A business leader politicians hope will come to their party

No wonder political parties have lined up to seek Margaret Jackson’s hand in pre-selection. She conducts a very media-savvy press conference.

There is the poise (ankles neatly crossed, just like royalty on a podium); the modulation (her voice is pitched low and even, forcing listeners to attend if they are to hear); and the delicate allusions to professional triumphs (she managed to dissuade Jeff Kennett from privatising the Transport Accident Commission, even though she had been appointed its chairwoman to do just that).

Yesterday Ms Jackson, one of Australia’s most powerful company directors, announced her resignation from the TAC after eight-and-a-half years at the helm.

She said she hoped to spend more time on her role as chairwoman of Qantas Airways and on her many other business and community commitments, which range from the ANZ Bank to four medical research institutes.

“I also have two children, a husband and a rose garden, but I rarely smell the roses, so I’m hoping I’ll find more time for all those things,” she said.

In 1995, when she was still a director of BHP, it was estimated that Ms Jackson sat on the boards of companies with a combined market capitalisation of $50billion. It was a long way from life as a country girl in Warragul, where she went to the local high school and her father was general manager of the hardware shop.

Now 48, she looks 10 years younger. She has a warm and engaging manner – but she has also been on three boards that presided over the departures of their chief executive officers.

Yesterday Ms Jackson said her achievements included converting the TAC from a branch of the public service to a global leader in insurance. Its staff today are better educated and she was proud that for half of her time as chairwoman, 50per cent of the board members had been women.

After years of weekly bulletins on road tolls, she has carnage off pat. “Every day, there is somebody that dies, on average; every eight days, someone becomes a paraplegic or a quadriplegic; every four days someone has a brain injury; and about every two hours, someone has a modest injury like a broken arm or a broken leg.”

She leaves determined to prepare her own children for the roads. When her son gained his learner’s permit three weeks ago she took him out in the car the same day, and that weekend he drove the family to Hotham.

“A lot of my friends said, `Are you insane?’ But I said `No, because kids need practice,”‘ she said firmly. “Yes, I’ve been a white-knuckled person, and yes, I’ve screamed, `Stop!’ but three weeks later he’s a lot better driver.”

The TAC had put Ms Jackson on her own learning curve. She arrived on the job convinced, she said, that such a state-run concern was “an ideologically unsound industry”. She soon realised that privatisation would lead to a higher road toll and higher insurance premiums: “There are exceptions to every rule.”

There have been rumors of overtures to Ms Jackson regarding a political career, which she cagily confirms. “Over the years I’ve been asked to do all sorts of amazing things, including put my hand up for preselection for seats.”

Which side of politics made the approach – or was there more than one? She grinned. “There’s been more than one. But I’m quite an apolitical person. I regard politicians with great respect but, for myself, I would rather play in other places.”

First published in The Age.