UNSW Alumna Jennifer Westacott AO has an unrivalled understanding of how the public and private sectors intersect. Bringing a wealth of senior leadership experience and a crystalline approach to solving problems, she makes the complex simple and changes lives for the better along the way.
The most valuable thing I took away from my time at university was confidence. I was a kid who grew up on a housing commission estate; nobody in my family had attended university or even stepped foot on the campus of a university. It was very daunting at first, there were many doubts; “Do I belong here? Am I going to be good enough to do it?” So, the confidence I built was extremely valuable to me.
Studying at UNSW also gave me a broader perspective. As a kid with a pretty narrow upbringing, suddenly you are learning from famous academics, going to tutorials and talking about economics, history and politics. You are suddenly part of this intellectual life that you craved as a kid but couldn’t access. You start to develop a greater sense of the world out there and a global perspective.
It opened up my sense of “what might I do in life?” and that evolved as I continued my course. Studying at UNSW opened up a whole set of possibilities that I had just never imagined before. I also started mixing with different kinds of people and became very good friends with a couple of mature age students – people who had actually lived in the world, people who had done meaningful things.
What gives me purpose every day is the sense that you’re making a difference. Even in just the last 18 months, the Business Council has done a number of things that have actually helped get the country back on track. We pushed very hard for a very careful reopening because we could see that not doing that would be a catastrophe, economically.
We’ve taken on some big policy issues with work like our Living on Borrowed Time discussion paper, which focuses on the shifts we will need to make in the next 30 years to achieve economic growth. Or our climate change work calling for more ambitious targets to achieve net zero with the release of our Achieving a Net Zero Economy paper.
I've spent all my life fighting for the rights of people who are disadvantaged, whether that was in my public service career or in my current role at the BCA. I think being able to show that if you can get the private sector economy going, if you can have inclusive and well-run businesses, that's the ticket that lifts everyone out of poverty. That's the ticket that gives people aspiration. That's why I am so enthusiastic about my job.
In my other role chairing the Western Parkland City Authority (previously known as the Western City & Aerotropolis Authority) in Western Sydney, I have the opportunity to plan a 22nd century city from scratch. I have the chance to right all the wrongs of city planning, to bring all the universities together in one place, and a chance to completely transform the education model. Who wouldn't think it was fun to come to work every day?
There have been a few highlights – both big and small.
I started my career in the Cabinet office in the New South Wales Premier’s Department. I was the executive officer to Gerry Gleeson, who was appointed by NSW Premier Neville Wran to head the Premier’s Department. As a 25-year-old, I had daily masterclasses on how you run the public sector. I was suddenly handing over Cabinet minutes and writing Cabinet submissions. Everything I’d worked for at university suddenly became incredibly important.
When I moved to the NSW Housing Department, I was part of the massive culture change shifting the whole agency to make it customer focused; we set up a tenant participation program and community housing. Those were huge changes.
I’m also equally proud of the smaller achievements which often make big differences to people’s lives. Like organising fencing around a housing estate in Waterloo. The children who lived there couldn’t play outside because it wasn't fenced off from the street. Parents quite rightly didn't want their kids playing near such dangerous traffic. I couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of putting fences around the building so we did it and created a private, safe space for the people who lived there.
To this day, whenever I drive past there and I see people having picnics and playing with their kids, I think, “Yeah, I did that. I put that fence up.” Was I writing a paper for the UN? No, but did it make a massive difference to those people's lives? Absolutely.
It's always about what you do for people, it's never about the title. I always say to young people, if you want a title on an org chart, want it because you want to do something. I wanted to be the head of the housing department because I wanted to change the culture from when I grew up in public housing. A culture where people were afraid of their rent guy, and you were embarrassed to say where you lived. I wanted to run that department to turn that around.
I think one of the things I do really well is to make the complex simple. I love conceptualising things and I enjoy making sure that people are really clear about the exact problem we're trying to fix.
Through the work of the BCA’s Strong Australia program, I have made it my priority to get out of our capital cities and talk to business owners and communities in our regions. I love talking to people who live in Wodonga or Townsville or Gosford and hearing their innovative and creative ideas, then working with them to solve problems. I am inspired by how much they care about their community. I love talking to farmers, because they love their land, they care about it, they can remember the tree that they sat under as a kid. I love solving problems for them.
And the beauty of where I've been, with age and experience, is that I can say, “Yeah, I absolutely know who to call and get that sorted for you.”
Firstly, you've got to have purpose. If I thought I was coming to work every day and I wasn't making a difference or being impactful, I wouldn't do it. Secondly, you need to have great people around you. Not people who are just like you, but people with complementary skill sets.
I also think being healthy and having outside interests is incredibly important. I love reading, playing golf and swimming. I think it’s helpful to prioritise taking a break or a holiday to re-energise and gain perspective.
And finally, you have always got to be willing to try new things; this also energises you. I've reinvented the BCA twice since I took the role, maybe three or four times at a sub-level. I think if we were the same organisation that we were 11 years ago, we'd be failing our organisation.
I’ve had a pretty diverse career so I couldn’t choose one. But some highlights would include negotiating the end of land clearing with farmers and environmental groups in NSW. This was at a time when it was very contentious, so there was significant media attention around it, but those tough decisions are the reason we can meet the Kyoto Protocol.
During my time as Victorian Director of Housing it took courage, working alongside the terrific Victorian Minister Bronwyn Pike, to completely renew a housing estate in the Melbourne suburb of Kensington and redevelop it with a private development company to make drastic improvements. People's lives have become much better for that, which makes me incredibly proud.
Producing major pieces of work like the Plan for Adelaide which I wrote when I was at KPMG was a huge special economic plan and the plan they still use today. And finally, at the BCA, we’ve produced some of the major pieces of advocacy work I mentioned earlier; work that motivates and mobilises people.
Advice for current students
Firstly, I would recommend this to all students, regardless of your chosen program, sign up to study something outside your direct area of study that interests you, even if there is no obvious career benefit. By delving into subjects like Marxism and political literature, I read some of the greatest books ever written – it was so enriching. I think if you don't leave university with a sense of being enriched, you have wasted your time there.
I remember when I was at university, my grandmother would come to visit. I'd say, “Donald Horne is giving a lecture, come over Granny and we'll go together” and then we'd go and have dinner at the little cafe down the road afterwards.
Use it as a place where you start to create the two big anchors you need in your life – a network of people that you rely upon, and a set of values that you go back to when things go wrong (and things always go wrong for everybody at some point).
Ultimately, you need to view attending university as a building block for your life, rather than seeing it as something more transactional.
Jennifer Westacott AO is Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia and is an Adjunct Professor at the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW.
Degree and year of graduation: Bachelor of Arts (Honours),1982. Jennifer was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters in 2017 and appointed to the UNSW Committee in 2020.
Photo credit: Rob Tuckwell