A completely unmanageable conflict of interest - Diane Smith-Gander

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Diane Smith-Gander is a very proud Australian - resident here since 2007 after an 8 year absence in the US and an earlier stint in Hong Kong.

Diane had a successful executive career.  She worked at Westpac twice finishing up in the C-suite - and was a partner at McKinsey & Company in the USA.

She now pursues a portfolio career and has built a vibrant portfolio of directorships currently including Wesfarmers, AGL Energy, Keystart Loans and Safe Work Australia. She was chairman of Broadspectrum, the Australian Sports Drug Agency, deputy chairman of NBNCo and a director of CBH Group companies, Australia’s largest cooperative.

She is also active in the media advocating for issues which she is passionate about like good governance, gender equity and reconciliation and was delighted when Australia achieved marriage equality.

In this discussion on the Republic we talk about:

  • Reconciling Australian values with the monarchy

  • The Queen’s unmanageable conflict of interest

  • “Why not now?”

  • Lessons from the marriage equality campaign

The discussion

Steve Pell: Diane, tell me about your reasons for supporting a Republic at a personal level?

Diane Smith-Gander: I'm a person who really strongly believes in equal opportunity and so the notion of a hereditary monarchy that has a birthright is just completely anathema to a person like me. The mere advantage of a birth canal that says that someone has a particular place in life just doesn't sit right.

We're supposed to all have equal opportunity. That allows our aspirations, our skills, our effort, our collaboration with other people, to be the things that take us forward to whatever place we land in life.

Steve Pell: The really interesting part is if you were to ask 100 people on the street about what they typify as Australian values, they’d talk about things like equality and a fair go for everyone.

The monarchy is completely contradictory to what most people would define as these core Australian values.

Diane Smith-Gander: In many ways, the fact that there is a monarchy in the UK doesn't really impact the opportunities of people in Australia, but it's just culturally inconsistent with everything that we stand for, particularly the fair go.

We're an independent country. It's very clear. Why on earth do we share a head of state, a monarch with another country? It's just ridiculous.

Steve Pell: When you see the Queen meeting other heads of state, do you think she is advocating for Australian interests in those conversations?

Diane Smith-Gander: This is exactly the point.  As a director, every day I'm schooled in the management of conflict of interest, it is the central thing that a director has to focus on. The Queen as you are rightly pointing out, has a completely unmanageable conflict.

When she's out and about, she's going to be protecting Britain's interest. She's not going to be protecting Australia's interests.

I travelled on a board visit to the UK a few years ago.  Kerry Sanderson was the governor of Western Australia at that time.  There was a lot of effort going on to try to get work into Australia building various naval ships. The Governor was going to Spain and Italy to lobby industry there - that was our governor of Western Australia promoting our interests. The Queen wasn't going to be doing that. If she was going to Spain and Italy she'd be lobbying for those ships to be built in Britain. So there's just no way there’s not a conflict of interest.

Steve Pell: If we come back to an Australian first perspective, what do you think would be the biggest benefit of a move to a republic?

Diane Smith-Gander: Well, I think it's about maturing, becoming a grown up country, making our own decisions. I think there's so many debates that go on in Australia where we don't recognise the cultural significance of making changes that critics might call symbolic.

We are our own independent country and therefore we need to take our place on the world stage. We need to behave like we are the world's twelfth largest economy - able to chart our own course.  

There’s a lot of things that play into us feeling like a bit of an adolescent that hasn't quite got there yet. The fact that the children are still in detention on Nauru, the state of reconciliation with our indigenous people, how long it took us to get to marriage equality. Not to mention who's the prime minister this week? And I think this is just another piece of the puzzle.   I wonder whether maybe it's the keystone. This could be the keystone that enables us to move forward on so many of these important issues.

Steve Pell:  I get a feeling in talking to people that there's this underlying sentiment that it's not okay to be proud of Australia today. And I think regardless of your political sentiment, no-one really wants this to be the case. Everyone wants it to be ok to love your country.

There’s a lot of people who on one hand want to express how proud they are of this country and what we’ve achieved, but the issues around reconciliation make things rightfully murky.

Do you think a Republic would help us find a healthy level of national pride?

Diane Smith-Gander: Look I think that's right, and I think people are searching for national pride. It's really interesting. Just yesterday and today the media is reporting that we may have found exactly where the Endeavour is. Now of course there are issues with the indigenous people’s view of the Endeavour, but it's certainly part of our history.

I think we're searching and wanting to find things to be proud of, but until we resolve our national identity at the top level, that lack of pride is always going to be a problem. So I think you're pointing out something that's quite central to the whole debate, which is how do we change the perspective about the importance of the republic in how we think about a shared future.

I was at a conference on Monday in Melbourne talking about innovation and David Thodey was making the point that we actually are quite an innovative nation. We come up with great ideas, but we then don't share and collaborate with other people and we don't commercialise. What is it about our lack of confidence that says I've got this fantastic idea, oh but it's probably not very good, so I won't tell anybody about it. So some one from Israel or Silicon Valley takes my fantastic idea and they're the ones that commercialise it.  Today we have 50,000 Australians go and work in Silicon Valley and 15,000 in Israel. Hello, come home. We love you.

Steve Pell: It’s interesting that when I talk to people across the business community, the people who are consistently the most passionate about a republic are first generation immigrants who are naturalised Australian citizens.

