Topics: Personal background, Parliament House culture, energy mix, space sector, Facebook
Chris Smith: I was in Canberra during the week to interview Karen Andrews, the Federal Minister. And I notice from conversations with women in Parliament House that they are demanding a change in the culture there, and they expect it to happen from the investigations into two rapes that may have occurred in Parliament House. But the Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, is watching this very closely, because the Queensland LNP member has confronted her own challenges with sexual harassment in the job and she’ll tell us about that. She’s also a mechanical engineer, so you can imagine at power stations and in oil companies in Victoria, she knows the culture rather well. Karen Andrews has a fascinating back story, and I caught up with her during the week.
Chris Smith: What is a mechanical engineer doing in Federal Parliament House as a minister?
Karen Andrews: Well, that’s a very good place to start. Look, I’m here because I want to fix things, and I’ve wanted to fix things my entire life; I wanted to fix things at school, I wanted to fix things when I went through university, I wanted to fix things when I was working as an engineer and I want to fix things now. So, if there’s a common theme through my life, it’s: I want to fix things.
Chris Smith: Take us back to when you were eight and you were sitting there watching the washing machine turn and turn. Is that a true story?
Karen Andrews: Oh, yeah. Yeah, so I was eight years old and it was a top loader machine, and I was fascinated by the fact that the rotor turned the same distance clockwise and then exactly the same distance anti-clockwise, and I couldn’t figure out as an eight-year-old why it did that. And I used to just stand there and just watch it, trying to figure out how it did that, and it did the same thing time after time after time.
Chris Smith: So, you were great at maths, you were great at science, you liked to see the mechanics of things. But come towards the end of your schooling, they thought, well, you were probably best suited to be a teacher. That didn’t sit with you well, did it?
Karen Andrews: Look, I think that the issue then was when they told the two other boys, who were also doing maths and science along with me, and there were others, but there were three of us that were sort of probably, you know, similar. I thought, well, why are you telling them to do engineering and you’re telling me to do something else? I actually didn’t, at the time, think of it in gender terms – I have since. And it’s clear that it was a part of it. But at the time it just made me want to find out what engineering was all about, and the more I tried to find out about, the more I thought, you know, I think I’d actually really enjoy doing that.
Chris Smith: But viewers need to understand what you then went through to be top in your field. You worked at power stations, you worked in the oil industry in Victoria. You worked in not just manly businesses, you worked in businesses where women were often mocked, am I right?
Karen Andrews: Do you know what? I didn’t- I don’t think I experienced that at the time, I really don’t. I actually found that working as an engineer, you were really treated on the basis of, if you could do the job, that was fine. If you couldn’t do the job, that was a different issue and you should go and look for something else to do. But I actually found that the engineers that I worked with never really treated me as anyone but Karen when I worked with them. Now, it may well have been different for the other people around me, and maybe I was oblivious to that because I was really just focussed on doing the best that I could at the time.
Chris Smith: But all of a sudden when you realised that there were barriers to jump over in terms of industrial relations, you had to do something about learning how to handle that and you went off and did a graduate diploma in industrial relations.
Karen Andrews: So I was supervising fitters and electricians, and it was the first time I’d supervised people in my life. And my view was that if you had the skills, the confidence and training to do the job, you just should get on with it. That wasn’t a common view in the oil industry in the 80s; there were a lot of demarcations. And we’re never taught about industrial relations at university in engineering at all, so I’m not even sure that I knew what an award was when I was supervising people, so I had to learn very quickly. So I went back to the way I was used to doing things, which is: okay, I’ll go and enrol in a course so that I can learn about this, which was good. And I’ve always been of the view that you will be able to achieve more when people are willingly doing what they need to do.
Chris Smith: So why go anywhere near politics? Why ruin this great career with a political career, Karen?
Karen Andrews: Yep. So, well, I found- [laughter]. Yeah. Yeah. What can I say.
Chris Smith: Whose fault is it? Is it someone’s fault?
Karen Andrews: Do you know what? It was actually an engineer who got me into politics. So, he was a member of the Liberal Party in Victoria, and I was working in Victoria at the time. And at lunchtime he used to talk to us about politics. And I guess that’s probably what really got me interested in it or started the awareness. And then, of course, in industrial relations, there’s a lot of similarities. And I really enjoyed industrial relations. And I was fortunate to be there at the time where there was a lot happening in industrial relations, a lot of award changes were being made, and the sector that I was working in was very much at the cutting edge, so it was the metals area.
