Gajalakshmi Paramasivam- 16 July 2016
Thinking Small Minister?
When I did not get business class on British Airways while others in my group had traveled business class – I complained to Sri Lankan Airlines Management and they ensured that I was allocated Business Class seat on the return leg. A fellow passenger on the return flight looked very much like Mr. Kulasegaram – the first General Manager of the Airlanka/Sri Lankan Airlines and I felt that Mr. Kulasegaram was in approval of my move and was raising my accreditation within the Airline industry. While I was actively working within Commercial Division of Airlanka, Mr. Colin Martinus – my guru in Commercial Management said to me that Mr. Kulasegaram had asked that I be transferred to Finance – which division was under the General Manager’s supervision at that time. Mr. Martinus said to me that he had declined. I was happy that I was valuable enough to be wanted by two Divisions.
With this background, I felt disappointed, when I read the news that the Minister responsible for Sri Lankan Airlines – the Hon Kabir Hashim had refused to upgrade to Business class when he and his wife recently travelled to India on Sri Lankan Airlines. The picture that came to my mind was the ‘Think Big’ message on the desk of Mr. Noor Shirazee – then the General Sales Manager of Air Lanka. I was groomed by all these managers with global experience and I groomed myself whenever I had the opportunity to learn from them. Later in life, I learnt to take my due place so that my juniors would learn from me – including to think big-ownership. This helped me think commercial instead of thinking politics. As a minority power wherever I went - that was necessary to me in most of my relationships and in relation to workplace - to move away from Politically driven Public Service to Outcome based Public Service – here in Australia. This is what Sri Lankan Airlines needs now. Hence my disappointment that the Minister demonstrated think small attitude – that fits Human Rights groups and not Commercial enterprises.
I encountered this problem with the Management of the University of New South Wales also. The Manager of Research Office said that the University Research Funds were managed on Expenditure basis using Cash Accounting and semi-accrual accounting systems. The bullying that one had to withstand in Australia could be sensed from the contents in Appendix which lists my experience with one of the managers. When Sri Lankan Airlines went Political at management level – it moved away from Commercial values of Separation of Powers between Equal and Opposite parts that were able to sustain themselves. Political Management at its best works on the basis of faith and therefore is hierarchical in structure. Under this structure there can be only one outcome available to the public. The moment lower level operators / staff, start producing outcomes visible to the Public – the hierarchical authority ceases to work and if enforced, amounts to bullying. That was what happened with Sri Lankan Airlines, resulting in former President of Sri Lanka dismissing the CEO who refused his entourage seats on the National carrier. Given that the Airline was very much a target of the anti-Government forces during war time – one cannot separate the think-big-politics from the Commercial Operations of the National Carrier. One has to accept the ‘back to politics’ pathway as a necessary move. The cost however is the loss of wisdom in Commercial Independence and therefore economic competitiveness. One cannot jump overnight from one system to another and expect operational success. In a volatile environment such as Sri Lanka’s one must be ready to change from one to another at short notice. Only true owners would do that.
As one of those true owners – I believe that Sri Lankan Airlines needs to be the model on which the Sri Lankan Government moves towards Zero Base Accounting. This means Zero subjective authority until earned on merit basis through current activities. Each unit needs to be self-sufficient and where a unit is politically sensitive – its gap between receipts and payments needs to be filled by the Government. The Government is then responsible for the viability of that section. Others need to be financed to gradually become self-sufficient.
This ought to have been the approach taken within the Central Bank in Divisions where the Bank seeks to be Independent of Political arm of the Government. Mr. Mahendran obviously lacked wisdom in transitional Public Sector Resource Management. The new Government wanted to sweep well and the poor man got his image tarnished due to his haste in impressing his new employers who do not have an impressive performance record.
Sri Lankan Airlines would have been saved much pain had these Separations between Politics and Business been clearly drawn at the structural level. Politics is Government’s responsibility while Business is the responsibility of employees – each to their own unit and to themselves. That is how self-governance is maintained in Public Service. Those who are able to bear pain for the sake of the Institution / Nation – will be the root owners of the Airline – whatever its name; whoever its financiers may be.
1. On 08 July 1998, I wrote as follows to my supervisor Phil Kringas, with copies to other senior staff:
Thank you for the reminder this morning about the meeting that was organized. I am sorry I was late – it completely slipped my mind when I was involved with some other issue. I did note it when I arrived at work this morning, but I failed to remind myself at 11 O’clock. I promise to be more punctual next time. Thank you again. I have apologized to Research Office staff as well for the delay.
I wish to inform you of the Proceedings of the meeting, as best as I can recall. I apologize for not being able to recall the proceedings with hundred percent accuracy. I will try to be as accurate as possible – to the best of my recollection:
Ms Sandi Steep, Mr. Warwick Dawson, Mr. Peter Cook and I were present. Mr. Cook introduced himself to me and we shook hands.
