Public health a passion for new CE
Jenn Lawless brings a wealth of experience, including a strong background in Parliament, union advocacy, communications and campaigns, and public health to her new role as the first Chief Executive of the Health Coalition of Aotearoa.
Hauora recently caught up with Jenn, who joined the Coalition in May 2021, to see how she is settling into the role and about some of the main activities that the Coalition is currently involved in.
We also gained an insight into Jenn’s earlier years – what life was like growing up in a rural setting at Te Uku on Raglan Harbour and how this instilled in her a healthy respect for the environment.
Jenn also shares about how she ‘fell’ into politics and what she learned from her time in parliament, as well as how her ‘passion for public health’ developed.
HAUORA: We’d love to know a bit more about you. You live in Wellington but you’re originally from the Waikato Region where you grew up in a rural setting at Te Uku on Raglan Harbour. Can you tell us a bit about what life was like growing up in rural Aotearoa and what values were instilled in you as a result of your upbringing?
JENN: The natural environment I grew up in was very idyllic, and I had no idea at the time how lucky we were – there was a beautiful tidal estuary, and I learnt to ride, kayak, fish, care for animals and helped my father restore a small patch of native bush. We saw the changes in the biodiversity of that awa as local dairy conversions happened, with the river silting up and whitebait stocks and other fish declining. It was much later I realised this was an ongoing process of colonisation which disrespected the environment and original kaitiaki of that land. At an early age I had a sense that increasingly intensive extractive agriculture was putting profit over the health and sustainable systems of the natural world.
HAUORA: You’ve had a fair bit of involvement in politics, including working in parliament. What drove your interest in politics? what did you take away from that?
JENN: At the time, I felt like I fell into politics. My friend enrolled me in a political science course, and one of the assignments was to sit in the gallery. I was appalled at the quality of most of the behaviour and debate! And it made me angry that the people making the decisions didn’t seem to be the people affected by those decisions, or to understand the implications of them. Or even worse, perhaps not to care.
I ended up working in four parliamentary roles, including the Select Committee Office, an internship in the Government Whip’s office, and Parliamentary Service for the MPs Martin Gallagher, Labour MP for Hamilton West and then Kevin Hague, Health Spokesperson for the Greens. The latter was for nearly seven years.
On reflection, everyone’s view of society is driven by their lived experience. I was at the pointy end of the State as a young person with few resources. I saw the gap between my experiences and those of my peers, and a lack of understanding of different lives. My time in parliament showed me the many invisible, deliberate filters which reinforce existing privileges – those that get to make the decisions versus those that decisions are ‘done’ to. The lesson I learned is that community organising, empowerment and collective action are the only real ways to make lasting structural change.
HAUORA:: You also have a background in communications and campaigns. Can you please tell us a bit more about this, and how and when you became so passionate about health equity, health policy, and public health in particular?
JENN: At university I did media studies, which I saw as an essential adjunct to political science in a mediated democracy. Most people don’t directly know those making decisions on their behalf, so rely on the media to decide whether leadership is ‘good’, and which issues are important. My most recent work was as a campaign adviser in the union movement – focusing on empowering working people to speak up and tell their own stories.
As a health consumer, in particular a young woman, I saw there was a power imbalance between my health literacy and decisions made on my behalf by clinicians. I was being put through processes and systems I didn’t understand how to navigate. My boss at the time encouraged me to study public health to better understand the policy work we were undertaking. This is when I realised health inequities are systemic and preventable – not just about individual knowledge or behaviour.
My passion for public health is that it fundamentally measures whether society fairly values all people. Does everyone have equal access to a long and healthy life? And if not, why, and how can we fix that?
HAUORA: It just seems like yesterday that we were congratulating you on your appointment to the Coalition, but you’ve now been there for more than three months. How have you settled in, and what were some of your main responsibilities/tasks as the ‘first’ Executive Director of the Coalition?
JENN: There’s a lot of work to be done! In the first few months I’ve spent time meeting some of our organisational members, expert panels, and Board members of course, and focusing on the internal policies and systems of the Coalition. We are quite a large organisation for our relatively small resources, so there are still many organisational and individual members I’m looking forward to meeting. I’m having many discussions with subject-matter experts around our core policy work and priority objectives for tackling preventable health loss.
HAUORA: Can you give us an update on the progress being made on of some of the activities the Coalition has recently been involved in, including the development of positive coordinated responses to the proposed new tobacco control measures and health sector reform, as well as coordinating efforts to respond to the new revamp of food regulations.
JENN: The Coalition’s Smokefree Expert Panel put in a consensus submission fully endorsing the Government’s recent Smokefree 2025 proposals, which you can read more about here. We are looking forward to these proposals being enacted in the near future, and to provide expert input into the health evidence. We stand ready to support the proposals with domestic and international expertise throughout the policy development and implementation process.
Our Food Policy Expert Panel undertook a lot of work recently to put in a response to the update of the food regulations which are jointly held between Australia and New Zealand. This is quite a complicated process and system, which has big implications for public health. That’s why we issued a joint statement of health promoting organisations here and across the ditch, outlining concerns.
For those interested in the Food Policy Expert Panel’s full (42 page!) response from a New Zealand perspective, you can read more here.
HAUORA: What are some other main activities the Coalition will be focusing on in the near future and can we expect any new developments?
JENN: The Coalition has a formal working relationship with the Helen Clark Foundation and the MAS Foundation, funding Helen Clark Foundation Health Equity Fellow Matt Shand. Matt has been investigating the cost of alcohol harm in the community, using novel data from ACC. We are supportive of the Minister of Justice’s recent comments that the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act will be up for review, and our Roopuu Waipiro (Alcohol Expert Panel) looks forward to contributing their expertise to that process.
On Friday the 1st of October, the Coalition is holding its AGM from 10.30am – 12pm online. It’s open to all HCA members and is free.
You may also choose to donate after joining – as an independent voice on the commercial determinants of health, we are able to undertake our work through private donations.
HAUORA: Would you like to add anything?
JENN: The global Covid-19 pandemic has been a terrible experience for the mental and physical health of populations globally. But our government’s evidence-based response has given us great hope that this approach can be equally applied to other deadly risks to public health. New Zealand has shown it can lead the world in stamping out infectious disease. Now, let’s do the same to preventable harm from alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy food, and inequities in health outcomes. There’s never been a better time to join us.