless at all that, except to the degree one needs to learn things. But these guys are absolutely busting out of their skin with enthusiasm. I can’t tell you how proud I’ll feel representing our credentials as a city when we head out there.

We’ve got a very strong mission as well in Singapore because most of the people I speak to, and I hope you’ll agree, would really like direct international flights. So we will be spruiking that cause as well. Therefore, I’m convinced that ACT has much to offer on many, many fronts.

I can recall when one of my recycled times I came here – in fact, I came here from Papua New Guinea to run the convention centre at that time, and then I ran the Crowne Plaza as well. I recall thinking I needed to promote Canberra at every opportunity.

I’d catch a flight to Melbourne to go and see clients, and the taxi driver would say, ‘Where have you come from today?’ and you’d say ‘Canberra’ and he’d go, ‘Oh it’s cold down there, love’. Meanwhile, Melbourne’s raining, there’s no sun, it’s grey and I’m thinking, ‘What is it that people don’t get?’ Or I’d check in to a flight in Sydney at Qantas, because Qantas supported these flights. Someone at the checkout would say, ‘Where are you off to today?’ and I’d say ‘Canberra.’ They’d go, ‘Oh’. I felt like Christopher Robin talking to Eeyore. My voice pitch I’m sure would rise and I’d start saying, ‘Oh no, there are really good things in Canberra, let me list them.’ It was a bit cringe-worthy, in fact. I felt like I was on a mission to convince everyone.

But I feel less like that today. I don’t feel the need to defend Canberra at every opportunity. Yes, I do feel the need to say there are great things here and in a meaningful way introduce those to a conversation. But for every Tom, Dick and Harry that wants to say something negative about the city, I think, ‘Well, it’s your loss.’ I guess I reflect on if I was someone in New York or elsewhere and they said, ‘I come from New York’, and someone said, ‘Oh really?’ I don’t think they’d go, ‘Well, there’s a lot of good, there’s theatre in New York.’ I’ve grown out of that but I’m suggesting that, in hitting our stride, perhaps the city’s grown out of that as well.

I think the ACT now has something to offer everyone. We’ve obviously got gorgeous museums like the one we are in today. I know everyone here thinks very fondly and is really deeply interested in this Museum. We’ve got galleries and theatres and we’ve had that for a long time because of our national capital status. But equally I think we’ve got a bit more mojo now. We’ve found some vibrancy. We’ve got our new centres for entertainment that provide a lot of pool for mid-career people, if you like, and the young with the Kingston Foreshore, the Braddons and the New Actons and so on. I think we’re really enjoying those times. I’m sure many of you remember what the old Canberra Centre was like and that we didn’t have large retailers here and so on to the degree that we do now. I think that vibrancy is increasing.

I certainly use my 16- and 20-year-old daughters as a bit of a litmus test. As privileged young people I’m conscious from Canberra who are well educated and quite well travelled, I’m here to say, they’re not telling me the whole time that, ‘Canberra’s boring. I need to get out of here.’ That tells me something has changed actually, having studied here.

In my earlier career when people said, ‘Yeah, it’s good to study here but can’t wait to start my real life.’ It’s not just so any more. Those out of touch that still think we’re a city of bureaucrats and uninteresting would’ve been quite surprised to read yesterday’s paper saying that Acton has got the largest concentration of I-generationers in the country. Those of us who don’t keep up with all those new generational terms, I had to look that up myself. That is aged between 8 and 27. So we’ve got the greatest concentration in Acton of people between 8 and 27 in the country and a very tech-savvy group. Those of us who know that ANU is just across the road - I can’t remember where I am in an across the road sense - know that the ANU is there and of course that’s going to have contributed to those statistics. But it does show how diverse our community has become.

Now these I-generators are developing into our new entrepreneurs. With our exceptional education and research institutions they’re actually helping to build our economy as a centre of knowledge and excellence hub. That is in fact helping people like me, who are representing those who are building the business in our economy, to understand the opportunities for this great city. We’re obviously in the service market, we’re not really in the production of goods, except perhaps in the nano technology and the clean energy fields. So it’s really clean, green, new and very exportable industries that we’re growing here.

