Fearless Leader

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In a few months Michael O’Neill will pass the National Seniors baton on to a new chief executive. At Parliament House, in a pause between meetings, he shares with Sarah Saunders the highs and lows of ten eventful years.

It is early autumn, and one of the last sitting weeks of the federal parliament before the annual May budget.

Michael O’Neill and I are between meetings in the Senate courtyard – scattered tables, sandstone paving, lush green grass, magpies and tall oak trees that will blaze red as the season deepens.

Around us other lobbyists, journalists and politicians conduct whispered conversations, speculating on voting reform, impending tax changes and, of course, the chances of a double dissolution election.

Michael arrived at National Seniors a decade ago after first heading up Queensland’s agricultural lobby AgForce and, for a shorter time, the Gold Council.

His first year with this very real, heaving movement of individual, passionate people was a baptism of fire.

The issues of older Australians – from pensions to nursing homes and work discrimination – couldn’t have been more different from farm subsidies and the price of wheat.

But in a fearless style that has come to define him, Michael took that shift in his stride.

Under his watch National Seniors has waged spectacular battles. Most notable was the Rudd Government’s OECD trend-defying pension increase in 2009. A campaign with Choice and Industry Super that required the support of the Senate crossbench, to preserve protections for consumers of financial advice ranks a close second.

These ten years have also seen the organisation grappling with staying relevant in a world evolving by the nanosecond and a new generation of over-50s not redefining ageing but refusing to be defined at all.

Later this year, Michael leaves National Seniors on sustainable footings and with no regrets.

He’s ready again for a new, still unknown professional chapter and the promise, at least in the interim, of more time with wife Rosemary, their two sons and three grandchildren.

Why are you leaving?

MO: I’m leaving because after 10 years I think it’s time for a change for the organisation, and time for change for me as well. So the challenges for me will be elsewhere and I’m looking forward to exploring other things. The organisation is well-placed to go forward at this time.

What do you consider your biggest achievement at National Seniors?

MO: I was given a legacy after 30 years and I think I’m leaving a good legacy after 40 years. That’s important in terms of handing the organisation on in a state that continues to enable it to grow and develop.

I think the biggest achievements have been around the pension increase of 2009. That was a very substantial outcome. Probably add to that the FoFA debate and the significant role as an organisation we played in achieving a better result there than would have been the case had we not been active.

What have you enjoyed most about the job?

MO: I’ve enjoyed the diversity of the job: dealing with members from all backgrounds and federal governments of various persuasions. That has certainly kept
us on our toes. And I’ve enjoyed particularly working with great staff who’ve actively partnered with me in that regard.

What have you found most challenging?

MO: The biggest challenge for the kind of role the organisation plays is to encourage governments and oppositions to move away from acting just in their own interests and acting in the interests of the nation generally including, in the case of older Australians, in providing a certainty for them to prepare for and plan their later years.

Highlights?

MO: Again, the pension increase and getting a reasonably positive result in the FoFA debate. But I think being present at the National Apology to Indigenous
Australians by Prime Minister Rudd was a particularly significant time to be in Parliament.

Do you have any regrets?

MO: No regrets.

What will you miss most?

MO: Certainly the people I’ve worked with I will miss enormously. I think we’ve got a really good board so I’ll miss working with them. Thirdly, members generally.
We’ve got a great group of people. Being able to hear their concerns and share their views going forward will be missed. I’ll particularly miss going to Western
Australia and enjoying the excitement of the membership over there.

What advice would you have for the new CEO?

MO: I don’t provide advice to incomers. I think the best way is for people to start with a clean slate and find their way through.

How would you like to be remembered?

MO: People will remember as they wish.

What next for Michael O’Neill?

MO: We don’t know. We’re in an exciting and innovative time. So we’ll see where that takes us. Certainly my intention is to continue to work, to contribute productively, and where that might land me, we’ll just have to wait and see.

You’ve got three grandkids now, were you hoping to spend more time with them?

MO: Certainly I’m hoping to spend more time with the family. I’ve travelled a lot over the past ten years and particularly now with little people it’s nice to spend
time with them... and I’m a pretty good baby sitter.

This article by Sarah Saunders originally appeared in the April/May 2016 edition of 50 something magazine. 

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