GARRY EVERETT. Have we learnt nothing?

Sep 5, 2018

In the work of the recent Royal Commissions of Inquiry in Australia, into the sexual abuse of minors, and the banking and financial institutions, two glaring similar findings presented themselves. The institutions involved were neither transparent nor accountable for their actions. It remains to be seen whether, following the excoriating assessments by the Commissions, the institutions have learned any lessons, and whether we the public have been duped by the decisions of those who imposed penalties.

In the case of the Catholic Church, one of the major offenders in the sexual abuse of minors, lack of transparency seems to remain a problem. This problem was located in the general assessment by the Commission that the Church suffered from an over-dose of a clerical culture. This culture, which needs further and close examination, is characterised in part by decision making processes that the lay Catholics often find baffling. If any reasons are provided in support of major decisions, those reasons are often inadequate and delivered in a way that implies they should not be questioned. Of course, the lack of transparency often begins with the absence of any reasons to support the decision, or with the refusal to supply reasons on requests.

A perfect example is the recent calling of a Plenary Council ( a gathering of all Catholics in Australia) to answer the question: “What is God asking of us in Australia at this time?” This process, designed without any consultation with the lay Catholics, will take more than 5 years before any answers are framed, and then these must go to Rome for further consideration. It was touted as “the most transparent process ever in the Australian Church. “ However, no submissions are available on the website for reading or discussion. In a technological age, the failure to use the social media to improve access to, and debate about, emerging issues, hardly seems an exercise in transparency. Attempts to address this issue have been met by the usual silence.

If we shift the focus from transparency to accountability, the Banks loom large in the field of vision. The Commonwealth bank was found guilty of fraudulent reporting to ASIC in more than 53,000 cases. The Bank was fined $700 million. Note it was the Bank ! Not the CEO, nor any group of executives who allowed this to happen. The Bank in this case is constituted by the shareholders, and customers, who will be disadvantaged, while the highly paid individuals are subject to no accountability at all. Some executives decided to stand down, or lose a bonus, but basically there was no individual accountability by way of penalty imposed.

Accountability has about it the notion of the punishment fitting the crime. In the examples above the only crime seems to have been “being caught”. The absence of proper accountabilities in churches and in financial institutions, reveals that the cultures of those organisations are resistant to constructive changes. This lack of personal accountability, is another reflection of how the corporate culture influences even those who hand out penalties: “don’t punish us; it was the organisation’s fault”. In this way even those outside the culture become complicit in supporting the ways of the toxic cultures.

Have we learnt nothing?

The Commissions have rendered great service to the Australian population in identifying the corrosive power of the cultural forces of lack of transparency and accountability. The major challenge now is to comprehend what sort a behemoth they have un-veiled. A second and equally as serious a challenge, is to develop healthy and effective antidotes for the absence of transparency and accountability, in the cultures of our failing institutions.

Garry is a retired educator with an interest in change theory and practice in organisations, and a re-invigorated interest in cultural change especially as it affects some of Australia’s major institutions.

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