Tuesday, 15 May 2012

What's needed? Code of conduct or brave leadership?

I am closely following the story unfolding around the former Health Services Union official and now Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, and the governance of that union.  (You can read the latest news story here and the full 1127 page Fair Work Australia report into the HSU East Branch is available here.)  At times I am angry about what's happening and at other times, I am just plain sad.  Tonight I'm banging my head against the wall wondering when it will all stop.

As a former union official (working for members of a different union, not the HSU), I know what a privilege it is to have the people you worked with elect you to represent their industrial interests.  I felt the weight of this responsibility heavily and tried to exercise my advocacy consciously for their benefit.  I resent the fact that when I reveal my past to people they get a look in their eye and then want to know how I used my union credit card.  By sharing a job title on a CV, hard working and sincere men and women are looked upon as corrupt - or at least corruptible - by others.

I had a credit card and so did members of my team.  It was very clear to me and to my team how we were to use this credit card.  Rules for usage and accounting were in place and there was no tolerance for anyone who went outside these boundaries.

Discussions about what the findings of the Fair Work Australia report mean for a sitting member of Parliament in recent days has been focussed around developing a code of conduct for parliamentarians and establishing rules spelling out powers Parliament can exercise in relation to someone in Craig Thomson's situation.  It amazes me that in most situations where it is suggested that people with stewardship of an organisation may have failed to act in accordance with community standards, rewriting of the policy handbook is one of the first responses.

I have not yet read all 1127 pages of the Fair Work Australia report.  I have followed the story closely in the media and also talk with friends who still work in the union movement.  Whether Craig Thomson himself is ultimately found to be guilty of fraud or negligence, it seems likely that a culture had developed within the union which allowed loose governance to become the norm.  How is a code of conduct going to help in a situation like this?  If people think it's okay to use the union (or company credit card) to procure prostitutes and all the checks and balances within the organisation fail to correct this, writing another policy is not going to protect the members of the union or shareholders of the company.

As a member of any organisation, I have a reasonable expectation when I join that the governance structures and processes will be facilitated honestly and conscientiously by the people who happen to be the custodians at the time.  If I was worried about something before I signed up, I wouldn't sign up until my worry was demonstrably resolved.  If I joined and then had concerns I would ask questions inside the organisation.    But what happens when you're a relatively low paid health services worker who feels powerless at work and joined the union because you saw it as a way to secure a better deal at work?  The last place you'd be thinking of fighting is your own union.  You'd probably have enough on your plate at work and at home.  Imagine then that you'd become active in your union and volunteered some of your own time to help organise your workplace.  You had a sense of pride and achievement as you grew membership in your workplace and helped resolve issues.  Perhaps this had even extended to supporting an official or a staffer in their quest to further represent workers by standing for election as a member of the political arm of organised labour, the Australian Labor Party.

Imagine then, how you must feel each day as you go to work, each week as you pay your union dues and consider whether it's worth it.  How would you be able to wear your union's t-shirt, jacket or badge again with anything other than shame?    This is what makes me so angry.  The trust and comradeship of ordinary workers has been violated.  That's just not fair.

A few weeks ago, I saw three member organisers of the HSU interviewed on television.  Their hearts were breaking as they talked about their betrayal.  My heart broke as I listened to them until their final words made me cheer: "It's our union.  We are the members of the union and the union belongs to us.  We want it back!"

The rallying cry of these three women is what it's all about.  It's not about people exploiting power which has been entrusted to them and it's not about writing a policy or a code of conduct.  Anyone who thinks it's okay to use the union credit card for any personal expenditure (whether it's buying prostitutes or buying bread and milk) because there isn't a written rule that says it's not allowed, is not fit for office in any organisation.  Any organisation that discovers such a person in their midst should not hesitate to remove them.

Decisive leadership which supports the values of the organisation they lead is the only answer.

What do you think?


  1. Great piece Tanya. If you need a code of conduct to behave you shouldn't be there in the first place. I think it's sad that someone like you is not still in the union movement or indeed in politics and people like the the Craig Thomson's of this world are. Why is public life now attracting more morons than usual?

  2. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to feedback John. Thank you for your comments around my capacity too! It's hard yakka being in public life and I think sometimes good intentions can drain away as the pressure builds. That's when I think a really strong culture of accountability and leadership is essential to keep people on track. It's nice to know that someone out there would vote for me!