At a glance
When Martin Bowles FCPA started work as a clerk at Queensland Rail, he didn’t imagine that this was the beginning of a 40-year career with the public service. He hadn’t finished his degree at this stage but continued to study part-time to finish his bachelor of business with majors in accounting and computing.
“I had always been able to look at numbers and quickly work out where there were problems, but I never expected to end up doing some of the things that I have done,” Bowles says.
After finishing up at Queensland Rail and a stint in Queensland Health, he moved to the Northern Rivers are of New South Wales into the NSW Health system. He got his big break as CEO of Wentworth Area Health Service in NSW in 2002.
“It was a challenging role that gave me an opportunity to work with big budgets and solve issues in clinical services,” he says.
Bowles completed the CPA Program to give impetus to his career. He believes his ability to build and nurture teams has been critical for his career growth.
“I am an accountant, yes, but if I was to pick one thing that I am very good at it is building teams, trusting them and giving them help and guidance when they need it.”
Bowles moved from state to commonwealth government in 2006 and served as deputy secretary in the Australian Department of Defence until 2010. He credits this experience with providing the biggest lesson of his career – the importance of building a network of people to reach out to for support. This network proved invaluable when he was asked to move across to lead the rectification of the Home Insulation Scheme. This program led to house fires and the deaths of four workers, and Bowles was given charge of developing the rectification plan for more than 1.2 million homes.
“There were significant challenges during this time and the skills and networks that I had established were invaluable,” he says.
He was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2012 for delivery of energy efficiency policy reform and the rectification work on the home insulation and Green Loans programs.
In December 2011, Bowles joined the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as acting secretary. He formally took up the role of secretary in 2012 and managed some of the biggest movements of asylum seekers during the period.
In 2014, Bowles was appointed secretary of the Department of Health. He managed a budget of more than A$90 billion and introduced reforms in primary health care, mental health service arrangements and the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. Three years later, Bowles says he “felt like I wanted to try something different”. He stayed in the health sector, however, becoming national CEO of Calvary Health Care, a Catholic not-for-profit healthcare provider.
“The highlight for me so far has been to bring in an ongoing shift from a local operational focus to a much more strategic thinking health organisation that is dealing with challenges the broader health system is throwing up,” he says.
He is now focused on the changing environment around private health insurance and finding innovative ways to look after patients.
“Calvary is a mission-based organisation closely aligned to my values. We provide health care to the most vulnerable, particularly those reaching the end of their life. Being able to make a difference across a microcosm of the health system – hospital, home and aged care – is something that really excites me,” he says.
Bowles continues to have a say in broader conversations around the health sector, including chairing a group called Health 2040. “It’s a global access partners group that looks at where the system is going, needs to go, and how we actually start to put some ideas out there that might make a difference,” he says.
“My experience in health at a national and state level gave me a very good picture of what the health care system is. Bringing that learning to Calvary has been a really interesting and exciting transition.”
One piece of advice
“Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to trust others and take them with you, because you can’t do it by yourself.”