Kate Carnell recently stepped down from her role as the CEO of beyondblue. In last month’s edition of the Star Observer, we caught up with her weeks before she left, where she reflected on making the mental health organisation more pro-LGBTI than it ever was.

IN late 2011, beyondblue was listing from one crisis to another, including claims it neglected LGBTI issues. This was played out in very public circumstances, undermining its credibility.

A perception had emerged that its founder, former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, was out of touch. It was suggested his personal values — even his faith — conflicted with the organisation’s values.

In 2009, Fairfax Media ran a story that beyondblue was alleged to have “ignored” the LGBTI community. Kennett was thought by some to be behind this.

The mess beyondblue was in wasn’t helped by a September 2011 column in the Herald Sun where Kennett broached issues of depression in children.

“Clearly the best environment in which to bring a child into the world is a stable, loving environment in which a male and female are married to each other,” he wrote.

It was problematic for beyondblue because in his column Kennett referred to his role as the organisation’s chairman and his tenure of 11 years. He also referred to a “sobering” report by a legal professor on the state of families.

However, Professor Parkinson’s non-peer reviewed report was said to have been commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby and it was criticised as he was not known as an expert on childhood anxiety.

Kennett’s column also added to the already-strained relationships with his then-chief executive Dawn O’Neil. Despite mediation attempts after just eight months in the role, she was gone — but only after she accused Kennett of bullying her. He denied the bullying and would later say the timing of her departure was just a “coincidence” to his recent comments that offended the LGBTI community.

Now leaderless, questions were being raised as to why beyondblue needed $30 million annually when they were not involved in service delivery, but mainly focus on information and advertising campaigns.

In October 2011, Fairfax Media’s Jill Stark, who had covered various tensions within beyondbllue over several years, suggested the once “polished performer” was “in turmoil, with its very purpose being questioned”.

Stark’s story also said Kennett was bringing on much of the trouble himself because of “comments about gay parenting, pokies and bisexual football trainers had enraged the gay community, mental health professionals and beyondblue staff”.

Enter Kate Carnell (pictured above). As beyondblue’s deputy chair since 2010, and a board member since 2008, Carnell and Kennett knew each other well. Carnell’s pedigree included being the former health minister, then chief minister, of the ACT, before becoming a chief executive of a major employer association.

Carnell was installed as beyondblue’s new chief executive in January 2012 on the condition of a tenure of no  more than three years — due to being away from her husband and children.

At the time, Kennett said Carnell ”knew the organisation, its staff and partners well”. While Carnell praised O’Neil’s ability, she conceded she was not a “cultural fit” and her replacement had to work.

“We could not afford a big gap to find another CEO and we also could not afford to have another problem,” Carnell said.

Her first job was to restore stability.

“Any organisation has to be okay internally before it can be seen to be okay externally,” she said.

Carnell explained the absence of LGBTI programs at beyondblue was an example of the organisation growing organically, as it would add a new project each year or so. She referred to LGBTI mental health data as both “distressing” and provided a “compelling” reason for beyondblue to get involved with mental health issues, particularly among LGBTI youth. In the process, she did not defend the prioritising of other programs ahead of the LGBTI community.

In discussing the change of direction under Carnell’s leadership with the Star Observer, Kennett attributed the rapid turnaround of programs for the LGBTI community to “better education” but he didn’t elaborate immediately on what that was. He echoed Carnell’s position that beyondblue’s model was to add a new target group every year or two.

He also spoke in general terms about the LGBTI community consultation: “We had round tables with the LGBTI community and developed programs that have been invaluable.”

During the height of community anger at beyondblue and Kennett personally, they were the target of an education broadcast by LGBTI community radio station Joy949.

Station general manager Tass Mousaferiadis and president David McArthy had beyondblue, Kennett and 3AW breakfast radio host Neil Mitchell in their sights.

McArthy explained why they did this: “We saw what was happening as an opportunity. Despite some vitriolic community static, we built a great relationship with beyondblue and have a great relationship with 3AW.