Chris Smith: Let me bring you, therefore, I think there’s a tie in between what we’ve just discussed and what’s going on in Federal Parliament at the moment, which is a great debate about the conditions that women face in Federal Parliament House, and in particular, a young girl who said that she was raped – and no doubt this will go on for years, sadly. You too have been the victim of that kind of attitude to women, haven’t you?
Karen Andrews: Look, what I’ve experienced, and it’s been in this building as well too, was harassment and very much gender related harassment, which I have been public about. That’s a very different situation to …
Chris Smith: … Someone gesturing, a male gesturing that he would be- he was getting ready for sex or something like that?
Karen Andrews: Oh, no, he was just going to take his pants down to show his underwear, I assume. But …
Chris Smith: … And you walked straight out?
Karen Andrews: Yes. I just said: we’re not going to continue this meeting. And I left. When I look back on it, I should have made him leave, but I didn’t, I just took myself out of that situation. That’s a very different set of circumstances to the circumstances that Brittany Higgins has found herself in. Neither are acceptable. In Brittany’s case, it’s an appalling set of circumstances that have led to what has happened, and it’s unacceptable.
Chris Smith: If she was working in your office and had come to you about this, how would you have handled it differently?
Karen Andrews: Look, to be honest, I’ve thought about that. And if anything, it’s probably made me think about what I could do. It’s a very difficult answer to come up with, simply because when you’re confronted by something like that, I guess, you know, first instincts would come to play. I really can’t answer it because I wasn’t there, I’ve never had to face that.
What I did do when this was all becoming an enormous issue in the media – and it was affecting me, it was affecting the people that I worked with. We actually sat down as a team in the office, and it was over an hour that we just sat there and we talked about it, and we talked about the culture here. And we actually talked about what we could do to maybe help other offices because, you know, this is a lonely place, and I think that’s one of the biggest issues; it’s the isolation. And it doesn’t matter what your job is in here, you are away from people that you love and you know who love you, and you are in an environment where it is high pressure, it is very long hours, it’s a difficult work environment.
So, when something happens like that and we become aware of it, it has a huge impact on us. We’ve got to look at how we can support ourselves in this office. But I think we’ve got an obligation to do what we can to help other offices, particularly where there are young people, younger people than us in that office. Now, I don’t have the answer to that, in terms of, you know, how you can provide that immediate support to someone. There’s certainly lots of things in place, lots of systems and procedures. But, you know, I think it’s got to come from the heart.
Chris Smith: Yeah. It might be- the consolation might be a wonderful turning point for this place, too. You’d hope so.
Karen Andrews: I hope it’s a significant wake up call for many people who work here to assess how they behave, to assess how they see others behaving and what actions they could take to help others.
Chris Smith: Let’s now learn about Karen Andrews and what she thinks about policy, climate change, and the demonisation of coal. Have we gone too far, too quickly?
Karen Andrews: Well, I worked at coal fired power stations and I don’t have any issues with that. I don’t try and walk away from …
Chris Smith: … You don’t have a brick of coal in the shelves here at all, Karen? Anything like that? No?
Karen Andrews: No I don’t, but I wouldn’t have a problem if there was to be honest, simply because coal is part of our energy mix now. And the reality is we’re not shutting down coal fired power stations tomorrow morning – so it is a part of our mix. Should we be looking at what the other options are? Absolutely. Should we be looking at how we’re going to transition? Absolutely. And that’s why I made that comment about a year ago now. You know, every second we spend talking about this is a second that we’re not actually doing something. So let’s just go, yep, this is where we are now, how are we going to take this forward?
Chris Smith: Okay, what about the space industry? This is your baby. You’ve created the space industry. You’ve got this monster out of control now. There are people launching rockets on the Gold Coast last month. It’s all out of control. Is there really 20,000 jobs in this by the year 2030?
