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Transcript: Leadership During a Pandemic (EP72)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

Voiceover: To all of our loyal listeners, The Culture of Things podcast will now also have specific episodes produced for YouTube. To ensure you don’t miss out on this exclusive YouTube content, head on over to YouTube, click the subscribe button and hit the notification bell. Now, let’s get into the episode...

Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I'm your host, Brendan Rogers, and this is episode 72. Today, I'm talking with the Honourable Scott Farlow. Scott Farlow MLC was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 2015. He currently serves as Government Whip in the Legislative Council.

Scott served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and for COVID recovery from July 2020 to December 2021, a role which encompasses varied and detailed projects including supporting the New South Wales Federal Financial Relations review, engaging with industry and businesses during the COVID 19 pandemic, and supporting the delivery and implementation of COVID-19 related programs and stimulus. 

Since entering Parliament, Scott has served as leader of the House in the Legislative Council and Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, served as Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues, Law and Justice Regulation, and the select committee on Legislative Council Committee System, and served as a member on many other committees. 

Prior to entering parliament, Scott served as both mayor and as a counsellor on Strathfield Council and has previously worked as an analyst and strategic advisor for large firms, state, and federal parliamentarians. Today, we're focused on Scott's role in the COVID-19 response in New South Wales. Scott, welcome to the culture things podcast. 

Scott: Thanks, Brendan. It's great to be here with you and all your listeners. 

Brendan: Mate, it's a pleasure having you, a pleasure to catch up again, thank you very much for giving us some time today. I need to ask before we dive into some of this stuff around COVID, that dreaded C word. I saw something on your social media. I've known you myself, I've met Penny, your lovely wife, a few times. Your idea of romance is this scrutineering? You're making me look like a tragic romance and I'm far from it, what's going on there? 

Scott: Look, you've got to get the opportunities where you can. Penny and I both have fairly busy careers and so you take the opportunities where they present themselves. If that might be an art of romantic scrutineering, so be it. It's always a little bit difficult when you go out for a date and there are 20 people from the Electoral Commission who are assembled around you as well. It sort of does kill the mood a little bit. 

Brendan: I'm sure it does, mate. Any false move, they're snapping it on camera and putting it in their social media as well. It's good mate. Like you said you got to take the opportunity where you can, so well done. I'm sure you guys have unbelievable conversations around your dinner table at times around politics and what's going on and the different challenges you have. 

Scott: At times and sometimes my wife also charges me and tells me that you can't treat every discussion like it's question time especially when we get into arguments. She says to me, I'm not the opposition, okay so don't treat me that way. I can assure you she gives as good as she gets. 

Brendan: I'm sure she does. Let's put you in this hot seat of question time. Let's start grilling you. You've given us some valuable time. Let's get into this topic around COVID-19 and your involvement in the response of COVID-19 for New South Wales and the state government. Back to the early days, March of 2020, when it kicked off in Australia, your official role involved in the COVID-19 response started in June/July of 2020. What were some of those early days like for you, if you can cast your mind back?

Scott: I think with the emergence of COVID, like all of us, it was an unknown and we didn't really know where it was going to go. I've got to say, I went to London at the back end of February, maybe to the beginning of March in 2020. I was worried at that time about leaving Australia and transiting through Singapore because Singapore had about 100 cases at that time in total. I think Australia or New South Wales, Australia had about 12 and I was going to the UK that was in single digits. My concern was I was transiting through Singapore so I changed the flights to go through the UAE instead. 

It was amazing how quickly things started to develop during that period. I think it was the last day I was in London when I got the first newspaper article about what was happening in Italy at the time and watched that. I flew back to Australia and was watching what was starting to unfold. Pretty much if I had been back here I think a week or so later, we would have instituted home quarantine at least by that stage.

Things started to happen very, very quickly during the beginning of the pandemic. I came back to a period pretty similar to now in the New South Wales Parliament where we were looking at budget estimates, and so we're sitting in estimate committees many of those days, watching some of the stories and the case trajectories that are occurring, and really starting to wonder how big this was going to be and how big an impact it was going to be on Australia.

I think that our federal government took some really bold and strong decisions at that time as well in terms of the border closures. I still cast my mind back to actually before I went to London myself and Minister Tudehope, who at the time was the Minister for small business, we were doing visits through business communities, particularly with high Chinese population, so in Burwood and Eastwood, and talking to those local shopkeepers about the impact it was having without international students, and also the behaviour that we were seeing where people were fearful because of what was largely social media stories that were going around that didn't have any truth to them. That somebody in a restaurant had COVID and watch out going to this place. 

I was a mayor of Strathfield, Burwood was my neighbouring suburb. I'd lived there for 25 years. I knew the place at the back of my hand and I never saw it so quiet going there. Our main concern at that point, in mid-February, was about what we could do to support businesses in Burwood, Eastwood, Chinatown in the city because that was where we were seeing the big impact. When we were talking to shopkeepers they were saying, our turnovers were down 75%, 80%. We were looking at a package like that and worried about international students, how we open the borders back up, how we got people back in, how we got confidence, and then to see the wave that occurred. 

I've got to say I think back to that a lot in terms of that very early day's response as to maybe how naive we were at the time as to what the impact would be. When we're hearing stories about only one person from the family coming out to do the shopping and then hurriedly going back home in those communities, having seen what was happening in China, I think all of Australia found ourselves doing exactly the same thing in a matter of weeks.

Brendan: I know you're obviously part of a much bigger fish in the conversation you were having with the Treasury and the Premier at the time and stuff, but from a personal point of view, how difficult is it for you to make decisions or push certain things a certain way based on, probably at that time, limiting the information and lot of scared sort of not knowing what this could bring and what will happen? How tough is that in a position like yours?

Scott: I think that it's the unknown really and everybody was going through the unknown at the same time. This is a global phenomenon that was occurring and we were all watching overseas at the time to try to see some jurisdictions that had significant challenges with COVID already and how they were dealing with it. Of course, there was the Chinese response, which I think Australians broadly thought could never happen here, and some of the stories that were coming out of China.

