Crikey occasionally gets a cracking inside run on a big story and this insight into the current NRMA board battle is one of the best we’ve had in a while.

The standing down of NRMA President Ross Turnbull is all about tense relations with CEO Tony Stuart, something which has existed for quite a while. The tensions between board members have been well documented in the press.

The NRMA has been negotiating with the patrols on the new EBA since 2002. This has been a recurring “to do” item for NRMA operations GM Peter Steele for over two years.There were long standing differences between Steele and the unions dating back to Steele’s for summary dismissal of three patrolmen in Newcastle in 2002 for alleged overtime rorting.

The union supported the three up to the hearing in the Industrial Commission. Predictably, NRMA fell in a screaming heap because the “rorting”was alleged to have been condoned by management and to have resulted from known defects in the company’s computer despatch system. In any event the court found in favour of the three patrolmen and bitterness between the patrols and management lingered.

NRMA management has been in total confrontation with the union and the patrols over the new agreement leading to a series of strikes before Christmas. Your readers might recollect some of NRMA’s loonier press releases over the period to get the flavour – notably “NRMA calls on the AMWU to stop lying”, an all-time favourite.

Tony Stuart joined from the Sydney Airports Corporation in August last year. His hero is Chris Corrigan and he promised the board that he would smash the union strangle hold on the patrol work force. He engaged Corrigan’s lawyers from Freehills in Melbourne for the job together with Mr Corrigan’s publicists, the White group.

The patrols are hardly lefties – their average age is 49 and they are decent hard working family men who are trying to keep their conditions of employment. They were particulaly concerned with a mooted redundancy program and an attempt to introduce contractors.

John Parkin of the AMWU was sufficiently pissed off by the process to put together a Corporations Law member petition to try and have the patrol’s terms and conditions enshrined in the company’s constitution. More than 4000 members signed the petition in about a week supporting the patrols.

After repeated warnings the union served the petition on NRMA. This meant the company would need to have Special General Meeting to consider the proposed constitutional change. NRMA went to the Supreme court and then the Court of Appeal to have the petition struck out . Predictably, they lost.

Documents filed in the proceedings state the meeting would cost close to $5 million dollars.

Turnbull panicked because typically very few members vote in general meetings and the AMWU was good for about 50,000 proxies with support from Trades Hall. With support from any of the dissidents such as Talbot they would easily get the 75% needed to get the constitution changed. Worse yet the patrols only needed to get 50% of the vote if they went further and put up a petition to remove the Board.

Straw Polling showed that public sympathy was with the patrols, not executive management. Frankly, it was a hard sell. Also, it was somewhat ridiculous for Mr Stuart, a man on a base salary of $540,000 with potential to earn the same again in bonuses, to call for restraint from workers who wouldnt earn that sort of money in a decade.

Turnbull fronted the board insisting management cut a deal with the unions – Stuart threatened to resign if the Board supported Turnbull and impeded his industrial “reform” program. Turnbull’s old enemies and principal board foes Graham Blight, Judy Stack and Alan Evans pushed through the board support for Stuart.

Following the loss in the court of appeal, Stuart nominated August 13 (also the start date for the Olympics) as the date for the Special General Meeting to minimise media coverage of the meeting, and got the board to commit to an advertising campaign. He engaged marketing experts to design the proxy for to encourage a “no” vote. The services of the White group, Jackson Wells Morris and Hawker Britten (and internal PR) were retained.

Turnbull insisted in attending meetings between management and the unions in an attempt to broker a peace. The union started the gathering of support.

As the date for mailout of the packs approached, operational management became increasingly anxious and agreed to capitulate to the patrols demands – conditional on the meeting being pulled. However it was not clear that legally, even with consent of the union, the meeting could be called off.

Stuart, not himself a director, called for an ambush board meeting on Wednesday. He told the board that it was unlikely the Special General Meeting could be pulled and that if the court did not agree to do so he would resile from the settlement with the unions.

He wanted Turnbull stood down for the period of the campaign together with a multi million advertising budget to run an anti-union campaign. The board obliged, Turnbull refused to be stood down and a row erupted.

On Friday the court granted the application to call off the meeting with consent of the union, leaving NRMA with an unholy PR mess, several directors covertly vying for the Presidency and, to say the least, strained relations all round.

Turnbull supporters are of the view that Stuart acted prematurely and should have awaited the outcome of the court case. Dark rumours and allegations are sweeping head office. The more things change the more that they remain the same

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.