Michael Traill on Willoughby Wildcats, lifelong learning and jumping ship

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

MT             Michael Traill   


MT              The constant question for me is how do you live a life that’s grounded in values of purpose. And it took me a while to sort out how to play that.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life, was the life that one would like to live, a life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit. A life that most of us were trying to live, until everything else got in the way.

                   In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests, not because they’re smart, but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky, and those who’ve experienced hard times. I’ve found their stories fascinating, and I hope you do too.

                   Michael Traill has an unusual ability to span worlds. I first got to know him while attending the Centre for Independent Studies Concilium events, where I felt like I might be the only non-libertarian in the room, until I met Michael. Trained at Melbourne University and Harvard Business School, Michael was recruited by David Clarke to work at Macquarie Bank. Macquarie, known as the Millionaire’s Factory, was a place where people worked on big corporate deals, and well-remunerated for it.

                   But in 2002, Michael shifted from the world of money to the world of philanthropy, becoming the first head of Social Ventures Australia. He’s just written a book about his life, called Jumping Ship. So let’s use that as our jumping-off point today. Michael, you start your book, Jumping Ship, with the story of Paddy, and 11-year-old player in the Willoughby Wildcats. Can you tell me the story, and why it was an important turning point for you?

MT              That story about Paddy was a bit of an epiphany moment, Andrew. I was a kid who grew up in Country Victoria, loved playing footy, my father coached me. And I had a bit of a parallel track, I loved finding time to coach my boys playing Aussie Rules footy. And so my eldest son, Christopher, was playing with the Willoughby Wildcats, a very-underrated force in the Northshore Junior Footy League. And it was a commitment that meant a lot, and I always managed to find time to do that in the middle of the private equity work at Macquarie that I was doing.

                   And I remember vividly, that was 2001, the business was progressing well, we’d raised a $200,000,000 fund. In fact we were in the process of doing the homework on what was going to be a $20,000,000 investment opportunity, which in those days was a pretty big deal for us. Normally at that period of time, you’re sweating on the deal, you’re worrying about have you done the homework, have you done the due diligence. And we were due this weekend to go to the investment committee, seeking approval for this management buyout in a company called Repco, the automotive parts business.

                   But I have a vivid recollection of waking up on a Saturday morning at about six o’clock in the morning, and I was thinking about positional changes in the Wildcats. And I was thinking specifically about a cracker young boy called Paddy, and Paddy was a kid I’d become very close to. I knew from his dad that he’d faced a few challenges at school, to the point where he’d even wagged school. But he was a brilliant athlete, great footballer, cracker footballer. But he’d been quiet for a couple of weeks, and I was worried about him and I was thinking, gee, what do I do with Paddy? Do I move him to full forward, do I make him captain for the day?

                   And as I reflected on that, I was thinking, there’s a bit of a message in this. I’ve got a pretty significant deal going on, but I’m actually waking up thinking about positional changes in my kids’ footy team. There was a deeper meaning for this. And there was a real sense that what I was passionate about was the idea that perhaps I could have a positive influence on the life of a young boy who I knew faced challenges at school. Because I knew how much, from him and his dad, he got a lift in self-esteem from his footy.

                   So, that Paddy story was an important, really kind of epiphany moment. It made me really think about what do I do, because I love waking up being passionate about what I’m doing. And I’d had a great run at Macquarie Bank. But in little and big ways, I think the introspection and thinking about what was actually going on with me when I was 41 years old, having had then, a long, pretty successful career at Macquarie Bank, was the catalyst for Jumping Ship. 

AL               So that’s the turning point between those two worlds. Let’s now rewind a little bit, and tell me about your childhood, growing up in the Latrobe Valley. 

MT              Yes, so my childhood was growing up in the valley, in Morwell, population 17,000. So, Morwell now, probably would be regarded as one of those kind of postcodes of disadvantage. I don’t remember it that way, it was a community that had its challenges, and there were certainly places… And in the footy parlance, there were kids you didn’t want to play against, particularly when they came from Moe, which was a very tough part of the world.

                   But my father was a high school teacher and principal, he was the first in four generations to go past Year 10 at school. Both my brother and I grew up in an environment where love looked after very, very well by our parents, both of whom valued education deeply. But I think, as we all are, it’s the Jesuit cliché of show me the boy at seven, and I’ll show you the man. Well, the boy at seven was a kid who was part of the fabric of the community, parents deeply involved in that community, loved his sport.

