The unseemly brawling continues at RSPCA Tasmania, with the President Paul Swiatkoski claiming his three board members have done nothing wrong, and are acting within the organisation’s Constitution.

If indeed this is so, then I believe there has been a serious failure on the part of the Department of Fair Trading in allowing an organisation that deals with large amounts of public money to operate ... but unable to stay out of the courts long enough to do anything at all in keeping with its charter: the care and welfare of animals.

These crises have been continuing since, and even before, the dismissal of former CEO Greg Tredinnick in 2009, when the board was castigated by the Deputy President of the Tasmanian Industrial Commission over its conduct. Remember the RSPCA runs on money from the taxpayer, the community, and bequests.

The board, and the now-sacked CEO, despite what appears to be overwhelming loss in support, appears to have kept on spending and brawling, and now the bitter infighting is throughout all the ranks of the organisation, with some staff and volunteers lining up behind the board and others behind Mr Ben Sturges, the former CEO.

Three years ago these processes were condemned. It’s happening all over again.

Recently, the RSPCA board of just three members entered into a “Conciliation’ with its sacked Chief Executive Officer, Ben Sturges. Mr Sturges was stood down by the Board in September, and a HR consultancy firm was employed to investigate amid ‘wide-ranging’ allegations. Throughout the expensive six week investigation, Mr Sturges remained on full pay, and retained the use of his RSPCA vehicle. It is the second time that Mr Sturges has been so ‘investigated’. He complains that he was denied ‘procedural fairness’.

According to the Examiner,

‘The investigation found that the former chief executive had made derogatory statements about the board, withheld information from the board, bullied and harassed staff and threatened their jobs, deleted portions of RSPCA emails, destroyed a work laptop hard drive and shown favouritism towards the organisation’s chief vet.

RSPCA Tasmania president Paul Swiatkowski said this was the second time that the RSPCA board had sought an independent investigation into Mr Sturges’s conduct.

The first investigation in March looked at issues at the Hobart shelter, including a perceived relationship Mr Sturges had with the organisation’s chief vet and whether it had affected his operational capacity.

Mr Sturges has denied each of these allegations.

The latter James O’Neill investigation concluded that without the board’s knowledge, Mr Sturges had created the senior position of chief vet for the organisation’s existing veterinarian that came with a pay rise.

Mr Sturges denied that the chief vet position came with a pay rise and said all other Australian RSPCA organisations had the role’.

``I was employed as a commercial business manager and had never worked in the animal welfare sphere before this and relied heavily on the chief veterinarian for guidance in animal welfare areas,’’ he said.

Examiner story here:

The Examiner’s Rosemary Bolger wrote an excellent editorial piece on this ongoing, unedifying spectacle, published on November 27.

Mr Sturges is the son of sitting ALP member for Denison, Graeme Sturges. I believe he met none of the advertised selection criteria for the position; indeed, he is quoted in the Examiner’s article as saying he had to rely upon the veterinarian for advice on what should have been the most critical element of the job – animal welfare. Mr Sturges claims that RSPCAs in other jurisdictions have positions created for ‘Chief Veterinarians’, but I can find no information supporting this contention.

There was never any possibility of any form of ‘conciliation’ resolving the distasteful issues that have apparently been the subject of this costly ‘investigation’, and now the Tasmanian RSPCA branch will be embarking on yet another expensive series of legal battles when the matter goes to Fair Work Australia, reportedly in February or March 2013, and also to other jurisdictions, namely the Anti-Discrimination Commission, on the grounds of a ‘lack of procedural fairness’

The Public Accounts Committee is now investigating, essentially, whether the RSPCA can be trusted with other people’s money – taxpayer bailouts, community donations and bequests and is inviting submissions on these matters.

It does not take an accountant to understand that, throughout major – even critical - funding shortfalls, those within the organisation kept spending, and kept brawling. There was a Fair Work Australia case brought by former Marketing Manager Colin Anderson in March, at which the RSPCA was represented, once again, by a Solicitor and a Barrister. Mr Anderson claimed that his redundancy was not a ’genuine’ redundancy as the Society had employed a ‘high level Fundraising Manager’, a position involving largely the duties he had been undertaking. As was the case with Mr Tredinnick, the case would have cost many tens of thousands of dollars.

In the financial year to June 2012, the RSPCA in Tasmania spent over $2.2 million in employment expenses, having appointed ‘Managers’ for everything and anything, it spent $276,000 on fundraising, $38,000 on ‘Campaign Expenses’ (what campaigns?), $106,000 on ‘Merchandising’ (Goods and Services) and $434,000 on ‘Corporate Services’ (including $18,000 MORE than the previous year for Accounting and Auditing, printing and stationery, subscriptions and the like). It spent $106,000 on travel and motor vehicles. $52,672 was spent on ‘Consultants’ (which presumably includes lawyers because their services are nowhere else quantified)

In the same period, compared with the previous year, the RSPCA lost, in terms of revenue, $28,000 from the Inspectorate Service contract, $10,000 in Vet Clinic income and about $640,000 in sponsorships, as well as a drop of about $7,000 in memberships. Rosemary Bolger notes in her editorial that the Society lost over a million dollars under the administration of this board and CEO in the last financial year.

In the final analysis, like RSPCAs in all Australian jurisdictions, people who genuinely make animal care and protection their priority, and, dare we say it, have higher level skills in business management as well, are driven out. Evidence of this is the fact that about 20 long-serving staff and volunteers reportedly have quit.

The RSPCA national body appears to have dissociated itself from this sorry mess, but it can take some of the credit for it. ACT CEO Michael Linke was appointed as ‘Acting CEO’ in Tasmania, on a largely absentee basis, and it was he who encouraged an administrative hierarchy, putting a sole focus upon fundraising (to the detriment of available funds being spent on animals, not people), depending on a major sponsor. Mr Linke’s services came at an undisclosed cost, and when he did visit Tasmania he brought with him his staff, including flights and accommodation.  Unsurprisingly, the strategy failed.

It is surprising to me to see politicians of all persuasions expressing support for Mr Sturges. Until the allegations against him are found to be proven or otherwise, it would have been prudent for them to have kept wiser counsel. The politicians include the Greens’ Animal Welfare spokesperson, Cassy O’Connor.

In my view the RSPCA ‘brand’ is compromised on a number of levels across the country over its receipt of royalties for endorsements of farmed animal products and the numbers of animals killed in shelters every year. The National Statistics for 2011-2012 are not available at this time, so claims by Mr Swiatkowski and Mr Sturges about increased adoptions, lower euthanasia rates and more prosecutions cannot be substantiated.

I believe Mr Sturges should walk away, and the Department of Fair Trading should take all the required steps and actions to dismantle the organisation in its present form.

Substantial sums of money have been spent on people, (and infighting), rather than the care of the animals for which the money was given. The portfolio must be removed from the DPIW, deeply compromised in my view,  and given to the Department of Justice, and the inspectorate, with all the resources that go with it, handed to a properly resourced unit of Tasmania Police.

The real casualties of this sorry state of affairs are the animals of Tasmania, because there is effectively no uncompromised system for their care and protection. The state government needs to totally review how the system is to work in the future, and the RSPCA cannot be part of it in any way.

Suzanne Cass
Stop Tasmanian Animal Cruelty
Phone 0420 988221
PO Box 252