Featured Profile: Helen Coonan
Facing the next challenge
Former Liberal politician Helen Coonan has held many influential positions in her working life. She spoke to Kanika Sood about what's next in her latest role as chair of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.

If for some reason Helen Coonan was to type out a resume and list the many roles she has held over the years and their responsibilities, it is likely the document could easily form a book.

Coonan founded her own law firm at 25-years-old; she was the first woman in Australia to hold the office of Assistant Treasurer; and later, as Communications Minister, she was alongside Prime Minister John Howard as he announced the sale of then government-owned Telstra.

It took a turn of the Parliament for me to find my feet and show what I could do.
After she left Canberra, Coonan built a portfolio of board directorships at many large companies. And now she chairs the board of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).

The one-stop complaints shop for financial services opened its doors on November 1, and consolidates the functions of the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal (SCT), the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and the Credit and Investments Ombudsman (CIO).

But for all the influential jobs she has filled, Coonan describes herself as a girl from the bush.

The experienced politician and chairwoman, now 71, grew up on a farm in Wagga Wagga as the youngest of three sisters. Her family were cattle graziers and farmers, raising sheep and growing wheat and oats. Her father, the youngest in a family of 17 children, ran the business with his brothers. Her mother once worked as a teacher but helped run the farm when Helen was born, cooking for the shearers, et cetera.

Coonan says her first taste of freedom came early, learning to ride a horse when she was three or four-years-old.

"I felt very free and unconstrained because being a good rider, I could ride my horse anywhere, visit people and be very sociable," she says.

One of the places she rode her horse was to a one-teacher school that took in children of all different ages and classes. After the school day ended the teacher also lodged with Coonan's family.

"He convinced us that we could do anything; entered us into every competition, every sportsy thing, every writing competition," Coonan says.

"[He did] whatever he could do to encourage us to participate. I think a lot of his attitude made me feel very confident as a child."

The good school years were followed by a stint at a boarding school that Coonan hated until her parents gave in to her request to finish her HSC or school-leaving certificate as a day pupil.

Her HSC results also brought her first brush with the media. Later, she would go on to appear regularly on Sky News for about five years after leaving Federal Parliament.

"The first time I knew about my [HSC] results was when I got a call from a reporter at The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga. I didn't know because the results hadn't come out and he said, you got this fabulous pass and what do you want to do?" she recalls.

"That's when I started thinking I really could do something like go to university."

By this time her elder sister had already left the family home to study pharmacy, probably the first person in the district to go for a bachelor's degree. For her part, she was more interested in arts and law and arrived at University of Sydney with a Commonwealth Scholarship.

"I loved the intellectual stretch of reading and the interesting things at university but I was also a party girl," she says.

While at university, she met her first husband with whom she has a son. Her husband passed away but Coonan says she always gives him credit for giving her the freedom to fly.

Armed with a graduate degree, Coonan secured her first law job at the office of the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor. She soon moved to a business firm, working on restructures, insurance and company litigation but the women's liberation movement was also knocking on the door.

"As far as I know I was the only woman around for people to speak to. So I started getting all of these horribly sad cases of domestic violence and distress with marriage breakdowns and children in distress," Coonan says.

"I would be looking after these people and then staying through the night to do the work I should have done through the day.

"After a few months of this, the senior partner said 'well, you are on track to be a partner but these people have to go, they don't fit the profile of the firm.'"

Split between the prospect of making partner and helping people, the 25-year-old lawyer decided to start her own firm, specialising in family law. She later took another partner with her and the firm did well.

They finally sold it to a larger firm when she was about 32. As part of the sale, Coonan was able to work on a secondement in New York for a year.

She came back from New York and was admitted to the bar and became a successful barrister working on complex commercial litigation.

In 1996, aged 49, Coonan was elected as a Senator and it kick-started a political career that ran for about a decade-and-a-half. Her big ticket came when John Howard moved her from the backbench straight to Assistant Treasurer.

"It took a turn of the Parliament for me to find my feet and show what I could do," she says.

As the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, she executed the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) reforms after the HIH Insurance Royal Commission. At the ATO, she introduced an inspector general of taxation.

In 2004, she was appointed the Communications Minister where she was responsible for passing the legislation for Telstra's final tranche sale, and introduced media reforms for multi-channeling. She had a full ministerial book up until 2007, including being the deputy leader in the Senate, before Labor won Government.

Coonan stayed in Parliament for four more years, taking on shadow ministerial roles including human services, foreign affairs, finance, competition policy and deregulation.

Coonan now runs a private consultancy where she provides strategic advice to companies like Samsung. Her board directorship portfolio includes Supervised Investments, Crown Resorts, and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

In March, she was announced as the independent chair of the newly-legislated Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).

The new entity is expecting to field 55,000 complaints next year. Coonan says the body has 500 employees and is sufficiently funded through its fees.

"It's the same challenges that any such organisation would face," she says. "So melding the organisations, melding the people, having a unified purpose, having a vision - getting all that tacked up is very important. We have already had a strategy day and we are about to have a risk workshop," she says.

Coonan says her goal with AFCA is to establish a "real game changer" in financial services.

"One that provides not only a one-stop shop but a fair, efficient and timely dispute resolution [service] that will be known for fairness being at the heart of everything that we do."

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