Punish not prevent, is that Australia’s stance?

Australia has lots of anti-corruption commissions and commissioners, ombudsmen and tribunals to investigate complaints and wrong-doing.  Australia doesn’t seem to have organisations that focus on creating good behaviours.  It seems to me that the country is spending lots of money on punishing what it doesn’t like, instead of on preventing it.

I make this statement in some trepidation.  I don’t want to criticise my hosts.  I am offering it merely as an observation – and in the vague hope that someone will “set me straight”!

There are anti-corruption commissions in most states.  In New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, ICAC, is currently conducting a very news-worthy enquiry, so is much in the media.  Held in public, the enquiry into relations between the Obeid family and state politicians and the awarding of mining-related licenses.  Read all about it here.

Citing this example already puts me at odds with my proposition.  The ICAC web site has a whole section on preventing corruption.  Find it here.

Also, if you look at the websites of the ombudsmen, they have an educational role in addition to their responsibilities to look into complaints related to public sector administration. If you take the Queensland Ombudsman’s Office as an example, you will see that they provide training as part of their “commitment to improve public sector administration”.  The main topics are making good decisions and ethics, with courses on the “ethical compass” and scenario-based training.  Their web site is here.

This shows that the complaints-handling organisations can make a difference and contribution to preventing the bad behaviours they investigate.

This leaves me questioning my own proposition.  Why do I think it is all punish, not prevent?

I suppose it has struck me most in regard to industrial or workplace relations.

There is a national workplace relations tribunal, called the Fair Work Commission (FWC) from 1 January 2013, “with power to carry out a range of functions relating to:

  • the safety net of minimum wages and employment conditions
  • enterprise bargaining
  • industrial action
  • dispute resolution
  • termination of employment”.

This in itself is not that much different from the situation that I’m used to in the UK, where there is an Employment Tribunal.  The difference is that there seems to be no companion organisation that is equivalent to ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

In the UK, ACAS provides the dispute resolution services and, more importantly, provides simple-to-use guidance for employees and employers not just how to prevent actionable behaviour, but also how to set up a “model workplace”.  I specifically asked FWC if they provide guidance and support like ACAS – and they said no.

If you look on-line for guidance on employment, the government websites providing business advice are very legalistic.  They don’t look user-friendly for business people.  Maybe this style is why there is the impression that there is so much red tape.

At the same time, much of the general commentary about industrial relations in Australia sounds antagonistic to me.  There seems to be knee-jerk position-taking with the “bosses” and “workers” moving straight to battle lines, rather than working together.

I know the UK isn’t perfect in this regard by a long shot but I wonder if a shift in focus to how we build more constructive, creative and positive workplaces might go a long way to reducing the need for all the commissions and tribunals.

Anyone out there have any thoughts on that?


Fair Work Commission in Australia – http://www.fwc.gov.au/

UK’s Employment Tribunal – http://www.justice.gov.uk/tribunals/employment

UK’s ACAS – http://www.acas.org.uk/


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