Abuse, egos, corporate governance and the safety profession

On 15 March 2010, the National President of the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA), Barry Silburn, distributed an email to the 3,600 SIA members strongly refuting the “unsubstantiated claims of irregularities” that were, apparently made by Gavin Waugh, Western Australian Division President and former National Secretary, in a member discussion forum and email circulated to members a couple of days earlier.

Many SIA members will be perplexed by having such an email lob in their inbox without any explanatory background and with obtuse language.  In some ways the email reads like the accountant has done a runner to spend all the members’ money at the casino.

SafetyAtWorkBlog understands that since Silburn gained the Presidency several years ago there has been a fractious relationship between members of the National Board of Management and the National Secretary who was, up until 2009, Gavin Waugh.  Waugh was suspended for some reason and until the 2009 elections the position was vacant.

The source of the tension is difficult to determine but a contentious issue has been the proposal to change the structure of the not-for-profit SIA to that of a “Public Company Limited by Guarantee”.  One camp sees substantial benefits in the change, the dissenting camp, headed by Waugh, does not, or at least does not without some intermediate steps.

The corporate structural change is impeded by there being at least two separately incorporated divisions – Victoria and Western Australia.  Waugh and others say that the National body cannot change until the divisions are de-incorporated.  National is saying that the incorporation of the divisions was never legitimate and so no de-incorporation is required.  The legal arguments, and both sides have sought and paid for legal advice on the options, are complicated by the egos of some of the SIA committee members.

The questions that SIA members should ask, and we have received concerned phone calls this morning over Silburn’s email, is how do organisational arguments over teleconferences in a head office affect me and why should I care?

The fundamental question that should be asked of any member-based organisation, particularly during periods of change or elections, is how do the decisions of the leaders benefit the members?  This appears selfish but in the context of a member-based organisation, it is not.  The bitterness and infighting in the SIA has impeded any progress for the organisation for at least one year and probably longer.

Members should take an active interest in their professional body because it is one of the few that is available to them and the Institute, over its 60 years or operations, has progressed the OHS profession in, at least, small ways.  It is also an organisation that OHS regulators are increasingly calling on for OHS expertise and safety research.

Andrew Cornell wrote in the March 2010  edition the Australian Financial Review’s Boss magazine [not available online without a subscription] on issues of corporate governance and the lessons the banking and corporate sectors have learnt over the last decade.  Several quotes have a general relevance to some of the SIA’s turmoil.

“Corporate culture cannot bestow immunity but when culture is strong, where governance standards are high, the dangers of rogue activity are lessened.”

Governance is defined as “a rigorous scepticism, not a set of rules”, and Cornell also warns over the use of independent directors, an option that, it is believed, the SIA is considering.

It should be noted that the executive members of the SIA, at least at National level, undertook training in corporate governance in 2009.

SIA members should welcome the irregular “Organisational Update” email from head office, but often the most important information is between the lines.  The most recent email, on 12 March 2010, provided some hope for progress and improved communication but, by reading the email with some explanatory background, the optimism fades.

“The NBOM [National Board of Management] has recently formed a SIA Corporate Restructure Project Team, [individual names removed]….. The first meeting of this project team will occur this week to initiate the development of a project plan and associated communications strategy.  Please be assured that this major project will be encouraging member input throughout its life and whether the Institute decides to move from its current Incorporated structure(s) to a Public Company Limited by Guarantee will require at least 75% of members to vote in favour of such a change.” [link added]

Gavin Waugh, the biggest critic of the move to a new corporate structure, is not included in the project team!?  Regardless of the personal conflicts that are festering in the organisation, Waugh was the past National Secretary, as acknowledged in the President’s 15 March email, and has considerable corporate knowledge through his many years on the National Board.  It is reasonable to expect his expertise to be included in the project team.

No one in the SIA has yet to explain the need to change the organisation’s structure.  There may be good corporate reasons but these have not been explained to members.  Hints have been given in the rebuttals and the angry emails but members outside of the committees (and some would, say those within as well) have no clue of what is going on other than a growing stench of disharmony coming from somewhere.

The SIA seems to have accumulated considerable information on structural options from various government and corporate regulators and law firms.  It seems to have been stockpiled for a major statement to members sometime in 2010.  But over the years of this process, the SIA has failed to clearly state to members why this aim is being pursued.  And without open and regular communication to members, conspiracies have evolved.  These conspiracies have been countered in a ham-fisted way, like the 15 march presidential email, that simply fed the conspiracies.