I was looking a lot at what was happening in South Korea. South Korea at that early stage had had a huge spike and South Korea was sort of able to get on top of it relatively quickly and change its trajectory when it came to its management. They did that on very localised restrictions and South Korea actually did publish a bit of a playbook on that too, which I found quite useful to go through and to have a look at how they actually approached it. 

Even at that early stage, there was not a lot of information, but there were some things to pick up on that we could draw on from our experience. I think the federal government did that in terms of the border closures, following very closely with the United States and what they'd done with China. And then, of course, the federal government then extended that to South Korea and Iran at the time I think it was with the next two countries. 

Then of course, that went to a global border ban that we saw in place that did make sure that we had a protective wall effectively up around Australia for a long period that served us fairly well through those early stages of that pandemic and allowed us as state governments to be able to get on top of the issues. 

To that point, effectively, where I was brought into the role of COVID recovery where we'd actually been able to quell cases in New South Wales and be in a position where we were really managing COVID and working our way down towards COVID-Zero.

Brendan: I've got to ask you, what were your initial thoughts when you're approached by the Premier, I'm assuming, around heading up this sort of COVID response for New South Wales? Can you think of your initial response like holy [...], this is a big job.

Scott: In a sense, I'd been doing some of the work already. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, one of the first things where I was called in was effectively looking after our stimulus programs and making sure that I could work with the treasury officials to be able to ensure we were doing something. 

The Treasury is not really focused on getting money out the door. Treasury is often seen within government as the department that says no, effectively the cautionary conservative department that is where people are a little bit more cautionary when it comes to expenditure. That's always the view of the Treasury. We got into a position where the role of Treasury became following up departments and saying have you spent your money? We need this response, business needs this response, the community needs this response. 

That came around some of our initial programs that were about community safety as well. For instance, the COVID cleaning program that we had there, the government, I think it was $300 million, had made a contribution to ensuring that we improved our cleaning and hygiene systems on public transport, schools, government office buildings, and that was all removed from health. Health at that time had a bucket of money to be able to, I think was $7 billion at the time, improve the hospital system. 

Just broadly across the scheme where we were working to get more people employed in these roles, more people diverted from other roles to be able to manage some of these programs and make sure that they're actually delivered on the ground. That was my role in the beginning stage of the pandemic before taking on the title of Parliamentary Secretary of COVID Recovery.

Then the Premier asked me in July. I still remember the meeting we had about it. It was actually the day Victoria went into lockdown. Melbourne went into lockdown as the cases started to escalate in Victoria. The Premier at the time, Gladys Berejiklian, and I were sitting there watching the Dan Andrews Press Conference as I was taking on this role. It showed really, I think, at that point for both of us what we wanted to do that was different in New South Wales. 

We needed to always be mindful that it only takes one case for this to get out of hand, and while we very much had, at that point, our mindset on recovery and how we could get businesses back after a couple of months of restrictions and lockdowns. At that point, we thought in a sense that they were the harshest restrictions we could have, and of course, we saw later on that we went further in terms of restrictions in place with the Delta wave. 

We were very mindful about how we could coexist with the virus to the point that we are now effectively where we could manage it, trying to keep people in jobs. It was always the two challenges that we faced—the challenge of lives and livelihood, and being able to get a good score on both.

Brendan: It's a great point. I just want to go back. What you're telling me is that it wasn't a case of you were late to the meeting or you didn't turn up to the meeting. You should have been there so you got an action because you weren't there? How about we throw this basket to Scott?

Scott: I think it was somewhat of an acknowledgment of the role I'd played on the Treasury side with our stimulus programs and the like and being able to work with our Treasury officials who worked incredibly hard, and all the government did and still does in trying to make sure these responses were hitting the mark. 

Whether they were the business support programs that were in place, whether they were things like that COVID Cleaning package, or whether it was things like our homelessness support services to get people who were rough sleepers, completely vulnerable to COVID out there in the community into safe accommodation for that period when we really didn't know and we were looking around the world.

It's no exaggeration to say we were seeing bodies piling up in New York, we were seeing hospitals overcome in Italy. To see what the rest of the world was going through, and the position we were in Australia, and to try to be able to make sure that we weren't going down that same path was a huge challenge and to know that fate could be ours very, very quickly.

Brendan: I mentioned the limited information and then information flowing through over time and the benefit of time, I suppose. Was there a decision you'd been involved in on behalf of the government where you had limited information at the time but decisions needed to be made, and it turned out really a good decision? Is there one that sticks in your mind?

Scott: There was probably a time when we held our nerve and there was a time we didn't. One was when it came to the Northern Beaches outbreak. When as a government, we had of course a lockdown that was instituted in a very defined geographic area in the Northern Beaches. It was a pretty harsh decision, of course, it came at Christmas and New Year period. Everyone was telling us at the time, you heard it in the media, that we needed to go further. All of Sydney, all of New South Wales needed to be put in lockdown. The usual suspects were out there saying it couldn't be managed and it turned out that we could. 

The Northern Beaches is a very particular geographic region, and anyone who knows it, and I lived there for a period of my life, there are effectively three ways in. It is relatively easy to isolate compared to other parts of Sydney or New South Wales. It's known as the Insular Peninsula and people in the Northern Beaches were relatively content with being somewhat isolated for that period within the Northern Beaches, and of course, that then got to a gradation between the restrictions in place in the Northern part and the Southern part of the Northern Beaches. 

That was something where everyone was saying, no, no, you can't do it. This is going to end in tears. This is reckless. Somehow we held our nerve and it turned out to be right. That's a good example of that. I think when it came to the Delta wave, some of us, myself particularly included and to not say that I was around the decision-making table on this, but my view certainly was that with the Delta wave that maybe a similar approach to the Northern Beaches would have seen it end in the same result, and it didn't. 

I think at the end of the day, it wouldn't have changed anything. We saw with Victoria, Victoria took a very strong response when it came to that Delta wave and they ended up in the same trajectory as New South Wales only slightly delayed. I don't think anything would have materially changed, but it is certainly somewhere where it shows you how quickly things can change and the facts and scenarios in front of you really can present very different outcomes. 