Diane Smith-Gander: Well they've made an actual conscious choice to come here first off, and then they've made a conscious choice to naturalise. They've said okay, this is the place I'm choosing. I'm getting rid of that citizenship, I'm here boots and all.

And of course when they turn up they get a shock - OMG, it's a bit racist here? OMG, I'm not as welcome as I thought I was going to be? So I think they want to see the country progress and grow up, turn into an adult.

Steve Pell: Diane, when was this first an issue that started to irritate you? When do you recall first saying “that's not right”?

Diane Smith-Gander: Oh Gosh. My parents were very strong monarchists. My mother in particular was quite besotted with the Duke of Edinburgh. One of my earliest childhood memories I was just old enough to walk the two blocks from our house to the highway and we stood on the side of the road and mum had the bag and hat and the gloves and the car went by and she was clutching my hand and holding the pram. And then as the open car went by, she waved, and she yelled out 'God save the Duke'. I remember it. I don't remember what I thought as a child, but I really remember that moment, and I just don't get it at all, it just has no resonance with me. No resonance.

I go to Government House here in WA a lot, because I've known the last three governors and they do a lot of really good stuff. When I pass under the Queen's portrait I always feel like a bit of a hypocrite. So it's been in my consciousness for a very, very long time.

Steve Pell: Diane, what do you say to people who say “why fix something that isn't broken"?

Diane Smith-Gander: Well, the thing is that, I don't agree that it isn't broken. So you can't tell me that Australia's not broken when we don't have indigenous reconciliation and the gap closed. We don't have gender equity, we don't have all of these other things that we talked about. My notion is that an Australian head of state will help us progress all of these issues.  

Steve Pell: I know it’s connected, but what about the argument for “why now?”

If you talk to activists in some of these areas they would say, “why would we prioritise a republic when reconciliation is so much more pressing?”

Diane Smith-Gander: Okay, so why not now would be my push back on that, why not now?

I hear a lot of people go, oh, we need to wait until the Queen dies. What a load of old cobblers. I think it's incredibly disrespectful to someone who has sacrificed her entire life and her entire being on that altar of the monarchy, and I think that she should be part of separating us.

I think that's got much more courtesy, consideration and elegance than waiting until she dies and then our national rejecting her next generation. I don't like that at all. I think it's incredibly callous and impolite.

So I know that many other things are pressing and urgent, but I just keep going back to that framework argument that we just need to get ourselves consistent with our culture and how we want to move forward. So you always start with the end in mind. Because there will always be something else that's pressing and urgent. There'll always be something else.

Steve Pell: Diane, you were very closely involved in the marriage equality campaign.

Do you take any lessons from the marriage equality campaign to a republic?

Diane Smith-Gander: The first thing I learnt is that sometimes what you just think is so obvious isn't necessarily obvious to everybody else. And so your voice can be really important in framing other people’s thinking. I am trying to influence people, but it’s not a hard sell. I'm just putting my perspective out there, this is what I think. You make up your own mind.

The lesson for business community leaders is I was a bit surprised that I could have so much reach.  Obviously somehow what I was saying was relevant because it had reach and people repeated it and amplified it.

What I learned from that is that is you can be vulnerable and just straight and authentic about your messages. If you can be strong but not over prescriptive, you're likely to get more cut through. And I think that there are a lot of women and particularly younger women who are quite interested in how do I find my voice, what should I be doing? And I obviously speak well to that segment. So I learnt a bit about who my audience is and how to continue to talk to them.

And I also learnt that it's really easy to add those messages to things I was already talking about. You know when I started wearing the marriage equality pin, and taking pictures of me with the pin with people that were never go to wear the pin. Things like cuddling up to John Howard and saying I like my pin better than your Order of Australia pin. Some of that sort of humour of being able to just poke a bit of fun, and I think it'd be quite fun to do some of those sort of campaigns. You know where there's a republican pin and you put that on people and cosy your pin up to someone you know is a complete doubter.

Steve Pell: Diane, I'm going to send you a pack of pins. I expect to see them distributed prominently across Western Australia.

Diane Smith-Gander: I think pins are fun, it's a fun sort of thing. And what I learnt was that I could incorporate into other things, when I give acknowledgement to country, I would give my acknowledgment to country, I say I support reconciliation and oh while I'm here, I also support marriage equality.   Let’s include everyone in Australia.

If you could get people to add that sort of stuff, I acknowledge country, pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I also pay my respects to our British forebears and Queen Lizzy, but I do think it's time that we chart our own path forward for all Australians.

Steve Pell: I love that. That's great.

Diane Smith-Gander: There could be some sort of messaging, you give an acknowledgement to country.

Steve Pell: At a conceptual level I really like that idea

Diane Smith-Gander: You'll get the words right, but you could have four or five different variants of that message linking in that would speak to all sorts of people. Respect Queen Elizabeth on her way out, respect our multicultural people, provide leadership opportunities for all.

Steve Pell: Diane, we’re out of time. Where should we leave this conversation?

Diane Smith-Gander: Leadership. This is about equality of opportunity in leadership, leadership that's rooted and stands on this country. We know more than anybody how important country is because we have the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet and it's all about standing on our country and our leader needs to come from, and stand on, our beautiful country.

People are really starting to get country and feel the connection. There's something about being rooted in the country that, for us as an island so far away from everybody else, it’s time for us to stand on our own two feet.

This interview is part of a series featuring prominent Australians talking about a Republic. You can find more interviews and subscribe at www.republic.org.au/businessnetwork