06 June 2011

HSA delay - Volume Twelve: Sugar for Polonius

Dear ABSA member,

Even if you haven't been paying attention to ABSA's antics over the past year and a half - and documenting it along the way as I have - it's hard not to see their most recent episodes as anything more than theatre.

Much of what members have heard over the past few months is predicated upon one specific, pervasive, fundamental lie. Let me dispel it right now: the ABSA Board does not run ABSA.

In truth, the ABSA Board means nothing to the industry at large, nothing to the organisation, and nothing to you. Looking through the past years' Board minutes, I can state categorically that not only does the Board not govern the organisation now but that it has neglected to do so for as long as anyone has been supposed to be paying attention.

* * * * * *

With the turmoil of the past six months, people have forgotten the turmoil that came before. People forget that at least two ABSA Directors - including our current Chairman - were training unsuspecting patsies for the Green Loans Program as late as mid-December 2009, despite the inside knowledge they had acquired at least four months prior that the Program would be oversupplied and that assessors would be at best underemployed. People forget ABSA's confession in March 2010 that it was more interested in people working than in people being compensated, and the vigour with which ABSA attacked those dissatisfied members who dared voice negative opinions, even if they were more typically directed at an inept Government bureaucracy than at ABSA itself.

Those of us who, throughout 2010, questioned ABSA's ability to count would do well to note now, more than a year later, that ABSA's army of over 7600 HSA members has dwindled to some 400, many of whom are still struggling for employment - making the best intention to find us work either a fallacy or a failure. When so much has been lost, being right in a prediction is little consolation.

As one scathing Government inquiry after another tore the Program to shreds, ABSA eventually gave up standing idly by and began a more overt campaign against its own members. In Sustainably Speaking #11, published on 1 October 2010, ABSA declared a new belief that "compensation gives out a message that home assessments are over and assessors are no longer needed" - a direct insult to over 5000 trained assessors who weren't needed in the first place. As Green Loans finally came to an end in December, ABSA gave the knife in our backs one more twist by describing the ordeal as "essentially a good program" that "will be missed". Those of us who continued to work around ABSA's obstruction must take the bulk of the credit for what little assistance has been forthcoming from DCCEE; ABSA barely lifted even one unwilling finger to help us, and had we left it to them, we would have got nothing.

* * * * * *

Following our election to the ABSA Board at the 2010 Annual General Meeting, Ian Turnbull, Jay Myers and I spent the first two weeks asking for information about the state of the Company. Our newly-appointed Chairman, Michael Plunkett, passed that time telling us why we shouldn't have that information and why the Board didn't need to meet until the middle of February. The Chairman initially instructed Directors not to engage staff in the operational affairs of the Company, except through him or through the CEO, but we were later barred from contacting the latter because our enquiring into her performance was taking up too much of her time. Frustrated by this inaction - and the lack of accountability - we called a Board meeting for mid-December, only to have our Chairman call a meeting of his own for the day before, with the goal of pre-empting ours and ensuring that no work could be done without a quorum of at least eight of the 10 Directors.

By February, there were formal complaints flying in both directions. You've already seen the complaint made by ABSA CEO Alison Carmichael against Jay Myers, since ABSA took the liberty of airing it publicly in its entirety in the lead-up to the Extraordinary General Meeting on 13 May 2011. The Company spared no expense - of your membership money, of course - seeking legal advice from a QC, telemarketing among members to secure proxy votes, and releasing commercially-sensitive information about Jay into the public domain. While none of the accusations was ever investigated or substantiated, the public smear campaign forced Jay's resignation from the Board before the vote was taken.

By contrast, a complaint lodged at the same time by Jay, Ian and myself - about the Board being prevented from overseeing the direction of the company - was dutifully swept under the rug. We were informed that there would be an "independent investigation", but only of Alison's complaint; ours would not even rate a mention. Prior to this revelation, the Board had been considering a course of mediation to resolve our internal differences. When the term "mediation" turned out to be a euphemism for reinforcing the grievances of one party and dismissing outright the grievances of another, negotiations broke down completely, and little has been said of it since.