We've seen that again with another variant, Omicron, and who knows what variant is to come next and how our response has to change. The lesson certainly for me from the Delta wave was that we need to be sure that we're very flexible with our response, and we need to look at what we're really confronted with and how it is different from anything else that's come before.

Brendan: In a lot of the work I do, I talk with leaders and teams a lot around it's about having clarity over certainty because certainty is the thing that the analysis paralysis sometimes really stops us. Using that analogy—clarity over certainty—how important was it in some of these decisions, some very, very tough decisions that as a government, there was clarity rather than waiting on certainty?

Scott: A 100%. I think that my role in going back and forth, my role fundamentally in this was not sitting around the decision-making table saying this is what's going to happen, but dealing with what happened from the decision-making table. Literally, these things would come on very, very quickly. 

Restrictions will be put in place, changing operating models across the state, public health orders, and they would be announced at the 11:00 AM press conference. Sometimes they come out later in the day in a press conference, in a press release. Even one that came out, I remember, at like 10:00 PM effectively through a public health order and that response. 

Then dealing with business and other organisations as to how they implemented those changes, and constantly, business would say to us that we just need clarity around what we have to do. We need clarity about how we have to operate and what to expect of us. 

In the beginning, a lot was saying we just want certainty. We just want certainty and we want to know. They'd look at different models. They'd look at the Victorian model, or they'd look at the New Zealand model where there was this gradation of here's phase three, here's what level four restrictions look like. A lot of them would say we just want that. We want that certainty. 

Then you'd go back and say well, look, if we went into level four, for instance, you might be restricted from trading and most businesses will then say okay, we don't want that, but we just want the clarity. We want to be able to understand how we operate. 

Through a difficult time where I think everybody learned very quickly that there just is no certainty through a 1 in 100-year pandemic, things are going to twist and change. We saw that through the Delta wave, we've seen that through the Omicron wave, and whatever may come next. There does need to be flexibility in response, but we need to make sure that even if we're wrong on some of these points, at least it's clear. It’s at least clear of what we expect of people and what we're doing ourselves. That's got to be clear. I think that fundamentally, it taught me that clarity is much more important than certainty.

Brendan: Great learning, isn't it? You mentioned business and I've seen businesses across the board not only in New South Wales, Australia. It was globally that had some pretty dire impacts. Although also some businesses actually thrived and that dreaded word, pivot, has come in a lot, but they've taken on different opportunities or the space they're in has been really a great opportunity for them. 

I want to target the construction industry because that must be a very, very tough process. It's such a massive part of the economy. I understand confidentiality and stuff, but I'd like to understand a little bit more about some of the decisions around making that call to shut down construction for a couple of weeks from memory.

Scott: We walked back a little bit, but you're right. In terms of construction and the construction industry, I think I'm on the record in saying it was one of those decisions that I wasn't necessarily supportive of and I wasn't around the table when that was made. I remember being on the call with businesses when it was being announced probably about 15 minutes before the press conference at 11:00 AM and sort of the tailspin that people went into at that point. 

As I said I wasn't sitting around the table on this decision, but from what my understanding was, although there wasn't necessarily a great correlation between COVID cases and those [...] through the construction industry, there was a great correlation when it came to those who were COVID positive and their place of work being in construction. That decision was sort of taken in that regard. 

Funnily enough, to go through some of the conversations we've had with business before, with Victoria, one of the challenges that I'd often hear in terms of how Victoria was operating back in 2020 was in terms of the pared-down construction sector and how it just would not work. I think they're operating at 25% capacity at that stage. Amazingly, how many people from the construction sector came to us and said, look, we just want to operate on what happened in Victoria, give us 25%, even though that was the biggest criticism I'd heard out of Victoria the year before and people were saying we just prefer to be just shut down rather than operating under those environments. 

What happened fairly quickly, and when I say fairly quickly I think it happened on that call even 15 minutes before it was publicly announced, was that we started to get the construction task force together, which Ministry has chaired and Deputy Premier Barilaro as well, they worked through how they could get construction up and running again as it's such a major part of the economy. 

The construction sector was certainly looking at everything they could possibly do to be able to make that work and implementing rapid antigen tests before they were even really approved. They needed a medical professional to administer them and have some sort of testing regime on-site with some of the larger players. 

The industry did so much themselves to be able to make it a safer working environment as possible, but it was a very difficult decision that was made. It was one that I think caused quite a lot of grief. As people from other industry sectors said to me as well, whether it be hospitality or the entertainment industry, it was similar to what they went through. 

Construction had effectively gone through a period of a year where they were largely in New South Wales not impacted by the COVID restrictions that were in place, and then in a very short space of time with very little warning, which is how most of these decisions occurred, ended up in a very similar position to all those other sectors. It caused a lot of grief. 

I think we were trying to navigate through how we could keep as much open as possible throughout all of that period and how we could save as many lives as possible as well. You've got to remember at that stage, we had a very small vaccinated population in New South Wales and we tried to contain it geographically as much as possible so that the regions could stay open, even that some areas of Sydney could stay open. It's amazing some of the decisions that were made at the time, some right, some wrong, some that worked, some that didn't, but there's no playbook to this stuff.

Brendan: No, unfortunately not. Even, I guess, with learnings and reviews that may happen about what worked, what didn't work, but whatever happens next, again, it's not going to be a plug-and-play approach, is it? Unfortunately, it's never like that. 

I'd like to just move that into I guess you alluded to the sort of city and regional areas. Again, I certainly don't have my dates in line, but there were times when New South Wales was sort of closed, certainly not as harshly as Victoria, but there seemed to be a blanket approach taken around the city and maybe some of the risks from an outsider's point of view versus regional. Can you talk about that a little bit? Give us a bit of understanding about why that was the case?

Scott: I think originally, the view was that all of New South Wales moved together. That was the original view that was held and that was quite strong from our regional MPs as well. They wanted to see the same settings statewide in the early days of the response. I think that there was a lot of fear in regional communities as well about COVID.

