How ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration prepared Robert Kennedy to lead WA’s electoral process

Robert Kennedy headshot
  • Published Date: 18 November 2020

No sooner will voters in Western Australia have finished going to the polls in March 2021 than the state’s Electoral Commissioner, Robert Kennedy, and his staff will begin preparations for the next state election. On polling day, his organisation transforms from a 50-strong team to about 8,000 staff.

“Preparations for state elections really never stop,” says Robert.

“We started with a lessons learned process from the 2017 election and based on that, we refined some of our processes. Preparations have ramped up since the beginning of this year. Although things have been made more complex due to COVID-19. My colleagues on the East Coast have already been through this process with state or local government elections or Commonwealth by-elections so we are learning a lot from them.

“The 2021 WA election won’t be like any other election we have seen before.

“We have to comply with social distancing and hygiene requirements, so I’ve been investing in bottles of sanitiser by the thousands and anti-bacterial wipes. I never expected to have to do that as an Electoral Commissioner!

“But we have a commitment to allowing as many Western Australians as possible to cast their vote next year, in person or by other means, and we have to prepare to allow that to happen.”

In between those elections, Robert, who began his appointment as Electoral Commissioner in March 2020, will organise local government elections. Now he is supervising three such elections, including for the City of Perth.

Having the opportunity to discuss challenges and to gain insights from counterparts across Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand has been a useful exercise as Robert performs his role in unusual times.

“We have been meeting on a monthly basis to talk about the challenges we are facing and that is very beneficial as a learning process,” he says.

Robert completed ANZSOG’s two-year Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) in 2009 while he was working in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. He has worked in public sector agencies for more than 20 years in the Western Australian and Commonwealth governments.

“One of the things the ANZSOG experience brought home to me is the value of building contacts, realising that there are a lot of people struggling with the same challenges and you can tap into networks. ANZSOG demonstrated the benefits of talking to colleagues in other jurisdictions and finding shared problems and solutions.

“I liked the fact it was a masters level qualification more designed for public servants. It was supported by the state government and recommended to us as something future leaders should look for, and I certainly endorse that.”

Robert began his career in the public sector immediately after leaving the University of Western Australia with a political science degree.

“I have a strong sense of connection to the public sector and I’m proud of working here. I think a lot of people don’t really understand the range of things that government does in communities,” he says.

EMPA hones critical thinking skills

His first job was as a research officer working with the then Commission on Government. It was tasked with a review following a Royal Commission in the early 1990s that looked at aspects of WA’s system of government.

“I started working on a review of the electoral system for WA. Some of the recommendations we made got adopted and I am enforcing them now in my current role. I feel I’ve closed the circle,” says Robert.

“I later spent a long time moving to different roles in the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC). That was invaluable experience as it gives you an overview of the sector and exposes you to all sorts of interesting things. I often did an induction session for new public servants in the DPC and would rattle off some of the things I’d worked on – from correct labelling of wine bottles to appointing a new Governor.

“In 2017 I ended up looking after the engine room of DPC and dealt with the executive government functions of the Department – the Cabinet and Cabinet processes, Ministers, Members of Parliament and their staff, the media office and corporate services for DPC. It involved about two-thirds of the Department’s budget and there was always something challenging to deal with every day, but I like problem solving.”

Time working in the office of two Ministers of Police was also a useful opportunity to develop new skills and insights.

“I spent time advising on parliamentary processes, questions and speeches, ministerial statements and understanding the critical thinking that goes on in executive government,” recalls Robert.

“I also had an opportunity to round out my experience and to work with the Governor of Western Australia. I’d already had a lot to do with Government House previously but to work in someone’s house – at the Governor’s official residence – was different. It was a great opportunity to meet some fascinating people when they visited the Governor.”

Robert believes completing the EMPA earlier in his career has brought benefits in aiding his career progression.

“At one point I was told a story by a former Director-General that my name was thrown around in a cabinet discussion where it was being debated whether to continue supporting involvement in the ANZSOG program. One of the ministers who knew me said that I’d done that course and suggested that ‘if that is what we are getting then it is good value’. It was nice feedback to know they valued what ANZSOG was offering and saw the value in the program,” says Robert.

“It honed my critical thinking and analytical skills and showed me the quality of my peers across Australia and New Zealand. I expected it to be competitive and challenging, and it was, but you lifted yourself up to other people’s levels and that helped me in the long term. Working in group environments was useful and the discussions with presenters made you think about your place in the bigger scheme of things.

“One key thing I took away is never to stop questioning how you are doing things and whether things can be done better. I often find myself jotting down practical examples other people give in discussions and thinking how I can translate that to my environment.

“I’d recommend the EMPA if you have the stamina. It’s intense but it benefits you as an individual and it will help your career.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting. 

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique two-week 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.