* * * * * *

When Ian and I called the general meeting that was to be held on 9 June 2011, we did so out of a sense of honour and principle. We believe that ABSA no longer maintains any credibility or legitimacy as either a membership body or an accrediting organisation, and we have no confidence in either our fellow Directors or our staff to rectify this.

We called for all Directors to step down because it would be irresponsible of us not to do so. Among the principal duties of the Board are the maintenance of the Company's strategic plan and the assurance that the Company is meeting the goals therein. However, at a Board level, the business of the Company is not discussed in sufficient detail for any such achievement to be measured, and as ABSA would hurry to reiterate, you can't manage what you can't measure. It is grossly negligent of us to continue to serve under the false pretence that we as Directors are responsible for the direction of the Company, when we know the Company's blunt refusal to co-operate in responsibilities of its own makes this impossible.

It is important to note that we withdrew this meeting under duress. Ian and I were individually threatened, by the remaining Board members, that if we did not withdraw our notice of meeting, we would be expelled from the Board by a members' resolution and sued to recover the cost of holding a general meeting, quoted as $100,000. We were then prevented from attending a Board meeting, held the same day, and given until 4pm to respond (which was barely 90 minutes after Michael called me). When we replied that we would withdraw the meeting, ABSA announced its own meeting to resolve to remove us from the Board anyway, while not bothering to announce that we had withdrawn ours. Don't sweat it: despite the bullying, ABSA won't get a dime from us.

In an email to me just two days later, Director Peter Buckland declared that our meeting had not been withdrawn and once again threatened me with legal action to recover the costs. You may remember that in the lead-up to the 2010 ABSA AGM, Peter wrote at length about the difficulties of members within ABSA and, interestingly, against the repeated abuses of power by the incumbent Board, he himself having been threatened with legal action by Michael. However, you've probably noticed from his email to members on Friday that he happily whistles the familiar ABSA tune now, conveniently neglecting any attempt to substantiate the claims against Ian and me, and carefully omitted the verse about the legal threats against us. It's hardly surprising that someone so outspoken could so readily become the very thing against which he was so outspoken, but for him to question, and so gracelessly, the motives of those whose coat he has turned is laughable. To be frank, I wear his clumsy insinuations as an endorsement, and I'm sure the members he has attacked for seeing through him would do likewise.

ABSA has done more than demonstrate that it cannot be trusted. It has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no law so vital or worthy that it should not be destroyed, and no depth so low that one should never stoop that far, if it means an elite few getting what they want, and at everyone else's expense at that. This organisation is fighting against you because it does not have the courage to fight for you as members, nor for its relevance to the industry, nor even for the rules it has set for itself. It cares not one iota for your opinion, your well-being, or your future; it merely commands your silence and consent, and if you refuse to offer them, it reserves the right to take them by force. The other Directors will make their speeches - mainly for themselves, and occasionally for each other, but never for you. You deserve better than the Government department that has mistreated you, and better than self-serving individuals who merely want to take the Government's place at the trough.

We assert that the impossibility of the ABSA Board directing the affairs of the Company is neither an accidental side-effect nor the end result of a bitter political struggle. The Board does not direct the Company because it is not intended to do so; in fact, the fewer people oversee how the Company is run, the freer, happier and more productive it will claim to be. Once viewed as a callous lack of concern for its members, this attitude of inactivity and unaccountability has now raised serious questions about ABSA's exposure to the gravest liabilities of the Corporations Act.

Ian and I stand accused of impeding duties that the Company is simply not designed to perform. We believe that it is unconscionable - on the part of each Director individually, and of the ABSA Board as a whole - to continue to stand in an environment where these duties cannot and will not be fulfilled.

Yours sincerely,

Aaron Nielsen
ABSA Board of Directors

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