Delia Rickard, who departs her role as deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission this week, crafted her career path through a list of dot points her father encouraged her to write decades ago.
Feeling restless while studying a masters degree in refugee law in the mid-1980s, Rickard was seeking a job – and direction.
“He said, ‘Get a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle, think about all the features you want in a job and all the features you don’t’,” Rickard tells this masthead. “‘Don’t think about the job. But: what do you want to do?’”
“I thought, I want to make the world a better place,” she says. “I want lots of projects and the ability to really have an impact on people’s life.”
Rickard says these ideals were instilled in her as a young girl in the 1960s and 1970s, watching ABC’s This Day Tonight on black and white television and engaging in sociopolitical debates with her family around their wooden dining table.
“I grew up at the time of the Vietnam War,” she says. “Like every young person, I wanted to solve all the world’s problems, get rid of the inequality, talk about environmental issues … That was just how we grew up. I think it spurred a consciousness in all of us.”
Following her dot point-making exercise, Rickard wound up ditching the masters after landing herself a job with then-Justice Minister Michael Tate whose portfolio included consumer protection, an area she went on to dedicate three decades of her life to along with product safety, financial literacy and scam prevention.
Having spent the last ten years in the competition regulator’s second-highest position, her tenure virtually predates the organisation itself: in 1993 Rickard joined what was then known as the Trade Practices Commission, which became the ACCC in 1995 when it merged with the Prices Surveillance Authority. She did a 13-year stint at corporate watchdog ASIC, before returning to the ACCC as deputy chair in mid-2012.
As second-in-command, Rickard generally steered clear of the spotlight that was often captured by then-chair Rod Sims, who was not afraid of being polarising. But recently, Rickard has fronted the media more regularly to warn Australians against the malignant rise in scams.
In 2022, Australians lost more than $568 million to faceless swindlers (and that’s only the amount reported to ScamWatch). This figure is 75.7 per cent higher than 2021 levels, with victims spread across all generations. Not everyone in society has evolved as quickly as technology has, she points out. “There’s an awful lot of us who aren’t digital natives,” she says.
When asked why this issue is so close to her heart, Rickard pauses.
“I’ve seen so many people’s lives destroyed by scams. I mean absolutely destroyed some people to suicide,” she says. She describes romance scams in particular as her bête noire because of the way it preys on lonely people seeking love. These individuals don’t just lose their own money, but the money they’ve borrowed from friends and family. “They’re embarrassed, humiliated.”
Highs and lows
The work Rickard takes the most pride in is not whopping court case triumphs, but the construction of platforms that provide resources and basic tools to help Australians make better everyday decisions. Though not part of her time at the ACCC, Rickard singles out the establishment of ASIC’s MoneySmart website, launched in March 2011, as one of her proudest contributions.
“The whole idea behind MoneySmart … was to give people the tools to go online and compare superannuation plans, what the fees were, to look at whether or not you could afford a mortgage, and work out what was the average interest rate in the last 25 years,” she says.
“Plus we got financial capability into the school curriculum. It’s taught exercises about moving out of home, finding an energy plan, all of these very practical real-life skills.
“It was a whole financial capability project, the whole package I’m proud of.”
As for rough patches or regrets, Rickard brings it back to the tangible difference the ACCC’s scam prevention work can make in people’s lives. A sore spot for her is the scrapping of a beloved project in the mid-2010s, during which she oversaw a small team of two who would comb through data from financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC.
“We wrote to people who, we thought, were probably romance scam victims and invited them to call us. The team spent hours on the phone with them,” Rickard recalls. “We worked out after we’d finished we probably saved about $100 million dollars through that work.”
The project ran for roughly a year before being jettisoned for being too laborious. Projects come and go all the time, but this one was special. “I understood why people made the call, but I was very disappointed,” she says.
“It was against my wishes because of resources. That’s the one thing I’ve never forgiven.”
Fight of a lifetime
Even after more than ten years in the role of deputy chair, the work is not done. Rickard rattles off a considered laundry list of issues she hopes to see progress on, including an unfair practices law (to crack down on practices that aren’t quite ‘misleading or deceptive’ or ‘unconscionable’ but are “still doing real damage”); a general safety provision (which would place an obligation on suppliers not to sell any unsafe goods, rather than the current reactive policy of recalls); a digital ombudsman scheme (to resolve disputes between consumers and digital platforms); and beefed up consumer guarantee rights (“we’re very keen to see that it becomes a civil penalty offence”). Another issue close to her heart is the ‘Confirmation of Payee’ scheme, which prevents bank transfer scams by matching a recipient’s bank details with their name.
Rickard understands it will take time. “One of the things I always say to my team is, change is incremental.”
The public servant is full of praise for her employer of more than a decade, during which she’s seen it become a more inclusive workplace. Rickard’s replacement, Catriona Lowe, means the top brass at the ACCC – both the new deputy and current chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb – are women.
”One of the things that impresses me is how far it’s come for women. It is just a much better place when I look at people, job-sharing at senior levels and balancing young kids and work and still making a difference – that really pleases me,” she says.
“I see the public sector as having gone in the right direction in recent years, particularly on issues around diversity and women’s rights.”
She feels the time is right for her to leave. Having never aspired to the top job of chair, Rickard extols Lowe as her successor.
“I’ve had two terms and a number of extensions, I think it’s the longest anyone’s had the job. I think it’s right that it goes to somebody else. You get tired, you need fresh energy, you need fresh ideas,” she says.
“[Catriona is] absolutely fabulous. Her values are impeccable, she’s smart, she’s articulate, she will do a sensational job … That process of renewal is important.“
Rickard’s official last day in the job is January 26, a public holiday, but she is taking a few days off beforehand to head down the coast for some time off before she throws herself into her five other jobs. Rickard sits on the boards of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, Super Consumers Australia, and community services organisation Good Shepherd. She will also chair a committee at health regulator AHPRA and serves as a trustee of the Jan Pentland Foundation.
She’s looking forward to the lighter workload. “It will be a much more relaxed pace,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll have to work as hard, I don’t mind the idea of getting a bit more sleep.”
It’s hard to think this illustrious career might have never happened if she hadn’t taken her father’s advice to finish studying law.
“I did, and I still, want to be a political journalist,” she adds.
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Source: Thanks smh.com