Unsettling complacencies: EPA Chair Kate Auty wants public servants to resist retreating into their comfort zone

By David Donaldson

Thursday July 23, 2020

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It’s not enough to keep having “the same old conversations”, argues new Victorian EPA Chair Kate Auty. For her, that has meant talking to sports fans about climate change, convincing local communities about Aboriginal sentencing courts, and boosting the readership of environmental reports.

Kate Auty’s career has been incredibly varied.

Kate Auty
Kate Auty

She started out as a lawyer, worked on the deaths in custody investigation in Western Australia in the early 1990s, has been a magistrate in both Victoria and WA, led the introduction of Aboriginal sentencing courts in Shepparton and Kalgoorlie, has been environmental sustainability commissioner in both Victoria and the ACT, and recently took over as chair of Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority from Cheryl Batagol.

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“I’ve got a background in innovating in what might be described as fairly resistant environments,” says Auty, who will speak at The Mandarin‘s masterclass on visibility and influence for women in the public sector on Thursday.

She’s overseeing the EPA at a transformative time for the regulator, as it gears up to implement new, stronger legislation from July 2021. The keystone change under the new law is the ‘general environmental duty’, which creates an obligation on Victorians to actively minimise and prevent risks to the environment and human health.

Auty regards her leadership style as collaborative, she tells The Mandarin.

“What I do is find the experts who can assist me in what I need to do,” she explains.

“When you are collaborative people respond with extraordinary generosity. Coming into an environmental setting it’s been interesting for me to see how generous the science community has always been bringing me along in circumstances when I’ve needed to be very well briefed.”

As a lawyer, she finds some key common challenges with the scientists at the EPA.

“From a lawyer’s perspective, we’ve been thinking for the past 30 years or so about how we communicate what the law is about in plain English,” she says.

“We’re not always very good at it, but I’ve witnessed the science community doing the same thing.”

Environmental reporting through dance

Better engagement with the community is one of the achievements Auty lists from her time as environmental sustainability commissioner in the ACT, a job she left earlier this year.

“We had for a long time been producing, as we always do, very deep and dense reports full of jargon and acronyms, and full of good data — but they’re not often read by anyone who doesn’t have to read them,” she says.

So her team undertook training in GIS mapping to find new ways of presenting the information. The result was a series of story maps that present the summaries of reports in more visual and engaging ways.

“So we went from having maybe 50 people read reports to 2000 people reading reports,” says Auty.

For one of the story maps, the office used video by performance troupe the Australian Dance Party to make a visual link to the topic of plastic bag waste.

A screenshot of the dance video from the Unfantastic Plastic story map
A screenshot of the dance video from the Unfantastic Plastic story map.

She managed to get those story maps onto the ANU undergraduate curriculum, which students have told her were much more engaging than some of the traditional reporting methods, which “really caused them to glaze over”.

“We can’t continue to complain that people don’t know what we’re doing if we haven’t met them halfway and said, let’s try and find a way to explain it and explore it in a fashion that invites you in and entertains, as well as informs,” she thinks.

“We need to get a good balance with that so it’s scientifically robust, but we also need to think about how to engage the general public who are often disengaged on these issues, but who are extraordinarily impacted by the way the environment unfolds.”

But this equally applies in other fields. Auty reflects on her work at the start of her career “writing very long, dense reports” for Pat Dodson as part of the WA deaths in custody investigation:

“While those reports are terrific, we wouldn’t write them anything like that now. They would be much more engaging for Aboriginal and other people, and tell that story in a much more evocative, pointed, and probably painful way.”

Bringing new perspectives

During her time in the ACT, Auty also sought to communicate with groups who don’t tend to be targeted by environmental sustainability messages.

“The ACT is a very sporting community,” she explains.

“You can spend a lot of time speaking about climate change to people who are interested in climate change, and a lot of time speaking about sport to people who are interested in sport, but until you marry the two, you really aren’t telling the story of what we’re going to be dealing with in the next five, 10, 15 years. When we did that, we found that as an environmental reporter we were talking to sporting peak bodies and groups who we would otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to.”

She called those presentations ‘heat, humanity and the hockey stick’, she laughs — an allusion to the famous climate science graph.

That kind of creativity becomes more likely when an organisation incorporates a broader range of perspectives.

“One of the things that happens when you have a board with diversity, or when you bring Aboriginal people or women onto boards, you find we’re not having the same old conversations,” she argues.

“I’m delighted to be chairing the EPA’s board because it is a diverse board, and whenever I’ve been involved in boards that are diverse I’ve found they make a contribution that seriously unsettles our complacencies and our general understandings of where we’ve come from, and really puts us on a good footing to advance in times of change and transformation.”

Knowing the value of diversity, Auty also promotes the use of quotas, as they push recruiters to find “the talent that is out there” that might otherwise be overlooked.

“If we’re telling the headhunters or executive search people that we want 50-50, then they are forced to go out and find people who are not the usual suspects. If we don’t have a quota, then we retreat to what we know. I do it, you do it, we all do it.”

Aboriginal courts

Auty saw the importance of diverse perspectives first hand in the Aboriginal sentencing courts in Shepparton and then Kalgoorlie.

“In Kalgoorlie I can remember sitting in court with an elder who knew more about the young man who came into the court than the youth worker, the legal representative, anyone else.

“His mother also wasn’t at court so it was difficult to extract information from the family. It was only through the elder’s knowledge that we discovered some deeply troubling matters about what had happened to that kid as a result of a sexual assault perpetrated on him by a white person years before, and were then able to think about what that might mean for the purposes of imposing a penalty or not.”

But to get to that point involved a lot of engagement.

“The work we did in setting up the Koori court in Shepparton in 2000-2004 is now the template for the Koori courts all over Victoria. So we got something right obviously, in terms of how we engaged people,” she explains.

Auty spent a lot of time visiting local organisations to speak to people about the idea.

“We did it after hours, so we obviously looked like we were concerned to do the right thing, and essentially those people came along to the court and embraced it,” she explains.

“It’s no secret that when we started doing those courts there was resistance.

“One of the local National Party MPs said to me later that she had begun thinking that it was a sop, and when she came and sat in the court — she sat in for two whole days, two distinctly different days spread over a month — she found it deeply moving. In fact she spent some time sitting in the back of the court crying at some of the stories people were telling the court, and some of the responses from the elders.”

And it wasn’t always easy to convince Aboriginal people, either.

“We had Aboriginal people who said to me, ‘I don’t want to be involved because I don’t want to find myself aligned with the courts and police’.

“When they came on board they found that they had a voice in the court proceedings, they found it valuable, and they could speak with honesty and integrity to their community about matters that really concern them, like the safety of their own people. As much as many non-Indigenous people take the view that it’s about the safety of the non-Indigenous community, Aboriginal people have a distinct view about their own community as well.”

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