Hetty Johnston

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Hetty Johnston is a female powerhouse.

More than 20 years ago she took a stand against child sexual abuse and she hasn't stop fighting since. Hetty is the kind of person who makes you question what you're doing with your life. Not through guilt, but by inspiring people to help, to do more, to make a difference!

When we sat down, it was our first official meeting. I caught Hetty at a significant time in her life - a crossroads. 

It's easy to see that what Hetty 'does' and who Hetty 'is' are inextricably linked. You'll understand. 

I hope you enjoy 'My 30 Minutes' with Hetty Johnston. 

Tell me about your life, what does it look like at the moment?

I’ve just stood down as CEO (of Bravehearts) so I’m in a bit of a space of thinking about what do I do next? I did it once before, but the CEO didn’t work out. This time we’ll be right.

I’ve been a CEO for too long now. I’m over... you know someone else can worry about policy and procedure and absentees and who gets what jobs and who doesn’t.

I’m playing with a few ideas at the moment. There’s a few offers on the table. I just don’t know. So I’m taking some time out to work out what I want. For the first time in a very long time I’m going to work out what I want. It’s probably taken me my whole 59 years to come to that, but I’m going to do what I want this time. But what I want and what’s best for children are intrinsic, you can’t separate it. I actually believe I am here for this reason, as spooky as that may sound to some people, I genuinely believe that and I see that all the time. Things happen and I just think ‘wow I’m supposed to be doing this’. I guess I’m just waiting to feel what I need to do next.

Life is busy. My husband is a tradesmen, so he’s a floor sander and he works hard. But then when he’s not working, we’ve got a 12 acre property so the tractor is out slashing, or fixing fences, or digging holes, or building things, which keeps him busy and he really loves it. Plus he’s a sports nut, so he’s surfing on the coast.

I spend a lot of time working, I’m a workaholic and I always have been. Since I was a kid, even in school I studied all the time. I enjoy it, I like thinking about things, I’m slightly creative, I like to explore things and I just can’t the brain off, it just keeps churning. Which is a problem sometimes.

So life is busy, it’s very busy, but the 12 acres overlooks the Albert River so all we can see in front of us is the Hinterland. It’s quite peaceful. We’ve got 6 cows, 2 horses, 2 dogs and it’s 40 minutes from the Gold Coast. So life for us is busy during the day, but when I come home it’s where I relax. We’re empty nesters so it’s me and Ian, the dogs and the animals. I just love that, I love where we live. I adore my husband as much or more than when I married him, and the feeling is mutual so we have a really good life. We have a lot of really good friends and we’re very social – we go out a lot, they come over a lot.

I’m excited by my work, I love my work, I thrive on a challenge it’s true. So if someone says to me ‘you can’t do this’ that’s the thing I’ll do.

They said we couldn’t stop the government from putting the toll road through – and we stopped it. They said Peter Hollingworth would never resign – we’ve done it. They said child sexual assault would never be a mainstream issue – it is. Now all we have to do is stop it. The job’s not done there yet. It could be if governments pulled their finger out, to be frank.

I’m angry at governments. State and Federal. Particularly the Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull) and George Brandis at the moment. I could just knock their heads together. That for me is the frustrating bit because I can see absolutely what can happen and how we would be the safest place in the world to raise a child, so quickly and so easily. The only thing stopping us is our politicians and their lack of engagement on this. They see this as an issue that people are not going to vote for, or it’s ‘not a vote winner’. Everything is about votes and money for them. But for me and the people I work with... we’re literally watching these kids die. 

If everything we did as a society was for the best interests of children, if we considered them first and foremost with everything we do, then we would be a much more beautiful place. Kids would be loved, kids would be prioritised, kids would be protected, kids would be wholesome.

So my decision next, is how do I progress that?

There’s these big dollar opportunities out there, but the dollar doesn’t drive me. It used to. I’ve come from a business family, and my father couldn’t believe I was giving my time up for nothing when I first volunteered. It was a foreign concept to him, he just couldn’t get his head around it. But it doesn’t drive me anymore. But everyone comes to this – you reach a T-intersection and you’ve got to decide am I going to go left or am I going to go right?

It’s a case of money or the kids to be honest – and it’s tempting because as a CEO of an NGO you get paid rubbish money compared to what’s going on out there. And you know I’m 59 I’ve got to retire, I’ve got bugger all superannuation because I donated my time for 9 years. We donated a million dollars in time and money to the organisation back then, so we’re not sitting on the pigs back. But I’m finding it really hard – you’ve got someone over here waiving a big cheque around, and you’ve got someone over here bringing their child in who’s devastated by what’s happened to them and they’re not getting listened to.

What’s it like hitting the 20 year mark, do you ever feel any level of success or accomplishment?

Yes I do. I’m very proud that we started this thing. But it’s not me, although I’m the public face, it’s a fact – nobody does anything on their own. Even from the beginning it was my husband and I, and my family, and my daughters that supported me. It was tough. It’s so hard particularly in the beginning, because no one wants to hear from you. Those that are listening would think you were a raving lunatic. 'You’re the barking dog' they called me, but you’ve got to have stick-ability to keep going.

We have changed the way the country deals with this issue, there’s no question about it. But it’s not ‘me’, it’s ‘us’.

I’m really proud of Bravehearts, I’m really proud of the fact that we started it and I’m proud of all the people who support it and work in it and what we as a collective have achieved. Super proud. Couldn’t be prouder. I know that we’ve saved thousands of lives, I know we have. So that’s something I’m really proud of and if I got hit by a bus tomorrow I’d be happy to call that my legacy.