                   And in that journey at Morwell, I think what I realise in hindsight is that I had all of the free kicks of love of family, great values around education, both my brother and I are proud products of the state education system, we were at Morwell High School. But I know that there are a bunch of kids there, and I was in class with them… Bright, capable kids where they didn’t have the free kicks that Barry and I had, in terms of emphasis on education, in terms of a really stable, connected family life.

                   And they were kids who you look back on now, 35 years down the track, and they had every capacity to succeed at university or wherever they wanted to go. But in different ways, the community, the school, their families didn’t engender in them the high expectations that, I kind of think now, they should’ve had. So they were the shaping influences, I think.

AL               I think you say in your book about your friend, Ross Fitzgerald, describing your parents and saying, gee, Traill, you won the lottery of life with them.

MT              Well, I think that very much captures it. You look at the sweep of history, and as a parent now, you realise what a free kick it is to grow up where just unequivocally you’re loved by your parents, they’re around, they’re engaged in what you do, they’re engaged in the community. So you look back on that, and I think the older you get, the less you take for granted that loving, stable family life, our parents both with a very strong set of values around family, around community. And I think those things get imprinted on your DNA in little and big ways.

AL               And you’re an AFL player, and a runner as well. What drew you to running?

MT              I was very much a kid who just loved sport, and I loved to run. I think… My father was a very good athlete, he was a top-notch VFL footballer who played a lot of really good Country footy. And this was in the days when a lot of the good VFL players, is they then were winning to the Country, and he was being chased by St Kilda to play with them. But I think he liked being in the Country. Very good tennis player, good runner. So I grew up steeped in that, and running, played Aussie Rules, the weekends were just full of sport.

                   And I think that idea of that being something, I loved to compete, I loved the sense of getting out and exercising. I’ve always had a bit of an addiction to running and to being fit, and so that naturally correlated into middle-distance running, playing Aussie Rules as a runner’s game. And I took up umpiring at a relatively young age. And weekends would typically consist, when I was in my teenage years, of a hybrid of playing footy and umpiring games. And in the summer, it would be tennis and running. So that was the sporting diet.

AL               Do you have a favourite running race that sticks in your mind?

MT              The big one for me, and I reflect this in the book, is that I was kind of an OCD kid, really, when I look at that, I was a bit of a running obsessive.

                   I devoured running biographies of my heroes of the time. People like Peter Snell, who was the triple New Zealand Olympic gold medallist and a very close friend of my father’s. Merv Lincoln, who was best man at Dad’s wedding and vice-versa, was the number two miler in the world, he was a great, great hero. And so, even at 11 and 12, I was trying to replicate the intensive training programmes that some of these guys were doing. So I was probably overdoing it, and actually, in truth, taking it a little bit too seriously.

                   So what tended to happen, I would be reasonably successful and win most of the things that were going, at a regional level. But when it came to the state championships, I kind of was a bit rabbit-in-the spotlight, I’d get too nervous and not go well. And so I had a series of races. The big deal in Little Athletics, which I took very seriously, were the Under-11, Under-12 State Championships. And while my training and form would suggest I probably should’ve finished, if not in the top two, certainly in kind of medal form, but that didn’t happen.

                   And it didn’t happen because I actually didn’t really run at my best when it mattered, because I was too nervous, in both the Under-11 and Under-12 races. And then my last event was the State Cross-country Championships, Under-12. And my father, who was a pretty good amateur psychologist, a couple of months before it, he said, look, you’re in a really strong year. And it was true, there were a couple of other really good runners in the year. But he said, you know, a top six, top ten finish is terrific, you’re really taking it a bit seriously, just relax.

                   And I did, and that was a race where I felt comfortable the whole way, was very competitive, and I won a silver medal. And as I reflect in the book, I think that’d be one thing I’d kind of want to take into the afterlife, if you want to have a choice, because it actually meant a lot. Probably too much, in hindsight, really.  

AL               But it’s interesting, though. My father is running… He’s a little older than you are, but very much shaped, I think, by the force of Percy Cerutty, and that incredibly intense, train-till-you-vomit, run-up-the-sandhills philosophy. And I finished reading a book recently by Dick Telford, who’s a running coach to the AIS, who says, well, yes, Cerutty produced good results, but when you look at the careers of his athletes, including Herb Elliott, they’re remarkably short.

                   It’s almost as though he managed to get them a level of success, but not to engender the lifelong love of running. And so I wonder whether maybe you took some of the lessons of Cerutty, but then your dad added on the important stuff about just relax and enjoy it.