“In a first, 3AW and Joy949 did a joint outside broadcast and addressed the issues of youth suicide. Joy949’s approach was to help men like Mitchell and Kennett see and hear real life stories.”

McArthy also recounted the power of the day: “If you can imagine two grown men listening to a call from a mother talking about her kid that had killed themself, well, both Neil and I were in tears.”

He credited the day with helping Kennett and Mitchell become strong supporters of the community, especially around marriage equality — which they had both opposed. He stressed that beyond these two men, and by better engaging with beyondblue and LGBTI issues, it sent a powerful signal to people who had strong views against equality — that it was okay to change your mind. The broadcast went on to win honours at the annual community and commercial radio industry awards.

“It is important to recognise that Jeff Kennett and Neil Mitchell have completely changed their view on gay marriage and support it 100 per cent. beyondblue have spent millions on programs since,” McArthy said.

He also saw the joint broadcast as a significant milestone: “That was the first time the (LGBTI community) have had exposure for a morning on a free-to-air station.”

Kennett viewed the event as one of Carnell’s legacy items that better connected beyondblue with the LGBTI community.

He also spoke about his personal change of heart: “What right have I got to deny any law abiding citizen the same happiness and pleasure that I have got out of life?

“If the (LGBTI community) want to enjoy happiness, what right have I got to stop that? It is very hard to argue against (marriage equality) when you look at it like that, which is why for the last two years I have been a strong voice in support of it.”

Despite there being a significant broadening of Kennett’s inclusiveness since Carnell’s tenure at the top, and despite being privately acknowledged for her influence, she took no credit.

“I don’t tell Jeff what to do. That wouldn’t work,” she said.

McArthy praised Carnell for her leadership and achieving a remarkable change: “Right from the beginning there were people at beyondblue that knew this needed to happen but it didn’t happen.

“There are a whole range of reasons why this was and it is not down to any one person. Just as the fish stinks from the head, change starts at the top and Kate was a big part of that.”

By October 2012, just seven months into Carnell’s tenure, beyondblue had their first LGBTI resources, targeting awareness around bullying and LGBTI-identifying or questioning youth. The first of its kind in its 12-year history.

This was a critical achievement because the year before, men’s health charity Movember Foundation — who were responsible for around 30 per cent of beyondblue’s funding at the time — were planning to drop ties with them because of their perceived anti-gay approach. By delivering one month before their annual “Movember” campaign, Carnell had managed to keep one of their biggest backers on side.

Last year beyondblue also collaborated with PFLAG to produce the Families Like Mine resource for families of LGBTI-identifying people and it was launched by former Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

Responding to criticism that beyondblue had a big budget considering they did not deliver services, they now do, although they still steer clear of clinical services.

Carnell acknowledged this was a complete change of strategy.

“It was a big step as it as something we had always determined not to do,” she said.

“Fundamentally, our job is to make a difference to the lives of people affected by depression and anxiety.”

One the big winners of this change in strategy is QLife, the national telephone counselling and online chat service for the LGBTI community. beyondblue provided practical support to them where once this would not have been possible. Carnell said: “We are no longer negative to these ideas as we once were and as long as we can make a difference we can consider it.”

She also credited Kennett for making beyondblue very connected to the LGBTI community, saying he was one of few 60-year-old men who had a capacity to change his views: “When Jeff made his statement to move to support same sex marriage, this showed this.”

Just two years and four months has passed and Carnell is now leaving, slightly ahead of her three year commitment, to become the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Kennett reflected on Carnell’s leadership at beyondblue.

“Kate was a stabilising force after the challenges we had with the previous CEO,” he said.

“Not only has she re-won the confidence of the board, but also the staff which wasn’t the case with the previous CEO. She has strengthened our relationship with health departments. She knew the organisation well. We will miss her. We are grateful for her service.”

And as Carnell takes on her next career move, she already made a firm commitment to seeing small and medium enterprises embrace diversity.

(Main image: Kate Carnell. Photo: Miles Heffernan)

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