Do you associate the word success with Bravehearts?

Don’t really have time to associate anything, except hard work. We do, we get our successes along the way. You get your wins along the way, but you just move onto the next thing.

We’ve done some research where I just said look ‘we want Australia to be the safest place in the world to raise a child, we’ve got to know how to make that happen’. Everything I do has got to be based on fact, it can’t be whimsical. We conducted some research and measured Australia against New Zealand, Canada, the UK and all 50 of the United States and measured best practice in child sexual assault management across all of those places and then how they deal with the law, punishment and rehabilitation. We had a really good understanding of where we need to be as a nation to claim that mantle. One of the major legal firms did some work on it for us. And we do all of this on a wing and a prayer. So when we achieve what we need to achieve I will be ecstatic and then it will be a case of maintaining.

'It will never be job done, there will always be kids who are hurt.'

And there will always be perpetrators who want to hurt them, so we just have to be vigilant. The most motivating thing about this issue is it’s preventable. Child sexual assault is for the most part preventable. We just have to decide as a community and our governments have to decide that that’s what we want to do. But yes, we’ve changed this country there’s no doubt about it, and the safety of these kids.

You’ve received countless accolades – in 2014 awarded Member of the Order of Australia, in 2015 you were named Queensland Australian of the Year. How does that make you feel?

Everyone nominates me for these things because they’re amazing and they’re sneaky. It’s humbling but it’s almost.. is it weird to say it’s a bit embarrassing? I feel like a fraud sometimes because I know it’s not about me. It’s got my name all over it but it’s not about me.

So yes I’m super proud of starting this organisation with my family. No one ever does anything by themselves. But I’m not going to claim accolade for everything that Bravehearts has done because it wasn’t me, it was a whole team of people.

So I think when you ask with these awards how I feel – I feel honoured, humbled and embarrassed.

The AM I feel very personal about. I’m taking that one, I’m going to allow myself to have that one. It’s the thing I’m most proud of professionally. I wear it almost everyday if I can remember, and I’m proud of it.

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Your work must be stressful, how do you relax?

Our very first therapist taught me right in the very beginning - because I was doing everything at the time, there wasn’t staff – "when you pick up the phone you smile and when you hang up the phone you smile, they can hear that in your voice, and you can feel good that you helped that person because without you sitting there Hetty no one would be picking up that phone, and that person would be lost".

The balloon was also a good technique – you need to blow all of the ‘stuff’ into a big metaphorical balloon, all of their pain, their trauma, their tears into a balloon and just send it off. It’s almost like it sits on the ceiling like helium balloon, then one day when they ring back, you’ll pull it back down again and you’ll have all that information in your head, but you don’t keep it there, you just let it go. You have to let it go. You can only do what you can do and sometimes there is nothing that you can do. That will kill you, it will rot you, unless you understand and believe that you’ve done everything you can.

Burn out rate in this sector is massive because it’s just so overwhelmingly tragic to watch what happens to people. Human beings can be incredibly cruel to each other which never ceases to amaze me and horrify me.

How would you define personal success?

'Understand who you are. Then figure out what fills your cup'.

Do it for you, and sometimes doing it for you is doing it for others. Whatever it is just make sure it’s perfectly perfect for you. You only get one life and it’s shorter than you think, do it your way, go hard, give it everything you’ve got and whatever the result of that is – it’s perfect for you.

You’re turning 60 next year, you’ve got kids and grand kids – what sort of legacy do you hope to leave for them?

My granddaughter recently had her 18th birthday party at our property and I was standing in the kitchen watching her and remembering very clearly the day her mother told me she was having a baby. Reliving all of that and understanding that was like 19 years ago-ish, and how quickly those 19 years have passed. Next year I turn 60. Reflecting on that – my parents are 87 and 93 – reflecting on their lives, they were perfectly fit and healthy and dad was still cleaning the gutters out on the roof at 80. But after 80 it started to go pear-shaped so the realisation that at the very best, if I am super lucky, I’ve got 20 years of being able to actively participate in things and wondering what I’m going to do with that.

So with the new CEO starting, who I have total confidence in, it’s time for me to now make a change. I’m at a crossroads where I have to decided am I going to go left, or am I going to go right. There are lots of opportunities, lots of offers on the table, lots of money, some big offers – so it’s the money or the passion, or can I do both?

So I’m back in a place of giving myself the advice I would give a teenager – find out what fills your cup. I have to decide what will fill my cup for the next 20 years and then I’ll give it as much guts as I've given everything else.

A very prominent Australian businessman once told a group of people I was with, that I was frightened of nothing and he’s right!

I won’t let fear get in my way, unless it’s heights - I hate heights. 

You know what it is – I’m not frightened to walk the talk of what I believe in, it doesn’t frighten me at all.. because I know I’m right. I fact checked it already. If I haven’t got the proof in my pocket, I’m not saying it.

Nirvana for me would be that governments do the very very best for children, that that is their priority and I can believe that and trust that they will do it. I know for an absolute fact that I can’t trust that, it was reconfirmed to me recently with some dealings with government. It’s tough work but you’ve just got to get over yourself and do it. All of a sudden you’re doing a media interview – you’ve got no makeup on, your hair looks shitty – doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s what I’m saying that counts.

Someone has to speak up for these kids. A lot of people would love to but they can’t. It just seems like the universe has put me here in this place. So what will I do next? Crossroads...


*Hetty Johnston ran in the 2017 Queensland election for the seat of Macalister, but did not secure the seat.