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Growing a nation-building industry

Fourteen days into her tenure as CEO of the ARA, Rail Express sat down with Caroline Wilkie for an exclusive interview – her first major interview since taking over from incoming chairman, Danny Broad.

In her opening address to the Australasian Railway Association’s (ARA) Light Rail 2020 conference, the new CEO of the ARA, Caroline Wilkie highlighted that the next 10 to 15 years would see the opening up of major opportunities across the rail sector.

In almost each major city in Australia, a new rail project will begin operating in this period. In Canberra, stage 2A of the light rail project is scheduled to open as early as 2023. In Melbourne, the Melbourne Metro tunnel is looking at completion in 2025. In Perth, the Metronet project’s components will start to come online from 2021. In Queensland, Cross River Rail is due to be completed in 2024, while on the Gold Coast, stage 3A of the Light Rail project could be up and running by 2023. Finally, in Sydney the next stage of the Sydney Metro is scheduled for opening in 2024.

While there will be many opportunities for ribbon cutting at each of these projects’ opening days, it will be ensuring that the continued benefit of each rail project extends from the construction into the operational phase that animates Wilkie as she makes her mark on the industry.

“Now is a good time to talk about what role rail will have into the future.”

Wilkie, who was for nine years the CEO of the Australian Airports Association (AAA), highlighted that she would be taking a collaborative approach to communicating these benefits and looking for future opportunities.

“If I’ve got to a media release or I’m banging on the door of a minister’s office, I certainly feel like I’ve not done the right thing,” said Wilkie.

To successfully advocate for an industry sector as the head of its representative association, Wilkie nominates three essential ingredients. Number one being research.

“Define the issue. A clear policy proposal backed by research should be the basis of your advocacy. If you can’t present the facts in a coherent narrative you’re not going to get very far.”

The next step, highlighted Wilkie, was having a cohesive voice as an industry.

“The second thing is then having all the partners and stakeholders on board. There’s no point us advocating for an outcome on behalf of a third party if that third party isn’t saying the same thing,” said Wilkie.

This also extends to ensuring that the government department that she is working with is onboard to convince the key decision-maker.

“If you can’t get the department on your side – both at a state and federal level – they’re not going to write a favourable brief up to the minister,” said Wilkie, who has been closely involved with federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s office during her time at the AAA.

“The minister is going to have a million and one things on his plate and if I’m coming in and saying one thing and the department is saying something opposite, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

The final element is understanding but not playing the politics, said Wilkie.

“Playing a straight bat is really important. I know that there’s government and there’s opposition, but at the AAA I always made sure that we briefed both, to make sure that everyone is aware of our views. That has been the ARA’s history as well, and I intend to maintain that bi-partisan approach.

“I will never attack the government in the media, it’s making sure that those in the departments that we talk to, state or federal level, and the ministers, state or federal, know that we’re positive partners and that we really want to engage with them in a constructive fashion.”

EXPERIENCE IN MAKING THINGS HAPPEN
In her nine years at the AAA, Wilkie oversaw a number of initiatives, but in 2019 her efforts paid off in the form of an unprecedented $100 million fund for regional airports. The products of two years of lobbying, the funding vindicated Wilkie’s collaborative approach to advocacy.

“When we started the campaign, we knew it would take two years and we were right it took two years. We knew we were not going to get this budget cycle, but we could catch the next one if we do the right meetings, get the right messages out there, and generate the right noise and buzz.”

The effort was in the context of infrastructure being devolved to local councils, who were unable to pay for the upkeep of expensive and underutilised assets. Wilkie recalled that essential to the campaign’s ultimate success was the range of voices engaged in the campaign.

“One of the greatest things we did was actually getting our members to be advocates for us, talking to their local member about why it was important and getting that local member to talk to the Deputy Prime Minister.”

The program’s ultimate success drew on these insights while also being realistic about what could be achieved within that timeframe.

“Too often you see some people saying, ‘We want this and that.’ But to be successful, you need to understand to the perspective of the Government of the day and the circumstances in which it is operating. You need to be collegiate in understanding the department’s mandate and its context, ” said Wilkie. “For example, there’s no point going to the Commonwealth this year and asking for additional expenditure, because we’re in a difficult period with the bushfires and coronavirus, so we’re planning conversations for next year.”

However, Wilkie’s experience at the AAA also highlighted that just as much as getting government to fund something or take an action, effective industry leadership can be just as much about ensuring a change does not happen.

In 2012, a proposal was put forward for airports to cover the cost of the presence of Australian Federal Police (AFP) at the facilities.

“It was a classic case of lobbying against a bad policy,” said Wilkie. “Sometimes the greatest achievement is making something not happen.”

Framing the issue as one of national security, and therefore the responsibility of the federal government, and getting other stakeholders on board, was to ensure this extra cost was not imposed on airports.