MT              I think there’s fascinating turf in that conversation. And Cerutty, I must say, as an aside, and probably an indication of how obsessive I was, Cerutty had a training camp called Ceres, and I stayed there when I was 12, in the training camp. And you’d have Percy, who was, as you indicated, the most eccentric bugger. He was at this stage in his mid-70s, he’d give you the what he’d call Percy’s rant, which would be an excitation to basically kill yourself on the track. I got to sleep in John Landy’s bunk, I trained on the sandhills that Elliott was involved in.

                   But yes, it was very intense, and Elliott, as is well-documented, retired undefeated at the age of 22. So I think, arguably, while the times were different and he couldn’t have made the money or established a career that now is an option for the serious athletes, I think you make a reasonable case that some sort of balance around that obsession, and you cross a line between something that you’re good at but obsessive about, but you don’t enjoy. I think I always did enjoy it, and I think Dad had a good sense of perspective around sportsmanship, and the fact that this was about being fit and enjoying yourself.

                   I think the other lesson which was a big one and very positive about athletics, that served me well in other areas of life, even through those hybrid mini-tragedies of not doing well in the state championships, was that life can be, you’ve got to have a go. That generally, if you have a go, you’ll get rewarded, but there’ll be disappointments and that you kind of dust yourself off and pick yourself up.

                   And I have an unashamed bias that I do think it can come in other ways, but for people who give sport a crack, the lessons around that are pretty powerful. The idea that you need to work hard, that there’s reward for effort, and that they’re not serious tragedies, but they knock people around when they don’t do what they’re expected to do. And you’ve got to pick yourself up. And I think the lessons out of that in other areas, professionally, have served me pretty well.

AL               Do you still run?

MT              I do run occasionally. One of the legacy issues with that is I’ve got an osteoarthritic hip. So I have to run very carefully, and in fact, I ran reasonably hard until my mid-30s and didn’t run then for a period of 17 or 18 years. And I got involved in a bunch of other exercise forms that were non-weightbearing, so cycling and swimming and rowing, which I really enjoyed.

                   And actually, that taught me a lesson, that in my midlife particularly, as I followed my kids into sports that they’re passionate about, like surfing and rowing, that A, in your middle years, you learn things bloody slowly, which is really frustrating. B, that the capacity to try and rewire your brain and do something in the spirit of fitness, is actually a great learning experience. And I think that broadened my horizons on sport, and laughing was a great way to connect to the kids in things that they really enjoyed as well.

AL               What’s the hardest sport you tried to pick up alongside your kids?

MT              Rowing and surfing were tough. Each of my darlings can tell you amusing stories at my expense in rowing, about me falling out of a single scull, and looking like a goose in the particularly unattractive rowing gear. Or my very, very talented surfing son sort of reluctantly trying to push me onto waves and giving me instructions about which waves to get and which not to. So I think there’s a particular joy for children as they grow older, in being able to share their wisdom and knowledge with their parents. And my kids have certainly had that opportunity to do that with me.

AL               It’s important. I noticed you referred to your boys as your darlings. A mate of mine once said to me… I referred to one of my sons as darling, and he said, no, you’ve got to stop that, they’ll get teased at school, you’ve got to start calling them mate or some variant of that. But do you use darling for your sons?

MT              Yes, look, I think that the idea of that sort of depth of affection… I think in the preface to the book, there’s a Chinese proverb about the inexplicable love that parents have for their kids. I was on the receiving end of that, and I hope to be able to pass that through to some of my kids. And I think the idea, and it’s an Australian thing, that there’s just cultures that you don’t express love, I don’t think is a good thing.

                   In fact, one of the things I remember is… As you know, I have some great political heroes. Well, they’re challenging in some respects. One of the things I always recall about the Kennedys, being an afficionado of JFK and particularly Bobby Kennedy, was the visible love that they were always shown by their father. It was a tough love, but it was physically evident. They hugged each other at things. And in the 60s and 50s, this was not a cool thing to do. But I thought there was something beautiful about that.

AL               And you talked too, about how, a year into Social Ventures Australia, your then 10-year-old daughter, Anna, you asked her for a performance appraisal, and she said, well, it’s fine, but I think I preferred it when you were picking me up from school every Friday afternoon. How does something like that hit you?

MT              That was a bit of a second wake-up call. Because one of the lessons that came through very powerfully, and not surprising, perhaps, given the nature of my fairly obsessive personality, is that I jumped ship into a role where I was working really 24/7, and there was a bit of a misperception, understandably, to the irritation of my wife. Where, in the last two or three years at Macquarie, I actually had pretty good control of my time. I was taking a day a week, spending time with the kids, and lightening the load where Jen, my wife, had done really more of the heavy lifting around home and around the kids, while juggling a full-on professional career at KPMG.