Mr. Peter Cook opened the meeting by asking ‘How do you wish to handle this?’
After a few seconds I said (as no one else said anything and I thought that I was expected to respond) ‘Would it help if I asked the questions based on the problems that I have encountered?’
Mr. Cook: No you will listen to an account of how the University functions. (At this point I recoiled silently). When you joined the University, FSD (Financial Services Division) should have given all of you training on how the University operated and because they did not do this we had to conduct the training sessions in preparation for which this material was prepared. (Mr. Cook then pointed to the sheaf of papers in front of him)
[At this point I wanted to say that FSD had given us training and was continuing to do so, but reminded myself that Mr. Cook had asked me not to speak. So, I limited myself to:]
Gaja: Yes, I have gone through the material already. (This with a view to not wasting his time going through information that I had access to)
Mr. Cook: You come from a Commercial background, but we do not operate that way here at the University. This University like all other Universities operates on a Cash Basis and semi accrual basis.
Gaja: I have worked also with Public Service
Mr. Cook: ‘Shirley Kueh will be moving to the Research Office soon. We receive grants from various bodies and we have to report to them in a specific manner. We have to have a united approach together with all other Universities. (This said to me that Peter Cook was relying heavily on group power and not individual merit based power. Later I heard reports about his heavy reliance on male power. He was one of the persons I complained against but Professor Alan Pettigrew abused his discretionary powers to leave him and Chris Lidbury out of the investigations) This University cannot do anything on its own.(An admission of dependence on the more powerful universities). The Researchers may want this and that but you have to tell them how it is to be done. As far as the Medical Faculty is concerned, the Faculty had it all under control until almost three / four years back. But this has not been the case since then. (The recorded fact is that Peter Cook was the executive officer of the Medical Faculty at that time – before Jeff Warnock)
Mr. Cook then looked at Mr. Dawson and asked Mr. Dawson to take over.
Mr. Dawson showed me the new Account form and said:
Mr. Dawson: You must have come across these forms (I nodded). You have to ensure that all relevant details are filled out…..(I lost concentration because I was silently dealing with the effects of Mr. Cook’s opening statement of asking me not to talk)
When Mr. Dawson stopped, Sandi took over and explained about the reporting requirements. When Sandi stopped Mr. Cook asked me:
Mr. Cook: Do you want to ask any specific questions?
Gaja: (My mind having gone almost blank) No, I do not have any specific questions to ask. Thank you for your time (and I was about to stand up)
Sandi: There is a list of NH&MRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) carry forward balances that is done every year and is due around end March. We did not receive one this year.
Gaja: I was not asked to prepare one, but I can prepare a list from the information I have in my system.
Mr. Cook: Does this mean that FSD did not forward the list? (Mr. Cook then tried to contact Shirley on the ‘phone but Shirley was not in her office)
Sandi: Usually the list is due by end of March
Gaja: (to Sandi) The NH&MRC statements were prepared by me and Sateesh and I can therefore combine them to give you the list. We completed them by end February, as I recall, and had I known, I would have made up the list. I will do so now.
Sandi: But there was another person working on these accounts.
Gaja: Andrew Kell?
Gaja: Christine Kerr – but that’s for Life Sciences. Sateesh and I covered only the Medical Faculty Accounts.
Mr. Dawson: Some statements were delayed because information was due from other institutions.
Gaja: Yes, I recall a couple – one from St Vincent’s and the other from Prince of Wales – but even these we had submitted the statements to Shirley, reflecting payments as Materials. These were subsequently cleared on receipt of information from the Units.
At this point Mr. Cook was called out to meet someone.
Sandi: There are approved positions and the University cannot employ staff outside this
Gaja: At the moment we transfer any amounts over and above the NH&MRC approved scales to Materials when we report to NH&MRC. Can we not report exactly as it is recorded in the Ledger. (This is how it all started – with me wanting to reflect a true and fair view and them wanting to continue with their habits – for better or for worse). As for Leave Loading and Contributory Superannuation can we not do this only for the purpose of the Invoice / Claim – based on Approved Salaries, as long as the amount claimed is not more than the amount paid? (This was my way of progressing towards Accrual Accounting so that the University did not lose due to its attachment to Cash Accounting. Under Cash Accounting, leave payments would be recouped from NH&MRC only if the staff took leave during the period of the project. This in essence meant that the University was picking up the liability even though the NH&MRC was getting the credit for employing the staff.)
Sandi: That is a matter for Finance. (At this point Mr. Cook came back and Sandi continued)
Sandi: Shirley is discussing with other Finance Officers from other Universities – the possibility of showing the figures in summary form.
(I was by now concerned that the issue of summary may still not address the issue of misinterpretation, if the summary was to be split into Salaries and Other Operating Expenses)
Gaja: I have already taken the matter up with Shirley. Why do we report as we do when NH&MRC grant conditions specifically mention just ‘one line grants’.
