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When handshakes and reputation meant more than money

In days gone by, handshakes, not contracts, sealed a deal.

A handshake came after both parties reached what each considered a fair exchange. It then implied mutual obligation to fulfil your part of the deal. Your reputation depended upon it and that meant everything in a time when we knew our customers, our employees, our suppliers, our neighbours.

Businesses were often run by families who were personally responsible for the way they conducted their affairs. They did not have the remove of being non-working shareholders, relieved of any responsibility or consequences. They knew their staff and their families. If they did not honour their word, people would find out and avoid them. They would feel the shame of letting people down.

But those days are gone.

When a CEO’s salary or bonuses are dependent on increasing dividends to their shareholders, that becomes the goal to be achieved by whatever means available. When shareholders’ have no connection to a business other than receiving a cheque periodically, the size of the payment is all that matters.

Now, we must have laws, rules and contracts to dictate how we must behave. Which has led to whole industries whose sole purpose is to work out how to get around the rules. If it’s not written down that you specifically can’t do something, or, in many cases, even if it is, there will always be ways to get away with it if you have enough resources to see off legal challenges, or powerful connections to protect you from scrutiny.

Rather than adhering to the spirit of a law, we have become one of the most litigious countries in the world, with arcane, and very expensive, arguments about the letter of the law surplanting any form of natural justice or fairness. It is a system that is routinely exploited in the worst possible way.

There was a time when the church provided a meeting point for the community where we heard if our neighbours needed help. The congregation would rally round to offer support. And this still happens to a degree, though far fewer of us are regular attendees.

But the church is now a huge business, with the archaic rituals of worship more a sideshow to enthral devoted followers. The hierarchy understood the importance of reputation, and protected it, not by acting honourably, but through a shocking complicity of silence, sacrifice and coverups.

There was a time when sports people would rather lose than cheat.

There was also a time when politicians were held in high regard. But now, government is seen as a prize with the spoils to be shared among supporters rather than any form of temporary personal sacrifice in the service of the public.

“There is almost nothing more important to good government and our nation’s future than the quality, honesty and clarity of political discourse: how we explain policy challenges and trade-offs, and educate voters about the constraints we have to work within…how we express our position, our basis for reaching it and why it differs from that of our opponents if this is the case…how we communicate changes in policy and their implications.

Yet paradoxically, there is almost nowhere else in our national life where the incentives to be untruthful or to purposefully mislead are so great, and the adverse consequences of such behaviour so modest.” – Malcolm Turnbull

When libertarians and conservatives speak about personal responsibility and reward for effort, they ignore the other half of the deal – honesty and integrity. Where is the obligation to keep up your side of the bargain? Where are the consequences if you don’t?

No amount of regulation will make us all behave well.

It is easy to lie and cheat and steal and exploit. But infinitely more rewarding to know that you have done the right thing by others. We have to set our own standards. We have to honour our obligations, not because of fear of punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.

When you shake someone’s hand, whether physically or metaphorically, it should mean something.

21 comments

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  1. Peter F

    Unions have been stripped of their relevance by the neocons, with many people believing the attacks on them. Until the workers have a powerful spokesman things will not improve.

    Thank you again, Kaye.

  2. Pierre Wilkinson

    It is sad that our national ethos of “a fair go for all” has been subsumed by “everyone for themselves”.
    just an aside….
    why do we need a NEG when power companies have just announced a doubling of their profits for the year to date?
    wasn’t privatisation supposed to ensure cheaper, more reliable power in the first place?

  3. Joseph Carli

    I would expect trust from a fellow tradesperson’s handshake (but also look them straight in the eyes), but NEVER in my wildest dreams would I trust a businessperson’s handshake…and I always made it a point in my contractor dealings with business people to never let the job account blow out to big…ie; always give “progress payment” accounts…it’s the shifting of the decimal point gets them every time!….they lose their nerve very quickly..

  4. Kaye Lee

    The demise of unions has serious consequences. Look at our stagnant wage growth and the erosion of security and entitlements. But it’s not just that. Unions used to lobby for progressive causes. They had some clout on, for example, environmental matters – do the right thing or we walk. But now they have made it virtually illegal for workers to withhold their labour.

    Workers no longer understand that their union fees were an investment that served them, and the country, well. It gave the powerless a voice.

    But we can’t have that now, so we label unionists as thugs and criminals embezzling your hard earned money. And yes, there were a few union officials who did that. But nowhere near the corruption and exploitation we see every day from businesses ripping off their customers, staff and creditors.

  5. Egalitarian

    Joseph Carli: I don’t think you can make assumptions about anyone anymore. I’ve been conned by little old ladies sometimes. LOL

  6. Joseph Carli

    Even little old ladies!!..ah…it’s cruel, Egal’…bloody cruel…..

  7. Terence Mills

    It’s worth quoting from an article from the ABC and something that Sally McManus has been talking about for some time :

    ” Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work said that the number of private sector workers covered by an EBA fell by 170,000 in the September quarter (2017), one of the largest drops recorded.

    Australia’s improving economy isn’t translating into rising wages, and that doesn’t look like turning around.

    The centre’s director, Dr Jim Stanford, said the latest figures are part of a longer term trend.

    “The number of workers who have the benefit of an enterprise agreement in the private sector has declined by about 40 per cent in just the last four years,” he told the ABC’s RN Breakfast.

    “About three-quarters of a million Australian workers who used to have wages and conditions determined by an enterprise agreement in the private sector no longer have that coverage.

