Fighting for the national broadcaster, confronting the nation’s leaders, and receiving Australia’s highest honour are just part of the working day for the woman we know simply as Ita. How does she do it? What’s her biggest life success? Ian Henschke found out when he met the former Australian of the Year, new ABC Chair and powerful voice for seniors.
Ushered into her 14th floor Sydney office I find her at the window looking out at a crane working on the adjoining multi storey ABC building. She tells me she enjoys watching the driver climb up the long ladder into his cabin every morning. She now oversees a corporation with more than 4000 employees and a billion-dollar plus annual budget. It’s a long way from when she started work as a copy girl at the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1957.
“Life keeps you going, and opportunities keep arising and that’s the way it’s been all through my career," Ita says.
"Some things I’ve worked purposely towards and other times they’ve taken me by surprise. I didn’t expect Rupert Murdoch to offer me a job. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to offer me a job. I didn’t expect the government to ask me to chair the National Advisory Committee on AIDS. I didn’t expect to even write my first book. The publisher came to me and said we think you should write a book. And you think, well alright I’ll write a book.”
"I’m not sure you can ever understand the workings of the male mind, but you can try."
I wonder where this confidence to tackle the world and what it’s serves up at her comes from and ask about her family, particularly her relationship with her late father Charles Buttrose. He was a remarkable man. In a long illustrious career, he was a music critic, arts administrator, journalist, foreign correspondent, newspaper editor, war correspondent, radio and television executive and eventually assistant general manager of the same organisation over which she now presides.
“I certainly had a good relationship with Dad," Ita says.
"Mind you I had three brothers, unfortunately one has died from bowel cancer, but my brothers also think they’ve played a very important role in my career success, if you can call it that, because according to them, they taught me how to speak ‘bloke’, how to be competitive, and how to understand the workings of the male mind. I’m not sure you can ever understand the workings of the male mind, but you can try,” She laughs mischievously, her eyes sparkle as she warms to the memory.
“I think they might have a point. I certainly never thought I couldn’t do something the boys were doing. If the boys were doing it, I was going to do it. I never actually saw myself as any different from my brothers in what one could achieve.”
When Ita left school and began a career in journalism, 62 years ago, it was a very different world and a vastly different one for women.
“When I started work at 15 the assumption was I would work for a few years and then I would get married, have children and be at home. I remember saying to my aunt and my mother I might be bored if I stay at home and they said: ‘No, no, no you won’t be bored. You will have your house to run and you’ll have your children.’ I’m not sure I believed them. Then everything changed, and I got caught up in the evolution of women that was taking place at that time and I married, and I had children, but I kept on working because I enjoyed working and it fulfilled something in me.”
"I didn’t expect Rupert Murdoch to offer me a job. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to offer me a job."
When Ita left school and began a career in journalism, 62 years ago, it was a very different world and a vastly different one for women. “When I started work at 15 the assumption was I would work for a few years and then I would get married, have children and be at home. I remember saying to my aunt and my mother I might be bored if I stay at home and they said: ‘No, no, no you won’t be bored. You will have your house to run and you’ll have your children.’ I’m not sure I believed them. Then everything changed, and I got caught up in the evolution of women that was taking place at that time and I married, and I had children, but I kept on working because I enjoyed working and it fulfilled something in me.”
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison offered her the reigns of the ABC, only the second woman to Chair the broadcaster, after Dame Leonie Kramer in the early 1980s, it came as a surprise to her and many others, but it’s been almost universally approved.
“The only negative comment I’ve had was the suggestion I might be too old. That’s pretty rude. I wrote to one of the critics who said I was in the autumn of my career and I said autumn can be quite brilliant just you wait and see!" she says.