The SIA has always struggled with communicating to members on organisational matters and recent communications have done little to reassure members of the Institute’s future.  Unless the SIA pulls out a ripper of a communication strategy it is difficult to see 75% of members voting for something they do not understand and may provide them with no direct benefit.

The SIA argues that an organisation that claims to be “the professional body for safety professionals and practitioners” in Australia requires a contemporary corporate structure from which it can grow.  But whether the growth will benefit members, the safety profession overall or someone else is yet to be explained.  We await the detailed, but Plain English, justification for structural change.

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones is a Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia and, some years ago, held a position on the Victoria Division Committee of the SIA.

6 thoughts on “Abuse, egos, corporate governance and the safety profession”

  1. Kevin

    Thank you for raising this issue publicly, however I would like to correct a few misconceptions in your words.

    Rosemary is right and I concur entirely with her in that there is an excessive ego focus on being in control of the organisation.

    There are three separate incorporated bodies not two as you have suggested in the lead story To the matter of suspension, my personal membership was temporarily suspended for my attempting to conduct the responsibilities of the role of Secretary in ensuring lawful compliance of the SIA.

    The mooted change from an incorporated association to a company limited by guarantee was first put to the SIA in legal advice to the SIA in 2000. I re-raised the issue in 2008 and believe that is the right structure for the organisation. The business structure of a ‘company limited by guarantee’ is the recommended structure for large associations operating broadly within Australia which clearly fits the description of the SIA.

    The continuing dispute is not about the ‘business’ structure but is about the process.

    Despite claims to the contrary, all claims I have can be substantiated.

    The saddest part of this intransigence is that the SIA is being visibly destroyed for want of control over and above respect and concern for members.

    In July 2009 the SIA Committee of Management unanimously agreed to appoint an independent mediator and in January 2010 repeated that unanimous agreement but now in March, they have failed to appoint anyone. The mediator process now holds a stigma of an attempt to be doing something when in fact doing nothing.

    Regards
    Gavin Waugh

  2. And injured and non-injured workers are left to \”dangle\” whilst those at the top to the tree shuffle for lead position.

    I always find it truly amazing that some much effort is put into who is going to lead and who is going to teach and who is going to do all the other glamour things.

    All the while no one bothers to look behind to see if the injured and non-injured workers care or are even following.

    If as much effort was put into the actual workplace as is put into the training schedules and the training modules that must be done, then sit on shelves gathering dust, the reduction in work place injuries and workplace fatals would fall.
    SIA needs to ask itself why after all the training it forces on business and the workplace, why are so many workers still being injured and why are there still so many workplace fatals and why are there still so many workplace diseases.

    Seems that the wool that has been pulled over so many eyes needs to be lifted and ego\’s need to be put away.

  3. Hi Kevin & Sheryl,

    This is amazing that the National President deemed it necessary to communicate to the entire membership, without first finding out just how many members had received Mr Waugh\’s email, there seems to be a one sided story transpiring with us members getting a version from the National President and some undetermined members receiving advise from alternative sources (such as Mr Waugh).

    In our lives as safety professionals we require both or all versions before we can form an opinion. This gives us the best option to make a workplace safer – equally if we are to understand what is going on within SIA shouldn\’t information be communicated to all equally from those supporting or opposing a view.

    As for the SIA contemplating a change to it\’s structure, why haven\’t the members been consulted and informed of the potential changes, to get to the point that is perceived by many, many thousands of members dollars must have been spent without the members approval – this makes any strategy the NBOM have put in place in question.

    Gary Thexton CPMSIA

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Your article sheds some light on the happenings at SIA but I doubt whether anyone, especially members, will ever get to hear (or read) the whole story. Even though any member is entitled to, by virtue of his/her membership, have access to ANY document at SIA (oops do I hear the shredders activated?). This includes the Minutes of Meetings, financial records (detailed if we so wish it) and any and all reports commissioned for SIA. Why shouldn\’t we see it?
    Of course there are some members who just prefer to sit in the background and let management direct the course of the profession, then there are others who are passionate and vocal about their profession and who want to enhance and advance.

    I\’ll be watching this site avidly as you seem to want the truth and are committed to the principles of good communication.
    Sheryl Dell, FSIA Life Member (Past committee member – nearly 17 years worth!)

    1. Sheryl

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Do you think if the SIA moves to the corporate structure mentioned in the correspondence, that members would have better or worse access to documents and information?

      Kevin

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