In the Australian Financial Review in October 2009 there was an opinion piece (not available online) from the CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), John Colvin, expressing concerns about the accountability of directors under legislation including the proposed OHS laws in Australia.
According to a report by Adam Schwab in the Crikey newsletter of 23 October 2009 (also not freely available online), Colvin wrote in the AFR:
“There are more than 660 state and territory laws which impose personal liability on individual directors for corporate misconduct. That is, a director is liable because he is a director, even when he may not have had any personal involvement in the breach…”
“The AICD noted, the NSW courts have taken a hard-line enforcing the deemed liability laws. According to AICD data, between 2004 and 2008, 144 company directors were found guilty of OHS offences, of which 115 of those prosecutions occurred in NSW.”
Schwab then provides a comparison of risk that I wish I’d thought of:
“That means the proportion of directors convicted over these so-called onerous laws is 0.0068%. To compare, there is roughly a 0.04% chance of someone being struck by lightning. Therefore, based on the AICD’s own data, company directors are six times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be prosecuted. It also shouldn’t be forgotten, directors’ liabilities are almost always covered by indemnity insurance and most prosecutions result in a mere financial penalty.
While the NSW OHS laws result in occasional harsh results, to extrapolate one set of allegedly ill-advised laws across the country is much like a cry of wolf.”
This perspective will be an important one to remember when considering the submissions being lodged with Safe Work Australia on the OHS model laws by 9 November 2009. The corporate submissions particularly but also those from the OHS law firms that spruiker the exposure of company directors ruthlessly whenever OHS and accountability is discussed.
Some of us remember the “glory days” when industrial manslaughter was widely considered in some Australian States. (There is a noticeable absence of controversy of the industrial manslaughter law that is operating in the Australian Capital Territory)
The amount of “get-out-jail-free” options available for directors should encourage more attention to alternative, non-financial penalties for breaches of OHS law. Over the last 24 hours the United States has been talking about replacing executive cash remunerations with stocks so that director’s incomes are reliant on the share price of the corporation which, in turn, relates to the quality of leadership from the director.
As long as Australia’s principle OHS penalties involve money, directors can buy their way out of trouble. If Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, can face an entire country and apologise for the bad behaviour of others, and the bad policies of other governments in relation to the interaction with indigenous peoples, why should company directors not have a similar obligation when their poor management of a workplace kills someone? If corporate executives are that keen on leadership, let’s see them apply some of the leadership that Rudd showed, and accept responsibility when they should.