                   And so a lot of people were kind of saying nice things about me putting on the hair shirt and working in the non-profit sector. But I think the truth is, with so many of those things, it was a little more challenging in terms of where I’d really been dropping the ball at home. There was a start-up social enterprise that I was working on, I was travelling a lot, there were funder expectations from our corporate partner that I needed to be in the state a lot. There was a competition being set up, and it was full-on.

                   And the context for that conversation was about two thirds of the way through the year, me kind of innocently asking Anna, who was about ten. And I think in truth, expecting her to say, yes, that’s great, Dad. Because I asked her, what do you think about my new role? And I thought she’d say what most people were saying, which is, oh, that’s a really good thing to do, good on you.

                   And she said something very different, which was, yes, it’s okay, but I kind of liked it a bit more last year when you were around more and you picked us up from school on Friday. And it was a gulp moment, it was a moment of recognition that, actually, I might’ve been passionate and enjoying what I was doing, but there were some pretty significant trade-offs and dropped balls.  

AL               So we will get onto your career in a moment, but I just want to stick on the family for a sec, because you spoke about, in the book, how that conversation with Anna then led into a really interesting retreat programme that you did with your son, Christopher, when he was 13. Tell us about Pathways to Manhood.

MT              Pathways is a remarkable programme, and it was founded by a guy called Dr Arne Rubinstein. It was one of the programmes that came to us in our first year at Social Ventures. And the idea, put simply, is that in WASP culture, we do a pretty poor job of the rite of passage. The idea that boys, particularly going through that challenging stage of puberty, in a lot of indigenous cultures, that’s recognised as being a very special transitional, transformational period of time, in which the chemistry of it is pretty challenging, testosterone levels go through the roof.

                   There’s the classic of the two bulls in the paddock which tests father-son relationships. And the indigenous cultures, almost universally, recognise this. And they’ll have a combination of things happening, where men and boys, fathers and sons in communities, separate from the existing community. They’ll share stories on the basis that, in that transitional period, it’s often the case for a boy, that much as there might be a good relationship and one of love and respect between father and son, great benefit to hear stories and wisdom from other fathers.

                   That’s one part of it. The other is the idea in that transitional period, as Arne Rubinstein would frame it, with testosterone going through the roof, there’s a desire to test the boundaries. And in unhealthy ways, that can be really high-risk behaviour, including drug-taking. So the idea that part of that separation from community is a physical challenge. And then the notion that there needs to be recrafted a different sort of relationship, and so values around respect, responsibility, awareness are core to the work that Arne and his co-founders at Pathways built into this rite of passage programme.

                   So, structurally, what it was, is a week where fathers and sons go away with their boys into a remote bush setting. And having got to know Arne, we had a lot of respect for him and the programme. Although again, like most kind of type A corporate personalities, when I first heard about the programme and Arne said, it’s not negotiable, it’s seven days we treat as contraband mobile phones, writing material, you have to check all of that out. And I was thinking, God, I don’t know how this will play out. But it was a remarkable experience.

                   So I did that with my son, Christopher, in 2003. He was 13. And I think my wife, Kim, would say it was a very powerful thing for both of us, particularly for me. And I think in large part because that idea that you were there for your son and for other boys. And there’s a series of things that the programme does incredibly powerfully, that encourage, really at its core level, the sharing of stories.

                   And I think the one big, big take away for me, amongst many others, was the idea that we have a great tendency, or certainly I do, or did as a father, to preach and lecture. The idea that your son is going through a transitional period, and there will be periods where he might behave as a child. But if you want to create a different sort of relationship, you have to show respect, you have to be better at listening and creating the space and understanding that.

                   And I think a related part of that for me, was the idea of being really somebody who had the capacity to be busy and incredibly self-absorbed, being, hopefully, out of that experience, more thoughtful, more available. In terms of some of the history that I would’ve been guilty of, of compulsive multitasking and thinking that you’re available and that you’ve got quality time because you can focus intensely on things. But relationships and relationships within families don’t work that way.   

AL               I was out at the park the other day with my littlest, three-year-old. And he was on a tricycle and we were going round, and he was doing a little stop lights exercise, where he would stop where there were little lines in the pathway, and say, red light, stop. And then he would say, green light, go. And I watched him for a while, and then I realised what he was doing at the red light, stop, was he was pulling out his hand, and he was stabbing at his hand with his finger. Effectively, he was showing that every time you stop at a red light, then you pull out a mobile phone and check it.

MT              Gee, I wonder where that came from?

