Sandra Eccles’ lobbying efforts have helped keep the Australian steel industry on life support. The undisputed legend of the government relations game has come a long way since her early days as a public servant when some male colleagues treated her as little more than a tea-lady.

During this year’s carbon price negotiations, Eccles lobbied behind the scenes for Australia’s two biggest steel manufacturers, BlueScope Steel and OneSteel. The results were stunning.

The government has set aside $300 million in compensation for the steel industry and only two companies are eligible for handouts: BlueScope and OneSteel.

Based on the company’s 2010 carbon emissions, Bluescope alone could get up to $800 million in free permits during the first three years of the carbon price scheme, with hundreds of millions more to come in following years.

The big two steelmakers will pay next to nothing for at least the first four years of the carbon scheme, and may even end up better off, according to corporate research firm MSCI.

While other factors also helped, including Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes’ impassioned campaign for steel compensation, those who know Eccles have no doubt her efforts helped seal the deal.

Peter Sekuless, who also works at Kreab Gavin Anderson, says Eccles is one of the most impressive operators he’s come across in his three decades as a lobbyist.

“She’s a very serious, down-to-earth person; that engenders huge confidence in clients,” he says. “Some of her peers are given to flaunting their knowledge and talking about who they know. Sandra’s not like that at all. But, from everything she says, the depth of knowledge and fact that she knows everyone is apparent … The people she works for have a terrific regard for her.”

After checking The Power Index‘s bona fides — “Who have you worked for before?” “Who else have you been speaking to?” — Eccles agrees to our request for an interview.

“I don’t see myself as a legend,” she says when we float the idea. “I think I’m quite good at what I do. That’s because I knuckle down and work hard. I understand how politics and the policy decision making process works. I’ve worked on some things that have been successful but I don’t seek the limelight for myself.”

Eccles’ first job out of school was as a commercial trainee at the BHP steel works at Port Kembla — though she never imagined she’d end up lobbying for Big Steel.

“I’ve never had a career plan,” she says. “If I had one it was that I should be in a sphere where the men tend to go. Not just because that’s where you get rewarded but because that’s where the opportunities are.”

After completing a commerce degree at the University of Wollongong, she tutored in economics at RMIT and Flinders University before becoming a ministerial adviser to the South Australian premier John Bannon in the mid-1980s. It was a lonely time for women in the upper echelons of the public service.

“I remember meetings where I’d be sitting in the room and a gentleman would point at the teapot in the middle of the table and say, ‘a white with two sugars please’. That would happen to me quite often. I said, ‘I’m not a secretary; you can make your own tea’,” she remembers. “For most of my career I’ve been the only woman in the room.”

*Read the full profile at The Power Index