ANZSOG alumni profile Gillian Sparkes: creating change and preserving the environment
21 February 2023● News and media
Since ANZSOG was founded in 2002, thousands of public servants have benefited from our programs and courses. Many have gone on to senior and highly influential positions in public services across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. To celebrate ANZSOG’s 20 years of working with our owner governments to strengthen the quality of public sector leadership in Australia, this series of profiles looks at the achievement of our alumni, why they chose the public sector as a career, their views on how to lead and the importance of having a high-quality values-driven public service.
Growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Langwarrin and attending local public schools, it was at Karingal High School that Gillian Sparkes displayed an early passion and talent for science, particularly chemistry. She didn’t know it then, but that interest was to play a major role in Gillian’s career pathway.
Since 2014, Gillian has been Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Victoria, a role reflecting her strong commitment to creating change and improvements in environmental, conservation, protection and waste management practices.
Gillian is also committed to tackling related community issues and advocates for the critical role of volunteers in environmental protection, citizen science and conservation.
“I loved chemistry and I attribute some of that interest to a young teacher, Alison, who made chemistry fun and was also very approachable,” says Gillian.
“As you get older you look back and recognise key moments or people that have had an impact and Alison was one of the first important professional role models in my life. I had an aptitude for chemistry and science, but she brought that out in me, which also helped build my confidence.”
University was always an aspiration for Gillian, but she decided to take a ‘gap year’ first and applied for a job as a trainee chemist with BHP Steel Western Port where they supported her through her studies.
During her 18 years with BHP, Gillian completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Chemistry), as well as post-graduate studies including a PhD specialising in colloid and surface chemistry – applied to minerals processing – at the University of South Australia.
Upon returning to Victoria, BHP offered Gillian a newly created role as the Operations Environmental Scientist, Western Port. This was prompted by environmental events around the world, including environmental damage caused by BHP’s mining operations in Papua New Guinea and the increasing awareness by industry more broadly of the need for a social licence to operate.
Gillian developed the new role with a community-centred approach to provide assurance that BHP’s Western Port operations in Victoria were attuned to potential environmental impacts and that the community was engaged. As Western Port Operations Environmental Scientist, she created programs that ranged from engaging with the long-term unemployed to restoring natural habitat on BHP’s 900-hectare site.
“I was a founder of the Community Liaison Committee and stayed a member for a decade. It was a forum to share science and information about our steel-making operation, including environmental emissions, to hear first-hand the ideas and concerns of community members and build a greater understanding. As a major employer in the region and with strong environmental controls and regulatory oversight, we had a lot to be proud of and also, to learn. You can do both at the same time,” says Gillian.
Gillian was also proactive in finding new and better ways to manage and audit waste and developed more sophisticated contracting arrangements with suppliers to create greater value and help reduce the environmental impact of the operation. in 1998, this led to Gillian becoming the Cleanaway Western Port site manager working for Brambles.
Gillian’s first foray into public service came in 2002 when she joined EPA Victoria as Manager Business Sustainability. She worked with the state’s 30 largest manufacturers to reduce hazardous waste to landfill.
“At that time, I felt that the only way to get better environmental outcomes was for government policies, programs and regulation to be improved. My experience taught me that industry needed the right policy and regulatory settings to shift the dial on reducing waste to landfill,” she says.
“But when you move from heavy industry straight into government, it is quite a shock. The definition of what ‘doing the job’ involves changes with different experiences and you realise you need to learn how the whole system works and your role in that system. I have learned that the execution of reform is a gentle, difficult and very skilful process.”
In 2008, Gillian joined the federal government and helped set up Enterprise Connect within the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research to support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises within the manufacturing industry. Following this, she joined the Department of Sustainability and Environment in a Deputy Secretary role and shouldered this responsibility while also becoming Chair of Sustainability Victoria in 2011. In between, she was part of ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership program in 2010, which gave her a broader understanding of what a leader can achieve, and insights into her own leadership
In 2014, Gillian took on her current role. Some of her first steps in ensuring the role was effective was to double down on the need for evidence-based and scientific reporting. Gillian was reappointed to the role in 2019.
“For my team and I, our outstanding achievement is that the role of the Commissioner is now well understood and well utilised. Victoria now has baseline science reports for the condition of the environment in Victoria – that means we can now more accurately monitor trends and better understand whether our policies and interventions are working. That’s the legacy,” says Gillian.
“For you, me, our children and grandchildren, it’s important we have that baseline data and trend reporting at a useful scale to see what is happening with our ecosystems, waterways and biodiversity. Since 2015, a lot of new environmental legislation has included a role for the Commissioner to prepare an independent science report. That’s a great outcome for the environment and the community.”
Gillian is a strong believer in the role of a public service based around core values of integrity and empathy.
“I have a great deal of gratitude and feel privileged to have the opportunity to be the Commissioner and to make recommendations to the Minister through the Parliament of Victoria that aim to improve environmental outcomes. I take the responsibility very seriously,” she says.
“The private sector can be quite transactional and insular to an extent. I wanted to be part of something bigger in the second phase of my career.”
“Integrity is not just a word – public service leaders must embody what it means. I also think empathy is one of the most important aspects in leadership. Often you need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to create something that is of value and that will be used.”
Gillian says one of the biggest environmental issues facing Victoria, Australia and the world is biodiversity decline and the impact of climate change and urbanisation on biodiversity.
Informed by a recommendation in the 2018 State of the Environment Report, authored by Gillian and her colleagues, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has appointed a Chief Biodiversity Officer in Victoria.
“Climate change is impacting our lives and livelihoods. Biodiversity decline and getting ahead of that decline needs to be top of mind for the world,” says Gillian.
She hopes her work will make a difference – and that her grandchildren will be proud.
“I hope one day when they are older, they will see that I tried to make a difference and to make the world a better place,” she says.
Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs
A two-year part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for emerging and ambitious public sector leaders.
A program that challenges senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.
A unique program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.
A program designed for new Deputies in the public sector with a focus on frank conversations with practitioners and helping participants to grow their understanding of their leadership styles, their drivers and their aspirations – and building resilience to lead with integrity.
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