Woman Nixon, Christine (1953 - )
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
- Police commissioner and Police officer
Written by Susan Harwood, Susan Harwood and Associates Quality Consultancy Services; Australasian Council of Women and Policing and Helen McDermott, Australasian Council of Women and Policing
Born in 1953 on the northern beaches of Sydney, Christine Nixon was lucky enough to 'catch the wave of 70s activism and be a beneficiary of it' (Interview). Describing her childhood and youth as a life 'layered in leadership opportunities', through school and church activities, Nixon had a happy upbringing immersed in a supportive family (Interview). Good teachers at the local government school, Beacon Hill High School, gave her a solid grounding in English, a love of history and an appreciation of her own creativity through the study of Art. On reflection, she credits her English teacher with learning the art of commanding attention through 'the power or presence and calm' (Interview). A tall young woman, Nixon also learned early that her physical presence added to her authority. People are not necessarily born leaders, but height does help.
Christine Nixon began her extraordinary policing career in 1972 when she was 19, not the least of her reasons being 'it was a bit of an adventure (Interview). Against her boyfriend's wishes and despite her father's objections, she followed in the latter's footsteps and joined the NSW Police and become Woman Police Constable Number 173 (Nixon, 2011). She was the 173rd female police officer to have joined the NSW Police and was one of two women in her class of 70, and one of six women who joined that year. They were of course trained by male instructors, but not in the use of weapons. Her first assignments were directing traffic and giving school children lectures on safety. She moved into criminal investigations, but was limited to cases where the victims were women and children and where, as a tall blond woman, she could be used in undercover police operations.
Christine's leadership showed itself early in her career and in 1974 she was elected president of the women's branch of the NSW Police Association. This role led her to put forward a proposal in 1976 that women would be permitted to work in operational general duties policing - a proposal that was agreed to by the Commissioner when he had returned one day from a long liquid lunch. The women in the NSW Police were divided, but one summed it up with '[D]on't worry. They [the women who were negative about the proposal] are the past … You're no dumber than the men…. If they can cope, you can too' (Nixon, 2011; p. 44). There was, however, a backlash to Christine's leadership of the change and in 1978 when she applied to become a detective, she was instead given the option of a rural posting or to go and work with John Avery (who six years later became the longest servicing NSW Police Commissioner) on a review of police education.
In 1984 Christine was awarded a scholarship to study for a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University. When she returned from the United States, John Avery was the Commissioner of the NSW Police and Christine worked on the program to reform organisation and try to rid it of corruption, a time during which she says she learnt a lot about leadership and change. 'Legislative changes were forcing new ways of thinking', she says, 'especially in the area of domestic violence and crimes against women' (Interview). The community was beginning to expect the police to operate as a 'service', rather than as a 'force' and police needed to think more about how they could operate within a context where human rights had to be protected.
When Christine was appointed Director of Human Resources in New South Wales in 1994, she introduced a range of flexible work practices that improved policing as an occupation for police who were also parents and improved recruiting practices to make the process more equitable for minority groups. As a result New South Wales had one of the highest percentages of women of any police service in Australia. In 2000, women comprised almost 20 per cent of its police officers and in 2012, 34 per cent of its police officers are women. One of the advertising campaigns initiated during Christine's period within Human Resources included a recruiting campaign targeting lesbian women. The advertisements, run in lesbian magazines in New South Wales, promised gay women 'sensible shoes' if they joined the police service.
Christine continued her progression up the ranks of the NSW Police, and her autobiography (Nixon 2011), provides an insightful account of her journey. As the only female Assistant Commissioner in the NSW Police - Bev Lawson by this time had been promoted to Deputy Commissioner - Christine worked both in headquarters and major operational commands. This provided her with operational experience into one of the world's largest policing jurisdictions - and the years of hands-on policing work that her future critics refused to acknowledge.
