The clichéd comment to make to someone about to take over from someone else who is well-known and highly regarded is to say they have big shoes to fill.
In taking over from Fr Frank Brennan as the new CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia on July 1, Dr Ursula Stephens comes to the position with very sizeable shoes of her own. At least metaphorically, even if her actual feet lean towards the daintier end of the spectrum.
“First of all I believe Fr Frank Brennan leaves an extraordinary legacy for Catholic Social Services, not just in the organisational change that he’s overseen, but also in guiding members and member organisations through some of the real trauma within the sector of the Royal Commission and post the Royal Commission,” Dr Stephens said.
“We all know Fr Frank is very charismatic, he’s highly intelligent, a gifted speaker and, he’s an eminent lawyer. He has brought all of those gifts and experience to bear on his role, as he will, I’m sure, in his new role as Rector at Newman College.”
“So no, I don’t feel that I have to fit into his shoes at all, and if I did I try I would fall very short, so I will endeavour to put my own mark on the organisation.
“I believe one of my skills is in fostering collaboration across the CSSA networks and between the Catholic agencies – Catholic Social Services, Catholic Health and Catholic Education. I feel that we have a lot in common and will have more in common as we tackle challenges such as how we’re supporting an ageing population in Australia into the future.”
Dr Stephens spent 12 years in the Australian Parliament as a Senator for New South Wales from 2002 to 2014, representing the Australian Labor Party.
In that time she was Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Prime Minister for Social Inclusion in the first Rudd Government, and later Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector.
Dr Stephens comes to the position with a strong record of advocacy on behalf of her constituents and also has extensive experience and a deep understanding of the social services sector, social policy development, government relations and community services more broadly. She holds a PhD in Public Administration and a Bachelor of Education and is an active member of her local parish community, serving on the finance council.
The Next Phase
Perhaps a better analogy than “filling shoes” might be accepting the baton passed to her for the next phase. Fr Frank’s term as CEO overlapped with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual abuse. The next phase might be described as the Post Royal Commission Phase, or the Plenary Phase, or simply the next phase in the CSSA’s existence.
“I suppose you could say there are transition stages,” Dr Stephens said.
“We’ve had the Royal Commission which has been quite traumatic for the Church, for the community, for the victims and friends of victims. It’s really had a ripple effect through society.
“But right now there’s a Royal Commission into Aged Care, and a Royal Commission into Disability Services. I think that we’re going to see very significant outcomes from these Royal Commissions as well, which will impact on the service delivery in the future.
“So many of our member organisations, as contracted service providers will be very challenged by some of the outcomes of these Royal Commissions. Helping them through that is going to be an important next step.
“We will also have the outcomes of the Plenary Council to consider. Some will impact on parish based social services organisations, so we’ll considering all these challenges with an eye to the future – what are we all going to look like in five years’ time.”
Dr Stephens’ availability for the position came due to a confluence of events – the timing of Fr Frank accepting his new position in Melbourne, and the result of the NSW state elections.
Dr Stephens was committed to campaigning for the seat of Goulburn when the job was first advertised and couldn’t apply initially. But when one door closed, she was available and very interested in the job that almost perfectly aligned with her background and ongoing activities.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with people who are totally committed to delivering for those who are on the margins, and I think that’s such a powerful opportunity to be able to support them and to advocate for them,” she said.
“They’re doing so much work on the ground. Fr Frank has done an amazing job in reforming the organisation and positioning CSSA for the future.
“What comes now is the importance of advocacy and research in areas of social policy and social justice. We have the most extraordinary network of organisations with Catholic Social Services… 53 members and 650 sites across Australia… This is the largest reach of any organisation in social services and we have the capacity to really transform lives and influence government policy around that.”
Outside the political bubble
While Dr Stephens’ political background equips her well for policy, she makes the point that the role and approach as CEO of CSSA will be very different.
“Catholic Social Services Australia, Catholic Health Australia and Catholic Education are three pillars of fundamental societal values and opportunities,” Dr Stephens explained.
“It’s about life-long care. So if you draw on fundamental Catholic social teachings, and you imbue those into the organisations and the way in which we work in communities, then we do have an opportunity to influence government decisions.
“We have an obligation to actually tell government how their decisions impact on the ground. Sometimes people forget that advocacy is not only about advocating for fairness and change, but it’s also advising and informing government of how things are actually working out.”
And although a seasoned politician, Dr Stephens is proud of never placing politics ahead of her faith. When the Labor Party went in one direction regarding same-sex marriage, Dr Stephens exercised a conscience vote as she’d done a number of times before.
“In my very first year in parliament the Access to RU486 legislation, which was basically an abortion debate, I advocated a position that was, I know, socially conservative at that time,” Dr Stephens recalls.
“However, I’ve always respected the importance to have different voices being heard. I know that people felt there was someone in the parliament reflecting their concerns and I was fine about doing that.
“We are currently being faced with the Victorian assisted dying legislation which comes into effect with many safeguards in place. However, the Church’s position is that there is dignity in dying that we need to acknowledge and our focus should be on dramatically improving palliative care services.
“These are all testing issues, and I’m sure there will be more in the future, perhaps around eugenics or even environmental issues.. But I don’t stand by my faith in a dogged or adversarial way… I just think people need to see that there is a reflection of the whole of society’s values in the parliament and that’s an important legacy.”
In preparation for her new role, Dr Stephens has already had a number of discussions with the CSSA Chair, Dr Maria Harries, attended a board meeting and will do a fuller handover with Fr Frank in the week before she commences.
And while she readily concedes she has much to become familiar with, she has set herself a few key areas to focus on. In addition to aged care, disability care, poverty and homelessness, Dr Stephens is keen to support those currently involved in Catholic Social Services.
“I think that one challenge we have is in supporting our network of services , particularly in our rural and regional areas. Many are working on their own, or in a small team, delivering services to very vulnerable people.” she said.
“They can be in the poorest communities or the most remote parts of the country, with limited professional support and trying to work in a model that’s been rolled out in the cities. There’s no one-size-fits-all model, but sometimes policy tries to make it look that way.
“CSSA will be using an evidence-based approach to demonstrate what works best in those circumstances,” Dr Stephens said.
“Our research and our advocacy will be aimed at ensuring we provide best value and greatest impact to deliver a fair and just society.
“Our greatest strength as an organisation is our network of highly skilled, professional and committed people, whose experience will help to provide innovative and credible solutions for change.
“We are driven by our values of compassion, collaboration and accountability and our capacity to think strategically about some of society’s most wicked policy problems.”