AL               Quite. And it was sort of the epiphany for me. And also, too, I remember reading in your book, that comment about how, now, when there’s other members of the family in the car, you make sure that devices are off and the radio is off. Not to guarantee conversation, but to create the possibility of it.

MT              Yes, that was a big take away, and it was a little thing, but a big thing. And I think trying to enforce that. And it does, it’s just creating the space, and that space is not always occupied, but often it is. And we had another tradition that came out of some of those programme experiences, including Pathways and others, what it means to create that space and place of genuine conversation.

                   So one of the traditions which we aimed to have as regularly as we could for a Sunday night family dinner is what we called highlights and learnings. And that was basically a way of going around the table with the kids and with Jen and I, and reflecting on the highlight of the week and the learning of the week. And one of the really interesting things is our children, and they’re older, 25, 24 and 20, when we reconvene together as a family…Our babies have gone to the four winds, but it’s a lovely thing when the family can catch up, and we still gravitate back to that.

                   Now, while the conversations can often be, when the kids are little, the highlight of I kicked a goal in the footy, because I can remember that from three hours ago, they are often a platform for difficult, interesting things that come up, and quite meaty conversations.

                   And I think as a family, we still gravitate back to that. And that can only happen, it can’t happen with the TV on in the background, it requires creating that space and place. And again, I think the older that I get, the more you value that opportunity for genuine conversation.

AL               So, going now to your time at Social Ventures Australia, one of the things for which you would be best known is the work that you did in creating Goodstart out of the ashes of ABC Learning. There’s a huge amount of detail as to how you did that, in the book, and fascinating reading for an economist like me. But I wanted to ask you at a higher level, what did it mean for you, to have helped create Goodstart?

MT              I think for me and the others involved, because it was very much a work of partnership… And actually, that was one of the points of telling the story in some detail, that at a high level, we have to do a better job in this country of getting people from different sectors to work together in the areas that matter. And so, to answer your question directly, what I would feel good about as a contributing part of, is the fact that there’s now, because Goodstart’s been formed, there’s now 70,000 kids who are going to learning centres.

                   And they’re learning centres, they were childcare centres. That’s profoundly different. It’s not about making a buck for somebody, although we have to do this with business disciplines for social purpose. It’s about, in the most critical area of the social economy, intervening, helping when kids’ brains are being formed, nought to five, making a difference. And I think there’s profound good in that.

                   And I think the reason that we were able to motivate and catalyse action from an incredibly disparate group of players, key politicians, business figures, was that the light on the hill was that we could actually make a difference to those lives. That we could, if we could make Goodstart work and raise the money, prove that at scale, you could do something with business discipline for social purpose. And I think the legacy, and really one of the core motives for me in writing the book, was that I hope that it catalyses not just conversation, but action.

                   Because I’ve always felt strongly that, with the formation of Goodstart, if it worked, that would be good but not great. Great is that becomes a precedent and a template for what my colleague at MH Carnegie, Mark Carnegie, says is thinking about capitalism 2.0, the idea that there are large chunks of the economy where you can generate reasonable financial returns, do good, and do so with the combination of business discipline and social purpose. And we don’t think about that enough. And I think Goodstart hopefully becomes a precedent for doing more of that. 

AL               So, in your own personal circumstances, you live an affluent life, and your book of knowledge is the role of luck in getting you where you are today. But how do you stay connected to issues of indigenous disadvantage, long-term joblessness, struggling schools? How do you stay connected to the Morwells of this world?

MT              I think that’s a challenge that Jen and I take pretty seriously. We’re both very conscious. And I think one of the many things that we share is a strong value set about exactly that challenge, that we live in a bubble. We live in a nice house in a nice community, and increasingly the fact that there are very different worlds that our kids don’t necessarily get to see, is not a good thing. In fact, it has the potential to be a toxically bad thing, because we don’t want them growing up with a sense that what we live in is representative, necessarily, of a much broader community.

                   So I think a couple of things, one is Jen has always been deeply involved around the community in sport. We share a love of sport, we both take very seriously the idea that we, as a family, should be seeing and doing different things. I think the opportunity that’s been afforded through the programmes and the people like the Arne Rubinsteins, indigenous programmes run by some just incredible social entrepreneurs, like Jack Manning Bancroft did Australian indigenous mentoring experience. And that’s been such a gift in the life of our family.

