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'Being the best we can be'

Liz Cosson

Liz Cosson AM CSC is the new Secretary of DVA.

DVA’s new Secretary will reflect on her own military experience and that of family members as she works to improve services for veterans and their families

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Liz Cosson AM CSC is the first veteran to serve as Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in 37 years.

She is also the great granddaughter, granddaughter, niece, daughter, sister and wife of a veteran.

The retired major-general knew soon after joining DVA as First Assistant Secretary, Client and Commemorations in 2010 that she’d found her new calling.

‘It was very early in this role I recognised the incredible work we do to support our veteran community and felt this was an extension of my military service,’ she said.

The last Secretary with an Australian Defence Force (ADF) background was former RAAF pilot Sir Richard Kingsland AO CBE DFC, who retired from the role in 1981.

Like Ms Cosson, he had been a trailblazer while in the ADF.

He was the youngest Australian group captain at age 29.

She became Australia’s first woman major-general in 2007 and was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross in 2001 for her service to the Army in planning for Australia’s forces to deploy to East Timor and for her service as Chief of Staff, Peace Monitoring Group, Bougainville.

Later, Ms Cosson led a dispersed and diverse team across all of Australia’s military bases.

She was appointed in 2011 as a Member of the Order of Australia for exceptional service to the Australian Army and for delivering organisational reform.

Liz Cosson wearing her medals and talking to Brigadier Bronwyn Worswick.

Ms Cosson with Brigadier Bronwyn Worswick at the Honouring Women United by Defence Service launch at the Australian War Memorial in March 2018. Photo: AWM2018.4.42.35

While serving, Ms Cosson experienced the challenges of being separated from loved ones while on deployment, of re-adjusting to family life back home, and of preparing for a future beyond the ADF.

Her military connections have been less of a focus in some news reports on her appointment, though, than the fact that Ms Cosson is DVA’s first woman Secretary.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted it when announcing that he would recommend her for the position.

‘As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs marks the centenary of its establishment as the Repatriation Department, I am delighted that it can also celebrate the appointment of its first female Secretary,’ he said.

As impressive as that achievement is, milestones like it have not motivated Ms Cosson as she has built her career.

‘While I’m extremely privileged and honoured to have been appointed to each of the roles, I never aspired to be a ‘first’,’ she told Vetaffairs.

‘I always had a passion for my jobs and I also had achievable and realistic goals that gave me the drive and determination to succeed.’

The new Secretary’s top three priorities now revolve around improving the lives of Australian veterans and their families.

‘Firstly, I want to make sure DVA is putting veterans and their families first by thinking about, supporting, responding to and respecting their needs,’ Ms Cosson said.

‘Secondly, we need to understand the impact of military service to ensure that our nation designs the best support and services to meet the needs of our current and ex-serving men and women and their families.

‘Thirdly, we need to create a legacy to ensure our nation can reflect through commemoration; respect all who have served or been touched by the service of a loved one; and remember through education and awareness.’

Ms Cosson has already played a pivotal role in driving technological and organisational reform at the department as Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer, and is committed to seeing this work through.

‘There is still a long way to go, but I am very positive about the future,’ she said.

The former Girl Guide knew very early on what she wanted to do with her life, deciding while in high school to join the Army.

Her great grandfather had put his age down from 49 to 44 to join up and sail to Gallipoli in 1915. He died on the Western Front on 7 August 1916, leaving Ms Cosson’s great grandmother a war widow.

The Secretary’s maternal grandfather also served on the Western Front.

Her paternal grandfather and her mother’s brothers served in the Second World War.

‘My father served over 30 years,’ Ms Cosson said.

‘My husband [Brigadier James Baker] served in both Gulf Wars and commanded our forces in East Timor.

‘I was inspired to join the Army, it was my dream.’

Ms Cosson’s parents wanted her to complete a business college course before joining up, which she did at 17 before beginning her working life as a secretary for Hodgkinson Real Estate in Canberra.

 ‘So I had a fallback,’ she said of this experience.

‘I can still touch type!’

She applied for the Army in 1978, and found herself unprepared for tough military life.

‘1979 was the first year that Army women were exposed to 12 months officer training,’ Ms Cosson said.

‘There was a lot of testing our capability and capacity to undertake similar training as our male colleagues in Portsea.’

The teenager learnt quickly that she was both resilient and stubborn – the former a trait she learnt from her mother, a nurse.

‘My mother was my role model,’ she said.

‘She set my foundation of values and resilience.’

Another mentor was former Secretary Simon Lewis PSM, who brought Ms Cosson back to DVA in 2016.

‘I had a plan around enticing Liz back to the department two years ago, which was to position her strongly to be a contender for the role of Secretary when my time came due,’ Mr Lewis said.

‘The fact that’s she’s got a very strong understanding of the culture inside the ADF, and very strong connections both to current and former serving ADF personnel will help a great deal in her role as Secretary.’

Ms Cosson agrees.

‘What is very important to me is that the department, the Australian community and the medical providers who support our veterans all appreciate the impact of military service on our serving men and women,’ she said.

‘As a department, we should lift above a focus on transactions, claims, processing and start to know and connect with our veterans and their families.’

She notes that given most of her career has been in the military, her public sector experience is not as rich as that of her Secretary colleagues.

‘However, I am very fortunate to have been joined by Mark Cormack as our new Chief Operating Officer,’ she said.

‘He has incredible public sector experience.’

Mr Cormack worked previously with Ms Cosson at both the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Department of Health.

‘Liz is an absolutely inspirational and fantastic leader, and that was one of the great attractions in accepting the invitation to join her [at DVA],’ he said.

Ms Cosson sought to further her public sector expertise in those departments after her first stint at DVA immediately post-service.

‘I knew that I needed to learn more about being a public servant, and what it means to be a senior leader in the Australian Public Service if I was to be considered for the role as Secretary of DVA,’ she said.

Having gained that experience, and built upon it as Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at DVA over the past two years, Ms Cosson is now is ready to serve as Secretary.

She’s focusing all her energies on putting veterans and their families first, though she’s aware that DVA has not always succeeded at this in the past.

‘Our greatest challenge is to rebuild the trust with our veterans and families,’ Ms Cosson said.

‘I acknowledge that sometimes we have not made the right decisions or been the best we can be.

‘As we enter our second century of service, we must become relevant and modern to meet the needs of all our veterans, of yesterday, today and tomorrow.’

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