Good leadership means diluting and improving power structures

Public servants can claim to champion human-centred design until they are blue in the face but to create policy and programs with impact, decision-makers need to be open to sharing power with stakeholders.

Caitlin Figueiredo is a change-maker and pragmatist who has spent the past few years working in the political arena.

The ACT-based youth founded her own not-for-profit, Jasiri Australia, in 2017 and she currently serves as the co-chair of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC), which represents 4.5 million young people nationally.

“It was because of the end of the White Australia policy that my family were able to come to Australia and I now exist. I’m Indian-Australian, I’ve got an Indigenous background, and I never saw my community really reflected in Australian politics,” Figueiredo told The Mandarin.

“From the time I was young, I was like, ‘Politics is really important. We need more young people, we need people of diverse backgrounds to represent us’,” she said.

When Figueiredo was aged 18 she helped set up a World Vision youth branch in Canberra with a view to empowering young people and bringing their voices into spaces of power and decision-making. Two years later, she was invited to give a speech about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations, which set her on a path to working on intergenerational youth partnerships in New York.

Figueiredo’s work with the UN continued with a special focus on gender equality and she was part of a team who established a global forum for young people with UN Women called the Commission on Status of Women and Young People.

“Every single year, that means bringing together 1,000 young people from all ages from 10 all the way up to 30 [years]. Where we get to work together, to participate in a number of different workshops, speeches, and we get to write our declaration that is presented to the UN on behalf of young people,” Figueiredo said.

When Donald Trump was voted into power in 2016, things shifted for the young dynamo. Spurred by the ‘ick’ factor (she describes the former US president as “gross”), and a determination not to see Australia polarised by divisive politics that shouted-down the voices of advocates and marginalised groups, Figueiredo returned to Australia and started to mobilise. And so ‘Girls take over parliament’ was born.

“We partner with young women from all political parties,” Figueiredo said.

“I wanted to bring young women directly into the halls of power, not just for, like, really quick meetings, but to work with politicians, to go behind the scenes, to receive training, to receive all of the support from a bipartisan lens, so that they can feel empowered and skilled and have the networks and connections to actually eventually run for office.

“If there’s an opportunity, raise your hand to say ‘I want to be in the room’ — and [do so] even if there’s no opportunity. Kind of like what we did with Girls take over parliament — there was no structure, we created it,” she added.

Leadership motivated by values is what Figueiredo is all about, and opening doors to elevate the voices that influence her ideal version of democracy is something she has committed herself to in a long list of achievements. When asked — perhaps all too predictably — when she plans to enter the political foray and run for office herself, the response is refreshing and not something we hear often enough. For now, she has bigger fish to fry.

“For me, it’s all about how can we create waves. How can we have visionary leadership so you can create waves. It’s all about people, values and stories, and how that can inspire current Australians and future Australians.

“I’m very privileged to work with First Nations Australians, and I’m guided by their leadership. And something that they have taught me is, you’re not just looking at the here and now. [Your decisions and impact] should affect not just the current generation but seven to 100 generations’ time,” she said.

Figueiredo was named as a member of the recently announced McKinnon Prize selection panel. She is the youngest of 11 esteemed judges, including former PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson, former cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer, former Victorian premier John Brumby, University of Canberra chancellor Professor Tom Calma, and former chief scientist Professor Alan Finkel, who will choose a winner of the prestigious prize for 2022.

“We always see the standard types of leaders. We see generally, it’s all white men in very fancy suits who come from very privileged backgrounds or suburbs,” Figueiredo said.

“I’m looking at, well, did they go to public school? Do they have any mental health concerns? Do they have disabilities? Are they people of colour? Are they First Nations? If they’re not, where are they? If they’re not, how do they help those communities so that they can create platforms and pathways to them help them run for office or to them to be democracy shapers?”.

Figueiredo’s definition of a leader is somebody who can open doors for the wider community, and facilitate their input in decision-making that affects the lives of the most ordinary among us. She describes democracy as not so much being the colonial, Western system of government Australia has inherited from Britain but what she calls “pure collaboration”. To lose sight of this is the antithesis of leadership, she says, and leaves most citizens behind.

“I don’t just look at what [candidates on the shortlist] have achieved on paper. I’m like, ‘What is the bigger picture? What is the holistic vision here?’.”

“Obviously, in contemporary politics, it’s really difficult to create policy for 50 to 100 to 1,000 years’ time, but what are the seeds they are sowing?,” Figueiredo said.

“What I want people to know about democracy is democracy is living, it is thriving, it can be shaped, it can be molded. If we don’t like it, we can go back to the drawing board,” she added.

On Tuesday, former prime minister Julia Gillard and former NSW premier Mike Baird were also named as inaugural McKinnon Prize patrons.

The 2022 McKinnon Prize recipients will be announced in March.