A CEO was forced to apologise last Wednesday after cutting staff pay by 80% without notice during the coronavirus shutdown. He belatedly tried to find his workers temporary jobs stacking shelves at Woolies.
A week earlier, another chief executive resigned after initially refusing to rule out taking a $114,00 bonus whilst standing down employees with a 65% pay cut.
A week before that, employees of another company may have been illegally blindsided on news of a partial shutdown, finding out when an executive “read from a script” on teleconference.
One might reasonably assume such horror stories are drawn from the banking, energy or gambling sectors, given their documented corporate misdeeds and high-rolling sleaziness.
But one would be wrong. Indeed, as Janine Perrett has noted in Crikey, some of Australia’s most loathed businesses have actually redeemed themselves slightly in the pandemic.
It is, in fact, some of our more beloved cultural organisations whose pandemic-period leadership is most disappointing to supporters. The above examples were from our sporting and media sectors, whilst scandals in the arts have also been largely buried under the flurry of health updates.
While many Australian cultural organisations have been governed competently and compassionately through the pandemic, others have betrayed the trust we invested in them with managerial incompetence, mistreatment of workers and golden handshakes for elite buddies.
These failures should alert fans to an uncomfortable truth — many of our once public-spirited organisations have long been emulating some of the worst aspects of the business community.
Buy your ticket and get in line
The board members of most Australian cultural institutions are mostly drawn from the upper echelons of banking, finance, law and management.
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As Ben Eltham has noted in Crikey, the banking royal commission confronted many Australian arts organisations with the uncomfortable question of whether individuals implicated in some of the greatest corruption and fraud in Australian corporate history were also the best custodians of Australian culture.
The answer was presumably yes, as most boards are still full of such elite managers, few of whom have ever practiced the artform or worked in the industry they are responsible for governing.
Many of these board members bring with them from the private sector a “shareholder first” mentality — even though few cultural organisations actually have shareholders.
In practice, this means an outsized emphasis on the institution’s “financial health” and a transactional approach to the skilled professionals such as artists, sportspeople and journalists on whose work the organisations depend.
Only VIPs allowed
Such values were on full display when Opera Australia (OA), one of our nation’s better funded arts organisations, stood down its entire orchestra without pay after COVID-19 halted its schedule. It was only after musical strike action and widespread condemnation that its management came to the table to broker a deal. Only three of OA’s ten board members have non-board arts experience. The rest are all from banking, finance, law and management.
There is perhaps no greater exemplar of the closed shop of Australian institutional governance than Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire.
On Thursday, he used his newfound position on the AFL’s “war cabinet” to attack the players’ union for consulting their members on the worst-case scenario communicated by ALF management, a 20-week isolation “hub” that will see players’ partners once again picking up the care and housework tab. McGuire wanted decisions made by the “adults table”.
This attitude typifies the problem with Australia’s elite institutional leadership — workers and fans are expected to just shut up and take our medicine. We are to be given no voice or power in the institutions we sustain.
May I have a participant from the audience?
As boards — often merely rubber-stamp talk-fests — are confronted with a true test of capability and compassion, we may finally ask tough questions about their composition and culture.
There is a better way — worker and member ownership and management. It is common for European sports clubs to be owned by and answerable to their members, and many European nations provide workers board seats in their organisations. Some Australian clubs are owned by their members in theory, but their practical ability to influence managerial decisions is far more limited.
Many Australian cultural organisations have adopted weaker versions of European-style democratic mechanisms, such as worker, artist, Indigenous and student board representatives at the ABC and SBS, universities and more. These are strongly supported by stakeholders, despite efforts by conservative governments to strip them out.
COVID-19 has shown the failings of rule by business elites. Workers and fans deserve a seat at the “adults table”.