Perhaps those of you who’ve lived here for a long time have remembered the time when you’re in the ACT or you were out. If you lived in Queanbeyan or Yass or Goulburn, you weren’t part of us; you were those people that exploited our resources here; you exploited our education and entertainment and spent a lot of time clogging up our emergency departments in health, and we really didn’t need these interlopers to be doing that.

Many column inches of newspaper articles and much political rhetoric went to the fact that they are a drain on our economy; whereas we’ve come full 360 there, we now see the Canberra region as vital to our economic stability and growth. We need 800,000 people, which is the number for our region. If you outside Canberra add plus one hour and plus two hours, you’ll come to 800,000 people. That really matters when you’re talking to business setting up here. That will really matter if you share our aspiration to get international flights, particularly to Asia.

Ikea, for instance - not to provide ads for any particular retailers - but as you will have read a lot in the paper is about to open here in September. We’re the only city in the world where Ikea has set up in a city of less than a million people, and the reason is that we have 800,000 in the region and a high disposable income, which sort of covers for the slightly short of their benchmark of a million people. So that really matters.

We recently saw daily buses for commuters from Goulburn. Some 65 percent of the working population in Goulburn are working in Canberra. It is just recently - I can’t believe it’s taken that long but I hope to see more and more. We know that the same is true of Queanbeyan and elsewhere.

Of course if we do break this little chestnut of flights, we’ll become the freight hub for the region. Then we’ll be really very important to Eurobodalla, the Snowy Mountains. Particularly if you’re an oyster producer and getting your product out quickly into Asia, it really matters. There are many opportunities, whether you’re exporting trout from the Snowy Mountains or what have you. There’s Chinese investment going into Goulburn in hydroponic vegetables, and that is purely to get them back to China. We’ve got a lot of opportunity there to grow, and the region is critical to that. Then after Asia we’re looking to New Zealand for those flights, which will also open up another area.

Now in Canberra we only have half the population of employment with the public sector. Fifty per cent of our employment is elsewhere, and it’s not just the traditional contracting back to the public service. We’re doing business on a number of fronts. We’ve got 26,000 businesses here in Canberra, just as a matter of interest. Ninety-seven per cent of those businesses employ less than 20 people, so lots of little small entrepreneurial companies. Sixteen thousand of the businesses here are micro businesses employing only the business owner, so that’s highly educated skilled people selling their services. I did attend something recently where the small business minister referred to much of this growth as the mumpreneurs. I think that’s an interesting expression - I’m not sure I like it - but in a female audience I’m sure we can all relate to people doing business from home juggling dual responsibilities.

Statistics also tell us that, from a woman’s perspective, 29 per cent of nascent firms, businesses in the process of being created, have a woman hitting those up ,so that comes back to that sort of mumpreneurs. I don’t if you need to have children to be an entrepreneur as a female, but anyway. Also if you add the mix gender teams starting up nascent businesses, we have 33 per cent of all of those businesses now have a woman at the helm or at least jointly at the helm.

For young firms, those established in the last four years, 26 per cent were founded by a female and 34 per cent by mixed gender. So that tells you something else about our progressive nature. This means that more than half of all business started recently have women at the helm. Obviously that goes to diversifying our economy, and this has really put us in good stead with the expenditure reform in the federal government. Whilst it can’t be underestimated the impact that’s had, the last time we had that level of contraction with federal government expenditure we went into recession. The reason we haven’t this time is really because of that diversification of our economy and the skills that we’re growing here. Whilst we can have a great empathy for those individuals affected, as a community we survived.

Our unemployment rate here has dropped for the last eight consecutive months. ABS data now puts us at 4.1 per cent against the national average of over six per cent. Now that’s not entirely growing our economy. That is also partly because we’re highly skilled, and some people losing their jobs would’ve left to find employment elsewhere. But it still goes to the fact that we are perhaps economically starting to hit our stride.

In addition to our unemployment rate, the participation rate here in Canberra for the workforce is 70 per cent versus about 65 per cent for the national average. So we’re obviously participating a great deal. That five per cent is very significant.

Have we hit our stride as an economy? I’m not so sure but I do know that we’re walking taller and with more confidence. Success breeds success, and I think that’ll continue to build on itself.

What about other elements of women in the ACT? Certainly I had a very strong role model and models around me growing up, and that included our first stint in Canberra. In particular, my mother was a trailblazer here in Canberra. She was a feminist who fought alongside other people in her generation for women’s rights. She, like many in her generation, left the workforce to raise a family, and I’m one of four siblings.