                   So, Jack, who I think is the most remarkable young social entrepreneur, our daughter, Anna, was a mentor with AIME, our son, Nick, has had work experience there. And so those experiences I think have been shaping, grounding, changing for them. Anna is teaching in a school which has a 30% indigenous population in Palmerston out of Darwin. And I suspect the influences and the opportunities to stay connected to that world, which hopefully Jen and I have done a reasonable job of furnishing or shaped their view of their place in a broader community. Not a community that is seen only through the prism of growing up in a pretty privileged lifestyle in leafy Roseville.

AL               And in terms of the sort of insider-outsider dichotomy, you’re in some sense the consummate Australian insider, Ormond College, Harvard Business School, Macquarie Bank. You worked for Andrew Peacock for a period, you dealt directly with Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, through the Goodstart creation. Are there moments in which you feel like an outsider, and what are they?

MT              Yes, I think that notion of an insider-outsider is something that resonates with me. And I think it comes through in the book. I talk about this idea that we have particular tapes that play out over a long period of time, and as I reflected, there’s a very strong tape for me around Morwell, around community. And so it meant that when I went to Melbourne University, there’s a part of me which is the kid from a small country town, with a public school background, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, that wants to prove that he can make it.

                   And that was certainly a tape, and I think it comes through in the book, when I arrived at Trinity College, feeling like an outsider. I was one of ten kids in a Fresher Year intake in 1979 of over 100, where overwhelmingly, the 90% were Geelong Grammar, Melbourne Grammar. And I tell a story in the book of just feeling isolated, of feeling out of place. Now that changed pretty quickly, because that turned out to be an incredible experience and transforming environment.

                   But I suspect, in different ways, that tape of arriving at a place, whether it was Trinity College or Harvard Business School, or Andrew Peacock’s office, or Macquarie Bank, there’s a part of me which has always been, I kind of don’t belong here and I’m not part of this club, but maybe I can learn, maybe I can grow.

                   And actually, there’s some pretty smart, interesting people here that I think I can learn from. And in each case, that was substantially the same. So I don’t think you ever lose that. I still think there are times now, when in terms of the like and privileged opportunities I’ve had, and particularly through the process of writing the book, it takes you back, and you think, how the hell did that happen?  

AL               And for you, you talk a lot in the book about some of the mates who are around you. Do you have a notion of a band of brothers? What do your mates mean for you, what do they give to you and how do you make sure you maintain those strong connections?

MT              Oh, the circles of friendship which go back a long way, they’re the underpinning, they’re really the underpinning. And I think it’s for others to say, but I’d like to think I do a pretty reasonable job of staying close to people who go back a long way. One thing which I didn’t mention in the book, but Jen arguably made a bit of a tactical mistake. She said when I was 49, looking at doing a party for my 50th, she said, darling, what do you really want to do? And I said, well, let’s have a party. But I said, actually, if I’m allowed to do it, what I’d really like to do, I’ve got a bunch of mates…

                   And at that point, a lot of them were flying to the kind of four corners of the world… That go back 40 years, including Morwell friends and particularly one guy I do mention in the book, Murray French. He was my tennis sporting mentor, it was really fabulous, fabulous guys. And he was a friend of Dad’s, but a super close friend of mine. And then people that you connect and collect to. And I said, I’d love to get that group together for three days and just have, not just a set of drinking sessions, but a mix of conversation, a mix of sport. Because I reckon this group would really get on, not everybody had met each other.

                   And so I did that, and it was incredibly flattering to me that there were ten of that group who’d come from overseas to be part of this three-day indulgence. And there’s a memorable photo with all of us. And it was a weekend which was kind of a different 50th. It included, in fact, Arne Rubinstein who I mentioned, who, amongst other things, is a master facilitator. And so part of it was having the space and creating the conversations of that sort of reflective, midlife 50th thing. So it was a very different 50th, but something that I’ll treasure forever.

                   And it was a phenomenal weekend. But I think it was a product of the fact that those friendships and those histories are hugely important to me. And I’d like to think the common denominators are people that I’ve learnt from, people that have had a crack at things, they’re quite an eclectic group. And people where there’s an authenticity. I don’t like people who are pretenders, but people who have a go, who are honest about the things that haven’t worked out well, as well as the things that have. And that circle are hugely important to me.

AL               Were there any of your friends who were somewhat surprised when they turned up, expecting that it would be a three-day weekend of boozing away, to discover that there was a facilitator on hand, for a 50th birthday? 

MT              There were a few who were taken aback at the front end. There were a couple of my tennis mates who turned up with a very full esky, just to try and ensure that the right tone was set. And I should say there was no shortage of alcohol, but when Arne, at the end of the first day, was conducting a yoga class on the deck, because we’re on the South Coast, there were quite a few raised eyebrows, but it was all good.