I know from even family that I have in the regions that there was just a strong level of fear about anyone from the city coming to the regions and bringing COVID with them. Of course, in the regions, when it comes to the hospital facilities, it's not as strong as what it is in the metropolitan areas, and that is a certain vulnerability for regional communities that I know a lot of them are concerned about what would happen to their health system if they had a COVID wave, particularly in those early days.

That was the initial approach and as we came out of it, I think that there was a view that we could relax in the regions quicker than we could in the city because the risk just wasn't there. The Northern Beaches, I think, was where we really started to change the view in terms of how we could differentiate between city and country, so to speak, and those regional areas and how we could try to contain this as much as possible so that we didn't have a significant impact. If we could allow the regions to continue on, then we would. 

That was very much the approach that came when it was the Delta wave. We got very defined in regional settings. The first restrictions came in a couple of local government areas. That was the Eastern Suburbs, the Inner West in the City of Sydney, and there might have been a few more than that. Canada was in there as well. That only lasted a day. We then moved to all of Greater Sydney being in lockdown after that. 

Of course, because of the connectivity between regions as well, areas like the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains, and the Illawarra were involved in that as well because we were seeing communities move amongst each other. Then, we got to a position where it just became clearly evident that despite our best efforts of containing it in certain areas, there was an impact across New South Wales and that we needed to take a New South Wales approach. 

When you talk about those border closures, funnily enough, I remember a lot of my colleagues actually calling for closures to the borders very early on about Queensland and Victoria. I remember the premier saying quite clearly at the time, it's like, I don't know, I'll be close to them because the threat comes from us in the very early stages. If anything, they can close onto us, which they did. 

Of course, New South Wales, when the threat was there on the Victorian border, did close the Victorian border for a period of time. That was very difficult because our border communities are so interconnected. The Tweed sees themselves very much as part of the Gold Coast and vice versa. Albury and Wodonga are interchangeable effectively in terms of identity. It's a city across a river. There's a health service that they share effectively down there, so they're such connected communities that the devastation for those communities is significant when those borders are closed.

I worked a lot through the freight industries as well and worked with them and their challenges through this. The border closures for those freight industries meant that at times, they were taking cabs down and changing over the trailers effectively because it was just the easiest way to do it. The freight task across Australia was significantly impacted.

All of those challenges were in place. We wanted to do as much as possible to limit the restrictions in place across New South Wales, but at times, it got to the point that we all just had to come in as one.

I remember the press conferences where we were declaring a third of the state to be local government areas of concern, so to speak, and then put them under different restrictions. There just seemed to be not much of the state left that we got to statewide restrictions again and they all peeled back. But they all were taken with the approach of having as limited impact as possible on the community while being able to still achieve what we needed to as part of the health outcome.

Brendan: The realistic approach is there are so many challenges there. With your own personal values as a leader, what was the biggest challenge for you in that you might have found your personal values compromised in some of the decisions you're either involved in implementing given your role in the response?

Scott: It certainly made me reassess some of my political views in this period. I'm a small government, liberal-conservative. I've always taken the view that a government should not really intervene in the market and there should be as limited restrictions as possible. This has really challenged me a lot when it comes to my ideology in terms of the response needed. 

Interestingly, I still remember that before we had a lockdown in Australia, I had a libertarian friend reach out to me from the US saying we needed to, effectively. He's like, I couldn't understand why Australia hadn't implemented lockdowns. I remember writing back to him and saying effectively all the reasons why I believed we could get through it without actually implementing a lockdown like we were seeing in other countries. 

Funnily enough, for the first wave, that probably did hold true somewhat. We did achieve that with what was a lockdown, but perhaps what some would deem as a lockdown lite where retail largely stayed open. People could still go out for essential purposes. The definition of essential was pretty broad. There, of course, were industries that were closed down that were seen as high risk, but life probably wasn't as restrictive here as it was in other places. I saw that we could do that because of our borders and the fact that they were closed. That was largely true. 

Hotel quarantine, not every country in the world implemented that system. Also, the high rates of testing that we had in the early stages compared to the rest of the world and high-quality PCR testing that was very accurate did actually help us through that stage.

I was amazed that this friend of mine who was a very strong libertarian had that view. I guess that events do make you perhaps look at it in a more pragmatic way in how government needs to respond and what a public health response needs to be where there does need to be a population-wide approach because individualism certainly won't get you there necessarily when it comes to a pandemic and a virus like this. It does require a different response.

I'm quite a student of history and have been listening to Niall Ferguson's Doom recently on an audiobook as I run. I'm just looking at how that response has largely been there through every pandemic that we've seen and how there is a certain need for a more communal approach when it comes to some of these challenges, which are different to other political challenges that I've seen. It certainly has taught me a level of pragmatism to the challenge in front of you.

Brendan: I'm sure you're not the only politician as well as an average citizen whose values are being challenged. This whole process really makes you sit back and reflect.

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Brendan: Scott, certainly many challenges and personal values are being challenged. From a media perspective and particularly your role, how did the media help or hinder some of the communication that you needed to get across for the government in some of these decisions you're making?

Scott: The media was essential. The fact that people did tune into the 11:00 AM press conference, I've got to say we had many discussions with bureaucrats and the like in the Treasury, in health, or in other areas. In business, for instance, telling us, can you get this message out at the 11:00 AM press conference because people were watching it? It was across every channel effectively. We'd go from one state premier to the next through this response.

People plugging away—for instance, I remember having a conversation with the shoppers union about abuse for people in supermarkets and getting that message across when people are being requested to check-in for instance, how people shouldn't be abusing shop assistants and shopkeepers in that regard. And plugging away to try to get those into the messages, whether it was through the police that was standing up, through the Premier, or whichever Minister might be addressing that press conference that day as well.

There were really key messages. The media—which is a little different to what people are used to in consuming media, particularly in this day and age—was a very unfiltered way to get communication out because those 11:00 AM press conferences were covered in full. People were watching, for the first time, a press conference for an hour and seeing all of the questions that were asked.