However, during that time she went back to school. She first trained in business and then she trained as a lawyer. She became a senior registrar with the Family Court and lobbied for legislative changes to support women’s rights and in particular was very proud to have worked with Lionel Murphy on the no-fault divorce legislation area. I thought women’s rights were just common place growing up because of the battles won by my mother’s generation and her peers and that basically I could do anything. The fact I was female just didn’t even register.

I knew I was entitled to a career and to have a choice of having a family, if that’s what I wanted. However, like many of my generation, we discovered that having it all wasn’t everything. It certainly wasn’t everything that we thought it might be, and I think we’ve probably matured in terms of career women hitting their stride from that time. There are a lot of drawbacks to trying to do ten-hour days and have babies and do everything else that you might be interested in.

I for one found that quite difficult. I only took six weeks off with my first child and I think that was poor decision making in hindsight. Getting up frequently at night and then getting to work to do ten-hour days and feeling you are in neither one place nor the other for me didn’t quite work, and certainly I didn’t repeat that the second time around.

But I felt that I had to at all costs maintain this career. As I say, my thesis today is that perhaps we’ve matured from that a little bit as well. Many in my generation as well believed that we could do not only all that we wanted, but when we wanted. Of course, that led to many people choosing to delay having children and then having fertility issues. We’ve learnt a bit about that and I think people are making slightly different choices with that new knowledge.

Balancing work and family here in Canberra for me has been fantastic. I’m so pleased I didn’t choose to go to Sydney and never be able to duck up to the school for that time that your child’s getting a prize or has one of those little performances, particularly in primary school where they seem to come around regularly, and Canberra is a great place. But it does require also for men to have hit their stride in this regard. Certainly in my household, my husband worked in Darwin all last year. He was doing absolutely fantastic work trying to build infrastructure in Indigenous remote communities. I juggled a job that I was very used to and things with the kids, albeit that they’re older. And that worked OK. Commuting to Darwin on weekends is probably not great, but it was OK. We held that together.

But then when I took on this new job, Greg said, ‘We just can’t do this if you’d like to take that on.’ So he had to leave work he loved to come back here. He’s just doing contracting work at a fairly low level to just mean that I’m not thinking about cooking a meal or washing the clothes. He’s doing all of those things so I can settle in. I think that happens in Canberra in a way that I’m not sure is universal, but certainly it’s assisted me personally.

As well I’ve employed lots of men who are part time because they’re taking other days of the week to be the primary carer in their family environments as well. It allows us a lot more freedom. Perhaps we don’t have to do it all, all the time, and we can get around Canberra so well.

In terms of have we moved on? Yes, I think we have. I can remember when I was a general manager in a multinational hotel company years ago, I went to a conference and at the conference there were 250 people. I was the only female general manager at the conference of those 250. You know what it’s like at a conference. You come out at morning tea time, everyone needs to go to the bathroom because they’ve been holding on while that last speaker finishes. But of course in my case there was a big queue outside the men’s toilet while I could walk in and I didn’t have to worry about shutting the cubicle door if I didn’t want to.

I was reflecting on that just the other day. Here in Canberra, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry had a business leaders summit. We had very noteworthy speakers, not least of which were people like Julie Bishop. As I was in the bathroom at the typical break, I was talking to the women around me. There were women around me, so there’s the first difference, but I was reflecting on once upon a time that wouldn’t have been the case. We had a chuckle about that and that was good. But when I looked back in the room after that, it sort of raised my awareness. There would have been 30 per cent women and 70 per cent men. We’ve come a long way, but I’m not sure that we’ve entirely got to where we need to get to.

I looked at the statistics about gender and equity. Women comprise 46 per cent of all employees, and obviously we’ve had female prime ministers, governors-general and chief ministers here in Canberra, and I think equally for my daughters sets up great role models. But basically we’re not at the representative level that we need to be as senior managers or directors of boards. Twelve per cent of all chair positions are female. There are still over one-third of the businesses that have no key management as women in their organisations. In 2009, 54 per cent of the ASX, 200 companies, had no women on their boards, and this fell to 38 per cent in 2011 according to the Institute of Company Directors. We have got a way to go but we have come a long way.