AL               So, you have in the book, the Norman Drummond questions, three questions which you argue that each of us should ask ourselves. So why don’t I ask you those questions? First one, Michael, who are you?

MT              I’m a kid who grew up in incredibly privileged circumstances, courtesy of values around family and education. I’m intensely competitive, and I’ve had to learn how to temper that competitive spirit on a lot of occasions. And hopefully as I grow older, the who I am still has the capacity to learn and grow. My heroes and role models, as I reflect on it, are invariably people who are older than me, who’ve got this capacity and energy to continue to grow and to continue to learn. And the people that inspire me are those I want to grow up like, and I know that they’ve got that zeitgeist and energy of the 21-year-olds they were, at 70 and 80 in some cases. And I think that’s a fantastic thing to see.

AL               Why are you living and working the way you currently are?

MT              The constant question for me is how do you live a life that’s grounded in values of purpose? And it took me a while to sort out how to play that out, but the balance of life, to me, having had the privileged experience of working at Social Ventures and being involved in Goodstart, is to use whatever talents or networks I now have, courtesy of that experience both in the business and the non-profit worlds, to make a difference. And a difference is defined by social purpose outcomes, a difference is defined by actually having some impact on the trajectory of inequality and the slope of disadvantage.

                   Which I know is a shared passion I have with you, that you look at the data. I don’t have your economic credentials, but I do share your alarm when you look at data that highlights the fact that, if you grow up in a town like I did, a bottom-20% community on average, by the time you’re 15 you’ll be two-and-a-half to three years behind a kid who grows up in a community like I now live in, in Roseville. That, for a country that prides itself on the notion of a fair crack and equality of opportunity, is crap. And so, if you can do something about that, that’s what I’m about.

AL               Yes. Robert Putnam’s got a good book out called Our Kids, I don’t know if you’ve read it, where he goes back to his home town, which in some sense, sounds a little like Morwell. And he describes how rising inequality in the United States has frayed the social fabric apart. So a town where the more affluent families used to look after the struggling families, is now a town where the social fabric’s been ripped apart.

                   And there’s no longer a spirit that the better-off families look after the worse-off families. And so, yes, when you talk about returning to Morwell, I immediately thought of Our Kids. And I wondered whether there is something to be written by someone in Australia about how, for bottom-20% towns in Australia now, there’s less of a kind of social safety net to catch the vulnerable.

MT              I think that’s such a powerful point. And I think that’s that issue where you talked about us meeting at the Concilium, and sometimes the Concilium is regarded as being quite right of centre. But this is not an ideological issue anymore, and what was at the current year’s Concilium, and the right and the left I think are aligned on this. There’s a bubble, and the bubble is inhabited by often, parents with double degrees, and their children having the privileged opportunity in terms of where they grow up, the universities they go to.

                   And that is becoming an increasingly exclusive category, and that’s a really unhealthy thing. And as you and I know, what it does do is it excludes those who’ve got the capacity and opportunity, in many cases, because there are simply low expectations or not the resources to support their opportunity. And that really is getting into the category of national disgrace.

AL               Time’s wings are flapping on our backs, so let me give you the third Norman Drummond question. What might you yet become and do with the rest of your life?

MT              I think the opportunities to use whatever networks and skills I’ve got, to actually really build consensus around what needs to happen. I think, I realise now I’ve got good networks and access, particularly in the business community. And I think that can be used the right way, extremely influential in driving a more coherent policy and funding debate around particular areas of early learning and education.

                   So there’s a bunch of things that I’m really passionate and engaged about, to try and support people like you in positions of politics and power to make changes, so that you’ve got the backdrop of the political will and electoral support to do that. And I think business actually, and a lot of business people can do a lot more to smooth that pathway, instead of the current environment where the cheap out is either lack of a policy framework or people pointing fingers at politicians and saying they’re all hopeless. Which I don’t think is fair.   

AL               And naturally I would agree. Let me ask you a couple of questions about how you live life. How do you start your day? Do you have a particular routine?

MT              Exercise is pretty important, so most days, I’ll be aiming to get some exercise in. At the moment I’m about to go over on a bike trip with some mates, so I was on the spinning bike this morning. And then try to do the healthy breakfast, the Weetbix, my wife makes an outstanding homemade muesli. The diet somewhat deteriorates in the evening, it’s hard to say no to the odd beer or decent glass of red. But I’m a bit of a creature of routine, playing it around exercise, and at the moment there’s a pretty broad portfolio of things, mostly social purpose focused, with a bit of private equity stuff. So, plenty of interesting things on the plate.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do, to stay physically or mentally healthy?

