Jennifer Westacott is one of Australia’s most powerful women. She grew up in public housing in NSW, and studied at the University of New South Wales and the London School of Economics. Among the many important posts she has held Jennifer was the Director of Housing and the Secretary of Education in Victoria. Currently Jennifer is Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, the leading forum for the heads of Australia’s top 100 companies.
“I grew up in the Springfield Estate, on the Central Coast in NSW with my family until I was about sixteen – my parents, two sisters, my brother and grandmother. We had a four bedroom fibro house with an outside toilet.
The outside toilet was the source of a lot of embarrassment, but also hilarity. We lived in the epicentre of the Sydney funnel web spider so that was a worry. When we got an inside toilet it was one of the most joyous days of our lives. Everyone stood around and flushed it.
Springfield was quite an isolated estate, on a bus line, but the bus didn’t run on Sunday. Lots of things weren’t finished, no kerbs and guttering and no lawn. I don’t think the Department of Housing now would present a property that wasn’t turfed, so we had a lot of hard yards of gardening to do.
The estate had a bad name, particularly when I was in High School. There was quite a big stigma. At University you would meet people with very wealthy parents, and you would tell then you came from public housing. Most people had less of a reaction than you thought they were going to.
When we got public housing it was like winning the lottery, we had been living in a two bedroom privately rented house.
If you think about your own life, and think how things might have gone. If we hadn’t had that house when my father left my mother, we might not have been able to ride out that very difficult period.
I was able to keep going to school, keep going to the same school and go on to university. There are those pivot points in our lives where a stable home is so important. Without it our lives would have been different, I don’t think I would have gone to university. I think there would have been enormous pressure for me to work.
We also had a strong sense of what community was, looking out for your neighbours and a sense of comradrie under difficulties.
We had a fantastic neighbour called Norm, and when our family was going through a difficult time he was always there to help and to look out for us. What was really important was that we had a safe and secure home. Public housing really helped me to understand what a secure home was, and the value of housing.
The public housing system that I lived in was very different to the public housing system that I ended up running when I worked in the public service. But there has always been that sense of home, the importance of place and the importance of community.
When I got the job heading up the Housing Department in NSW, the things that I had very strong views about were the need to challenge the stigma around living in public housing and, frankly, the fact that some of the staff in the Housing Department when we were growing up as kids were bullies and they had a disrespectful attitude towards people who lived in public housing.
I was absolutely determined to stamp that out. I was determined that no-one should fear their tenancy manager like our Mum feared ours. That no-one should feel embarrassed to say where they lived and that no-one should be treated like a second class citizen because they didn’t have enough money to buy their own home.
Public housing is one of the great institutions of our society and I don’t think we are looking after it at the moment. Being able to ride the tide, having a secure place is one of the things we should be preserving.
Young people in public housing should follow their dreams. Never let people define who you are, or tell you what they think you can do, so have ambition for life. But also look out for other people, it’s important to give something back.
I have been very successful in my life and I try to put something back, because a lot of things are luck. You have to make your own luck to some extent but you also have to say, well I’ve been lucky; what can I do for other people?”