But there's a certain danger to that as well. There is a very direct message that you want to get out there and it's essential for it to get out there. If there was a certain change to the public health order that was coming in place, we needed people to know about it, but it might be a bizarre question 45 minutes into that press conference that somebody would tune into and take that message away, or a question that wasn't answered necessarily in the direct way you'd want, but that was all that somebody tuned into and so they took that message.

I've got to say, there were many times throughout the period that I was in the parliamentary secretary role where I would get calls from people or businesses that would respond to something that was at 45 minutes in the press conference and was all they'd seen. I won't say that anyone misspoke, but it might have been taken out of that context from that little grab. 

It was very different to the way people usually consume media or have typically consumed media, so that's certainly been a challenge. Also people's focus, the concentration on the numbers, so to speak, and the obsession with the numbers. Now, we're getting to a position where people are not as obsessed about the numbers that are there. 

Of course, we don't need to be as obsessed because we're in a different stage of the pandemic. We have a variant that is less deadly. It might be a lot more transmissible but less deadly. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, we've got additional treatments, and we've got hospital capacity that's there. The threat is different and we need to change our response in accordance with that threat level. But I still think that there was that obsession with the case numbers that made people perhaps a little more scared than they necessarily needed to be during that period.

I think that the media could fan the flames on that as well. I don't even know how many cases we have today, but I know we had 16,000 yesterday. Saying figures like that a year ago, people would be barricading their doors.

Brendan: It's a great point. I don't know what the figures are too. For so long, we were aligned and hanging on to these numbers. It takes me to the next flow of the conversation just around the wash-up where we've opened up again and masks are no longer necessary in most settings. 

There are still some where they are, but what's the challenge been at the end of 2021 where you're winding up the role and the responsibility but starting to open things up again? What was the biggest challenge you found and even through that communication with the media and the mindset that people have had because like you referred to, we want a small government, ideally, but there's always been this reliance in the community that the government's making decisions for me and telling me certain things to do? They didn't like that to start with, but all of a sudden, when you're not being told what to do, it's like, oh, you need to tell us what to do. How does this flow from a government perspective?

Scott: It's a big challenge. Interestingly, Theresa May was out here recently, the former UK Prime Minister. I had a conversation with her. I asked her one of these questions actually, very similar to what you've asked me, in terms of how much has this changed and how much have people become dependent on the government during this period. She has been a very staunch supporter in the UK of easing restrictions there. Her view that she presented to me was that effectively, people have had enough of the government controlling their life.

My view is that in Australia, we probably haven't endured as hard as the UK. We still probably lag a few months behind the UK in terms of their reluctance to have these restrictions. There still is a fairly strong voice in Australia that's still there saying, we want some restrictions in place. But at the end of the day, those restrictions have limited benefits at this stage. 

We have, at the moment, 1000 people in hospital or thereabouts in New South Wales. Despite our case figures, our hospital system can cope with that. We've invested billions of dollars in New South Wales to ensure their hospital system can cope with that. 

Of course, there's no doubt there is stress on our healthcare workers during this pandemic, but we also need to keep life going. We need to keep kids in school. We've seen the educational attainment of our children be sacrificed during this period and with very limited evidence behind it. There are many health professionals out there leading epidemiologists who are saying that there is very limited impact in terms of COVID in children. The reason for children being kept out of school is just not there.

When we saw the Spanish flu, it was actually more effective in people with strong immune systems and the healthiest in the society actually because of how it replicated an overactive immune system effectively that saw those people succumb. We saw the fittest and the healthiest in our society actually succumb to the virus with the Spanish flu.

What we've seen with COVID is that it's impacted a very different demographic. They are our older, more vulnerable communities. We need to, of course, in aged care settings and the like and with our older communities, do everything we can to be able to protect those communities through vaccination and any caution restrictions that might be in place like rapid antigen tests on entering aged care facilities like when I go see my grandmother and undertaking those so that we protect the vulnerable. 

But for those where the risk is minimal, which is in children, in particular, we should be able to allow them to get on with their lives as much as possible. We saw, even with Omicron, the voices that were out there saying that we couldn't have kids go back to school. We saw Queensland delay the start of school. I've got an eight-year-old and a six-year-old and I know that they're so much better in school than they are at home. I've really seen that firsthand impact in terms of kids, their social development, and their academic development during this period where it's been impacted by COVID.

I guess one of the silver linings of it is that kids want to actually be at school now because they've seen how much they miss it. I've seen how my kids just run to be back at school and how they want to be back with their teachers, they want to be back with their classmates. We've got to do what we can with the threat that we face.

I'm not, for one second, saying the threat will not change. We do not know. None of us knows what will come next. My hope, of course, is that we will see maybe more transmissible, less deadly variants be the standard, but we could say a more transmissible, more deadly variant. We will have to change our response in reaction to that, but we've got to make sure that the threat level also dictates our response.

That's so important to say at the moment. Hopefully, the Australian community is becoming more and more comfortable with living alongside the virus, with the threat level that poses at the moment. I think they are.

Brendan: If that happens, mate, what gives you a level of confidence as New South Wales Government and leading the state that we've got this, that we can deal with this even better than what we've handled before? Because I think the New South Wales Government has done a sterling job certainly when you measure it against other governments across Australia.

Scott: I think there's a funny level of parochialism. I'm sure if we're having this podcast in Queensland, it'd be a different view.

Brendan: Let me just say this, mate. I'm a born and bred Queenslander. It pains me to say, but the New South Wales Government has done a sterling job. If I was in Queensland, I'd be pulling my hair out, to be honest.

Scott: That's good to hear. Usually, I find myself putting my foot in my mouth when it comes to South Australians. I know that their Premier actually acknowledged yesterday that they were probably a little bit too slow to ease restrictions in South Australia.

Brendan: We've just lost all listeners from South Australia.

Scott: Everybody, I think, has learnt something through this process. No states got it 100% right. Every state responded differently and every state had different factors.