MT              Exercise.

AL               Is there something you used to believe that you no longer do?

MT              I believe in God. I didn’t used to have a strong view on that. And I don’t tease it out in great detail, but there was what I’d describe as an evolving light life journey to a belief in Christian faith. I’m fairly secular in that, but I guess having done a fair amount of homework, I do have a view on that. I’m not a proselytising Christian, if I can put it that way. But equally, I wouldn’t trivialise from a values, moral, ethics, comfort, mental sanity point of view.

                   I find that enormously comforting, reassuring, and in particular cases where there’s been a set of challenges, I think it does help me. I think it helps contribute to me thinking and being better, a better person, hopefully better, particularly around family and around the most important relationships that I have, especially with my wife and with my kids.

AL               So how does that manifest? Through private actions of reading the Bible, and prayer? Or is it through more community activities of going to church regularly and attending Bible Studies? What’s the most important part of your faith, for sustaining you?

MT              It’s a hybrid of all of those things. I’m an unashamed sermon snob, so I don’t have it in me to go to church unless I feel like there’s some serious quality content. The local church is actually very good from that point of view, John Dickson, who’s a terrific communicator and First Century Classics scholar, is always, always worth listening to. I read a lot. And I think actually what happened in my later life, what I realised is my place and space of reflection is actually when I’m exercising, it clears my head.

                   And I think that idea when I’m running around on the bike, and those who are close to me, particularly Jen, will attest that I’m not great company if I don’t adhere to my kind of daily ritual of getting exercise in some shape or form. So that’s a big part of it. And I think increasingly, as we’re now empty-nesters, the time with Jen and the capacity and flexibility we’ve got to do more things together and to travel. There’s a sort of an informal bucket list of places we’re working our way through, and we both really enjoy the enriching travel and cultural experience of going to different places. So that’s been fantastic, and looking forward to doing a bit more of that.

AL               What advice would you give to your teenage self?

MT              To be less judgemental. I think I had the capacity, probably into my 40s, to be harshly judgemental of people, instead of understanding where they come from. I think the second thing was to be… Well, I’ve always been competitive, I could be pretty unpleasant.

                   There’s a story in the book about me throwing tennis rackets, and I suspect my father would’ve looked with some alarm, he was reasonably patient, at my 14, 15, 16-year-old self as I was smashing tennis rackets and getting the shits on the tennis court. So it would’ve been nice to temper that, whether that would’ve been realistic or not. I don’t think my 15-year-old self, frankly, would’ve listened to that gratuitous advice.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

MT              I enjoy a good wine, and I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so yes, they’re the vices.

AL               And what person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

MT              Certainly a combination of the values around home are deeply important, so I think the way Mum and Dad lived are profoundly important. And I think, as is reflected in the book, there’s a cocktail of, in part SVA-connected influences, Norman Drummond was deeply influential as a… Norman became a close friend before we had any conversation around Christianity or ethics or faith.

                   And that was quite revealing to me, because my view was that in religion, I judged it by a lot of people who talked the talk but didn’t walk it. But as I got to know Norman, and understood how core a part of who he was and how he behaved, but that he was in no way judgemental, that was quite revealing, and very inspiring in its own gentle way, to me. So he’s been a very influential figure.

                   But I’m a big believer, and I think what’s reflected in the book, I’ve had the gifted opportunity of connecting with a range of really remarkable people, and learning from a huge spread of people across education, and ethics. And business people like David Clarke, who features in the acknowledgements of the book as somebody who was outstandingly successful in business, but a real renaissance man with a strong set of ethics and values. So all of those things, I think, have contributed hugely to what I’ve had the capacity to learn.

AL               And, Michael, we started today talking about Paddy and the effect that 12-year-old Paddy had on your decision to jump ship. What’s Paddy doing now?

MT              So, Paddy is reflected in the end note of the book, did a remarkable job in setting up a social enterprise himself. He’s now offshore, he’s in Malmo. In fact, I got an email from him the other day. But he’s travelling well, and yes, there was a great symmetry in the story at the front end and the back end, with Paddy. It was really nice to reconnect to him when he wandered into the office and I hadn’t seen him for eight or nine years, and he’d been involved in setting up this Youth at Risk programme. So, he’s travelling well.

AL               Michael Traill, thank you very much.

MT              Thanks, Andrew.

AL               Thanks for listening to today’s episode of The Good Life. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate us on iTunes. Next week in the programme, I speak with Annabel Crabb about cooking with kids, having fun, and whether she really is Australia’s number one epicurean.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.