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A review of Tough Customer: Chasing a better deal for battlers

This article was originally published in the Summer Edition of the GRC Professional Magazine

“I’d had plenty of tough times as head of Australia’s competition regulator for twelve years, including being called a Nazi and being relentlessly attacked by big business. This was much tougher,” writes ex-regulator Allan Fels in the first chapter in his book, Tough Customer: Chasing a better deal for battlers.

Post-Royal Commission—and other issues aside—it’s hard to believe a banking CEO could make it through a 24-hour media cycle unscathed following a comment like that. And indeed, Fels’ book feels almost too short to truly encompass the range of issues and organisations of which he has been a part.

Fels’ book differs from most of the others reviewed by this magazine—not so much because it is a book that looks at the systemic challenges inherent in an industry, but more so because of the personal insight into Fels’ perspectives. Instead of offering up a long, investigative exploration, Tough Customer reads more like Marcus Arelius’ Meditations—the musings of an old philosopher looking back on his own achievements and wondering if he made the right decisions.

Fels not only reflects on his time as a regulator but also on advocacy for better policies on mental health, a topic on which he takes a personal stance because of his daughter’s condition.

On this, he writes:

Mental health is still a fairly low priority for governments. From time to time, politicians talk about taking a big initiative and, momentarily, mental health is at the top of the policy pile. Then other matters intervene, and it falls back down. I’ve seen this happen time and again. Mental health is the poor cousin of health and social welfare and doesn’t get priority when budgets are drawn up.

With Victoria’s recent Royal Commission into Mental Health, and the Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care, both of which have some overlap with the issues identified by Fels, his book seems to have been published at exactly the right time. In fact, at the time of this review’s publication, the Morrison Government has just announced a $537 million commitment to address systemic failures highlighted in the Aged Care interim report.

Fels narrative shifts constantly through time, from being a competition regulator to being fired from the 7-Eleven independent committee as a result of the payout they would have to make to their employees because of a deliberate policy of systemic underpayments.

The book’s structure feels intentional, however, since issues of wage theft and worker exploitation form the basis of a recurring issue—one the Fair Work Ombudsman has already said they would be paying close attention to:

My job was to help clean up the mess as chair of an independent panel assessing compensation claims from thousands of 7-Eleven workers—mostly foreign students—who’d been paid around $10 an hour less than half the award rate. The chairman and co-owner of 7-Eleven in Australia, Russ Withers, rang me the day after a scathing Four Corners/Fairfax report aired on ABC television, asking me to chair the new panel ‘without fear or favour’. Nine months later, as the claims escalated, and 7-Eleven executives pressured us to change our approach, I was sacked by phone, and 7-Eleven set up its own panel.

According to Fels, this, clearly, was not a good look:

But what the Four Corners/Fairfax investigation made clear—supported by a head-office whistleblower; evidence gathered over several years by a tenacious consumer advocate, Michael Fraser; and several investigations by the FWO—was that underpaying wages and doctoring payroll records and timesheets were commonplace across much of 7-Eleven’s franchisee network. And the head office of Australia’s biggest convenience store chain didn’t just turn a blind eye: systemic wage fraud was part of the business model.

Fels’ book also touches on the deregulation of the financial system, as well as the changing character of the financial sector and the impact it had on consumers. This launches the book’s direction forward to his commentary on the banking Royal Commission:

Royal commissions are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make fundamental structural changes. The fact is that there is a conflict between financial institutions offering products and services to the market and providing purportedly impartial and independent advice to customers on the best products and services in the market.

Outside the scope of Fels’ book, the question still remains as to whether this ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ has been properly utilised or whether instead the whole inquiry has been a superficial exercise.

That aside, Tough Customer: Chasing a better deal for battlers provides a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ to see into the mind of someone who has dedicated himself to Improving the lives of those around him on a national scale.

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