Should the St James Ethics Centre be taking large donations from corporates. Executive director Simon Longstaff responds to an anonymous critic.

A business ethicist wrote in a sealed section last month:

I note your recent comments regarding the St James Ethics Centre discussing political ethics on Meet The Press but you should remember that these are the same guys who gave Ray Williams, former head of HIH Insurance, a framed Certificate attesting to his outstanding contribution to business ethics.

Funnily enough, it was auctioned at the liquidators sale of HIH Artwork. Sadly I had to settle for a Sandra Leveson $12,000 landscape – the bidding on the St James Ethics Centre memento was far too spirited for me!

Simon Longstaff responds on ethics and HIH

We carried the above item last week criticising the St James Ethics Centre for supposedly giving an “ethics award” to former HIH CEO Ray Williams. The centre’s director Simon Longstaff has explained what happened as part of this call for help:

By Simon Longstaff

HIH collapsed in March 2001. Some two years earlier, at a time when most people thought that HIH was riding high, Ray Williams had offered financial support to help St James Ethics Centre through a particularly difficult period. Some time later, the Centre presented to Ray Williams, on behalf of HIH, a plaque recognising the company’s outstanding contribution.

This was not an ‘ethics award’. Indeed, in the fifteen years of its operation, St James Ethics Centre has never presented an award for ethical character (or even behaviour). The reasons for not doing so are simple; we do not know how to judge such an award without error and there is a risk to all if subsequent events should prove the award to have been ill conceived. Rather, we provide certificates recognising the support that people have given to the Centre over time. For example, all who have been Members of the Centre for a period of ten years receive a plaque like that presented to Ray Williams.

Given what was known in 1999 and the fact of our gratitude, I do not think it fair or correct to conclude that the Centre had somehow or another lost its ethical bearings over HIH. Yet, I can see how attractive the whole story would be to people with a keen sense of irony.

One question worth considering is this: could something similar happen again? The answer is ‘yes’. St James Ethics Centre has operated for fifteen years without either capital or a cent of government funding. The bulk of the Centre’s income comes from donations (in cash and kind) and from membership. The Centre can not afford to pay rent in the CBD – so we ‘squat’ in premises surplus to the immediate requirements of companies that are willing to help. We are due to be ‘on the streets’ at the end of 2004. Membership of the Centre is open to all. We do not screen applicants – nor do we support any claim that membership of the Centre means that an individual is more or less ethical than any other person. We accept donations from all individuals and organisations other than tobacco and gaming companies. We also do consulting work (sometimes paid, sometimes not) and will work with anyone who approaches the task with good will. We walk away if we think that the Centre is being used for ‘spin’ or more generally if we reach the conclusion that the engagement is not ‘fair dinkum’. The result of all of this is that we experience a ‘near death experience’ every year or so.

Check out our website and you will see what we can show you of our work. What you won’t see are details of the countless individuals who access our free, national counselling service, Ethi-Call (1800 672 303) and seek and receive help with serious ethical issues that arise in the course of their daily lives.

There is no guarantee that all (or any) of our staff or board members are angels. I know that I am certainly not. Nor can we vouch for the ethics of all of our members and supporters. We do not aim to judge but to stimulate and explain. Along the way, we will be helped by a broad cross-section of the community – and in time, irony will pile on irony. However, we hope that in the end the quality of our work, our independence and sincerity will speak for themselves.

If you think you can assist, then please contact Simon Longstaff at [email protected],au.

PS. When asked to comment about HIH, we declared our interest and commented without fear or favour.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey