2021 Shepherd Oration: Leadership, courage and accountability with Ms Josephine Sukkar AM

It is an honour to have been invited to deliver the 2021 Shepherd Oration, and I thank Senator Andrew Bragg for his vision in the creation of this annual address, and Tony Shepherd for his leadership, his friendship and for his example. The country is all the better for the ‘Tony Shepherds’ of the world, who have stepped into the arena, and in his own inimitable way, has inspired and lead in business and in the community for so many years.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

As we approach 2022, we are looking down the barrel of a shifting geopolitical landscape, with little real clarity as to Australia’s place in it over the next 30 years. 

Among Western nations, important national dialogue is being hijacked by anybody with a mobile phone or public platform. The 24/7 news cycle, hungry for content, has provided more opportunities for unscrupulous media and unelected citizens, (or “influencers”) to bend, or even shape national agendas of countries.

Unable to engage in civil public discourse the way we might have been able to in years gone by, many of the most important public conversations are being pushed behind closed doors, gently leaked then quickly retracted if the backlash is too great. 

If you were a businessperson or a politician who was sitting on that one ‘great idea’, that one transformational solution to some of the country’s most pressing problems, why would you risk the tide of public condemnation (or even ridicule), just to get an idea off the ground?

But now more than ever, as we look towards a reimagined, contemporary Australia, the country needs those big ideas. That entrepreneurial mindset. That ‘can do’ attitude and hard wiring of so many business owners and big thinkers, who put everything on the line to back an idea, a product, a way. With the grit, agility and courage to navigate yet another economic downturn, and come out the other side, as my husband would say, bruised but not maimed.

As we emerge from this part of the pandemic cycle, it is timely to look back at how we performed and what we learned, as we prepare our country for a post-Covid recovery.

Where are we now?

2020 began with the east coast of our nation on fire. Fires of an intensity we had never seen before, terrifying Australians and adding to the escalating number of climate-related disasters across the world.

By mid-March, Covid-19 brought a different type of attention. A pandemic that we were learning to manage on the run. National Cabinet got off to a great start, but it felt like it lasted one minute before it dropped back into each state for themselves, and the Premiers began calling the shots. 

Lengthy state-imposed border lockdowns were successful in minimising the mortality rates of citizens relative to other first world nations. But the length of time in lockdown for many Australians resulted in unintended consequences for many businesses and individuals. 

We lost control of the public discourse on Covid-19 and laypeople and the Twitterati (and even some medical professionals) weaponised the “science”. They ‘interpreted’ and shared their views on the evolving scientific findings, even taking positions on the efficacy of the vaccines brands, confusing many of the vulnerable in the community. So, when the vaccines eventually became widely available, vaccine hesitancy had increased, the uptake was slowed, medical professionals spent tens of thousands of hours providing counselling and dealing with misinformation, so the lockdowns dragged on and on… 

With our backs against the wall over the last 18 months, our true characters have shone through. Of our leaders. Of our communities. And of ourselves. 

We have a better understanding of what many of us ‘actually’ stand for. What many of us are prepared to do (as it turns out, most Aussies chose to be vaccinated). And what we are not prepared to do (pick fruit or milk cows apparently…). 

Our geography protected us to a great degree, especially the less densely populated states, but some vulnerabilities were laid bare. For a country of over 25 million people, Covid-19 amplified our lack of cohesion as a nation. Supply chain security was exposed, and our ‘true’ leaders stepped forward, the ones we had little visibility of before Covid-19 and rose to local and national prominence.

In a 15-minute address we won’t solve anything, but I would like to proffer a few questions and suggestions as to how we might point ourselves in the right direction, to ensure that Australia is optimally positioned for next 50 years. Who do we want to be, and how can we get there?

Federation (that old chestnut…)

Since January 1, 1901, Federation has served this nation well. But by the time 2020 arrived, we had become a nation that left desperate calls by some states to others for assistance from bushfires and pandemics, unheeded. We moved to our corners with a kind of ‘siege’ mentality and bunkered down in our states and territories. The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games brought welcome relief where we could just be ‘Team Australia’ for a moment, but we reverted pretty quickly.

Many of us asked, is Federation still working for Australia?

National Cabinet came out of the blocks well as we said goodbye to COAG, but within a few months we were back to our parochial best.

If we believe National Cabinet has merit, should we consider how we codify a way for the states and territories to engage, and not throw the baby out with the bath water? Otherwise, we might need to have a serious conversation about “One Australia”. Again. If we believe that Federation is no longer going to serve us well into the future, let’s not kick that conversation down the road. It will take years to reimagine a re-shaped Australia, so let’s start the conversation now, and this time ensure we are bringing our First Nations Peoples along the journey with us to create one vision, as one people, together.


Be accountable. Today, in many areas of business we are held to a higher standard of accountability than government, and I know I speak for business when I respectfully ask for this to stop.

If a business owner or the people in their workplace were to engage the same way politicians do with each other during question time, we would find ourselves before Fair Work Australia. Or worse still, imagine if teachers behaved this way in their workplace. The disrespectful engagement, bullying, shouting over other members as they speak needs to stop. Please.

You are there with the most important jobs in the country. To debate and build on solutions to the most pressing issues facing our nation today. Why do you engage this way? And why do you not hold yourselves to the same level of accountability that you hold us citizens to? To all the Speakers in the respective houses, and all the leaders of each House, taxpayers will thank you if you can deal with these behaviours, that they are no longer prepared to accept, and moreover pay for.

In business and in our personal lives, we are prepared to be accountable for our words, our actions and our decisions. But when the highest offices in the land are not held to the same level of accountability, you would forgive us for calling this out.

As Desmond Tutu would say, “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”, because as leaders your words matter, now more than ever. 

Businesses both big and small…

As well as engaging with big business, connect with small business (those with less than 20 employees). Small businesses are at the coalface of every economic downturn and upturn, and in the 2019-20 financial year contributed $422.1bn to the Australian economy.

The hardwiring of the successful small business owner is a mix of entrepreneurialism and conservatism, and those who have survived a number of cycles are worth tapping into. Experience has equipped many with that ‘sixth sense’ and they know when to pull back or to lean in. Government and big businesses would benefit from understanding how to proactively engage with these businesspeople. While they are usually flat stick keeping the doors open for the more than 4.5 million Australians workers they employ every day, taking the time to hear from the coalface will be well worth the effort.

Supply chain security

Supply chain security was put in the spotlight during the height of the pandemic last year.

As resource rich as we are, Covid-19 shone a spotlight on how critically dependent we are on other nations for many goods and services (even to add value to our own iron ore or pick our own fruit from our own trees!).

How can Government and business work together to secure critical supply chains for the nation? Including a good re-look at our national manufacturing capability, which I have some visibility. Our business Buildcorp owns a joinery shop, Euroline, and the high cost of labour and materials is only one hurdle Australian manufacturing faces.

Somewhere around 40-odd years ago, the Australian psyche began to value trades differently to a university education, and the country is now paying a high cost for having tipped that balance too far the wrong way.

To correct this, we became dependant on the immigration of skilled labour to bolster our workforces and have, with varying degrees of success, focussed on apprenticeship programs in an attempt to improve the pipeline of tradespeople. Until of course Covid arrived. 

The impact of international border closures coupled with the escalating cost of materials and shipping has been catastrophic for many businesses.

The economic recovery of Australia requires a healthy domestic manufacturing capability, and I look forward to the Federal government’s rapid rollout of Andrew Liveris’ $1.3bn Modern Manufacturing Initative, offering large (and smaller) grants for those in manufacturing working on one of the six identified national priority areas. 

Jobkeeper was an extraordinarily nimble and rapid response that saved so many Australian businesses. We now need a similarly agile response to the rollout of a national pandemic recovery strategy. And businesses large and small are ready to work alongside government to secure the critical supply chains the country needs.

Innovative thinking

I am married to a builder and having travelled the world with him for nearly 40 years, we have more holiday photos of tower cranes, construction sites and amazing buildings than most other women I know. That said, it is actually wonderful to walk through life watching it through your own and then somebody else’s lens.