    “In most cases that means they’ll fall back onto the minimum terms specified in the modern award.”
    Workers drop back to award conditions

    For many of those workers that means a cut to pay, conditions or both.

    Dr Stanford said that leaves the collapse in enterprise bargaining as one of the main suspects in the mystery of why wages growth is so weak — at record lows around 2 per cent per annum — despite the strongest jobs growth in years.

    “I don’t think people have connected the dots yet in terms of understanding the importance of collective bargaining and enterprise agreements to healthy wage growth,” he said.

    “When you look at these figures that show the rapid disappearance of collective bargaining from the whole private sector of the Australian economy it’s no surprise at all that wages are not growing.”
    Job creation v immigration

    Australia may have created a thousand jobs a day last year, but it needed to just to keep up with a rapidly growing population.

    The Fair Work Act is built around enterprise bargaining, underpinned by the safety nets of the modern awards and national employment standards.

    Dr Stanford has warned the collapse of enterprise bargaining in the private sector could completely undermine the current industrial relations framework.

    “The rapid decline of collective bargaining coverage I think confirms that Australia’s industrial relations system is broken,” he said.

    “We’re going to have to make some dramatic changes to the rules of the system, otherwise we could see the virtual extinction of collective bargaining in the private sector.”

  8. Egalitarian

    Yes Terrence: Soon you’ll be all working all day for a stinking bowl of rice.

  9. Joseph Carli

    Ah…I always said that Joe Stalin was too soft.

  10. Kaye Lee

    Joseph,

    I find your constant referencing of Stalin curious. You wouldn’t be trying to bait anyone now would you?

    (PS I’d prefer you not to answer that question)

  11. Joseph Carli

    Heavens no!..K-Lee…I use it a a kind of “full stop” after an exasperating and fruitless acknowledgement of defeat..

  12. Egalitarian

    I understand Joseph “absurdist humor” millions wouldn’t.

  13. Phil

    Forty years on and here we are, living the life that soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn warned about.

    “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”
    Alexandr Solzhenitsyn 8 June 1978 address to Harvard University

  14. Joseph Carli

    Cyril Connolly wrote (wtte) that the comedian’s dilemma was that having spent an inordinate amount of time making fun of what many of us consider serious situations, there comes that moment of realisation when they have to examine their own situation and consider their reality….aka; it stops becoming funny at a certain point.
    Perhaps this is what happened to Tony Hancock in that lonely flat in Sydney… he wrote: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”. then finished it off with barbiturates…it just stopped being funny.

    Blogging is a bit like that..you can write a thousand articles on every topic that arises on a day, week or month and it never changes, doesn’t get any better for all one’s scribbling and seems to have no end..So one has to lighten things up a tad every now and then or you can slip into that dilemma mentioned above…

    Let’s face it…there’s any number of articles up at one time on the web, written from the best (Chomsky), to the worst (Rowan Dean) and I would guarantee that neither gets more than a passing skim by the majority of viewers…and I have to ask…considering ONLY the former author…are we at the end times of intellectual discourse?

    Hmmm…I might write an article on the subject…

  15. Stephen Fitzgerald

    Neoliberalism – As in corporates and the financial elite controlling all the money and power has far reaching implications. If it becomes political ideology, the rich get richer and the trickle down effect barley sustains the working poor. The rich and powerful have managed to corrupt our legal system to favour those with the most money and their shonky defence lawyers. If they can do that, they can certainly muffle the unions.

    Firstly, make out through main stream media that union officials are a bunch of thugs and then bribe them into submission. It’s the first time I have ever seen unions openly support corporates and, why wouldn’t they. For $10.00 per week each from skilled, unskilled and working student immigrants you can understand the temptation. What they have missed is that flooding the workforce reduces workers bargaining power and impacts wages and conditions. Corporates love it and the unions are quiet. Plenty of Australians have felt the kick in the face so it’s time for a re-think boys – Time to put working Australian families first, if you wish to reinstate yourself as a pillar of society.

  16. Steve Flora

    Regarding Union membership … do you know that you can become a financially supporting member of a Union without actually working in the field covered by that union? That is one way more progressive minded people could help the current national situation: Find a union you like and request to become a financial supporter of the organization.

  17. king1394

    Competition has been and continues to be promoted as the way to excellence. It implies that the winner is most effective, and most deserving without recognising that there is often vicious exploitation involved. Cheating and unethical practices become valid methods as they lead to winning.

  18. Oscar

    I hope everything is good with you Joseph ? love your writings

  19. corvus boreus

    Kaye Lee,
    Across the chasm of increasing personal dissonance, I meet your eye, shake your hand and wish you well in the trials to come
    Corvus, out.

  20. Wam

    The hand shake for white people denotes suspicion of a dagger so the dagger hand is shaken. This is no doubt the ‘sinister’ connotation. Baden-Powell knew that the black people trusted by using their left hand to greet. Such natural trust made domination easy.
    The church has long been stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. As long as women are happy to worship a god who rewards men who kill them and their children, there is no reason to change to a more equitable god.

  21. diannaart

    All too true, Kaye Lee. Except I would say politicians were held in highER regard in the past rather than high regard – mere quibble.

    When libertarians and conservatives speak about personal responsibility and reward for effort, they ignore the other half of the deal – honesty and integrity. Where is the obligation to keep up your side of the bargain? Where are the consequences if you don’t?

    The “libertarians” and conservatives love to bang on about “personal responsibility”, don’t they? Then run like the dickens when faced with any harmful results from their actions.

    @ corvus boreus

    Well said. “Cognitive dissonance” a requirement for public office?

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