Sandi: That is how it was required by NH&MRC a while ago.
Gaja: But do they require in the same format now. Have we asked them recently about it?
Mr. Cook: We cannot do anything different on our own. Don’t think that you have all the answers. (In other words he thought I had more answers than himself and he was irritated by that). We have known about these problems for sometime now and Shirley has been working on these problems for a while. Don’t think that Shirley started after you discussed it with her. (In other words, he was trying to suppress my higher status above Shirley earned through performance. Shirley was already part of his group. I was not. Hence if I am above Shirley, I am above him for these matters. He could not have that could he?)
Gaja: I did not think that Shirley started it after I suggested it. (In other words – ‘Don’t think for me or speak for me)
Mr. Cook: But you implied that Shirley was discussing with the group after you spoke to her.
Gaja: Are you suggesting that I refrain from making my observations and Recommendations on the system?
Mr. Cook: Gaja, I find you most offensive.
(This made me speechless and I recoiled inwardly staring at Mr. Cook)
Mr. Cook; (again) I find you most offensive
I pushed the pain to the back of my mind and reminded myself that I had to focus on the issue – I owed it to the University; it was my job. However, I thought that it would be rude not to respond at all – so I said:
Gaja: That’s alright by me
And I turned to talk to Sandi
We discussed further and I requested that we look at:
(a) Rec Leave provisions – currently not being claimed – this resulting in the University absorbing the liability that existed after completion of Grant period.
(b) Expenditure transfers – whether we could look at keeping total expenditure relating to a project in one account – or using Parent Child structures.
(c) Sources and Applications of Funds.
I asked the question:
Gaja: Are the Research Quantum / RIBG (Research Infrastructure Building Grants) calculations based on Income or Expenditure?
Mr. Cook: (pointing to the papers in front) You said you had read this – then you ought to know. ( By this time I was convinced that Peter Cook had something against women and/or Asians. His language gave him away. One who focused through issues would not demonstrate consciousness of individual persons. Given that I did not know Peter Cook personally, I had to attribute the group characteristic on the basis of Anti Discrimination / Equal Opportunity laws) It is all in the web – about 20 pages. I have held the view that the reporting ought to be based on Income and not Expenditure – I have had many discussions with John Wong about this. We are the only University that does it on Expenditure basis rather than on Income.
(I thought to myself ‘so we do do things differently sometimes)
The discussions came to a completion and I thanked them for their time.
Sandi: Thank you for coming over.
Mr. Cook: Nice meeting you. (Liar or secret admirer?)
On my way back to my office my suppressed pain got the better of me and tears started rolling down my face. I entered my office and broke down and cried my heart out. Phil Dulhunty who is working in Andrew’s position quickly brought Deb Miller to comfort me and Deb clamed me down.
Phil (Kringas) as my supervisor, I seek your assistance in
Helping me identify why Mr. Cook found me most offensive
And then help me gain the education required to not offend any UNSW worker.
I started working at UNSW with the expectation of contributing positively through my knowledge and experience gained over the past 31 years. Whilst I am almost daily showered with compliments from my Customers (School staff), I seem to be upsetting senior Admin staff. Whilst in the past it was with the likes of Shirley. John Wilding and yourself – with all of whom I had interacted directly, I cannot understand how I managed to offend Mr. Cook even before I had met him. I had not spoken to him previously; nor had I written to him on any matter. My interactions with other Research Office staff – Jeff Seynor and Sandi Steep – have always been pleasant and positive. I am very sensitive to others’ opinion of me (the real me) and hurt profusely when I am misconstrued. I consider myself to be a generous person and impart knowledge as and where I think that it will be valuable. I also have a certain perception of my role as a part owner of UNSW. If I therefore observe a problem, I consider it my duty to inform those responsible with any recommendations I consider to be appropriate. If this is causing damage to UNSW or is considered to be counter-productive by senior administrators, I would like to know about it so that:
I can first get help in better understanding UNSW culture and how I ought to behave
If I find that I cannot function effectively, whether it is fair to UNSW and myself that our relationship continues.
Whilst I recognize and attribute full credit to past owners of UNSW for UNSW’s important role in providing education, I come from a background that has encouraged me to work towards achieving Excellence. I so desire to be part of an organization that is progressive and is outstanding in every manner and form. It is towards this that I choose to make comments (hoping they will prove beneficial). I use the international standards that I have hitherto been a part of, towards making a contribution to my family (currently UNSW) and I do, so want to derive value from my experiences with UNSW towards educating other organizations that I will work for. I also want my memory of UNSW to be of the highest quality and that of a leader in setting standards for others to follow.
Phil, I am sorry to inconvenience you, but I hope that you would appreciate my pain and my need to make a decision. I drafted this letter in the wee hours of the morning. That’s how important it is to me.