After 15 years with Yaffa Media, including three as ADM’s Managing Editor, Katherine Ziesing has headed into the sunset. Group Editor Ewen Levick spoke to her about her time with the magazine, Defence, government and Defence Industry over this period.
ADM: How will you look back at your 15 years at ADM?
Ziesing: With great fondness I have to say. But first off, it is so strange being on the other end of an interview. I am usually the one asking the questions and I can see now why some people might find this uncomfortable!
ADM: If you think back to 2006 and forward through the years, what are you looking at in your mind’s eye?
Ziesing: I’m picturing at the learning curve. I am looking at a young woman who walked through the door of Yaffa Publications and didn’t really have an interview so much as an hour-long chat with a publisher and then started two weeks later.
I have travelled the world, I have travelled the country, I have learned so much about the most random topics that I would never have even contemplated had I not been with a defence magazine. And through it all people have been incredibly generous with their knowledge and their experience. I feel truly honoured to have been given that opportunity.
ADM: How has ADM changed during your tenure?
Ziesing: Oh my goodness; so, so many things. On the technical front, when I first started everything was analogue, done on paper with hardcopies being shot up and down the east coast in express mail bags. Now we have completely digital production systems.
ADM was a traditional title when I first started; there was the magazine, tenders newsletter and the then Directory of Defence Supplies. We now have social media, we have the online stories, we have five conferences a year, we have two awards programs and the Directory has become the expanded Defence Industry Guide, a fully searchable online resource alongside the hard copy. We do podcasts and ADM Analysis reports and we now have an in-house videographer for multimedia. The leaps and bounds that the brand has made and expanding over the years has been fantastic. However you choose to consume your media, ADM has a channel that works for you.
ADM: Has the mission of ADM changed or expanded?
Ziesing: I remember Judy Hinz, my predecessor/mentor, telling me that we aim to be the communication bridge between Defence and industry. That’s how we serve the business of defence.
It comes down to access to timely information. You should be able to read an ADM cover to cover and learn at least one new thing. The more information you have, the more complete a picture you can make. I would like to think that ADM helps a lot of readers; informing a more detailed picture of what their business can do, where they fit in, how they can find opportunities.
ADM: What is the role of journalism in Australia’s defence recapitalisation?
Ziesing: That’s a twisty one. I think with any work in progress there come points where you’ve made a bigger mess than what you were actually given, and it is very nice to handle those points internally. That is not always possible. It is difficult to reform something like Defence. It’s large, complex, long running, political and prone to empire building from within and without.
As a government Hansard/Senate Estimates/government reports nerd, I was very impressed with the First Principles Review. It was the most comprehensive reckoning of what Defence does and how it does it, why it is the way it is and how it needs to change. Delivering on the scope and intent of that report takes a long time. It has been five or six years since that landmark document was made public and I would say we’re probably half, maybe three-quarters of the way through. That was never going to be a comfortable journey.
ADM: What have the highlights been?
Ziesing: All the cool stuff I get to play with! Rides on ships, on submarines, on planes, on tanks, with weapons going to exercises, seeing facilities and factories. The hands-on experience is the best part of the job.
In most cases, people love what they do and that shows in the interactions. It’s always been about people and their stories for me. For a very long time I’ve had an observer role; and it’s a strange thing to be of the community but not in it.
ADM: How do you use your outside observer status?
Ziesing: It’s my job to hold up a mirror. It is not my job to make you happy with the reflection that you see; that is on you.
Once again, this isn't always a comfortable thing. Sometimes pointing out that the emperor has no clothes is not welcome. But it’s not my job to make everyone happy. It’s my job to look out the window, see that the sky is blue and report that. It doesn’t matter if government tells me that the sky is green or industry tells me if you look closely it really is a pale purple. That is not helpful to anyone.
ADM: What are the largest challenges facing the defence sector in Australia in the next ten years?
Ziesing: Workforce. Qualified people in the right place at the right time in the right job. What Defence is doing in terms of its recapitalisation of all three services and enabling capabilities is immense, particularly on the naval shipbuilding front. While that might be a statement of the obvious, there are some huge challenges there that come with the geopolitical circumstances that Australia is facing. The processes that we have in place are not going to deliver the capabilities we need in the timeframe required.
