OP-ED: Getting on Board with Local Representation
Thursday 1 October 2020, The Examiner
Like the private sector, the enterprises and organisations that are run in whole or in part by the government, use boards to steer the organisation and to make big strategic decisions. Board members tasked with such important duties therefore need to have good knowledge, skills, experience and savvy. It’s also important that boards meaningfully represent those that work in the industry and their clients.
In Tasmania, the split between the north, north west and south geographic regions brings an additional dimension which should also be considered by our Government boards and committees. With this in mind, let’s get some statistics out of the way.
There are 101 government boards and committees, excluding Government Business Enterprises and State-Owned Companies.
Of the 830 board members who rune these organisations, 594 reside in the south, 66 reside in the north west, 140 reside in the north and 30 reside interstate.
There are six Government Business Enterprises, which include the Public Trustee and MAIB, among others. Of the 32 board members directing these enterprises, 13 reside in the south, two in the north west, four in the north and 13 reside interstate.
There are eight State-Owned Companies including Aurora, TasNetworks and TT Line, among others. Of the 45 total board members, 21 reside in the south, two in the north west, eight in the north and 14 reside interstate.
To emphasise the challenging nature of this issue, TT Line, whose main operation is the smooth running of the Spirit of Tasmania, has seven board members. Of these, four board members reside in the south, three interstate and zero from either the north or north west, the latter being where the majority of its operations are based.
It is important for the makeup of any board to not just have the skills and knowledge necessary to steer an enterprise, but to also have meaningful representation of its workforce and client base. Omitting the geographical knowledge or skills that local board member would bring to a board or committee, not only undermines this principle, but also places our GBEs, SOCs and other boards and committees on the back foot when it comes to best performance.
We should also consider how much taxpayer money is being spent on the costs of bringing people from interstate to Tasmanian to participate in board or committee meetings. In the year 2017-18, Tasmanians spent $303,000 on these expenses.
This is separate to the cost of recruiting board members, done by Executive Search Agencies; organisations or individuals which find and vet potential board or committee members, costing from $13,000 to $25,000, depending on the size of the business and nature of the appointment. Of the five Executive Search Agencies supplying these services to the Government, one is based in Launceston, one is based in Hobart, two in Melbourne and one in Sydney.
I intend to continue probing the government on their board and committee rationale and methodology because I believe that, to be fair to the Tasmanians who use and pay for the services which are provided by Government Business Enterprises, State-Owned Companies and other boards, they need to have confidence that their interests are actually being represented.
I, like many others, baulk at the idea of there not being adequate skills, expertise and talent in the north and north west and think interstate appointments should only be made under exceptional circumstances.
When I raised this issue back in 2018, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry led by example and amended their constitution to have tow board members from the north, north west and south and to bring in skilled members as needed. Of course, each board, committee, enterprise and company is different and will therefore have different requirements for their boards.
I believe however that the pendulum has swung too far towards the southern and interstate appointments to have meaningful representation and adequate diversity among their ranks. In cases such as TT Line, it makes no sense for there to be no board members that are based in the region out of which it primarily operates.
By the Government’s own Guidelines for Tasmanian Government Businesses: Board Appointments document, the six principles with which board appointments must be consistent are: competency, stakeholder engagement, transparency, consistency, timeliness and diversity. I don’t think anyone would disagree with these, but it might be time to mandate the seeking out of appointments out of area when the skills that are needed simply aren’t available locally.
As we move out of COVID-19, rebuild and reconnect, local engagement is more important than ever. It is time to seriously consider how we make our government boards and committees more representative of the Tasmanian people and their needs.
Independent Launceston Legislative Councillor
Rosemary Armitage MLC