"I think we’ve got to fight back. I know what it’s like to be younger, but anyone younger than me has no idea what it’s like to be older and I think people shouldn’t walk in our shoes until they have the right to walk in them. It’s a myth to say older people aren’t capable of fulfilling a job as demanding as the one I’m now holding, that we can’t be retrained, that we can’t get new skills. It’s an absolute nonsense. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with us as long as our health remains good. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ita Buttrose has been awarded a vast range of honours for her work in journalism and for her support and ambassadorship of charities. She received an OBE forty years ago and an AO in 1988. She was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours. However, being conferred as 2013 Australian of the Year is her highlight.
“It’s probably the greatest honour your country can pay you," she says.
"It's up to each individual Australian of the Year to determine what they do. At the time I was national president of Alzheimer’s Australia, now Dementia Australia. We re-named ourselves last year to incorporate all the dementias because there are more than 100. I used it as a platform to raise awareness and push for more investment into medical research because we have to find a cure, or a way of slowing down the disease, and I was successful in both of those endeavours. It was really important to dementia and I’m very grateful for the opportunity it gave me to talk about it.”
Ita is a strong and fearless advocate for older Australians, particularly the more than 400,000 living with dementia.
“We’ve got a shortage of beds. We’ve got a shortage of care places. If you look at the projected figures that shortage is going to continue. We’ve got a shortage of fully trained workers in aged care and specifically with dementia because everybody’s dementia is different. Some people with dementia have extreme behavioural problems and require a very specialised care which cannot always be delivered at home and normally the person needs to go into assisted care in a facility.”
"The only negative comment I’ve had since being appointed chair of the ABC was the suggestion I might be too old. That’s pretty rude."
Now we’ve been speaking about the number of Australians getting older, the dementia challenges, for a great many years. It’s not a surprise. Everyone’s known that this has been happening. We are not the only country in the world. And we can’t afford to ignore aged care and the requirements of older Australians.”
"I would like to see a more proactive approach to ageing. I would like to see governments encourage people to think about preventative strategies. I am a great believer in preventative health. Many of the chronic conditions that affect older Australians are lifestyle ones that we could avoid if we thought about what we did to our bodies, what we ate, what we drank, what we smoked. Did we exercise enough? These are very simple steps and every chronic disease would benefit if we all examined our lifestyle pattern and thought well maybe I could go for a walk every day.”
Does Australia’s most famous voice for seniors walk every day? Quick as a flash she replies: “I do. I really practice what I preach. I do Pilates twice a week because as you get older your balance is not as good. It’s no good pretending it’s not going to happen to you, because it happens to all of us. I do some weights work because weights are very good for you. I don’t want to lose my upper body strength. I want to be able to put my suitcase up and change the light globe, all those sorts of things. I do watch what I eat. As I said I walk every day. It’s good to have a dog. The dog is very insistent, but I like walking and I don’t put podcasts or headphones on. I walk and look and listen and breathe and smell the fragrances of the autumn leaves or blossoms or whatever. “
Talking to Ita is to sense her inimitable energy. Does she feel any different than she did when she was young?
"I remember asking my mother-in-law that and she said, ‘I don’t feel any different at all.’ But I know that I am. And if I’m feeling a bit weary I just don’t put my glasses on and then I can’t see myself in the mirror!” she laughs.
Ita cared for her father when he had dementia. It was a loving and a learning experience.
“You learn about the change in the roles," she explains.
"Where your father used to look after you, you are now looking after your dad. You learn how dependent an older person becomes on you and that’s the responsibility I think children should take on. We are here to look after our parents when they need us to look after them."
"He was very loving and sometimes I would go up there and he would be sitting there in the sun and I’d say: ‘How are you today Dad?’ And he’d say, ‘Well if you must know, I’m feeling very depressed.’ And that’s very common with older people particularly with dementia. He also had macular degeneration and hearing loss. He had a terrible health trifecta, but he wanted to stay in his own home. That was his big challenge. And we did our best and we did keep him there.
"We got worried because he was almost 90. We thought maybe we’re not doing the right thing, my brothers and I, so we got ACAT (aged care assessment team) in to assess him. It was really interesting. I said someone’s coming for coffee. And Dad comes out with his best pants on and his good blazer and he’s got a tie and he’s all dressed up. He sits back and is courteous beyond belief.