“I think the greatest traction we got in that campaign was arguing that if you want to charge us for that, we want KPIs, we want to have a say over the resourcing,” said Wilkie. “If we’re paying for it, then we want a say and you can well imagine the AFP saying ‘Absolutely not, this is a national security issue.’ This, of course, was our whole argument in the first place. We were able to get a lot of people in the community on board for this particular campaign.”

In other areas, Wilkie has found the value of research in effecting change. In late 2019, the Productivity Commission finalised a report into the airport sector, which found that the current regulation of the sector was fit-for-purpose.

“We were engaging with the Productivity Commission on the facts because we took the view that as they are the greatest economic minds in the country, they will consider the case on its economic merits. That was probably the best example in my time at the AAA of fact-based research and making sure that you got all your members to really be focused on that fact-based research.”

Wilkie sees reports such as the Value of Rail report, prepared for the ARA by Deloitte Access Economics as forming this evidence base for government decision-making, and is something that Wilkie will be looking to update further.

CONTRIBUTING TO THE GREATER GOOD
With these experiences under her belt, Wilkie is aware of the differences between the airport and rail sector, one that she describes as “issues rich”.

“After my first 14 days it’s pretty clear to me that there are distinct groups in the membership, and they each have their distinct issues. I think we can clearly advocate for each of the sectors’ needs without conflicting with someone else.”

Rather than seeing these different sectors as competing Wilkie highlighted that in coming together, the sectors can improve outcomes for the industry as a whole.

“With any membership organisation you go on the principle of ‘do no harm’, as in with any policy I don’t want to advance one member at the expense of another member. More broadly you want to do what’s best for the industry as a whole.”

Apart from her experience heading the AAA, Wilkie has a deep knowledge of the role of industry associations and peak organisations from prior roles at the Tourism and Transport Forum and the Financial Planning Association.

“I love working in industry associations. I enjoy the variety of the role as CEO and I love the advocating for the greater good,” she said.

“For all the work that I did at the AAA the thing that brought me the greatest joy was doing anything that helped people in regional communities, hence why I always say that getting that funding for regional communities is our proudest professional moment. It was a gut-wrenching decision to decide to leave but I had always looked very warmly on the ARA, I knew Danny Broad previously. I am excited about rail and I like the fact that it’s a nation-building industry. It still has that connection with the regions, and it’s obviously got a really exciting trajectory.”

Less than a month into the job, Wilkie is already looking at where rail can have a greater presence in the national conversation.

“We’re looking at doing refresh on some of our statistics; what is the value of rail and why is it important, particularly after the summer bushfires the issues of climate change and emissions are very much front and centre in the policy debate.”

As Europe increases its spending on rail to reduce the carbon footprint of mobility, Wilkie sees the ARA as having a role to play in setting the agenda for a decarbonised economy.

“That’s an area where rail has an amazing story to tell about what it can do, not only in metro areas in terms of increasing use of passenger transport, but even in regional areas, and particularly in terms of freight.”

In other areas, Wilkie is hoping to continue the work already being done by the ARA.

“The other area that’s a big focus for the ARA and which I will take the mantle up on, is about workforce development and skills development. I think that promoting rail employment as something that’s not old fashioned, but modern and dynamic is important. The many environmental benefits of our industry lends itself to being promoted as a green alternative to enriching life. That modern perception will actually greatly impact making it an employer of choice and making younger people decide to work in rail.”

In these areas, Wilkie has been doing her own, firsthand research.

“I grew up in the Hills district in Sydney and now we have the North West Metro. Over Christmas I took my son on it, just to go and ride it, because it was extraordinary. Having grown up in Castle Hill, the best you could hope for was an occasional bus down to Parramatta. So for kids, the new Metro has opened up travel, and allowed people to engage with the city. With developments like that you’re seeing people have a legitimate choice and that’s the difference.”

NEXT STEPS
Wilkie, who describes herself as “conservative” in her approach to association budgeting, stresses that the current ARA team and structure is key to the ongoing success of the association.

“Listening is going to be key in this period and then we’ll go to the ARA Board with a rough plan of how we can service the needs of the distinct groups within the rail industry. Then can we ask for each of these issues what do we need to do? Do we start from basics, is it a research project, do we need to do a submission to government?”

More broadly, Wilkie notes that the role of the industry association is to find areas that can benefit the sector as a whole.

“I think for a body like the ARA, it’s not necessarily about advocating for build more, I see a role for us in trying to move the industry to do better and more with what we have. So, what are the vagaries of the national system that aren’t working for us as an industry, and where can we see productivity improvements? It’s not particularly sexy. I don’t know that anyone can cut a ribbon around it, but when you look at the productivity for the sector, that’s where we as the ARA can actually add the greatest value.

“That really comes back to what the role of the association is about, bringing together the voices of the sector, and putting their issues front and centre with the decision makers.

“As a collective voice, we can achieve things for industry.”

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