ADM: What could Defence and industry do differently to meet that challenge?
Ziesing: I’m an economist by trade and training and in this context Defence has a monopsony. There aren’t many companies or community groups that will go out and think ‘Land 400 vehicles; I need those for my run down to the shop this weekend.’ The market power that Defence has to shape its supplier base is huge. They do not use that power to its fullest extent, whether that be because of political, legal or ethical reasons, all of those things probably need to be unpicked in their own right. But I think Defence, in order to be an educated buyer, needs to be more aware of the influence and power they can wield in terms of standards, of interoperability, of Australian Industry Capability. They have the power to mandate many things and they choose not to.
ADM: What changes have you seen in government and the Department itself?
Ziesing: A parade of ministers and prime ministers and service chiefs and CDFs. With few exceptions they’ve all been very good people. There is a changing in culture, I think, at both a political and departmental level (both in APS and uniform), but change takes time and I would say there needs to be a forcing function. Some of the forcing functions on a government front have come from the Brittany Higgins case this year, some have come from a reflection that the Australian public wants more diversity in their leadership and that diversity doesn’t just come in a binary. It’s not just male/female, it’s ethnicity, it’s religion, it’s background, it’s age.
Diversity is about cognitive diversity (shout out to the late Darren Edwards of Boeing for the concept); you want different people thinking different thoughts. That can create points of tension. Having a respectful debate sometimes can be hard because people have a lot invested in their viewpoint, in their experience, but I think it is very important to be able to receive new information and adjust your worldview accordingly.
ADM: Have you seen major policy changes in the last 15 years?
Ziesing: Oh my goodness yes. If you read the reflections piece earlier in this magazine you will see comments from the former DMO CEO Dr Steve Gumley about how common sole source contracts are, how many SMEs government works with. I highly recommend having a look at some of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) work around foreign military sales as a component of Australian acquisition and sustainment programs over time. That makes for some interesting reading.
There have been many changes. I think they happen at the government political level first and filter down. I did like Greg Moriarty, the current Defence Secretary’s use of the term “permafrost” within his organisation; those who have done things a certain way for a very long time. Getting that permafrost to change and evolve or, in a worst case scenario, take themselves out the door, is hard. But if we are going to do what needs to be done in our industry, change must happen. It’s inevitable.
ADM: Pushing for diversity has been a hallmark of your time with ADM. What does it mean to you and what would you like to see from here?
Ziesing: I think there’s a lot of rhetoric around diversity but at the end of the day it has serious business and organisational consequences.
There is a large body of work from eminent research organisations that tell you where you have a minimum 30 per cent of your board members as females, your bottom line is higher. If you have more than 40 per cent females in your workforce, your bottom line is higher. It is about a style of leadership that is different, more collegiate, more collaborative. Flexible work benefits everyone.
It’s not okay to yell in your workplace because someone forgot to log a document in. It’s not okay to go to a work function and hug every single person you see because you’ve had a few drinks. It is not okay to ask a woman when they’re planning on having their next baby. It’s just not okay. And females, particularly in the Australian workforce, are so under-utilised as a cohort across our entire economy.
Our Women in Defence Awards (WIDA) were a way of recognising the value of these individuals in our workplace; a rising tide lifts all boats, as one navy mate put it to me. Funnily enough, when we started the Awards we got pushback from an interesting demographic – women under 30 – because they said this is discriminatory, there is no need for this, it puts a bigger target on our backs, it’s actually not helpful. And I thought that was such an interesting way of looking at it because in some cases the grandmothers of those women were not allowed to work once they got married. Within living memory, if you were in the APS and you got married, you had to leave, you had to go home and raise your family.
It’s only during my time that the ADF has more job categories in uniform have been opened up to females, that fitness tests have become more functional. They’re based on science rather than ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’. It’s a more pragmatic way of looking at the world and planning your workforce. The value in that cannot be understated.
Again, change is happening but it is slow.