The Human Rights Commissioner more recently, and we know this in Canberra, has identified many male champions to stand alongside females and chart this course collectively and talk about diversity and the benefits to business of diversity. I think that, if that strategy works, that will takes us to another level of this debate.

I guess that probably enough about women at this point in terms of Canberra. Have we hit our stride as females in careers in Canberra? Have we hit our stride as an economy and a city? I would say, yes. I think we’re not completely where we need to get, but it’s a very different Canberra than when I came more than 30 years ago in the first place.

It’s a city we can all be proud off. It’s an economy we can all contribute to, if we so choose. It’s a place where women can actually make a great contribution and have and continue to do so. That’s really my thoughts of the day, if you like, in terms of have we hit our stride.

I’m very happy to take questions and talk about any elements of my journey, whether it be in the arts on boards, whether it be hanging around in Papua New Guinea trying to figure out how that place worked or anything else you’d like me to talk on a little further.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: If you would like to join me in thanking Robyn. [applause] Both personally and more broadly about Canberra, Robyn, that was wonderful taking a broad picture of view of where we are.

QUESTION: Hello. I found very interesting your positive belief in the future of women in business in Canberra. I’m a bit past my prime for any career, so I’ve been there and done that. Not directly relating to what you’ve talked about, I’m concerned that in the news of late there has been suggestion of abolishing double pay on Sundays. Australia is one of the rare countries in the world where anybody gets double pay on any particular day, and I wondered if you felt hopeful of double pay being abolished to give small businesses a better opportunity.

ROBYN HENDRY: For those of you who may not be aware, that is a result of the draft report by the Productivity Commission into labour force reforms. The Productivity Commission found that the labour system that we have now largely works, ‘it needs a little bit of repair but it certainly doesn’t need replacement,’ to quote the Productivity Commission.

The work they’ve done on penalty rates in particular says that times have past. Once upon a time, double pay rates on a Sunday were to reward those who were in emergency services that really had to go to work and also to provide a disincentive because we didn’t want people at work on a Sunday. We want them in church or wherever else they might choose to be. The Productivity Commission’s view and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry shares this view that for people now, it’s a 24:7 economy. If we don’t have businesses that can operate profitably on a Sunday then we’ll lose jobs, and that’s their view. We’ve got 16 per cent unemployment in our youth and we need to soak up that youth unemployment. There are areas where there is opportunity. They are namely, according to the Productivity Commission, hospitality, entertainment and retail.

I don’t know if any of you have tried to go out for meal here on a Sunday night but you won’t find many restaurants open, very few. Of note, a couple of them might open on a Sunday when parliament is sitting the next week. With those businesses closing on that day it means that we are employing less people per se, but less young people. Having two teenage daughters who both have casual jobs and both love a Sunday shift, I totally understand how that money helps - and they’re living at home so they’re not nearly as vulnerable as those who are trying to pay their rent and so on. I’m conscious of that as well. There are a lot of fairly low income earners in those casual jobs.

But having said that, the Productivity Commission’s proposal is that Saturday rates, which are an increase on the week, are the same as the Sunday rates. So the Sunday rates come down to that. I have respect for the Productivity Commission and I also have respect for knowing what it’s like having run many food and beverage outlets, restaurants, bars, et cetera. You do close on a Sunday because there just isn’t the margin. Those businesses run on about 10 per cent margin. With doubling your pay rates on a Sunday, it often just tips you over the edge and it is just not worth it.

There are arguments that say would people just spend the same amount of money that they are spending over a longer period, over seven days rather than putting that into the six-day shopping pattern. That would have been merit in the days before the Internet, but now as people can sit on their iPads at home and buy things in retail anywhere in the world at any time, if you make it hard for people they just won’t go into our brick and mortar shops and so on. I think that there is a strong argument for that.

We do hope that the Productivity Commission’s report - that was the draft - in their recommendations to government continue with that. We would be very surprised if they didn’t continue with that recommendation. We know it is finding favour with the government, particularly the Small Business Commissioner. He absolutely thinks that it is part of the answer to some of our youth unemployment. We’ll see how much courage the government has. Of course, some unions are strongly arguing that that isn’t in the interest of employees. It is true that, for some employees, it won’t be in their interests. But for the greater good, we think that would be a useful adjustment to the current arrangements.

