Members’ ban helps to resolve Fairfield’s predicament

Sometimes organisations with ineffective management need the employees themselves to do the things that management seems incapable of doing.

Last month we revealed the disgraceful exercise of suspending two innocent members which, in turn, exposed a long history of unacceptable councillor/staff contact. We provided 10 examples of unacceptable contact and clearly neither the GM, the directors, the Manager Governance, the Public Officer, nor HR were aware of any of them. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

No-one wants to look like the Bishop of Maitland when the hard questions are asked.

There are a number of the advantages of having a policy to regulate councillor/staff contact which requires requests for the contact to go to the GM.  The Division of Local Government recommends to councils that don’t have a policy or procedures identified and signed off by the GM and the Council that they should do so as a matter of priority. Like they did at Fairfield in April this year and which the Council refused.

Requiring a written request to the GM will weed out a lot of requests. It would be hard for a councillor to request contact because he wanted to squeeze an employee into a more lenient approach, or not proceeding with a fine, or tolerating illegal building or poor fire safety or at risk food premises.

More importantly, the GM would have an idea of how many requests are made, what sort of things are being requested and, in a better practice policy, the GM could decide whether the contact be provided or not. It’s all part of being the GM, responsible for the day-to-day running of the Council and the management of staff.

But if you are a GM who wants to remain blissfully ignorant of your councillors approaching staff, pressuring or encouraging them to do things they would not otherwise do, then not having a policy and procedures would be perfect. But perfect to cocoon a GM who doesn’t want to see or hear evil, but bad governance, acknowledged to be poor practice in local government and a failure to do the job properly.

But you would have thought, wouldn’t you, that when the DLG recommends that the Council adopt a policy as a matter of priority and when we expose the extent of unacceptable councillor/staff contact, and we get them thinking about reviewing their rejection of the DLG recommendation, that they would start to understand why a policy is necessary. Even councillors. Even the Mayor.

On 23 August in the Industrial Relations Commission, the Council committed to arranging a Councillor Workshop to consider the issue with an expectation that any changes to current arrangements would be recommended to a meeting of the Council on 24 September. The Council that day also agreed to keep the three unions in the loop and to consult as this process involved. But while there was a presentation to the Councillor Workshop, no one thought it appropriate to provide that presentation to the unions so that we knew what was happening.

The only advice we received was after we had already raised an issue about councillor contact with the GM by email. So a response to our request, and not all consistent with keeping people in the loop.

But it could not have been a very effective learning experience for the councillors when only two days after the workshop, a member of ours, our delegate no less, Stewart Rodham, was directed to attend a meeting in the Mayor’s Office. Immediately.

A new Lord Mayor (see depanews November 2012 - “Danger danger, warning warning as novices gain control in September elections”) who doesn’t like the way the Council processes DAs, who thinks staff are featherbedded and inefficient and who threatened to take a class action against Lake Macquarie City Council for “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea level rises” and not let him develop in areas threatened by rising sea levels, has been presiding over a slash and burn exercise by Acting GM, and now this week the confirmed GM for five years, Ken Goldthorpe.

Not a lot of respect for rights under the Award or the Enterprise Agreement but in the end Council has removed 80 positions. Last week both the Lord Mayor and the GM announced they were delighted with the “minimal fuss” that accompanied the loss of jobs.

Newcastle has a long and sad history of losing jobs. Whether it be BHP or anyone else at Newcastle or generally, it’s hard to find people these days who don’t understand that losing a job devastates workers, their families and has flow on impacts right through the community. But clearly Jeff and Ken either don’t understand the devastating social and personal effects, or they don’t care.

Using the word “fuss” to describe legitimate emotions or reactions as workers lose workmates, as they juggle the workload with fewer employees, and as those remaining employees are told their jobs won’t be re-evaluated until next year, trivialises the loss and reveals these two blokes as hard-heads, cost cutters and slashers who don’t feel anything. Two Tin Men.

The unions understand that sometimes restructuring involves the loss of jobs. There are protections in the State Award and other industrial instruments about how this process should be conducted, how the Council needs to provide full information about its process, and even how they can review its decision once the unions and the employees concerned have had a chance to respond. Some councils have decided not to proceed as part of this process.

What an Award or industrial instrument can’t do, is to make people understanding or caring in the process. Sadly you can’t legislate to make people better people.

Only the insensitive in a process with significant personal, familial and community repercussions, would trivialise the workforce’s response. “Fuss” is the wrong word - but because both the Tin Men have used it we can only despair for the future at Newcastle. 

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