I was a strong advocate for New South Wales having a stronger response to restrictions than South Australia at the beginning of the pandemic because the threat was more in New South Wales and Victoria than it was in South Australia. That was just by the virtue of us being Australia's gateway. Effectively, people coming from overseas were coming into New South Wales. The threat was bigger in Sydney than it was in regional areas or in South Australia so we needed to have different gradients of response. 

What makes me confident in New South Wales has got this going forward. I think we've learnt lessons through every wave we've had. We learnt lessons through the first wave. We've learnt lessons through the Northern Beaches cluster that emerged and how we can front that. We've learnt lessons through Delta. We've learnt lessons through Omicron, and we've learnt lessons from what we didn't get right in every one of those.

I'm quite confident that if a new variant emerges and that new variant poses a stronger threat to New South Wales, I'm pretty confident that the decision-makers in New South Wales will respond appropriately to that threat. I think that lessons have been learnt from Omicron in terms of our preparedness.

From very early days, I still remember the first discussion I had when it was called the new variant and it wasn't a new new variant. I was talking to a business chamber. I was saying to them, look, we just don't know what's around the corner. There's this new variant. This was very much when we were at the end. We got them to 90% of vaccination in New South Wales.

The community was fatigued from the lockdowns. Business was looking at Christmas and how they were going to open up. I was very cautious in having the discussion with them saying, we just don't know what this is going to present. We don't know the different responses. I was very much the party pooper in that discussion as everyone's like, let's get back to the city, let's have everyone in for Christmas parties, this is going to be great.

Of course, Omicron hit. We saw Christmas not cancelled by government restrictions. But Christmas was cancelled for so many because they were in isolation because they had COVID or had a family member with COVID. Of course, we saw the scramble for rapid antigen tests and PCR testing over the summer as people were trying to travel.

I think it's taught us a lot of lessons in terms of how we have to change for any variant that we encounter in the future. I think New South Wales has learnt those lessons in terms of our response, whether we have to go harder or whether we have to actually ease restrictions to deal with a more transmissible variant that may pose less of a risk, for instance. That might be in terms of levels of isolation or close contacts as we've already navigated through.

I'm confident we've got it, but we'll see. There are twists and turns ahead, no doubt in this response. I remember listening to a podcast a while back and they were saying this isn't the end of the beginning. This is the beginning of the end, so we'll see what comes before us.

Brendan: In regards to business specifically in this reemerging, reopening, and stuff, does the government have any information that you're aware of where there's an element of the business community which won't come back? It's just they haven't survived all of these issues that have happened over time. What does that look like? Can you give us some picture? What's the government doing? What support is on the ground to bring us back into a thriving economy?

Scott: Funnily enough, actually through this period, less businesses are closed than we had anticipated. We were starting to get a little bit worried, probably at the back of 2020, about zombie businesses effectively staying afloat because of government support, particularly with the first iteration of JobKeeper, where I think business closures were about a fifth in 2020 of what they were in 2019. It gives you an idea of how many businesses through the government lifelines were kept in operation.

I've got to say, I knew a few of those myself. A good friend of mine actually had a business that really probably should have closed operation in 2020. But because of government support, it kept going into 2021, and it did eventually close. I think we're seeing a little bit of a legacy of some of those businesses.

There will always be businesses that will close, sadly, in the market. That's the very nature of small businesses. What we need to do is be able to make sure that our economy's pretty responsive. We're seeing unemployment at 4.2%. The biggest complaint I hear from businesses is that they just can't get staff. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people. They might not necessarily be in the industries people want to be in. 

We've seen through this pandemic as well that people are yearning for safety. If you want to take a job in the hospitality sector, you've seen that closed down several times before and being the first to close down effectively. 

Being able to attract people to industries like that, we've got a tourism sector with borders opening that we want to thrive again and being able to keep businesses like that that would keep good businesses alive. We've had lots of lifelines, creative industries as well that have gone out to those businesses to allow them to effectively continue to operate in a dormant setting, continue to operate with staff being connected to those businesses so they could fire back up again.

That's been, I think, the key really to our response and how strong our economy has remained that we've been able to keep that association with businesses and their employees because, without that, businesses can't really restart again when they're trying to fire up and find staff. We're already seeing a lot of those challenges.

I think we've learnt a lot of lessons through this pandemic in terms of supply chain, in terms of what we need to do to keep ourselves self-sufficient. We're seeing more challenges when we look at the global setting as well. We see with Ukraine what's happening, Russia's aggression, and what that could mean in the future as well.

It's fairly easy for Australia to have sanctions in place with Russia where we have very limited economic engagement. But if there was to be another player in the future where Australia is much more economically tied, both sanctions would have a much bigger impact. I think the lessons in the last few years show us that we need to be much more self-sufficient. And we need to look at our own manufacturing capacity, our own supply chain.

There's a lot of work being done in moving that way with advanced manufacturing and task forces in New South Wales. That creates a lot of economic opportunities for the future, particularly situated around the Aerotropolis in Western Sydney, the building of that new Western Sydney Parkland City in the city of Bradfield and the opportunities there.

I'm pretty confident about the future and particularly the economic opportunities here in New South Wales and more broadly in Australia as we look at how we, perhaps, have become a little lazy, and been able to get cheaper resources and industries from other parts of the world, and how we need to become more self-sufficient. There's a big economic driver there as well.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely, mate. I know we've got to be careful of time and where you've got to get to, but I want to ask you about the systems of government. We've got local, we've got state and federal. Your state is New South Wales, specifically.

Again, through your role in the COVID response, what would you like to see change in the future around how our systems of government work? Because there have certainly been some issues that have, I guess, been highlighted through a pandemic-type situation.

Scott: Funny enough, actually, in many ways, I think that while there might be some issues that have emerged, it actually shows that our system does work in a funny sense, that we can have a variation of responses in different states and different geographical regions.

I guess that Australians very much have that view, in a sense, that we'd like to see the government doing something and then it comes down to which government. The Australian public doesn't care which government, they just care that the government will actually do it and there's not back-passing. That's one of the big challenges, I think, in this environment that accountability can be transferred and the squabbles that people see between federal, state, and local governments.