QUESTION: I’m interested in your time in Papua New Guinea. I haven’t been there since the year before they got their independence and I’m interested in the Canberra connection with the women in New Guinea and the status of women in New Guinea. Could you comment on that please?

ROBYN HENDRY: I can. I came from Papua New Guinea to here in 1995 so I was there three years prior to that. So it was a long way post independence. I think I wasn’t long back in Canberra when I attended a function at the Papua New Guinea High Commission for the 20th year post independence anniversary.

My role was human resource manager for four hotels there. I had 800 staff that I was responsible for, 90 percent of whom were Papua New Guinea nationals and we had some expatriates as well.

The role of women in Papua New Guinea is a difficult one to generalise, because they are so many cultures in Papua New Guinea. They say there are 700 languages there and they are languages, they are not dialects of the same language. There’s patriarchal societies and matriarchal societies; it’s a really complex mix.

What is true is that women’s role in an urban context, without going on to the villages and so on, is pretty tough actually. There’s a lot of domestic violence. Certainly, there’s no equity in terms of financial empowerment. The clan system means women are really providing any potential that they have for earning capacity back to the clan system, so they don’t enjoy the same autonomy that we enjoy.

Having said that, they have an amazing clan system, which maybe in our urbanisation in a developed world we’ve lost some of. The grandmothers and the aunties look after children while the younger go out to work, and just in that collectivist culture there’s a lot of really good things. We talk about that it takes a village to raise a child, but we probably don’t really practice that, but in their case they do. The majority of the 800 people I was responsible for were women in Papua New Guinea.

We did a few things there that I recall. I am certainly not an anthropologist; I was just a business person that was there to ensure our businesses run well. But after getting to know women there and realising some of their disadvantage. One of the first things I did is set up health clinics in every one of our hotels and made those available to not only the women who were our employees but all their children. A lot of the disadvantage they said was most difficult when they had sick children and no resources to take them to doctors and all of that sort of thing.

There were things we could contribute to their well-being and we certainly contributed to accelerating their standing in our organisations. I’m not sure how much impact that had in terms of their standing in their villages. It was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done and it changed the way I viewed the world completely in terms of not looking at cultures or even gender equity issues or through one filter. There are many filters that need to be applied in that sort of pluralist thinking. I’ve still got lot to learn. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it was fascinating and difficult.

QUESTION: Thank you for that really interesting perspective. That was a great aside. I’m sort of reverting back to the first question about business and employment. I don’t know if people here are aware, but one of our clubs has recently changed their contracting arrangement for catering to probably a multinational, but they’re employing young people on 457 visas - and there are many of them. Of course, they’re going home in November and a fresh lot are coming out. The aside from this is that this catering venue has never been so popular. There are cars everywhere. I am outraged that this has happened and that people are patronising it, but they are. I just wondered: is this an aberration or are there other instances of this in our city? And what does that say for our young people, because there were young people working there before with the previous caterer?

ROBYN HENDRY: I can’t say I’m an expert on everything in terms of visas but I did sit, for my sins, I represented the business event industry in Australia on the Department of Immigration’s Tourism Visa Advisory Committee for many years until I took this job. I can say that we absolutely need 457 visas. They aren’t job-robbing visas. We wouldn’t have the student capacity here in Canberra that we enjoy if we didn’t have 457 because they study and they work, and that’s really good. I’ll come back to the catering question.

Also we have a lot of very highly skilled areas in Canberra, particularly in our export market, and we often have to import labour from elsewhere. Otherwise we wouldn’t be growing the economy. We wouldn’t have had the resilience that we have. So 457 visas are really necessary.

As for that particular caterer, I can’t say, but what I can say is there’s lots of evidence to show that the 457 visa as a mechanism to attract talent and skills from elsewhere has actually helped our economy grow. In fact, in many ways, that has helped us to be one of the leading economies in the world at the moment. It’s certainly not designed to replace people where skills that are readily available here. There are requirements around 457 visas where you have to have tested the market to some degree to find those skills here. So they’re not routine semi-skilled positions, except say if you’re studying here as a student where it does permit you to work 20 hours a week, et cetera. They shouldn’t be just coming in to do work that would otherwise readily be done here.

