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NZAF BOARD: New challenges and unanswered questions

Sun 31 Jul 2005 In: HIV

One week on from the NZAF Board crisis meeting, new chair Simon Robb faces questions over staff morale, the effect of Clive Aspin's controversial paper, and why the Foundation's kaumatua was shut out of consultations. It's one week on from the AIDS Foundation board crisis meeting, which saw the Foundation's first Maori chair Clive Aspin stepping down after less than eight weeks in the job, and at least four of which he was out of the country. The constitutional change proposals, the announcement of which coincided with Aspin's appointment as chair, have since been withdrawn after strong opposition from stakeholders. The proposals, which the board described as “participation at the governance level”, would have set aside 50% of the board seats for Maori at all times, in recognition of the Foundation's commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi. Former deputy chair, now board chair, Simon Robb has emphasised several times since a commitment to engage with all the Foundation's stakeholders, and to rebuild bridges. But in the week since the board chose to avert the Foundation's growing public relations crisis via a game of musical chairs at board level, a number of questions have remained unanswered, and new ones have been thrown up. In a frank column for GayNZ.com, Foundation kaumatua Henare Te Ua expressed his concern about the dumped proposals which he described as “a quota of brown bums on seats,” as well as what he saw as a separatist agenda from some takatapui within the Foundation. In light of Te Ua's vocal opposition to the proposals, which have only now surfaced, it seems clear that – like staff – he was never consulted about them. Why? Body Positive Auckland spokesman Bruce Kilmister has spoken of a chasm between the Foundation's board and stakeholders, which he says has been growing for the last 2 – 3 months, “since the most recent appointments brought new members onto the board.” Add to that rumours that the governance proposals were initially not proposals but an edict, and comments made by former chair Clive Aspin in an internationally-presented paper that opposition to the proposals were racist, and the cone of silence brought down since last week's board reshuffle becomes all the more dissatisfying. Robb has always been open to media enquiry throughout the crisis, but in speaking with him since his appointment as chair there is a noticeable change. Although he has denied it, there seems little doubt that he was left holding the baby, publicly fronting the unpopular proposals while Aspin was out of the country. As acting chair, he was left with all of the responsibility and none of the authority, sometimes almost struggling to answer simple questions about the proposals. It seems that serious discussion was had at last week's board meeting over Aspin's paper, and whether the comments made within it warranted his resignation from the board. “It was very close,” Robb says. “I think the comments were very unhelpful, and it's not the type of comment that I would expect from a board member.” However: “I remember having a conversation at the board meeting that ran something like this: I think on balance it may be unfair for Clive to depart from the board, given that there are different interpretations that could be made of that paper, and given the contribution and rigour and debate that he brings to the board,” he says. “My understanding is that Clive does have confidence in the Foundation, and I'd have difficulty – professionally – to have a board member that didn't have confidence in the Foundation.” So where was the Foundation's kaumatua during all this? Surely he would have been the first port of call for discussions around the Treaty and governance. Henare Te Ua noted in his GayNZ.com column earlier this week that four previous NZAF chairs consulted him on Treaty issues. Robb cites Te Ua's ill health as a factor in why he was excluded from discussions about the recent proposals, but in spite of this, doesn't recall Te Ua's name surfacing in discussions about the proposals. “There are no terms of reference, as far as we're aware, around our engagement with the kaumatua,” he says. “The role is greatly respected and highly regarded, and our organisation is pretty much at the discretion of people to determine when or not that engagement occurs.” Since last Saturday's board reshuffle and announcements of bridge-building meetings between the board and stakeholders, Te Ua is now first on the list of parties to be consulted. Robb says he isn't surprised by Te Ua's feelings about the dropped proposals. “I'm glad to have a kaumatua involved in the organisation who is willing to speak his mind and provide the wisdom that we think a kaumatua should,” he says. “I think it shows that he's got integrity and he's not going to tell us something that we want to hear. We want somebody who can advise us on a principal basis, based upon his knowledge and experience.” However, Robb disagrees that there has ever been a separatist agenda, or plans to impose race-based quotas on Foundation staff. “This is where we take responsibility for our process being flawed,” he says. “Because our process that we put in place wasn't robust, and we didn't run it well, and we didn't communicate well, a confusion between governance and management operational issues occurred.” The Foundation's executive director Rachael LeMesurier says at no point has the full board made any reference to staff quotas. “In fact, we've had the absolute