Changed Perspectives

It’s amazing how a seemingly small event can so profoundly change your perspective.

Two events have had this impact on me in the past week.

The one that made me think about this post was actually the second event –
the resignation
of Margaret Jackson as chairman of the Qantas board
. I have had deep
qualms
about the APA
private equity takeover offer
for Qantas.
My initial reaction to Jackson’s
press comments
was cynical. She stood to make a substantial personal gain
if the bid succeeded. How could she avoid a conflict of interest I thought?
I took some perverse enjoyment from the collapse
of the bid
. I don’t like the arrogance of Private Equity much and it worries
me that a consortium like that can have such a huge impact on people’s lives.

But when Jackson announced her resignation, I felt sorry for her. Margaret
Jackson
is recognised as one of, if not the, leading business women in
Australia. She has been on the Qantas board for fifteen years and chairman
for seven. When the bid was announced she would have to have thrown the dice.
Would she throw her weight behind the bid (with the personal cudos and financial
reward she would receive if it succeeded) or would she fight it. I don’t
know how long she agonised over this decision, but it could not have been
automatic. There was never a guarantee the bid would succeed. In the end,
it sat on a knife edge and failed by the slimmest
of margins
. Had the late offer been accepted, or received by the deadline
she would have been seen as a master strategist, placing the airline in a
position for its next phase of growth.

As it is, she is seen to have mishandled the whole affiar. In business, you
are either one or the other. A hero or a villain. Never a real person with
strenghts and weakness. With both doubts and courage.

The other event to spark my thinking about changed perspectives was the screening
earlier this week on ABC TV of the
drama series Bastard Boys
a fictionalised account of the 1998 Australian Waterfront
Dispute
. Nominally this was a dispute between the Maritime
Union of Australia (MUA)
, (led by John
Coombs)
and Patrick
Stevedores
(then owned by Chris
Corrigan
). This dispute was a seminal piece of Australian industrial relations
history about the power and place of unions on the one side and the right of
management to make changes to work practices on the other. The dispute involved
almost everyone of note in industrial relations in Australia at the time, including Peter
Reith
(Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business)
in the Howard
Government
; Greg
Combet
(then Assistant Secretary of the ACTU)
and Bill
Kelty
(the Secretary of the ACTU).

At the time, those of us on the left were horrified by Corrigan’s tactics
(backed by Reith) of sacking his whole workforce, putting balaclava clad security
guards with guard dogs around the docks and bringing in a non-unionised workforce
trained in Dubai.

Having been brought up in a working class family, I still too readily see
bosses as the enemy and unions as on the side of good. Although I could see
there was obviously a desparate need for waterfront
reform
I felt Corrigan’s approach was beyond forgiveness. When Patrick
bought a share in Virgin Blue,
I considered not flying with the airline anymore.

Although, I have yet to watch the whole of the two episodes, Bastard Boys
jolted me out of my comfortable oversimplification of the issue. In particular,
it gave me a totally different view of Chris Corrigan – even though he
believes
he was misrepresented and charicatured by the series. I realised
that like Margaret Jackson, Chris Corrigan was a real person. In his case he
had invested all he had in Patrick and his own livelihood was on the line.
It took me another step along the path in realising just how much my childhood
view of unions as the good guys was also an unreal representation of the truth.
Yes, wharfies had been treated badly in the past and the MUA had won protection
for them. But the reality was that we needed new work practices on the waterfront
and the unions were using bully boy tactics as well.

My own message to Chris Corrigan is to take heart from the series. No you
weren’t portrayed exactly as you would have portrayed yourself. But from the
perspective of a deyed in the wool leftie like me, it made you a real person
to me.

Another changed perspective.

,

Lest we forget

There is no greater story in western Australian culture than that
of the ANZACS at Gallipoli celebrated
throughout the country on 25th April.

Now let us make it known right away that The Spiral Path has no interest
in glorifying war. However, this is a phenomemon I can’t ignore. It
was an inglorious and spectactular defeat, but we celebrate it each
year with increased vigour. As children, we would wear our Dad’s (or
our grandad’s or uncle’s) medals to school on Anzac Day and our mums
would have Anzac
Biscuits
waiting for us when we got home.

But what has made it such a unifying national day?

As Robert
Manne
puts it in today’s
Age
,

Mystery surrounds Anzac Day. Why have Australians, despite
the passage of the years, increasingly come to regard the beginning
of one of the most terrible defeats the British Empire suffered in
the First World War as their most solemn national day?

