Thinking small is tireless Kate’s big calling 

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Kate Carnell. Photo: Holly Treadaway

FOR a woman who doesn’t like to talk about herself, the inaugural Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise ombudsman and former ACT chief minister, Kate Carnell, has accomplished a lot of things worth talking about.

So much so, that last year, the “Australian Financial Review” named her in the top 100 most influential women in Australia. 

And when looking at her career, it’s easy to see why.  

Brisbane-born pharmacist Kate moved to the ACT in 1977, with her then-husband Ian, where she bought her first pharmacy in Red Hill in 1981. She was 25. 

A few years later she started another in Gowrie, and around that time had two children – a boy and a girl. 

She ran her businesses for 15 years, got involved in the Pharmacy Guild and the local chamber of commerce and was then asked to join politics. 

“I wasn’t a member of a party, I wasn’t involved in politics [but] I was asked to stand for the ACT Legislative Assembly, initially by the Labor Party but then the Libs,” says the now 65-year-old, of Kingston Foreshore – an area she describes as one of her babies. 

The story behind her decision to join the Canberra Liberals was a “classic”. “I initially said ‘no’ because I had two young children and three pharmacies at that stage,” she says.

“Then I was convinced to stand.”

The Liberals had seen Kate give a talk at a rally about small business owners being thrown out of malls and replaced with chains. At the rally Kate told the businesses to “put up, or shut up”, saying if they weren’t willing to step up to take on the Westfields of the world, then there was nothing much they could do. 

The Liberals reminded Kate of this, saying: “Kate, if you want to make these changes in the ACT, put up or shut up – you’ve got to stand.”

“So I stood in 1992,” she says. 

“My youngest was in school so it seemed like a reasonable time so I stood and then I was leader of the party a year later and chief minister two years after that.”

During her time in politics, she supported some “out there” (at the time) things such as nearly getting a heroin trial going, looking into the decriminalisation of marijuana and she was involved in the early days of syringe exchange. 

“As a pharmacist, I knew that people with drug issues have health problems,” she says.

“They’re not crooks, they’re not criminals and so the importance of not making people with drug addictions or drug problems, generally into criminals, is fundamental.”

Life after politics for the passionate changemaker that Kate hopes to be, saw her head a variety of organisations and join multiple boards. 

“I think I’m good at change and the organisations that I was involved with were all things that I had a level of passion about,” she says. 

One of her earlier careers post politics, which people always find a bit different, she says, was her position as the executive director of the National Association of Forest Industries.

“It’s always a bit controversial but my grandfather was a forester so I grew up walking around national parks in Queensland,” says Kate, whose grandfather had a strong view on sustainable forestry. 

“Funnily, we all love wood and you do have to cut down trees if you want wooden floors and wooden tables and wooden chairs.

“It always frustrates me a bit, the view that we can’t possibly cut down trees and forests in Australia, but we can import a very large amount of wood from Indonesian rainforests.”

In 2008, Kate was appointed CEO of the Australian Fruit and Grocery Council. Food manufacturing, she says, is the biggest manufacturing sector in Australia and something that’s really badly understood. 

Then, between 2012 and 2014, she was CEO of beyondblue. Already a board member and a passionate mental health advocate, she was driven by her own personal experience with anorexia as a teenager. 

And, more recently, as the inaugural Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise ombudsman, Kate has been an advocate for affordable childcare for women. 

“Affording childcare is a really huge problem in the small business space, particularly for women who own businesses,” she says. 

“Thirty-eight per cent of small businesses are owned by women, nationally, and that figure is going up very quickly. It might even be higher than that in the ACT, but it wouldn’t be lower. 

“It’s a really counterproductive thing to have childcare that’s too expensive to allow these small business owners to really spend the time growing their business. 

“[Under] the current system, if you’re on an average wage, there’s absolutely no rational reason why women would work on Thursday or Friday because you end up working for $2 an hour on Thursday and nothing on Friday. 

“There’s no logic to work the hours you need to work to keep your kids in full time childcare if you’re in that wage bracket.

“We educate women really well. Fifty-eight per cent of university graduates last year or the year before were women. So, we’re spending a lot of money educating us, but then saying, here’s the story, if you want to have kids, we’re going to give you disincentives to stay in the workforce. 

“That’s not very bright.” 

Kate’s five-year term as ombudsman ends mid next year, and while she predicts that she’ll finish in the role so someone new can come in to keep the organisation vibrant, she says she won’t be retiring. 

“I’ll do something else. I’m not going to retire. But I’m really lucky because I do the Australian Made campaign, I do beyondblue, I’m on the Climate Change Authority, I help a number of small businesses as a mentor, so I won’t be light on stuff to do if I finish this role next year,” she says. 

She’s busy, and she plans to stay busy, with just a bit of downtime to go kayaking with her husband, Ray, and do some cooking. 

But don’t ask her about her favourite TV shows or movies – there’s no time for that!

As for what legacy she’ll leave in her current role, she hopes they’ve made sure that the federal government is much more aware of the issues surrounding small businesses, saying small businesses aren’t “little big businesses”.

“There’s no similarity between BHP and the small business over on the corner and we do some dumb stuff like our legislation is the same for BHP as it is for little businesses so I hope that what we’ve done is we’ve put the importance of the small-to-medium-business sector on the agenda,” she says.

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is the assistant editor of "CityNews".

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