I don't think the public buys into that. They want to just see us sort our stuff out and be able to get on with the job. It was always funny. It goes back to my mind because I've been a strong supporter of state's rights and the primacy of the state, so to speak, in terms of how the government works.

People would often argue for one level of government, they would usually point to the state government and say, we can have a federal government. We understand why there needs to be a federal government and local government, but what's the point of state? I think this has actually shown the points of states and the importance of states, particularly as service delivery organisations.

The federal government doesn't have the infrastructure or the expertise to deliver on the ground. I think that's been shown. That's got nothing to do with which colour it's in. That's got to do with the nature of the federal government, why it's there, and how our constitution set it up.

The states are the service delivering arms. I think we've seen, over the last two years, how important that is. Probably, Australians could now name other state premiers where they may not have been able to in the past. They've watched them and we've seen different responses in different states.

There are many who would say that that is a bad thing. I personally don't think it is. There are certainly times that I've had frustrations with other states that I've thought that we needed a more collegiate approach between states and our responses. Particularly, when it comes to things like the freight industry for instance and testing requirements, we do have a national freight task and that interaction between states, border closures, and those are the elements of frustration.

In the end, largely, it actually has served Australia relatively well. That has meant that where there are different levels of threat, we responded in a different way rather than universally responded in the same way. I think that's actually been a bit of achievement during the pandemic.

It would have been nicer in a sense to the way the National Cabinet started out if that had continued on throughout. I know that as we speak today, there's a National Cabinet Meeting and I'll be interested to see what comes out of it. The National Cabinet started off really well. I think it's better than COAG, but it'd be nicer if it was more cooperative than what maybe we've seen at times.

Brendan: I want to go back to, I guess, the homeschooling and potential hidden costs as a result of this pandemic and when they tried the children's mental health or whatever. What is the biggest one that you see from your previous role and your living and breathing roles now and your involvement around the hidden cost, the hidden pandemic that people talk about? Where do you see that as the biggest danger moving forward for our country?

Scott: I definitely think when it comes to our kids, that's the biggest cost. Let me praise teachers for the way they've been able to be nimble, adaptable, and flexible in delivering the curriculum online. Every parent's circumstance has been incredibly different as well. Some parents are able to sit there all day and spend their time dedicated to their children. Others have to juggle, others are not really able to do it at all and have to leave the kids to their own devices. That's really showing a different educational attainment, I think, during these past two years. 

I certainly would hope that moving into the future that closure of schools is the last resort always for every state. But I think that's the biggest impact we'll face in terms of that generation at different levels of schooling and their advancement. That does concern me and we need to do a lot. We are in New South Wales in terms of tutoring, being able to get kids up to scratch, and really being able to pick up.

Funny enough, even with my own kids, I found there are some areas where they improved. I've got young kids. Probably, their reading improved, somewhat, because it was one-on-one in terms of the instruction they're getting. But it's not the same as being able on Zoom, on Seesaw, or being able to do that work remotely.

Of course, the other one is mental health. The shadow pandemic, as it's always deemed. I chair the Parliamentary Friends of Mental Health as well and just being able to see some of those impacts in mental health. Isolation, people who are already isolated and on the fringes who find themselves more isolated because they just haven't been able to, at certain times, have that human interaction, which we all yearn for, really, to be able to keep our sanity, so to speak. That's going to leave some significant scars into the future as well and relationships.

For some, spending months on end at home with your partner works incredibly well. For others, it doesn't. I think all of us, if we had to be relatively open and frank, we've had our own challenges. I certainly have in terms of our relationship. Particularly, my wife and I love each other very, very much but we're used to a life where, a lot of the time, we don't spend time together and then find ourselves at home together for months on end. I think that's something that, as is often the cliché, familiarity breeds contempt. That's happened in a lot of relationships.

I think a lot of them have strengthened in this period as well. Even though we face challenges in my own relationship, I think we've strengthened during this period as well. But that's something I know of so many breakups that have occurred from fairly long-term relationships during this pandemic as well. I think that's something we'll have to overcome as a society too.

Brendan: Here's your chance to give all us blokes some relationship advice, mate. What's that one thing you did to improve? You learnt about yourself over this lockdown period and pandemic. What have you implemented to make yourself a better husband?

Scott: I think my best week was, actually, as we went into the Delta wave. My wife actually found herself in isolation. She had half the house downstairs, which we were very fortunate to have downstairs that's lockable and can be its own self-contained entity.

I found that the best thing I could do during that period, where she was in isolation, was to make sure she had a great meal every night and even for lunch as well because that was pretty much what she was waiting for. It was the only interaction or change she had in a sense in being able to have a meal delivered to the door and have that element of surprise as to what it was. That was certainly an area where I picked up some brownie points in cooking to the recipe books, which I don't usually do.

Brendan: Home-cooked as well, mate? Not ordered in?

Scott: Hundred home-cooked. There's no takeaway.

Brendan: That is lots of brownie points.

Scott: I went all out and it's not my usual thing to pull out. My wife's very much the culinary queen of our house, but to be able to pull out the recipe books, to do something a little bit more creative and something I hadn't done before, and to be able to present that, that was certainly something that taught me a lesson about making sure I put that effort into bringing a little bit of light to her day.

It was a pretty dark time. But I've got to say, I think that when she emerged from her isolation, she probably wanted to go back because life had been pretty good. Not having to look after the kids, having every meal prepared for you, and being able to get a fair amount of rest. I think there was a week where she probably struggled with coming back to the real world after being in isolation. And being back to the real world and not being able to leave your house either.

Brendan: Did you develop a love of cooking and now cook every night?

Scott: I've always done my fair share of the cooking, but it probably has not been as creative before or since those two weeks of isolation.

Brendan: That's my lovely wife's criticism of me too. Whenever I say I'm going to cook a meal, it's curry, sausages, spag, or something like that. There's not too much variety in my repertoire.

Scott: Yeah, exactly. Mine is fairly similar. There's meat, there are vegetables. They're cooked, but they're served up on a plate. There's no Heston Blumenthal to help me.

