By Natalie O’Driscoll
Commissioner Donna Adams is Tasmania’s highest-ranking female police officer, and the first ever female Police Commissioner in the state.
Joining the force as an enthusiastic 19-year-old, Donna (as she insists on me calling her during our chat) was quickly noted by her superiors as having an enquiring mind and a passion for doing her best in every role she took on.
“When I joined Tasmania Police straight out of school, I certainly didn’t think I would one day be Commissioner of Police, let alone as the first female Commissioner in Tasmania Police history – some 105 years after women were first allowed to join the service,” she says.
“I’ve just sort of always been of the view that I would take every opportunity that was provided for me. There are a number of different levels in policing, where you have to go through a course and pass exams.
“My view was you always do it, and when you can, you always put your hand up to operate at the next rank.”
Over the years, Commissioner Adams has received acknowledgement for distinguished service including a Commissioner’s Commendation for service at Port Arthur in 1996, an Australian Police Medal for Distinguished Service, a Tasmania Police Service Medal for diligent and ethical service, and being recognised by the Australasian Council of Women in Policing as an outstanding investigator.
With all these accolades, it’s funny to think that she almost didn’t take the road to law enforcement.
“I applied for university to do teaching, the same time I applied for the police. In the same week I got a letter of acceptance from the University of Tasmania, and a couple of days later I got the letter from the police.
“I reflect back on how I would be as a teacher and I don’t think I’d be any good,” she laughs.
“There might be this level of frustration when you have expectations for young people and they don’t fulfil their potential.”
It’s clear that Donna has extremely high standards, and even clearer that she holds herself to them first and foremost. Her rise to the top has been strongly supported almost every step of the way by those who have worked with her, a testament to her professionalism and impressive skill set.
In 2009, Donna became the first female promoted to the rank of Commander, and her skills as an investigator, leader and innovator saw her achieve the rank of Deputy Commissioner in July 2021 – a higher level than any woman before her.
In 2014, Donna was awarded the Tasmanian Telstra Businesswoman of the Year for her work which saw Tasmania Police become the first police organisation to roll out mobile devices to the frontline.
“It’s had a transformational change on the way we deliver our services,” she says.
“It cuts out so much additional paperwork and the things that go in on the back end, like inputting the source of information at the same time and everyone gets the chance to use it straight away. A lot of other jurisdictions came to Tassie to see how we made it work.”
As a leader, she is known for her knack of manage teams at a high level by listening, communicating and bringing people together towards a solution.
“I went to nine schools when I grew up and as a result I became resilient person,” Donna explains.
“Having to go into a new school and make friends, for a young person it can create a bit of anxiety and put people out of their comfort zone, and as a result of that I learned to build relationships and I place a high value on partnerships and relationships, and I think that’s probably held me in good stead.”
This skill of hers becomes apparent even in the short time we have been talking. Donna is jovial, full of beans, and very down-to-earth. She answers questions quickly and easily, and always has a laugh waiting in the back of her throat.
She puts me at ease instantly, and seems perfectly happy to be taking the time out to chat despite her insane schedule. I am charmed, and want to get a beer with her. Maybe even a round of golf, which she confesses she adores.
These relationship building skills were put to the test in 2019 when Donna was snatched up by the premier for an out-of-the-box position, while she was still Deputy Commissioner.
“The state had been in a six to nine month dispute about wages and enterprise bargaining for all the unions: teachers; nurses; paramedics… nothing to do with policing. And I was asked to lead negotiations and bring all the unions together,” she explains.
"It pushed me outside my comfort zone, but demonstrated my ability to negotiate and work in a difficult circumstance. There were 19 individual pay agreements and we settled those within a six month period.”
After this successful secondment, it was no surprise that when Covid came a-knocking, so did the state once more.
“The health minister rang Darren [Hine, previous Commissioner] and asked him to release me and become the Emergency Operations Commander. That was four months working in health, doing things like setting up the emergency places and managing outbreaks and having all the right structures in place.
“Again it was another massive learning curve, trying to get doctors to what you wanted them to do really tested those relationship skills.”
I asked Donna how she felt having these intense experiences. Were they exhilarating or depleting?
“At the time, exhausting and stressful,” she recalls.
“God, the first day at the one of the hospitals a doctor basically told me he didn’t know why I was there and wasn’t going to get much support from them, but I worked away on that relationship and in the end I got that lovely letter from him saying ‘you made a significant difference in how we responded and how the state was prepared’.
“When I sit back now and reflect on it, I know we did some great things as part of the team.”
Now in charge of the whole shebang, she’s keen to focus on firearms and domestic violence legislation as her first two main priorities.
No one could argue the fact that Donna has earned her place in the role of Commissioner through years of holding herself to the highest standards, consistently conscientious behaviour, pushing herself to the limits and the drive to continuously improve.
But in a world that still needs women to work twice has hard for half the accolades, and a police force that has (in some states) suffered from a poor reputation when it comes to gender equality, I can’t help but wonder about some of the gender-based barriers that Donna has faced along the way.
Her response is heartening, and unexpected.
“[I have experienced] nothing direct,” she states.
“I guess I make this comment based on feedback I had. I’ve always placed emphasis on building operational credibility. When you lead your team and they think you’re credible and have confidence in your leadership, I don’t think gender plays part in it at all.
“People have been able to see what I’ve been able to do as a leader and the impact and change that I’ve made, and there’s been support for my promotion. People have generally supported my appointment.”
I have to lightly object to the “I don’t think gender plays a part in it at all” part of comment, and we chat about this for a minute.
I am genuinely chuffed for Donna that this has been her experience. However I believe that speaks more towards what is probably a significantly less toxic culture within the Tasmanian police force, than what may manifest in other states that shall remain nameless.
I believe a woman in those more sexist environments, with exactly Donna’s skill set, leadership ability and experience may end up with a very different, and more difficult pathway.
She concedes this. “I certainly hope we are different here,” she says.
As she has risen through the ranks, Donna has become a mentor and supporter of all women in Tasmania Police, encouraging them to seek out opportunities for professional development, promotion and to demonstrate leadership.
As for advice to women in the force who are looking to end up in her seat one day?
“I’d certainly like to encourage them,” she declares.
“What I’d like to say to any women in the force, is the way in which you develop credibility and skills is to think about getting outside your comfort zone.
“We can get really comfortable in what we’re doing and it becomes a routine, and predictable and boring and we’re not challenged. And then we might start getting a bit negative about what we’re doing. Getting outside the box and trying something different, that’s where we learn.”
Enjoy Donna's stories and more over a good cuppa tea with a copy of Nevertheless Journal. Issue One and Two available now.