I don’t think it is widespread. I think the 457 visa issue in the media gets a bit too much attention really for what it is. I think there are elements. Perhaps that business is one where they are a bit of a rogue trader – but I can’t say that. I don’t know them. I don’t know enough about it. But I can say that we would be a much poorer society if we didn’t have the ability to attract talent, particularly in new industries and the industries in Canberra where it’s all service. We’re not product producers; we’re service producers. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have half the new companies that have emerged to ensure that only 50 per cent of our labor is engaged in the public sector. I’m by no mean saying that isn’t a rewarding career. It just can’t be that we’re completely vulnerable to the decisions in the public sector as a community.

QUESTION: You touched on earlier the idea of international flights coming in and out around Canberra. Is there anything concrete happening in that area? I’m thinking Asian Airlines or Air New Zealand. Is there any genuine interest or not?

ROBYN HENDRY: Yes. There has been a lot of activity in the area. A couple of more recent things include a case being put to Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines don’t want this discussed publicly. I know we’re recording, but this won’t go on the web tomorrow… They’re just a commercial company looking for opportunity and they don’t want to be seen as the villain if they chose not to take that opportunity.

We being a city spearheaded by both the Canberra Airport and ACT government in partnership - the ACT government has put money on the table to encourage flights to this city. You need a few things going for you not least of which is some money to ensure that the airline is confident you will do marketing in the new market. What we don’t want is to underwrite a flight. It has to be commercially viable, because there are many city examples where they’ve practically bought a flight in. As long as the money is flowing the flight stays, and then it disappears. You’re better off to have sustained growth over time, not incremental bubble activity, if you like.

The board of Singapore Airlines is currently considering the opportunity. We know the numbers pencil for a fly to Singapore and why we know that is because we’ve look very carefully at our 800,000 people region, and that is the pull for flights here. We’ve also looked at Adelaide as a comparative market. Adelaide has a million people and they have 37 international flights a week. We just know that, with our government to government travel that occurs, the outbound travel is very strong. What we have to do is generate interest for inbound travel. That’s the nervousness around airlines. We haven’t heard a ‘no’ yet. We’re seeing that is a positive sign, but the deal is not done.

There has also been work done in China with China Southern and other airlines in that area. We can’t have all our eggs in one basket, but the Virgin Singapore Airlines link is a positive one for Canberra. There is ‘first mover advantage’, as they say in the business, and that means getting the government money to help establish the flights and so on. Notionally the conversation is around five flights a week with the first entrant.

Also work has been done with Air New Zealand. That work continues and they continue to look at that. That will be a little while off, I think. It’s not the game changer that Asia is. It’s not Singapore per se but what it does to open up the rest of Asia for Canberra. Just recently we had our High Commissioner to Singapore here with AustCham who are the Australian-Singapore Business Federation - if you like, one of us there. They were here talking about the opportunity from Singapore with the middle classes in China and elsewhere. From a visitor economy point of view, from a freight point of view, growing our export market particularly in the regions, and just from living up to that aspiration as a national capital point of view, we think it’s really critical to the growth of this city.

Equally, the airport has built. They took decision in their construction to build the international part. They’ve built it. It does need a fit-out out but there were many millions of dollars in question there and they said, ‘Don’t wait for a flight and then build.’ So they’ve taken a big risk there. They also have, supported by the Chamber, a bid in to attract regional economic development funding from the federal government to assist in that fit-out. We’re really hopeful that they might be successful there because, they’ve already taken a big risk and that would assist them in taking that next step. So fingers and toes everywhere crossed.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Sounds fabulous. Robyn, thank you again so much for sharing you passions and your insights with us this morning. I certainly learnt a lot more about Canberra than I knew before. I’m sure a lot of us in the audience as well have picked up a few things that we didn’t know were happening in Canberra. Interesting about the international airport, the Museum is about to put one of its treasured collection items in the airport. The aeroplane jelly van will be in there for a little while. So if you’re travelling, be sure to have a look. I think that’s all part of understanding the importance of these changes.

Can you join me again in thanking Robyn for this tremendous insight this morning. [applause]

ROBYN HENDRY: Thank you.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: I know some of you have a few more questions. Robyn will be joining us for morning tea so, if you get the opportunity to have a chat to Robyn, please do. I invite you to come down to the Friends Lounge and have some morning tea with us and just relax and share some of your insights that Robyn gave us. Thank you.

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 2007-19. 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: 14 December 2015

Return to Top