"He was charming. We chat about this and that and finally he looks at me and says, ‘You know some people would like to put us old people away and just ring a cowbell when we’re supposed to come out.’ I thought well, what do you know? Dad knows exactly what this is all about. We got ten out of ten for Dad’s care. Even though he had dementia, he knew exactly what was going on. Everyone’s dementia is different. There were those lucid times when Dad seemed perfectly fine and he was fine enough to know exactly what we were all thinking.”
She says we need to show more respect and concern for all older Australians and is proud of the ABC’s part in highlighting issues close to her heart.
“The ABC certainly did play an important role in bringing about the Aged Care Royal Commission, but I spoke about something very similar when I was Australian of the Year at the National Press Club," she says.
"I spoke about how we knew from the evidence from our clients and their families that they were been given antipsychotic medication in aged care facilities. I spoke about how concerned we were, how damaging it was. It wasn’t really in their best interest.
"Then the Department of Health came up to me after the lunch and said ‘We fixed all that. It doesn’t happen anymore.’ But that was just absolute nonsense. We had plenty of evidence to show that it was happening, and it continued, on and on and on. It’s not new. We’ve all known that. But then thank God the ABC did that program. You’ve got to say how would I want to be treated when I’m older? What sort of life do I want and what am I entitled to? “
It is a myth to say older people aren’t capable of fulfilling a job as demanding as the one I’m now holding, that we can’t be retrained, that we can’t get new skills. It’s an absolute nonsense.
Ita Buttrose believes we’re living in a time when seniors are rightfully demanding to be heard. And they are not going to be fobbed off.
“I think the election showed older people did care a great deal about promises and lack of promises, and what might’ve happened to the super fund and what might’ve happened to franking credits, all those things. These are very big issues for older people and I think they exercised their right. And they’ll continue to do so. Grey power is quite powerful and could be even more powerful. It wouldn’t be hard to organise older people if somebody really wanted to do so. I think if you really annoyed us enough we’d be the most organised, formidable, power anyone would want to take on.”
She is immensely happy in her new job at the helm of the ABC and a fearless defender of it.
“I love media. I love the whole organisation. And I love the ABC for all that it stands for to the Australian people and the role we do for our country. We are the voice of Australia outside of Australia and within Australia.”
The ABC Chair is a five-year appointment and can be renewed for a second term. She’d be 87 by the end of that second term should she get the offer and take it up, but she’s more than ready for anything the next decade will throw at her.
“There are huge changes coming," she says.
"Now you either look at change as something to be feared or you think change is an opportunity. I always look at change as an opportunity. We can do things now I could never have imagined when I started work and it’s just going to get better and better and better.”
"These are very simple steps and every chronic disease would benefit if we all examined our lifestyle pattern and thought well maybe I could go for a walk every day.”
Apart from being positive about the future, Ita believes if you can do good for society you should. “I don’t think we’re here just to take from the community. My mother raised us all to give back. As a kid I was selling Legacy buttons and collecting coins for Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. It’s something I’ve done all my life and I’ve always had a cause. You realise when you’ve got magazines and newspapers, and now the ABC, when you’ve got this at your fingertips, you can play a role. You can disseminate information. You can talk to people in layman’s terms or ‘people talk’ as we used to say at the Women’s Weekly, about things like diabetes, about asthma, about dementia. I’m really fortunate that I’m in that position. If you can help one person hopefully that’s going to change that person’s life for the better.”
Fifty metres aloft, the crane driver still hasn’t come out of his ‘office’. Ita wonders how he can stay there all day. We may never know and Ita Buttrose will never stop asking ‘why’ and working on ways to make the lives of others better. I thank her for her time and can’t help but confide “You’ve made my life better by giving me this interview.”
She beams back with her infectious laughing smile and says “Always happy to help a fellow journalist.”