Woman Craik, Wendy

Public Servant and Scientist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Wendy Craik has been described as 'a woman of many firsts' (Wisdom Interviews). In 1992, she became head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) a position she relinquished in 1995 when she created another precedent by becoming the first woman to lead the National Farmers Federation. She was the first female Chief Executive of the Murray Darling Basin Commission (2004 -2008) and has held numerous positions on boards and advisory councils, including President of the National Competition Council (2002), Chair of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (2000), Chair of the National Rural Advisory Council, member of the Productivity Commission (2009 -) and chair of the Board of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (2010 - ). In 2000 she worked in private industry as Chief Executive of Earth Sanctuaries Limited - a listed company pioneering a private approach to wildlife conservation. Currently (2013) she is also on the boards of the WorldFish Center and Dairy Australia and is on the Council of the University of South Australia.

Wendy Craik was born in Canberra in 1949 and her early childhood paralleled the post-war development of the city. Her memories of a happy childhood in a small town include watching the filling of Lake Burley Griffin, and visiting a market garden called Leo's every week to get the family vegetables, on the south side of what is now King's Avenue Bridge. She attended Griffith Primary School, and Telopea Park High School and had what she described as 'a childhood like any other 1950s childhood', growing up with her three sisters in Griffith (Interview). The house was imbued with public service culture, where a focus on education was important. Her father was a federal public servant promoted to the position of Auditor-General, her friends were generally the children of public servants, and her mother worked at the Australian National University as a research assistant once Wendy and her sisters were all at school. Wendy was the only one of her siblings to pursue a long term career in the public service.

After completing school, Craik began a BA at the Australian National University (ANU) but discovered that tertiary History and English were not as interesting and challenging as she had found them to be at high school, so she switched to studying science. She particularly liked Psychology and Zoology and settled on Zoology because the study of ecological systems - how change in one part of a system can impact upon the whole system - appealed to her. She completed an honours thesis in 1972, a study of a freshwater ecology in a stream running through a Canberra suburb, which set her on a course for postgraduate study. Discovering that she was interested in working in water, and preferring marine environments for their variety, she went to where the expertise existed, in Vancouver, Canada. The Canadian experience was rewarding, but after a while in the rainy and grey climate of the Pacific Coast she knew she needed to live in a place where there was more sun. She completed her PhD and returned to Canberra to take up a position in the Department of the Environmen. What started as a three month rotation in the GBRMPA as part of basic training for a Graduate APS trainee became a seventeen year appointment.

Craik began working for the GBRMPA in Townsville in May 1978 and loved the work surveying recreational and commercial fishermen about fish movements on the reef. It was important work designed to establish a baseline of data relating to the reef ecology and to develop maritime charts that had not been updated since Captain Cook had sailed the coastline in the eighteenth century. To be successful, she learned very early of the importance of developing good relationships with stakeholders, so that decisions made to save the environment could be regarded as negotiated, rather than imposed. After a long stint in the field, Craik worked as a research manager who commissioned the field work tasks. Looking to challenge herself, she undertook the Australian Public Service Executive Development Scheme which she describes as a 'fabulous year of professional development' (Interview).

In 1992, Craik was appointed head of the GBRMPA, at a time when the work was at its most rewarding and most challenging. Chief amongst the challenges was the need to balance protection of the reef against reasonable development, especially by tourism operators. As there great job diversity within the authority, she was exposed to many opportunities that developed her leadership skills. But in 1995, after seventeen years in Townsville, she and her husband decided that they needed a change of environment, professionally and environmentally. The position of Executive Director of the National Farmers Federation (NFF) was available and Craik was the successful applicant.

The task of managing the member organisations of such a diverse lobby group as the NFF presented a whole raft of new challenges. There were some important issues to resolve during her tenure, including managing the different philosophical and political attitudes within the membership to free trade and native title, and working through the impact of the Melbourne Waterfront Dispute in 1998. Moving to a GST created issues for her members, as did the impact of new technological platforms. Craik freely admits that she did not realise what she was getting into when she accepted the job. But there were some important lessons to be learned about the skills required to lead an industry advocacy organisation; first and foremost, the job of an Executive Director is to represent the members, not get ahead of them. By definition, this makes implementing organisational change difficult. 'You can't make it if the members don't want it' (Interview).

After five years at the NFF, Craik was looking for new challenges. In 2000 she moved to Adelaide to take up the position of CEO at Earth Sanctuaries, a publicly listed company that tried to bring together private funding and eco-tourism as a way of building flora and fauna conservation projects. The concept was forward thinking in a scientific sense, but difficult to achieve commercially. She moved on from Earth Sanctuaries after a couple of years, fully supportive of the concept, particular the intention to involve the private sector in the business of conservation. 'I think a lot of people won't take conservation really seriously unless there is some kind of dollar value attached to it,' she believes (Wisdom Interviews).

Roles Wendy has taken on since leaving Earth Sanctuaries include: Chief Executive of the Murray Darling Basin Commission; President of the National Competition Council; Chair of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority; Chair of the National Rural Advisory Council and a consultancy for ACIL Tasman. She is currently (2013) a member of the Productivity Commission and chair of the Board of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.

Craik has never felt that being a woman has held her back in her career, but acknowledges that this is not the case for all women. She has always felt in control of her own destiny and believes that a career characterised by movement has not only been good for her, but for the organisations she has worked for. 'People and organisations need to move on every six to eight years, she thinks. 'Organisations can benefit from new-blood semi-regularly.' She's been fortunate that family circumstances have enabled this sort of portability (Interview). Diversity of experience has helped develop her as a leader.

Good training has also been important, which is why she supports the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. The APS Executive Development Program helped her to understand that an important key to good leadership is 'recognising who you are, what your values are, how you react in situations and seeing yourself as other do'. Good training programs give individuals the opportunity to reflect on these key issues. Another important key is being prepared to take risks. 'Life is a bit boring if you don't take risks', says Craik who advises women on the leadership track to, 'Beg for forgiveness, don't ask for permission!' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Wendy Craik interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 29 February 2012, ORAL TRC 6290/29; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Wendy Craik interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project
29 February 2012
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection