Sunday, August 26, 2012

Counter Culture

There's an old joke about change, and the more I experience of life, the truer the joke becomes.

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

It holds true for groups too. In order for the members of the group to change, they have to want to, and that's one of he biggest challenges for Change Management professionals like me. It's even harder when you're trying to change a culture.

I know a little about organisational culture, but it's hard to pin down. Some people refer to it as the feel or 'smell' of a place. Communities - organisations, states, schools, cults, sporting codes, religions, gangs, generations - have their own cultures. It's a mixture of the heritage and beliefs and behaviours and attitudes and priorities and resources of the people within the group, combined the the organisation of the group: it's structure, size, purpose and leadership. Culture can be the subtle elegance of a Regency parlour, it can be a spinning disco ball and flashing lights, and it can be anything in between. It can also be the result of social evolution, or it can be values and behaviours imposed by leadership. In any case, understanding an organisation's culture is vital you're tasked with changing it.

Right now, if I was an Elder Statesman of Australia's Liberal and National Parties, I'd be worried about culture, looking to change. A near-perfect confluence of events this past week or so has revealed an hubristic tone throughout the Coalition, from federal to state and through to student politics. It's not a policy, nor a formal directive; it's a set of behaviours that reveal common attitudes at many levels of the Party.

This week should have been a difficult week for the government. The big stories in federal politics should've been BHP Billiton pulling out of their $30b plans to extend the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, and the prickly issue with the Prime Minister's connection to a seedy ex-boyfriend. Should've been...but wasn't. In a decision calculated to drive home the ALP's failure to keep the Olympic Dam project alive, Tony Abbott agreed to be interviewed by Leigh Sales on the ABC's 7:30 programme.

Instead of a bruising round of economic and Carbon-Tax reality biting the Government, Tony Abbott adopted the befuddled persona of Homer Simpson in Mr Burns' office. He was spectacularly unprepared for the interview to the extent that he was forced to admit on camera that he had not read the specific document he was being interviewed about. There is quite simply no reason why anyone whose age is measured in double digits would agree to be put in that position, and yet Tony Abbott lined up up on national television and allowed himself to look like an ignorant, ill-prepared fool. Why?

The answer must be arrogance, the irrational belief that he could bluff his way through, coupled with complete disrespect for the interviewer, and for the audience. The story, which should have highlighted Labor's failure, became Abbott's own failure. Not done, he completed the performance with Lisa Wilkinson on Nine's Today Show, Next, in a moment of complete brain-fail, he decided that he had read the report after all, and when he told Leigh Sales that he hadn't, he was answering a different question.

Don't forget that this was also the week when The Speaker ejected Mr Abbott from the chamber. He went a step too far in criticising the Prime Minister during Question Time, and was instructed to make an unqualified apology. His response was entirely qualified:

''I withdraw but it's still an untrue statement,'' Mr Abbott replied.

Ms Burke then told Mr Abbott to leave the chamber.

''I asked you, as you approached the dispatch box, to do it without qualification - you could not help yourself,'' she said.

In Queensland, the situation is more pronounced as the LNP is in Government, not Opposition, and there is no Upper House to moderate the government's runaway majority. Where is the line on mandates? At what point does a strongly elected government look beyond the campaign dot points and claim their mandate on the broadest terms possible. And within such a majority, does a sense of the 'real world' survive? Five months into a three year term, the infant LNP government is doing whatever they want, under the banner of "getting the state back on track".

When Campbell Newman's team won 78 of 89 seats, he was aware of the risks of governing with arrogance. He told us

"We will conduct ourselves with humility, grace and dignity," he said. "We will not let people down."

Five months later, almost to the day, Premier Newman referred to the distasteful responsibility of axing thousands of public service jobs as cleaning up a mess with a pooper-scooper. The Courier Mail's Steve Wardill said this:

The Queensland Premier's performances of late have fallen well short of the standard he set for himself. Maybe it was the supposed late-night session on the scotch in Parliament's Lucinda Bar on Wednesday that some were talking about. Or perhaps the pressure of public service job cuts, and the impact they are having on the Government, is getting to him.

A week earlier, in an interview with 612ABC's Steve Austin, Premier Newman insisted that the majority of Queenslanders are thanking him for making the tough decisions. Subsequent polling results may have shaken that belief, but possibly not as much as his benefactor Clive Palmer donating a quarter of a million dollars to the Together Union to provide psychological assistance for the victims of Newman's job cuts.

"The removal of tens of thousands of people out of work isn't going to make much of an impact on our $65 billion deficit," he said.

"But it will have an impact on the Queenslanders losing their jobs and will have an impact on the wider community, especially in regional areas outside Brisbane."

And the LNP's response, via Deputy Leader Jeff Seeney was the caustic accusation that Mr Palmer's donation had its genesis in spite, that Mr Palmer's motive was revenge against a government he thought owed him favours. Mr Seeney may be right, but as thank-you's go, it lacked grace and dignity. Considering Mr Palmer's record as the LNP's biggest donor, they might like to reassess the wisdom of undermining the gesture.

The ultimate irony was when Premier Newman told ALP member Curtis Pitt to "get a real job". In what way is Campbell Newman's job more real than Curtis Pitt's job?

Where, and how does such a sense of arrogance originate in an organisation? The Newman Government is still learning it's way around the building, and the federal Opposition haven't tasted success for close to five years. Perhaps this sense of bullet-proof superiority is simply part of the culture of conservative politics in Australia.

The University of Queensland Union election fiasco also surfaced in mainstream media this week. There's no clear answers of the right-versus-wrong variety here, although the Union President denies any wrongdoing. The UQ Union seems to have a convenient set of regulations governing their conduct, and only those who have been elected already can amend those regulations. In short, the incumbents registered the ticket name of their opposition. The opposition ticket should've registered their name but didn't. The current UQ Union officials belong to the Fresh ticket, and by also registering the name of their opposition, they have claimed a massive, opportunistic advantage, albeit morally questionable. The other questions of who knew what, and when, are side issues.

The parallel lack of oversight reminds me of the heady days of Joh Bjelke Peterson's gerrymanders, and Premier Newman's series of changes to allow bills to become law without passing through committee first, and his government's changes to media and public gallery access. The common fear of the left is that if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister, he'll govern with the same contempt, the same chutzpah, the same ignorance with he leads the Opposition.

By the way, the President of the UQ Union is Colin Finke, a man with ties to the Young LNP. He was recruited by Brodie Thomson, campus co-ordinator for the Young Liberals. Aside from a single interview with community station 4ZZZ, Mr Finke refused to discuss the issue with media.

If organisational culture is defined by the attitudes and behaviours of the group members, the conservative side of Australian politics has a cultural problem. The next generation of the LNP is already practising their condescension, their hubris, their arrogance.

Their culture.

1 comment:

  1. Very good Sal, an excellent summary of the feeling of the week, and the problem of the culture. We really do need to do serious work in making political parties relevant again, and that means a return to mass difficult that will be. I was once a member of a couple of different parties and got out, largely due to the abhorrent cultures within. On reflection, people like me now have some responsibility for today's milieu, for getting put and not staying in to keep the balance.