In a league of her own

A strong drive and sense of fair play carry rugby league's latest recruit over the line.

It's impossible to miss Catherine Harris as she strides through Azuma restaurant, her jacket a blaze of tangerine, her smile broadening as she closes in on our window perch.

She exchanges greetings with former Macquarie Bank boss Allan Moss, who happens to be at the next table, then fortifies herself with green tea as I seek answers to the big questions, such as: is it really possible to care simultaneously for the renaissance art of Raphael and Titian and the future of rugby league?

(Answer: Yes. Harris is on the board of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation and is the only woman on the newly formed Australian Rugby League Commission.)

Indeed, Catherine Harris AO sits - or has sat - on so many boards/foundations that you wonder how she had time to grow one big business, Harris Farm Markets, let alone five little boys.

''I had the perfect role model,'' she says. ''Mum.''

Mary Rossi is a remarkable woman. With her husband, Theo, she raised 10 children - eight daughters and two sons, born 20 years apart.

She was the first Australian woman to have her own television program, Mary Rossi's Woman's World. ''On the opening night of ABC TV, my brother and I were on television,'' Harris says. ''We were there, apparently, holding Prime Minister [Robert] Menzies' hand.''

While pregnant with her ninth child, Mary moved the family to Florence for a year, determined that her children recognise their Italian roots. Catherine, the second eldest, was 16 at the time.

She also founded a travel business, Mary Rossi Travel, which continues today.

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''She was an extraordinary woman for her time, or any time,'' Harris says. ''She had a voice, was self-confident and well read, and she had a husband - as I do - who encouraged her to do whatever she wanted to do. We always, both of us, had a strong drive. Mum would say 'have fun'.''

When she agreed to lunch, Harris - a former, long-serving director and chairwoman of the Australia-Japan Foundation - suggested I book ''the latest hot Japanese restaurant''. When my selection was closed for lunch, I opted for the respected Azuma, in Chifley Tower. And, as Harris seems to know what she's doing, I have what she's having - a sashimi and tempura bento box.

Soon the conversation turns to David Harris, whom she married ''almost the day we finished university''. They went overseas before returning to put their business plan into action: he would learn the fruit and vegetable trade while she acquired corporate and retail experience at Grace Bros, first on the shop floor then managing the curtain department. All went well until she announced she was expecting her first son, Daniel.

''The minute he knew, the general manager had a farewell party for me - even though I hadn't said I was leaving. It struck me as being inequitable. It didn't make common sense. I think it was the grounds for what has been a big driver for me all my life - the sense of the need for equity because it is the reason for success.''

By the time Harris was 29, she had five sons - Daniel, Tristan, Luke, Angus and Lachlan. And from a modest start - a single store in Villawood - Harris Farm Markets had grown into a major operation. The day after our lunch, it celebrated the opening of its 23rd store, at Boronia Park - an improbability in the late 1980s when it grew too quickly, took in a partner, got into deep financial trouble and was reduced to just three stores.

It was during ''this terrible period of our lives'' that Harris decided to get a safe job, in alumni relations at her alma mater, the University of NSW, before being headhunted into the role of federal director of the Affirmative Action Agency.

''I was parachuted into the job, there is no question about that,'' she says with a grin. ''A lot of people in the agency were very unhappy with me, plus the whole business community hated the new piece of affirmative action legislation, which simply required them to do something each year to break down the barriers for women in business, perhaps as simple as changing the title 'foreman' to 'supervisor'.

''I realised organisations were doing nothing. It was a joke. I was furious. So I wrote to them all and said if you don't get your act together I'm naming you in Parliament.''

A handful of businesses had been named in Parliament before - but never 200 at once. The minister of the day, Laurie Brereton, ''went white'', she says. She prevailed and they remain friends.

More recently, Harris and her husband had front-row seats to the doomed prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, courtesy of their youngest son, Lachlan, the 30-year-old press secretary in whom Rudd vested extraordinary power, infuriating colleagues and journalists alike.

''It was a bit conflicting for Lachie and me. Both of us had to keep our distance,'' Harris recalls, citing several roles that required her to work with the government. It could be difficult in business circles, too. ''I would call David and I social progressives. So, having a son working for the prime minister, we were labelled Labor people.''

The newest tag being applied to Harris is commissioner of the inaugural Australian Rugby League Commission, which has taken control of the game following News Ltd's withdrawal (though it is not yet officially in place).

To this day, Harris does not know who put her name forward. She was ''amazed'', she says, to receive a call from a headhunter, not that she was a stranger to the game. When swimming legend Dawn Fraser was running for Parliament two decades ago, adman John Singleton invited Harris to lunch with Fraser and businesswoman Anne Keating, sister of Paul Keating, then the federal treasurer.

''Singo said: 'Now, someone is going to have to be with Dawnie during her campaign. I can't because I am doing all the advertising for the Labor Party'. And Anne said, 'I can't because my brother is the Treasurer'. And I said, 'Well I can't because I don't know the difference between the Liberals and Labor'. And Singo said, 'That's perfect, Cath, because she's running as an independent'. So I ended up spending a good part of that year with Dawn - and of course we went to every Balmain Tigers match.''

It was a culture shock for a woman who has rugby union running through her blood. Her grandfather, Italo Rossi, was a Wallaby, her son Angus played for the Australian schoolboys and there was a time when she watched seven St Ignatius, Riverview games every Saturday - one for each of her boys, followed by the second XV and first XV.

Her role as a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground helped her open her mind to league.

''I had to watch every sport but I just found rugby league more interesting,'' she says. ''Look, the AFL is great - but it's long and boring. Rugby union has lost its mojo a bit. And soccer I just never understood at all. But you go to rugby league and the game is fabulous, it's absolutely alive.''

Harris is confident that, under the chairmanship of John Grant, the independent commission will lead the game into a strong future.

''The fact all these organisations have given up their sectional interests - and individuals have given up their fiefdoms - to put a commission in place says pretty good things about how people love the game.''

She identifies the priorities as securing the negotiations for the media rights and ensuring the sustainability of all clubs. And, while she thinks club boards should include more women, she insists this must be ''on an equity basis, not by quota''.

''If they can't see how smart equity is, they shouldn't be in the game. As someone said the other night - women are half the population and they are the mothers of the other half.''

Harris is not as fearful as others about the march of AFL's slick marketing machine into Sydney's league heartland.

''Rugby league is huge in the west, not just in the number of players and schools but also as part of families' history. So does rugby league have to keep a watch on AFL? Absolutely. Are they keeping a watch on it? Of course they are. Do I think it's a threat? No I don't.''

Moments later I receive a text from a colleague. The Reserve Bank has handed down its latest rates decision.

''Down - by 25 points,'' Harris predicts before I can confirm the fact.

''That's very good,'' she says. ''We had to regrow our business quite quickly so we still have a mortgage and I can really relate to how people feel. From the consumer point of view, a rate decrease is a psychological boost, even if it is only small. People like to celebrate, even little things.''

While Harris Farm Markets is no David, it daily does battle with the Goliaths of Coles and Woolworths. Harris becomes animated on the subject of predatory pricing, concluding one particularly robust anecdote with ''I'm probably being terribly defamatory''.

The point, she says, is to treat people well because equity isn't only the right thing to strive for but it is the reason for success.

''All my life, I've always come back to that.''