Having been in Australia for just two weeks, coming from an island with a questionable political environment (Dominican Republic), it was refreshing to meet ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr. He caught my attention during his speech at the 2016 Students Welcome event, with the words: “A city that doesn’t open cannot grow”.
He was one of the last to leave the venue, taking countless pictures and listening to the endless number of people who wanted to speak with him. His behaviour left me curious about his leadership style, so I asked him for a personal interview for one of my classes, and he agreed. Two months later I was in his office, as he honoured his commitment to a non-voter. His London Circuit office, full of young attentive public officials, was a relaxing first step to calm my first-time-interviewer anxiety.
I began by asking how he renewed his passion when leadership became tiresome. He said it was good to go to different places to get a different perspective, and that there were cities with similar issues to those facing Canberra. “It can be useful to be in a different location, it gives you a sense of perspective and helps you to appreciate how good your home city is.”
Barr told me that it can be very challenging to manage people who do not agree with him, but that he accepts that there are some people he will never convince. In others, he said, he will invest his time and effort in an attempt to persuade them, then indicating that it can take “a lot of patience and a sense of humour.”
Dealing with criticism is part of what you signed up in politics, and Andrew said it is important to distinguish political party motivated criticism from genuine criticism. “I’ve come to accept that there are some people for whom I can point out the window and say, ‘Oh it is a nice sunny day’, and because I have said it, they will disagree. Others might disagree with me on one particular issue, but not necessarily have a starting point of opposing everything that I would do…. It is also important to remember that even in a very good election, half the people are not going to vote for you.”
Talking to Andrew I came to realise that one of the biggest challenges he faces is to stay connected with the needs of the people who have trusted him. The time of year, no doubt, influences how much time he has to devote to people. Preparing for the ACT budget and the election, for example, produce a heavy workload. Despite this, however, contends that “it is always important to strive for that balance with time spent out in the community.”
In addition to this, Andrew says, “I have a group of friends and family, and I guess I’d describe them as a group of independent stakeholders who can assist in providing that sort of grounding advice.” Then there are his staff, about which Andrew states, “There’s no point employing advisers you don’t listen to.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered he said that since coming into office, things had already changed, before adding, “But I hope that the time to remember legacies is a little way away.” No matter how far off, Andrew likes to think he will make a difference, and that Canberra will be more nationally and internationally engaged. He hopes that Canberra will have a larger and more diverse population, with a larger economy that supports more jobs and ensures more inclusion and equality.
Commenting on his leadership style he says, “You need to be able to work effectively with a variety of different people. That does require changes in approaches or endeavours, to understand how other politicians and public servants might view a particular problem.” He added, however, that sometimes he disagrees that there is a problem at all as there are some people who need to keep busy and are always looking for solutions to a ‘problem’. Andrew indicated then while people may be in a panic saying, ‘We need to do something about this’, he might respond, “Do we?” “You certainly do need to learn how to sort through and prioritise what really is important. Because you will never have all of the resources you need to solve all the problems people will present.”
Andrew says the most respected leaders are the people who can listen, and who then have the capacity to translate what they hear into something practical. Without this skill, one is just reflecting what they hear and not adding any value to it.
In the 18 months since becoming ACT Chief Minister Andrew says he has learned there are plenty of people who will tell him things can’t happen, or won’t happen, or who will find a hundred reasons why he can’t do something. It is important, therefore, not to rush into things without thinking about the implications and consequences. Also, he says, it is always important to maintain an optimistic and goal-oriented outlook, because it is very easy to get bogged down by these one hundred reasons and find that “nothing will ever be done, and you look will back on it and think, ‘What did I actually achieve in that leadership role’.”
Andrew also reiterated the importance of finding time to rest. He said, “I know it is an old cliché but I think is certainly true. I find my days are very long, but that the weeks, months and years go by very quickly. That is the other challenge of leadership: how quickly things happen, and how if you don’t manage your time and you don’t focus… things will happen and before you know it a whole lot of time [will have] passed.”
At times Andrew has to remind himself to be more patient, not to waste opportunities, and to fully understand the implications of all his decisions. From the vantage point of being 43, these are wisdoms that have come with time and experience. “There are a lot of mistakes that you make along the way”, he told me. Some, he stressed, are necessary and you can learn from. Others, however, will make “you look back and shake your head and say, ‘What were you thinking? How could you possibly have thought of that?’ But there we go, that is also part of life.”
When I left Andrew’s office my past curiosity was replaced with admiration and wonder. I had asked everything I wanted to ask, and even took photos with a photo of Mr Paul Keating, his favourite and most admired political figure, in the background.
Edited by Graham Downie