Not limiting her advocacy to the safe and deaf ears within policing; she was happy to risk her reputation and become involved with an emerging feminist group that was advocating for the improvement of policing for women. She was one of the key founding members of the Australasian Council of Women and Policing ACWAP Inc (ACWAP). Her ten year leadership of this group was typical of her leadership generally. She was a leader, not a manager of ACWAP and left the administration of the Council to the more than capable committee: she provided advice, insights, mediation and open doors when needed. ACWAP was not well regarded by some of the police commissioners and a few of the police associations, whom it can only be surmised resented the idea of women organising themselves without "permission". As a result Christine was occasionally called upon to defend this group of 'upstart' women. ACWAP's confidence, success and longevity is in no small part a result of Christine's leadership.
One of the policing jurisdictions that had been the most hostile to ACWAP prior to 2001 was the Victoria Police. In the late 1990's the Commissioner, Neil Comrey had refused to distribute The Whip: the Newsletter of Women in Policing in his force. Every other policing jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand had either sponsored an edition of The Whip or ensured that it was distributed widely. Comrey told the audience at First Australasian Conference of Women and Policing in 1996 that he had found a cartoon in the first edition of The Whip offensive, so therefore he would not allow it to be distributed. The cartoon, reproduced from an anti-sexual harassment campaign in the Netherlands, drew the parallel of a dog 'humping' a woman's leg while she was at the photocopier, with sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Council's media release for Christine's appointment as Chief Police Commissioner of the Victoria Police reflected the excitement that women in policing felt about the appointment of a woman who was happy to be accused of being a feminist to one of largest policing jurisdiction in the southern hemisphere:
Australian women are celebrating the appointment of the first woman police commissioner in Australia. Former NSW Assistant Commissioner Christine Nixon was selected from a large field of local and international applicants for one of the toughest jobs in Australia, Chief Commissioner of the Victoria Police (Tynan).
Christine then went on and led the Victoria Police in the way she had always led: she was supportive, consultative, imaginative but she had clear boundaries and expectations and assumed that those she was leading, as she did, worked for a greater good, making the world a better place. She retained a focus on improving policing for everyone, but for particularly those who had not been served well by the traditional male model of policing: juveniles, and victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. During this same period she continued to work with and for ACWAP initiating and sponsoring the development of its Women Leading Change project - a ground breaking community engagement leadership program for women and policing and women in the community.
In February 2009, on one of Victoria's darkest days, when unstoppable firestorms destroyed properties and lives, Christine did not behave like the traditional male leader who had all the answers - a model that was proven by the 2001 Canberra fires not to have stopped the fire nor to have satisfied the community. She knew she had the best possible staff in place and did not stand behind them making them nervous while they did their job and did not expect briefings about the minutiae of what was happening in a busy and confused environment - if she had it would not have saved lives, would not stopped the fires, and would not have improved Victoria's disaster co-ordination. Christine Nixon didn't take charge on the day. Instead she let her highly trained staff do their jobs and was there to provide advice or escalate a request. She was easily contacted if needed. She did not divert resources to get regular briefings. Instead she let the people doing the work, keep doing it. She drew significant criticism for this approach and the media portrayed her leadership style as lacking because she did not personally make every decision that day. Christine left the Victoria Police to head the Victoria Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. This work has allowed her to engage in one of her great interests, community development. It has also been a role, like policing, where she has been able to help others in their time of great need.
The legacy of Christine Nixon's leadership is one which has inspired many women and men to realise that they don't have to fit a traditional male mould of leadership and that there is another possibility. It has also been a cautionary tale for many women about the high levels of scrutiny to which women in leadership roles are subject. It has been a reminder to us all that women who do stand out and who dare to wear the mantle of a leadership will be criticised for the fact that they are different.
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Nixon, Christine and Chandler, Jo, Fair Cop, 1st edn, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
- Sinclair, A., 'The Leadership of Christine Nixon', The Journal for Women and Policing, vol. 24, Winter, 2009, pp. 7-11. Details
- Tynan, Melinda, '"The Turtle Only Makes Progress by Sticking his Neck Out": The Wit and Wisdom of Christine Nixon', The Journal for Women and Policing, vol. 24, Winter, 2009, p. 6. Details
- Tynan, M, 'Media Release: Australia's First Female Police Commissioner: Christine Nixon', Australasian Council of Women and Policing, 2001. Details
- Christine Nixon interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording]
- 1 June 2011
- National Library of Australia
- National Library of Australia Oral History Collection