OPEN LETTER: Liz Martin bids farewell to Hall of Fame


In an open letter published to Alice Springs News Online, industry icon Liz Martin OAM announced her departure from the National Transport Hall of Fame after a quarter of a century building it to what it is today. The open letter can be read below:

 

The National Road Transport Hall of Fame has always been a proudly self-funded community museum.

For us it has never NEVER been about the money. I have no problem getting money, and more than the NT Government is offering, if it comes to that. The money offered to our society [by the NT] is conditional and we don’t agree with or wish to operate under those conditions.

This has been going on for three years – not just since last year. We have asked and asked for help in restructuring our association so that we can come close to being compliant. We have asked for a little flexability given the uniqueness of our organisation.

We been told we have no choice. Our research shows we actually have several options. We were foolish enough to believe that the department would actually help us to transition into a structure that better suited our operations.

We could not have been more wrong. Instead, we are being forced to get back in the box and stop thinking outside the square.

So the issues in brief:

• Our financials from 2013 were lost by the accountant and thankfully finally turned up last year. Subsequently, as advised by three seperate professionals, the following years could not be audited until that year was done.

That is a mitigating circumstance and we readily admit our treasurer could have and should have been more vigilant. The following years were done and ready to go. We took our books into Licensing NT twice last year and they refused to even look at them.

• We also do not hold our AGM within the required timeframe. We do it in Feb or March. This is because of operational factors including the business of the tourist season, the massive workload of our reunion through to September and sponsor contracts which are traditionally negotiated in October.

Our membership is primarily truckies and farmers – in November and December they are delivering Christmas and doing harvest. In January it is still school holidays and money is tight. February or March is ideal as it is before the tourist season starts.

The department want us to hold our AGM during the reunion. We have tried that and it failed. When I told the senior compliance officer in Alice Springs that the members were all drinking and having fun and didn’t want the AGM held then, her response was that "they will do what they are told and there is nothing in the Act that says they have to be sober or sensible anyway. Just be there." We were shocked.

• Most of our members are interstate. Most of our committee are also interstate. We were told we needed to have more diligent local committee members.

Plenty of people put their hands up but in an organisation as big as ours they need to walk the talk too. While our interstate committee does not get together for a physical meeting often we had a phone hookup every Tuesday.

They also contribute significantly to the association in other ways. For example last year one spent $30k setting up a charitable trust for us, another employed a consultant to put a successful submission to ATO for tax deductible recipient status, another spent over $50k bringing in trucks to Alice from all over Australia, another pledged $10,000 for naming rights to our proposed new military museum.

I am not going to get that from Alice Springs. It is a small and generous community but it is already giving, giving, giving.

• Over the duration of this investigation we have, on request, physically taken our membership register into the OBA offices on two ocassions. We have also emailed it at least twice.

As a self-funded organisation it is really important we retain our membership level. It is worth around $35k per annum to us.

Our key strategy here has been to invoice our membership every January (in time for the AGM) and post invoices out with our annual newsletter and AGM notices. This in itself saves us $10k in postage. We were told at a meeting with the department by a man called Glen (?) that we were one of only a very few associations to do that.

• Over the past year we have been constantly advised that a statutory manager would be appointed and "you will pay for it big time".

When I asked the officer if she meant financially or penalty wise she said: "Both."

The compliance officer advised it would take them about six weeks to appoint a statutory manager who would take control. We did not think this was a particularly bad thing. We thought at least if he/she spent some time inside our business they would better understand our non-compliance issues.

My vice chair and I spent considerable time clearing and setting up a private and functional workspace for them and no one turned up. What I objected to was the standing down of the committee as I knew it would be the beginning of the end.

• A meeting was then called by the senior compliance officer in Alice Springs.

When we got there an unknown man was present. He was introduced as Glen. I asked the compliance officer who he was and was told I did not need to know.

When I asked again I was told I would find out in due course. We assumed he was the elusive statutory manager we still hadn’t seen. Glen, whoever he was, turned out to be very reconciliatory and we thought while he asked some tough questions they were relevant. We felt, for the first time, that we had actually been heard.

The officer kept asking when our financials would be done and we kept telling her we could not speak for the accountant. At the end of the meeting the officer said we were still operating illegally and we would have to pay for the statutory manager they were going to appoint.

