With the world still recovering from the COVID-19 outbreak, the need for leaders with an unwavering dedication to public service, particularly in the health sector, has never been more critical.
Western Australia's Minister for Health; Mental Health, Hon. Amber-Jade Sanderson BA MLA, embodies this commitment, as she revealed during the latest AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series breakfast.
Amber-Jade's journey into politics was not planned. Born in Sydney, she spent her childhood in Perth before relocating to London and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.
Yet as Amber-Jade stated, she had always felt a deep passion for public service.
“I’ve always been driven by a strong sense of unfairness and injustice where people are hurt by poor decisions that don’t work for them,” she said.
“... I will always strive to be better, to reform systems and to pursue change by thinking about things differently.”
Even before her political career, Amber-Jade had already advocated for the rights of others.
After working in public affairs and government relations in London, she moved back to Perth, working as a mid-level leader and then Assistant Secretary at the United Workers Union.
Amber-Jade touched on how advocating for low-paid workers shaped her understanding of the challenges faced by everyday Australians.
“It felt like a huge responsibility,” she said.
“... It often involved making very difficult decisions, negotiations and trade-offs, that can have real impacts on people's lives.”
Amber-Jade's journey led her to serve in both houses of the state parliament. In 2013, she took a significant step towards her political aspirations when she was elected to the WA Parliament, representing the East Metropolitan Region.
Over four years, she has held key roles in the Labor Government, including Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet, Minister for Environment; Climate Action; Commerce and, for the past two years, Minister for Health; Mental Health.
At the breakfast, Amber-Jade shared how deciding to resign from the Upper House seat and run for the lower house in Morley in 2017, the suburb where she spent her early childhood, was a calculated risk.
“I had a seven-year-old and an 18-month-old and I said to my partner at the time I want to give up my job and run for this seat,” she said.
“I don't know if I'm going to win it, but I want to give it a go. Thankfully he said ‘Sure, let's do it’.”
One of the defining aspects of Amber-Jade's leadership style is her innate ability to connect with issues authentically.
To highlight this, she touched on her belief that the most successful leaders excel in connecting with and comprehending the implications of issues and decisions on an individual level.
“I've worked with leaders that are detached and dispassionate when they're making decisions. I worked out very quickly that was not me,” she said.
“I'm a very empathetic person and I need to feel authentically connected to an issue. Then for me, the rest falls into place.”
Throughout campaigning, Amber-Jade emphasised her direct and honest communication style when engaging with local community members.
She expressed that if someone disagreed with her, she would openly inform them that she might not be the right candidate for their views.
“I will never stand on someone's doorstep and just tell them what they want to hear. Can't do it,” she said.
“I think we have to be [honest], otherwise we can’t survive in that.
“I have to be authentic about how I respond to an issue … I always try and put things into my own words and frame things as if I were having a normal conversation with someone.
“... I appreciate robust discussion and I appreciate being challenged. They are some of the best discussions I've had.”
The importance of good values
Fundamentally, Amber-Jade values authenticity and the clear articulation of one's values. She elaborated on her belief that, in her view, politics is about the ‘why’ rather than just the ‘how’.
She expressed this to the audience by touching on the importance of being value-driven and ensuring that core principles guide decision-making.
“People are very focused on ‘How do you get there? How do you do this? How do you win?’ For me, it's why. The most important thing is why you're doing it.”
“[Decisions] have always been so I can pursue my values. I can pursue things that are important to me and the broader society," she said.
“You can get lost in the details … But we must come back to ‘What are my core principles?’”
Championing Voluntary Assisted Dying Laws
While an accomplished leader, one of Amber-Jade's most notable achievements is her instrumental role in delivering Western Australia's Voluntary Assisted Dying laws.
As the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on End-of-Life Choices, she spearheaded an extensive community consultation process, which, after a year-long debate, led to the passing of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.
When touching on the success of the bill passing, she shared how she valued former WA Premier Hon. Mark McGowan MLA’s decisive leadership style, which prioritised listening to various viewpoints.
“He backed me to push major reforms and he trusted me to do it my way. I valued and learnt from that,” she said.
“Successes came from identifying the people around you capable of driving an issue.
“… It's about drawing out the right expertise, the breadth of experience and then bringing those people with you on the journey.
“Reforms shouldn't be driven by any individual leaders or their egos, but rather a collective goal of a good team working together in the interests of the broader community.”
Team influence on decision-making
Upon becoming WA Minister for Health; Mental Health, Amber-Jade assumed her role during a critical period marked by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an urgent demand for swift healthcare reforms.
After WA’s long-awaited border was due to be lifted, she discussed the challenge of making difficult decisions when COVID-19 was to be knowingly introduced into the State.
“One thing that kept me in check was never losing that personal connection to an issue. I've always tried to put the patient at the centre of every decision that we've made,” she said.
“To keep our community safe and healthy, our systems do need multiple reforms happening at a very rapid pace.
“...I hope [the community] has learnt to understand that I am their greatest champion with a public health system.”
Making tough decisions can be difficult, particularly as a politician, when you are subject to public scrutiny. Amber-Jade spoke on how having people around you who are honest and test your views is vital for decision-making.
“You can have the best policy decision in the world, but everything lives and dies in implementation,” she discussed.
“Always keeping the end goal in mind, understanding what drives people, backing yourself in and seeing things through to the very end are all powerful lessons that I learned.”
Knowing how to win and when to call it
When asked how she handles making tough calls during the negotiation process, Amber-Jade shared the importance of knowing how to win and when to call it.
“Don't get yourself into a corner that you can't come out of … You cannot satisfy everyone at once,” she explained.
“Sometimes you have to acknowledge and accept their position and look at the best interest of the majority.”
Yet as she stated, not all decisions come without a few mistakes.
“It's about making tough and pragmatic decisions. You can only do that by making mistakes and learning from them quickly,” she said.
Leading from within
Amber-Jade's leadership journey is a testament to the idea that leadership is not granted by a position, but emerges from within.
Her emphasis on the importance of leading with collaboration, transparency and accountability offers valuable insights into what it means to be an authentic leader.
“You learn the most when you're not talking. So, listen, really listen and watch. But also speak when it is time to speak and say something meaningful,” she said.
When concluding her speech at the AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series breakfast, Amber-Jade left some parting words of wisdom for the audience.
“Leadership is rarely handed to you … You have to show leadership before you have the opportunity to lead,” she stated.
“Power and ambition shouldn't be dirty words … Don't hold back. Don't wait to be asked and don't apologise for wanting to step up.”