Karen Andrews: I really do believe that there are, and they are going to be there. And look, those figures came from a consultant’s report estimating what the growth was likely to be of the sector. I think what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is the space agency’s gone through all of its establishment, it’s set up agreements with other space agencies and other nations – it’s done all that work. And we’re now at the stage where we’re seeing things starting to happen. We are seeing rockets being launched, we are actually seeing the first rocket launched with Australian made solid state fuel. I mean, it’s just …
Chris Smith: … And Australians are inherently smarter, aren’t they? I think so.
Karen Andrews: Look, we are more than capable. The issue is that we haven’t really tried in the past to piece manufacturing together. We’ve looked at it as, it’s the production process in the middle. We haven’t tried to link research and development, design, logistics, production, and then the sales, the after sales, those sorts of things which, you know look, it’s known as the smile curve – we haven’t been doing that at all well. And look, and people still do talk to me about, we need support to set up some sort of a processing plant. And I say, well, that’s nice. But what we actually need to not look at, what is the next step? What are we going to do after we’ve processed that raw material? What are we going to make out of it?
And I can remember back first when I started in industrial relations and there were discussions – and this is probably 30 years ago – there were discussions then about how we needed to value add to our resources sector. And here we are 30 years later saying we need to add value to the resources sector.
Now, I believe that through my position as the Industry Minister, I can actually push that, and see if we can get some change there. And that’s what I did with the manufacturing strategy. This is the value add – not just to our resources sector – but it’s the value add, not just what can we do as a finite part of a process? It’s how do we do the whole thing?
Chris Smith: The great advantage with you – I haven’t got in the way of what you’ve said – but you’ve spoken non-stop for three minutes about something you’re-
Karen Andrews: Sorry.
Chris Smith: No. It’s something you’re passionate about. But wouldn’t it be great if we had ministers who were almost the leader in their field? That’s hard to do I know, but that’s the, that’s the benefit you have – that you’d been given these portfolios from the two- the current and the previous prime minister, that suits you down to the ground.
Karen Andrews: You know, without a doubt. But look, I don’t think I’m the best. There are a lot of really great people out there. But what I think that I do well is that I really, I can admire and look up to lots of other people that know so much more than me, I can learn off them. But I can also see how these other businesses and people can actually come together and do the best that they possibly can, that we possibly can.
Chris Smith: Yeah. For mutual benefit, yeah.
Karen Andrews: Absolutely.
Chris Smith: I want to ask you two other questions. One question about Facebook. It reminds us of- What Facebook has done in the last few days, it reminds us of how far Facebook has come. Maybe it’s going back to what we used to use Facebook form Minister, which was just getting in contact with relatives in other parts of the world.
Karen Andrews: Yeah. Finding people, you used to go to school with and go, gosh they’ve aged. [Laughs]
Chris Smith: That was it. But now it’s become a monster and it’s gone back to its primitive beginnings. It’s not such a bad thing?
Karen Andrews: No, I actually-
Chris Smith: We’ll get our news elsewhere, won’t we?
Karen Andrews: Look, absolutely. Absolutely. So look, on one side you’ve got to say it wasn’t an especially smart move by Facebook because the implications for them are quite significant because people will look for where else they’re going to get information, and when they find that they’re likely to move away from Facebook unless there’s some changes made very quickly. So from a business point of view, I don’t know that it was the most strategic thing that Facebook should have done, because people are always looking for alternatives. They will always look for a way to get what they need and if Facebook’s not going to give it to them, they’ll go somewhere else real quick, and that’ll become a habit for them.
Chris Smith: And finally, do you ever have an aspirational- ever had an aspiration to run the country? You must’ve.
Karen Andrews: When I was 25 – I no longer have.
Chris Smith: You no longer have?
Karen Andrews: I don’t want to be prime minister.
Chris Smith: You don’t want to?
Karen Andrews: No.
Chris Smith: You don’t think you could do the job?
Karen Andrews: I think that what I am doing now is the best place for me.
Chris Smith: What happens if someone knocked on the door and said: we think you should run?
Karen Andrews: I’d go, really?
Chris Smith: I think you’re underplaying what you can offer to the country.
Karen Andrews: No. Do you know? You actually need to recognise where your strengths are and play to your strengths, and I think that my strengths are in the portfolio that I’m in now.
Chris Smith: Very self-deprecating. Karen Andrews, thank you very much for your time.
Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.