- Detention centre boss vows to bring a caring touch
- STEVE WATERSON THE AUSTRALIAN MARCH 29, 2014 12:00AM
- “CARING” and “compassionate” are not the first words you associate with corporate lawyers, much less with those who run asylum-seeker facilities, but Kate Munnings is no ordinary lawyer.
- The 47-year-old head of Transfield Services’ legal and risk division is determined those qualities are what we’ll see now the company has taken over the management of the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island from British company G4S.
- “There is a lot of debate about the rights and wrongs of the government’s policy, and of the policy of the previous government, but the fact is, there are people on those islands,” she says. “There are actually people there, so they need to be cared for and provided for in a way that’s humane and respectful.”
- On Thursday night Ms Munnings was awarded a prestigious scholarship by Chief Executive Women and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia to participate in the Women’s Leadership Forum at Harvard Business School in June. Yesterday she picked up a more daunting prize, assuming senior executive responsibility for the controversial centres and their 2100 detainees as part of her role as interim chief of infrastructure.
- It’s a challenge she feels well suited to. In assessing her for the scholarship, Ms Munnings says, Chief Executive Women “looked at my quite different entry into the corporate world”, and there is no doubt her unorthodox career path has given her rare skills.
- “I didn’t do well at high school,” she says in a conference room at Transfield’s North Sydney headquarters. She became a nurse, electing in the 80s to work with HIV and AIDS patients at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Albion Street AIDS Clinic.
- AIDS sufferers at that time were regarded like medieval plague carriers, shunned and reviled.
- “It was a death sentence back then,” Ms Munnings says. “Everyone was afraid of the disease. We would get people coming into the clinic from jail and they would be terrified to sit on the chair in the waiting room.
- “Then you’d talk to them about their sexual history and it was mind-blowing. You’d be sitting there going, ‘You’re not going to get it off the chair, fellas’.”
- She studied for a science degree at night, specialising in immunology, following that with graduate law, fascinated by the ethical dilemmas she encountered while nursing.
- Ms Munnings’ medical experience still informs her work.
- “I joke that I brought a bedside manner into the corporate world,” she says. “As a woman who comes from a very caring and compassionate profession originally, that is valuable ... I have a lot of skills and a lot of background that can help with what Transfield does on both Manus and Nauru.”
- A key figure in that background was her paternal grandfather, Kurt Bretal, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis.
- “They came from Germany just before the Second World War,” Ms Munnings says of her grandparents. “My grandfather spent many nights riding trains trying to avoid capture, and ironically was saved by a Nazi soldier. He always reminded me you must never assume everyone is the same, no matter how affiliated they seem to be.”
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