The National Australia Day Council has been put on notice by the federal government, after an independent review uncovered a workplace culture in which board directors feel dismissed and disrespected.
The revelations come after the NADC was last week placed under a cloud of suspicion when former Australian of the Year Grace Tame claimed she received a “threatening” phone call from a senior member of a government-funded organisation warning her not to criticise the Prime Minister.
The NACD distanced itself from the claim, saying “a number of personnel” who had contact with Ms Tame over the past year had denied having a threatening conversation with her.
The NADC is a not-for-profit organisation owned by the Australian Government that, among other things, is responsible for coordinating the Australian of the Year awards and promoting Australia Day.
The 2021 independent review into the “operations, dynamics and composition” of the NADC, commissioned by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in March and tabled in Parliament last week, found there had been a recent “uplift” in the organisation’s performance.
However, interviews with current and recent directors also uncovered cultural problems within the NADC, including some reporting an “atmosphere of not speaking up and being ‘compliant’”.
“Some meetings have been called at late notice, not all directors have felt engaged in board decision-making processes and there have been reports of some directors not being listened to, and some have reported unprofessional behaviour within meetings,” wrote the review’s author, Glenys Beauchamp of Proximity Advisory Services.
“Comments were also made about behaviours within board meetings not meeting professional standards – such as shouting, not listening or respecting viewpoints of others, and being dismissive of views and ideas put forward.”
Ms Beauchamp wrote some of those behaviours were exacerbated by NADC directors advocating for their “communities of interest”.
She wrote it was “surprising” how many directors lacked an understanding of their role, with a small group of “inner” board members responsible for much of the decision making.
“Some directors do not understand the significance of the NADC being a Commonwealth-owned company, particularly their fiduciary duties under both the Corporations Act and the requirements of the PGPA (Public Governance, Performance and Accountability) Act,” she wrote.
“Some were of the view that there was only a minority of directors who understood strategy, oversight and good governance.”
A source close to the Australia Day Council said board members were provided with a copy of the review after it was handed down in June.
They raised concerns that board members had not been handed a copy of an earlier review conducted in 2019.
That review, Ms Beauchamp wrote in her report, revealed the NADC lacked focus or strategy.
Letters tabled by Special Minister of State Ben Morton show he wrote to NADC chair Danielle Roche in December asking her to implement all of Ms Beauchamp’s recommendations.
Among several recommendations listed as a “priority”, he asked the NADC to develop behaviour protocols for board meetings and to strengthen director induction processes.
“Addressing the above matters as a priority is crucial to the ongoing success of the board, including in delivering Australia Day 2022, and should be a particular focus of the board before March 2022,” Mr Morton wrote.
Ms Roche had earlier written to Mr Morton telling him the NADC would consider the recommendations after March.
In a statement to The New Daily, an NADC spokesperson said it welcomed the findings of the review and had invited Ms Beauchamp to arrange a board strategy session.
They said there had been “rare instances” when directors had argued over matters, but doing so was “part of the ordinary process of corporate governance and a genuine contest of ideas”.
“As noted in the report, for the past five years, the board of the NADC has successfully implemented significant improvements to the operation of the board and the organisation,” the spokesperson said.
“The report highlights a number of areas where the operations and governance of the NADC can be improved, and the board is committed to addressing these.
“Since the report, the NADC has welcomed three new directors who bring their own expertise and skills and new ways of working to the board.”
The spokesperson said Ms Beauchamp’s review was delivered to NADC during its “peak period” while planning for the 2022 Australian of the Year Awards and Australia Day.
“Accordingly, on 7 December 2021 the chair of the NADC board wrote to Minister Morton with a commitment to address the report at its March Board meeting and provide a detailed response following the meeting,” they said.
It comes after the NADC last week distanced itself from claims Ms Tame received a “threatening” phone call from a senior member of a government-funded organisation.
The New Daily understands board members have been asking questions about the allegation amid concerns it is damaging the organisation’s reputation.
The 2021 review was commissioned by the government shortly after Ms Tame’s appointment, but Mr Morton denied a connection.
“Any suggestion, particularly made direct to the recipients themselves, that a report was commissioned following the announcement of the 2021 Australian of the Year recipients, into the selection process for the awards is incorrect,” he said in a statement tabled in Parliament.
“(It) has the unfortunate potential to take away from the honour and prestige of the awards as well as the tireless work of the worthy recipients.”