In his reasoned and patient manner, Manne goes on to examine some theories
particularly focussing on John
Hirst’s
that it is a response to our collective sense of colonial inferiority.
Again, in Manne’s words:

The Gallipoli landing was the first action of a solely Australian
military unit.

And, quoting one of the first reports to reach Australian
shores

“There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing
in the dark and storming of the heights. …(The Australians) were
happy because they had been tested for the first time and not found
wanting."

Manne concludes this section:

The Anzac myth was created

So much has been said about the Anzac tradition and so much further will
be said. The thing that struck me this year was the power of myth.

So often when we think of myth we think only of one of its meanings "A
widely held but false belief or idea" [Oxford American Dictionary],
as in Urban
Myth
. But there is also a more foundational meaning.

a traditional story, esp one concering the early history of a
people or explaining some natural or social phenomenom… [Oxford American
again.]

As it happens, I am currently reading Tim
Costello’s
book Tips
from a travelling soul searcher
. This book is largely about the power
of and the need for us to keep telling one another stories. Stories
are just that. They have many meanings and people present at the
same event each tell a different version. Stories are not complete
explanations. We know that they contain truths that are valuable
to us but we don’t always know exactly what the truth is. It just
resonates somewhere within us. Sometimes the story contains a warning.
Sometimes they warm us. Sometimes we tell them because they say
something about ourselves. Often we tell the same story over and
over again. When people join our family or our organisation, we
tell them our stories and the learn more about us that if we tried
to describe ourselves.

So like other stories, we don’t have to understand the Anzac myth. It is
worth our while to talk to one another about what it means. Each time
perhaps we learn more about ourselves and about a different side to
ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, we become more confident about
ourselves.

Private Equity

Unless you’ve been asleep, hibernating, or out of the country for
the last 12 months, you will be well aware that the Private Equity
phenomenon has well and truly hit Australia.

I can’t remember when it actually hit my radar, but the KKR bid
for Coles
[Updated 20/4/07] last year (ie 2006) was one
of the first to come to my attention. I was certainly aware that KKR
was part of the successful bid for Myer,
but that didn’t seem to be much cause for concern. Coles
Myer
hadn’t known what to do with the iconic and once hugely successful
Myer brand for a long time and its stores were floundering despite Dawn
Robertson’s
best efforts. Count in that the consortium included
the Myer Family and it all seemed like a good idea.

But then the separate semi hostile bid for Coles raised a lot of hackles
in the community here. Coles was another iconic Australian brand grown
from the battler success story of C.J. Coles — albeit suffering at
the hands of the much more successful Woolworths.
A lot of Australians just didn’t like the idea of big money from the
USA trampelling all over our heritage.

But the big one of course has been the APA bid for Qantas.
There’s nothing much more iconic than the Flying Kangaroo.
Unlike Myer and Coles, Qantas is a succesful business. But Qantas represents
more than an icon. It represents the working conditions of thousands
of Australians and more than a million people in this country value
(like me) our Qantas frequent
flyer
points.
Now of course APA claims to be majority Australian
owned and Australian controlled – it needs to be to satisfy the conditions
of the Qantas sale act. However a significant amount
of foreign money is involved in the bid and questions remain around
the degree to which the act applies to Qantas’ subsidiary Jestsar.
What will happen to the working conditions of QANTAS and Jetsar employees.
Will they all be moved to Australian Workplace Agreements,
in the process losing hard won benefits? Will maintenance operations
be moved overseas? And, for millions of Australians, what will happen
to my frequent flyer points.

Notwithstanding that I think the last of these questions is really
of much import, the others are of great concern to those involved and
represent possible encroaching by example of the working conditions
of millions of Australians.

However, to my mind, none of these is the most important concern.
What bothers me most is whether the private equity partners in this
deal (or any other for that matter) have any concern for what happens
to their prey in the long term. Take Qantas as a case in point. APA
cares for one thing and one thing only – the profit they can make from
the deal. My concern is that APA will simply convert value into cash
in its own pockets.

Now I might be wrong about this. Certainly the supporters of private
equity argue that these arrangements enable owners to free themselves
of the short-termism of public equity. They can be allowed to make
losses, or at least not grow profit at the rate required by the market
for extended periods. This, in our mind, is a good thing.

However, is this really what they will do?

I guess we will have to wait and see.