Brendan: Mate, I also want to ask because you're in a game in politics where humility in my experience can be few or far between. I've had the privilege of knowing you for a while now. I've always found you have a good level of humility and are down to earth. What do you do to maintain that in the game you're in?

Scott: I think as we talked about offline, we're all people effectively at the end of the day no matter what position we hold. I am a public servant. That's my job. I'm elected to do this. There are no airs or graces that come with that.

For me, I don't really see it in any different way. I've got to say through this period, in particular, one of the real difficulties for me in a personal perspective was really being in a position of great privilege in having a stable job despite the drag on my time and the difficult situations we went through.

I was in a pretty privileged position in knowing that I had a job when many others around me didn't. Seeing friends and family who were losing significant amounts of pay, high levels of job security, it's all pretty humbling. To know, at the end of the day, that a lot of the decisions we made were not popular and they were difficult decisions.

She was critical of a lot of the decisions we made as well. No matter what we do, there's really nothing, which is the perfect answer. You go one way, you disappoint. I don't think most of the decisions we made pleased everybody.

I think in hindsight, a lot of people look back and say they were the right calls, they were the right decisions, and that we've ended up in a better position than a lot of other places around most places around the world. But to tell people that they've got to stay in their houses, it's not an easy thing to do. It's not an easy thing to do yourself either.

I think as we've seen around the world, the lesson is that people want their representatives to walk the talk as well. If they make the decisions, they want them to abide by them as well. I've been really conscious throughout this period that whatever we expect anyone else to do, we've got to be able to do ourselves too.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. Well said, mate. To wrap this up now, I always ask my guests, what has been the greatest impact on your own leadership journey?

Scott: I think it's been really understanding, during this time and others, the importance of a lot of different voices and hearing a lot of different voices. I've always gone back to that Edmund Burke line of your representative owes you their considered conscience. It's not necessarily a majority vote, but it's that considered conscience that you've got to take on all of the inputs that are there, all of the voices, and come to your own view.

There are times when you can listen to people and there are times when you can hear them out, but you can still disagree with them. You got to hear those voices. During this period, in particular, you've got to go through and you've got to go against all your own preconceptions, so to speak. As I said before about ideology, you got to put it aside, you've got to question it and you've got to question it all the time to see what is the right response.

Sometimes during this, it's a cliché, but there's no playbook. A lot of the time, you'll have a gut instinct as to what's right and what's wrong. You might prove to be 100% wrong on that gut instinct, but sometimes you just got to back it in. I've seen a lot of leaders who've taken that path. They've backed it in, but they've also been open to realise when they are wrong and to change course when the evidence is in front of them. I think you've got to do that.

I think the pandemic has shown us that you can be 100% convinced that what you're doing is right, that the evidence might be before you that it isn't. You've got to be pretty open and quick to respond and to be able to change when you need to. That shouldn't be seen as any sort of failure, but it should be seen as actually being a good leader in my book.

Brendan: Yeah. Well said, mate. Please hold those thoughts. If you're having conversations with any colleagues, either liberal, labour, or any form of political persuasion, please feel free to remind them of those things as much as you can when they maybe forget.

Scott: Just on that point, I think it goes back to—and I'll of course misquote. I think it was a quote of, when the facts change, I change my mind. That's what we've got to be pretty mindful of.

Brendan: Absolutely, mate. Scott, I want to say a massive thank you. I really do appreciate your time. Hopefully, I haven't put you a little bit late for the next engagement. Again, you've been very patient. I really appreciate it, mate. Thanks for coming on and sharing some of those intimate thoughts around yourself, personally, and where you're at, and some of the values and challenges you've had, and certainly your role all canvassing that up around the pandemic. I really appreciate it.

I appreciate the work you're doing in the government of New South Wales. I think they are serving us very, very well overall in the greater scheme of things. Mate, keep doing it. Thanks very much for being a valued guest on The Culture of Things podcast.

Scott: Great to join you, Brendan. Thanks so much.

Brendan: How self-sufficient is your business? Have you identified the risks in your business and taken steps to mitigate them? As we've all experienced in recent times, it's important for business to be self-sufficient.

Consider your reliance on parts of your business where you have no or very little control. It doesn't mean you have to change things completely. But in the case of supply chains, it may mean spreading the risk like having a couple of different suppliers in different countries.

Another risk could be related to marketing. As an example, if you're reliant on Facebook ads, you have to keep paying to get your customer market. Building up your own email list allows you to contact your target market without being controlled by algorithms or the size of your budget.

The pandemic has forced us all to look at our business and make changes to be more self-sufficient. The big question is, will you continue to be proactive around the need for self-sufficiency or will you be reactive and wait for the next pandemic?

These were my three key takeaways from the conversation with Scott. My first key takeaway: Leaders focus on clarity over certainty. This is important all the time. But in times of a crisis like a pandemic, it's even more important. If a leader has waited to be certain, the situation would get away from them very quickly.

The same is true in business and sport. If you want for certainty, very little gets done. Unless you've had a crystal ball, you can never be certain. Leaders know certainty isn't the end game. It's having the whole team clear on what's next and moving forward together to achieve it.

My second key takeaway: Leaders make the tough decisions. On many occasions, leaders will be called upon to be courageous. Think about what Scott said. It was the challenge of lives and livelihoods. Each one of those impacts the other. What a decision to have to make. It's an extreme example, but a great one where leaders have to be courageous and make tough decisions.

My third key takeaway: Leaders seek a variety of educated opinions. This is a key factor before being able to make the tough decisions. Educated opinions mean people with credibility in the topic of conversation, not the opinions from armchair experts. The best leaders ask questions, seek input, and create the environment for people to speak up and share their educated opinion.

In summary, my three key takeaways were: Leaders focus on clarity over certainty, leaders make the tough decisions, and leaders seek a variety of educated opinions.

If you want to talk culture, leadership, or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, leave me a comment on the socials or you can leave me a voice message at thecultureofthings.com. Thanks for joining me. Remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation.


Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit thecultureofleadership.com to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.