The origins of St James Ethics Centre
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 79 autumn 2010
The idea for St James Ethics Centre came about during a time of corporate excess. Founding member Hugh Mackay looks back twenty years to the very early days of the Centre when a group of individuals sought to promote the ethical aspects of business.
Ah, the eighties! What heady days they were, and what a fertile period for the conception of St James Ethics Centre. ‘Corporate cowboys’ was the phrase on everyone’s lips; business had become front-page news, and every day seemed to bring fresh revelations of hostile takeovers, mergers, acquisitions and high-stakes deal-making.
Names like Bond, Skase, Spalvins, Elliott, Packer, Murdoch, Holmes à Court and Fairfax had become household words – symbols of unprecedented levels of corporate rapaciousness and previously unimaginable levels of debt, as takeovers, share-swaps and other manoeuvres became more frenzied and complex. In the television industry alone, virtually every major station changed hands in a matter of months, and it was a time when some of the biggest names in Australia’s corporate history were tarnished beyond repair.
Corporate behaviour had become a kind of blood sport, and a bemused public could hardly believe that so few men, gambling with what appeared to be reckless disregard for the morality of the market, could have brought the business world into such disrepute.
The banks were being criticised on all sides for having underwritten the adventures of the so-called ‘cowboys’ and strong calls were being made for tougher regulation of the finance industry and of corporate behaviour in general. (Sound familiar?)
Suddenly, it seemed the right time to put an age-old proposition back on the agenda: every business decision has an ethical dimension we ignore at our peril.
One man began thinking very seriously about how that proposition might be given a fresh voice. Meredith Ryan was the corporate secretary of the AMP Society (as it then was) and was also a parishioner of the historic St James Anglican Church in King Street, Sydney. Impressed by the example of an ethics centre established by Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, he began quietly canvassing the idea that St James might take a similar initiative. He was encouraged by the then Rector of St James, The Reverend Peter Hughes, and by three other parishioners: Tim Edwards, Jane Walton and Julie White.
Together, they formed a working party to mount a conference on Surviving in the Corporate Era, held at Sydney Opera House on 25 October 1989 and officially opened by the Chief Justice of NSW, Murray Gleeson, who had been a strong supporter of this initiative.
The success of that conference, and the interest it generated in Sydney’s business and professional community – rocked, as it was, by the evidence of declining respect for ‘big business’ – encouraged the group to move towards the formal establishment of St James Ethics Centre. In spite of some reservations within the Parish of St James, a Board was duly constituted, with Peter Hughes as its chairman, together with Meredith Ryan, Tim Edwards, Jane Walton, Robert Longstaff (a businessman, then a parishioner of St James, and the father of the current director of the Centre, Simon Longstaff), Professor Jeremy Davis (then of the Australian Graduate School of Management), solicitor Rod McGeogh (subsequently the chair of the successful bid for the 2000 Sydney Olympics), and me.
As the inaugural Board of Management – without a budget, without staff and, most notably, without an Executive Director – we set about inventing the Centre. Those early Board meetings were among the most stimulating and productive discussions I’ve ever engaged in. We argued long and hard over the purpose and goals of the Centre and the best strategies for achieving them. We quickly agreed that in spite of its origins within St James, the Centre was to be open to people of all faiths and none, and to be a genuine forum rather than a place for ‘preaching’ or passing moral judgements.
One of our primary goals was to create a secure environment for business and professional people to explore the ethical dimensions of their work and to sharpen their understanding of ethical issues. To that end, we instituted a series of ‘roundtables’, bringing together small groups of executives, initially from the advertising and banking industries, to engage in confidential discussions about ethical issues they were confronting. (Flowing from that initiative, ‘ethics workshops’ are still being regularly conducted by the Advertising Federation of Australia.)
We also launched a quarterly newsletter, City Ethics (later to evolve into the rather more stylish Living Ethics), and we established the annual St James Ethics Centre lecture series which ran for ten years.
After eighteen months of hands-on management of these formative activities, the Board decided it was time to appoint a full-time Executive Director. Our search led us to Simon Longstaff, recently returned to Australia after completing a doctorate at Cambridge University, and he was appointed in July 1991.
In 1996, the Parish of St James Anglican Church cut its remaining links with the Centre, offering it as a ‘gift’ to the business and professional community of Sydney. Tim Edwards remains on the board today, not only as its longest serving member Board member, but as an important symbolic link with the Centre’s origins.
Twenty years on, what of Meredith Ryan, the man whose vision brought the Centre into being? Meredith died in 2006, but his dream is still worth pursuing. He knew, as we all know, that the success of the Centre will never be measured in grand terms, but in the unsung, modest gains made whenever a person faced with a business decision pauses to ask these questions: Is this right? Is this fair? Is this in the best interests of all concerned?