She then said she was going on holidays the next week so it wouldn’t happen immediately. I said I was supposed to be going on holidays too and was told "not while all this is going on you won’t".

At that point we handed her the keys but she wouldn’t take them. Glen asked if we had a key register and we gave it to him thinking he was the appointed one. We were given it back told to go and wait. And wait we did. The manager didn’t turn up, the officer went on holidays and we sat in the office twiddling our thumbs.

• My father died in November last year. On the day and indeed at the very time he was about to be cremated I received a call from the senior compliance officer in Alice Springs. She said to me: "We have really got you now. You are in so much trouble. You are operating with an illegal committee."

I said to her: "I don’t know what you mean but my father is being cremated as we speak and I don’t want to do this today." I had just poured a glass of wine and wanted to chill and reflect a while.

The officer’s response was: "You always have an excuse". It turned out that because she couldn’t find invoices in their names she assumed the committee were not financial .

The fact is each of our committee is a life member, most of them platinum ($10,000). She already had this list. Nevertheless I had to go to the office, find the list, run highlighter through their names and email it to her (again). And yes, I was very upset.

• We were then advised in writing that we were to be investigated. We have never had a problem with that.

Under the Act, Licensing NT is entitled to investigate breaches or contraventions of the Associations Act. We know we are non-compliant and we know we could have done some things differently.

We have had our share of disgruntled staff, volunteers and committee. A phone hook up was arranged with my vice chair and I, and an investigator from Darwin and the compliance officer from Alice Springs.

We were caught totally unprepared as we were ruthlessly interrogated over our operational matters and my personal life, not our breaches of the Act. [Regarding] my personal life [I was] told it was inappropriate for me to have property or a partner interstate.

Yes, I do spend my spare time with my partner interstate but most of it is at truck shows and events around the country.

My partner also spends a lot of time in Alice Springs with me. He has his own transport business including a heavy vehicle workshop. He has, for many years, repaired and maintained the eight vehicles in our Hall of Fame and Ghan fleets at no cost to the society.

• Among other things we were asked about what we were going to do with the Ghan Museum – he was not aware that we had been operating it for seven years – and why we thought we had the skills and ability to run a museum.

We had previously emailed our strategic plan, business plan and our operational policies and procedures to the department. Neither had looked at any of these.

I had previously invited the department to come and see our museum and offices which was also declined. Very little of this meeting focussed on our breaches of the Act.

I told them I needed urgently to start preparing for our reunion which was our biggest fundraiser. This included negotiation of our sponsor contracts, production of the annual magazine, presentations at truck clubs, membership invoices, AGM notices sent out etc etc.

I was told emphatically that I was NOT to do any of that until we became compliant. I explained our fundraising strategies for the quiet period and was again told NO. There could not be an AGM nor any fundraising functions nor any reunion preparations.

The Darwin officer was so angry with our "audacity" in not accepting his authority without question that his voice was shaking.

We were asked to respond to questions and provide information requested in a letter they had not yet sent to us (it was found and emailed to us the next day). We were able to provide 99% of this within 24 hours.

• The absolute lack of confidentiality by compliance officers has also been a serious concern during this process especially given the Act provides that results of investigations may not be publicised.

We were told they were going to sort out Northern Territory associations because we had been [allowed to] get away with too much and they (OBA) were taking control. In fact we were told we were going to be made an example of.

During the course of conversations over time the officers discussed breaches of a local motorcycle club, Riding for the Disabled, the Hospital Drovers and an offroad racing club among others. We are also aware that the Darwin officer told at least two other professionals in Alice Springs we had no record keeping procedures. At that point the department had refused to come and see our business and even look at what we had personally delivered to them.

The end result of all this is that the NT Government will make funding available IF (and I have it in writing) we downsize and restructure our organisation to comply with the NT Associations Act.

They may now even, on merit, grant us permussion to hold our reunion IF we accept their funding and their changes to our business. Too little too late.

Setting aside our issues with our previous accountant losing our financials, we have never fit the Act and nor do I believe we can remain a self-funded and financially viable organisation if we do.

I thank Andrew Thorogood, small business champion, who has tried to assist. I am meeting with him on Tuesday and had all this not blown up beforehand my intentions were to relay to him the following.