opposite from the full board, stating that they're very happy with the way in which we deliver our services, operationally and in respect to the Treaty,” she says. If discussions about separating the Foundation's Hau Ora Takatapui programme are happening in the community, “I haven't heard them. But I'm very conscious at this point in time, takatapui within the organisation, as with all staff, are very happy with the way in which Hau Ora Takatapui is supported and appreciated within the organisation.” Does she think Aspin's paper reflected badly on the Foundation? “I would be very concerned if current staff, takatapui, and other racial groups working in the Foundation, were experiencing racism and also felt that they weren't able to raise those concerns. I haven't had anything raised with me personally.” Is a perception that the Foundation is racist or unsafe damaging internationally? “I think it's unfortunate if there is a perception that we, as the AIDS Foundation, are an unsafe place for takatapui. My inclination is that it's quite the opposite, it's one of the safest places for takatapui to work, and it is one of the safest places for gays and lesbians to work in New Zealand.” LeMesurier disagrees that there is a ‘chasm' between staff and the board, but acknowledges the impact the recent crisis has had on them. “What is needed is a chance for everybody to sit down, as soon as possible, and talk face to face, because that has been missing. We were all looking forward to the community meetings, which did need to be deferred. The board is entirely voluntary, and they've got full-time jobs, so its quite hard to move quickly. I think the staff are all looking forward to the chance to sit down and talk about the good and the not-so-good stuff that's happened in the last couple of months.” And staff morale? “The morale is actually still quite good. There has indisputably been an impact on staff, prior to the proposal being withdrawn, and I'd say that since it was withdrawn it has been easier for staff in respect to engaging with and carrying on their operational tasks in the community. We are looking forward to the consultation meetings.” Although staff were aware that discussions around the Treaty and the NZAF Constitution were going on at board level, the announcement of the specific proposals the board had in mind came as a surprise. So what about those rumours that, before announcing a consultation process, the initial announcement had been delivered to staff as an edict? “There was never going to be an edict,” she says firmly. “But what I will say is that the constitution has made it clear that, as it's structured currently, there are problems with the fact that membership doesn't have the right to vote on constitutional change, which is something that I know that staff and members are keen to look at; how we can improve the constitution, and have it reflect more of a majority view around the role of membership.” Robb says that the board has the confidence of the Foundation's executive director in continuing without resignations, which he believes would be unhelpful and unwarranted. “If we had a whole new board, you're asking Rachael to have a whole new employer," he says. "Now that relationship's really important, and I've got the confidence of Rachael. That is a key stakeholder there. We've got the confidence of her, so why go? Why have we got the confidence of her? Because she's seen the track record of those who have been there for two, two and a half years." “We make one mistake, we've acknowledged it. I think the price is too high for a clean out at the board level, given the good runs on the board in terms of the positive things we've done,” he continues. “We've made one mistake. It's not a sackable offence, I don't believe. It was done in good faith, with integrity, but we failed to run the process effectively and we won't make that mistake again. That doesn't mean that all the good work that we've done isn't worth the paper its written on, because its worth a lot. And I don't want to lose momentum.” So how does a board which – according to its own member profiles – is highly skilled collectively in governance make such a monumental mistake? "Because we're human beings. You make one mistake out of innocence, and that's focussed upon," he says. "We didn't even have a governance manual when I came on board. Guess what? We've now got a governance manual. We've got a code of ethics. We've got policies and procedures that the board is required to follow. And that's also trickled down operationally to having robust procedures for the staff and management. But that stuff doesn't get out in the media." Robb is committed to a lengthy period of consultation on constitutional issues now. Submissions are still continuing to roll in, most in opposition to the proposals and a few in support – Le Mesurier says this has been reflected in the staff's response also. The board will have met with staff before the end of August. A wider period of consultation will have begun by October/November. "If it's going to take a long time, then it's going to take a long time. I'm prepared to go round a second time if needs be," Robb says. "But if does take a long time, then what we need to do as a board is have an effective regime in place to communicate to stakeholders so they know what is happening, so they can understand why its taking a long time. We need to be very deliberate and very cautious." Chris Banks - 31st July 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Sunday, 31st July 2005 - 12:00pm

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