Now the Empire State Building means different things to builders than it does to other people. 

The 102-storey building was built in 1 year and 45 days from March 1930 to April 1931. Even when you add the time it took to design and plan the building, it still only took 20 months. Think about that…

If one were to build a 102-storey building today it would probably take at least 2 years, and that would be before we include the design and planning.

Now the race to be the tallest building in New York City came at terrible social cost. At least 5 workers were killed during the course of the project. Thankfully today and in large part thanks to the union movement, safety is at the forefront of construction in this country.

But to builders, the Empire State Building reminds them that if they want to build something significant and better than they did it last time, they can. Continual learning and creative thinking is what that project meant to my husband. Different ways of doing things, better.

He is a student of Edward Deming, the father of Total Quality Management who guided Japan through their economic recovery post-World War 2. I would say has an innovative ‘mindset’. And in a way that does not necessarily requires a long lead time or significant financial investment. It is a way of doing things, a way of thinking, of continual improvement that we should all be leaning into on our journey to becoming an innovation nation.

Buildcorp has just delivered a large school for the Parramatta Catholic Archdiocese in 15 months (including COVID disruptions), that would typically have taken around 2 years to deliver. No new fancy equipment. And not a project of national significance like the Empire State Building. But nonetheless a project delivered by a team challenging themselves to think differently.

Every business, every individual can do this right now as we set ourselves, our workplaces and our communities up for growth and success. 

Let’s assist government to identify the gaps in the market they cannot see and help them understand the barriers to participation. What tax breaks would make a difference? What resources or equipment might propel an idea forward? What sectors does business need to lean into with government to secure our economic security?

Much like the point of tonight’s oration.  And again, thank you to Senator Bragg for your leadership and facilitation of these important discussions between business and government.

The Green & Gold runway to Brisbane and beyond

As we look towards 2032 and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Queensland, the country will see investment in social and sporting infrastructure across the board. 

The Olympians and Paralympians in Tokyo this year enjoyed extraordinary success, and those of us both inside and outside of sport were inspired by the way they assessed, addressed and overcame every obstacle in the lead up to their participation.

Their physical health and mental health were challenged, and still they identified and proactively addressed every real and perceived threat to them getting to Tokyo, and not only survived, but thrived. Creating moments of national pride for Australians.

Courage, accountability and leadership

Throughout the course of the pandemic, we have seen countless moments of courage and leadership, and I remain inspired by these leaders who looked headlong into a challenge and lifted another gear. Our front-liners, our athletes, our friends and families… all around us there is inspiration if we choose to see it.

As we look towards 2032 and beyond, there are so many critical decisions and initiatives that need to be imagined and delivered upon. 

Water security, the transition to renewal energy, the mental health of the nation. I feel like a discussion on nuclear energy is on the horizon, and don’t even get me started on waste management. So much work to do, and no time to wait for the ‘team of champions’ to become a ‘champion team’. Team Australia, the time is now.

So, let’s put down our weapons and come out of our corners. We are a small but resource rich country, and we are only strong if we move together.

While governments determine how they will invest in the economic recovery of Australia, let’s find those opportunities to think a bit differently and get moving, today.

To those Australians who engage on public platforms or in the media, know this - your words matter.  If you choose to share anything or offer advice, ensure it is constructive, honest and kind, contributing to the growth of our people and our nation. Now is not the time for any Australian to be lobbing grenades from the sideline, looking for ‘gotcha’ moments. There is no honour in that, as we have enough coming at us from plenty of other directions. We don’t need more. So if you can’t pipe down, then get off the sideline and get into the arena, where many of us have put everything on the line, and kept our families, our businesses and the economy moving. 

And I can commit to you this - while we may not have got every decision right, we will continue to turn up, step up and be accountable for everything we say and everything we do. 

Because courageous, accountable leadership is more important today than ever before. 

It is fitting that this oration bears the name of Mr Tony Shepherd AO, who has stepped forward and by his example led from the front, continuing to connect government, business and the community for the benefit of all Australians.

Thank you Tony, and all the other courageous, accountable Australians. It is because of people like you our country can and will enjoy a very bright future.

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