• I have seriously considered my position and it appears I am the stumbling block between a vibrant self-funded national museum and a nicely compliant small town transport museum. I simply cannot work under the restrictive conditions being forced upon me.

For that reason I tender my resignation as Chief Executive with 30 days notice as per the terms of my contract (which expired over six months ago anyway).

This timing coincides with the end of the 12 months tenure of my committee positions and the proposed date of the AGM had we been permitted to have one. I will not be remaining on the committee beyond that date. What other committee members decide is their business but I think you’ll find most will also not continue on or renominate.

I will try and ensure this is a smooth transition. I will deliver financials to the end of March to the accountant and will make myself available for a handover when a new committee OR manager is appointed or elected or whatever the NT Government decides to do.

I will be taking my entitlements for long service and holiday pay, both of which have been previously provided for and do not impact operational funding. I am also owed significant funds for overtime and book sales revenue but in order to leave good working capital for the new entity I am prepared to enter into a payment plan with the new entity.

My agreement with the previous committee gives me two years’ free tenancy in the cottage I live in on site after my contract ends (ie from now). This was for three reasons, being that I would be on hand for consultancy and as a voluntary historian;  for security given the increasing criminal activity in the area; and because I paid for it initially. I wish to take up 12 months of this tenancy.

I doubt I’ll stay that long, I just need to reorganise my life as I have lived there for 17 years providing night security. However, I do not wish to be involved in consultancy, security or volunteering. I expect unfettered access and provision of water and power.

I am aware of rumours going around that we are relocating the assets of the society interstate. This is not so and nor are we stupid enough to do it without following proper process.

Many of the vehicles are privately owned and what happens with those is the choice of the owners. Yes, some will definitely be leaving. Yes, we have had significant offers to relocate and the two museums I will be working with in Broken Hill and Shepparton already have significant collections; they just need interpretation, character, profile and interaction with the industry and that’s what I can provide.

Hopefully there will always be a home in Alice Springs for iconic Territory roadtrains such as Bertha, Julie and the AEC. I love them like my babies and could never justify tearing them from their roots. I just hope someone steps up for them.

I will however be relocating my personal trucks and collections and the other items that are mine or that I have paid for. I also advise any locals in Alice Springs to come and get their property or negotiate a new loan agreement with the NT Government.

I have given 25 years of my life to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. I even mortgaged my own house for an overdraft to start it. When I went on the payroll 15 years ago the business had an annual turn over of $40k. In the last year that I was permitted to fundraise and hold events etc (two years ago) we turned over $1.7m.

I know I have been guilty of blurring the lines between me and the museum. To me we have always been one. At the end of the day we are just a bunch of enthusiasts who want to play trucks. I am so sad the NT could not facilitate a way for us to do this in Alice Springs.

This is the hardest decision I have ever made in my life. For me this has never been a job. It has been my absolute passion and my life. However, through all the challenges and tribulations over the years I have had a truly wonderful journey and amazing opportunities. I could not have done this anywhere but the Alice Springs of old. Thank You.

The people of the trucking industry are the most genuine and generous of any sector. They love the Hall of Fame and they love Alice Springs and had made it their Mecca, the keeper of their heritage and the place they celebrate their peers and their mates.

I am devastated at the impact this debacle has had on them. To witness big tough truckies break down because they can’t put their recently deceased mates on the Wall of Fame at the annual reunion is something I just can not continue to put myself through.

Nevertheless I have made the most incredible friends all over Australia and indeed the world and am so very privileged to have worked with some of them on our committee, others as volunteers, suppliers and customers and others as sponsors or supporters, at the end of the day, all friends. I have always said we have the best family of volunteers in Australia. I didn’t lie. I love you all.

It is interesting that the panic is all about the assets of the society being relocated. I just want to say you have all got it so very wrong. The biggest asset of the society is not the ones with wheels, I can get them anywhere, it is the camaraderie, the corporate knowledge and the character and the compassion of the people of the society; the ones who walk away on two legs. I hope the next entity, in whatever form it takes, can fill even half of one of their shoes.

Alice Springs, I say thank you, good bye and good luck.

Liz Martin OAM, NT

Sign up to receive the Owner/Driver e-Newsletter and offers we choose to share with you straight to your inbox.

You can also follow our updates by liking us on Facebook