Feared consumer advocate set to do battle again…
Former NRMA reformer Richard Talbot talks to John McNamee
It may cause some tremors of apprehension in the so-called Big End of town… but passionate consumer campaigner Richard Talbot hasn’t gone away.
He may have been licking his wounds over the past few years after his self-confessed Quixotic quest to haul the iconic motoring organisation, the NRMA into the modern era … but be warned, he hasn’t given up the fight just yet.
In fact, Richard Talbot, who has been described in court by a senior judge as The Man of La Mancha for his often ill-fated efforts of tilting at windmills and dreaming impossible dreams, is set to enter the lists again.
This is despite the fact his decade-long campaign to bring reform to the NRMA and to provide a more equitable benefits sharing scheme for millions of NSW motorists, has cost him his career, financial stability and almost his home.
However, it was due to Talbot’s supreme efforts that brought about major reform to the NRMA, plugged several major legal loopholes, exposed appalling flaws and resulted in NSW motorists enjoying a more transparent, equitable and streamlined operation.
“It’s thanks to my wife Lorraine who had to go back to work as a science teacher that we still have a roof over our heads, ‘’ Talbot admitted to Go55s recently.
“The fight to stop what we thought was the wrong way for the NRMA to go, to demutualise, took a heavy toll on me personally, and now with the insurance arm of the NRMA, IAG, a bit of a financial basket case, we have been proved right,’’ he said.
“I’m actually still out of work and I’m finding it extremely difficult to convince employers to hire me,” the highly-qualified surveying engineer who has worked on some of our major road projects admitted.
“To this day, people still regard me as a whistleblower and they’re wary of taking someone like me into their firms, someone who calls a spade a spade.
“I can understand that but it places me in an extremely difficult situation,’’ he said.
Talbot, now 55, became one of the most recognisable public figures in the late 1980s and 1990s as he fought to get his Motorists’ Action Group representation on the board of the NRMA, then an almost impenetrable, conservative bastion of old brigade traditionalists and wealthy, influential business and academic stalwarts.
But his long, often bitter campaign and his clever recruiting of such popular figures as TV presenter Jane Singleton and Test cricketer Geoff Lawson, saw the first ramparts begin to fall and all of a sudden, the MAG had representatives on the board.
“I had become such a nuisance to them, that when I was finally elected to the NRMA board, I had to sit down the end of this extremely long table, where I couldn’t hear anything that was happening up the other end where all the decisions were being made,’’ Talbot said.
Talbot’s epic campaign in which he took on the entrenched power brokers still didn’t mean a total victory for his cause.
He battled long and hard to stop the demutalisation of the whole NRMA organisation.
In 1990, Talbot was able to take his campaign into the boardroom when he became the first NRMA member, other than a retiring director, to be elected to the NRMA board since World War II.
The NRMA was a multi-billion dollar mutual company, and with its two million members was also Australia’s largest motoring club and general insurer .
Its Board was described as “Australia’s most exclusive club’’ consisting of a who’s who of the nation’s conservative business community.
“I remember the first time I walked into the palatial boardroom of the NRMA headquarters in Clarence St and there was a lavish lunch going on and I was being taken around the room and getting introduced to the other directors,’’ Talbot said.
“When we got to (University of Sydney chancellor) Dame Leone Kramer, she turned to me and asked: And what school did you go to Richard?.
“When I said Meadowbank Boys High School in the western suburbs, she just turned away,’’ Talbot recalls with a laugh.
But it was a serious business for Talbot..he wanted the NRMA to give a better deal to NSW motorists and for an increased flow of benefits to go back to the ordinary member. He felt that too much of the vast profits of the organisation were being kept in reserve at the expense of the rank and file membership.
“They hated me being there asking questions and I was told early on in the process that board meetings usually only went for about half an hour.
“Sometimes when I was on the warpath, the meetings would go on for over four hours. I was often kept in the dark on major issues but I kept plugging along.
“I became such a pariah that even at an early stage of my directorship, I was offered inducements to toe the line. But I politely refused. That didn’t make me any more popular.”
But Talbot did have a significant victory…in 1994 he successfully opposed in the Federal Court a proposal to demutualise the entire NRMA group. This was the first time that legal action had resulted in a prospectus having an injunction against it after it had been issued.
This resulted in a huge fallout among Australia’s leading legal firms and corporate advisors but a bid to recover lost funds failed.
What was successful was a resulting change in the legislation ensuring that no similar action could be taken.
In 2000, a further proposal was engineered to split up the NRMA and list NRMA (now IAG) on the Australian Stock Exchange. Talbot again challenged this in the NSW Supreme Court but his action failed, thanks to the hastily drawn-up new legislation.
But it was because of Talbot’s fearless campaign that the NRMA Road Service remains a mutual organisation and his legal actions have become cemented as precedents in the Trade Practices Act.
“In all this I’ve been the person who was proved legally correct and all I wanted to do was defend the status quo. I always had to fund my own legal efforts while the self-replacing majority were corporately supported.
“It wasn’t even a David and Goliath battle, at least there was some yardstick there..my fights were always grossly outmatched, I had to fund my own legal efforts while the organisation just drew on their bottomless financial resources.
“At least I forced them to change the laws, which was an ironic victory for me.”
During Talbot’s time as a director, the NRMA Group net asset value increased from $1.5 billion in 1990 to $4.5 billion in 2000 and employed more than 7000 staff.
Was the whole lengthy and costly campaign worth it?
“It’s some satisfaction to know that the road service is still a mutual organisation with benefits for the members but I still feel that the splitting up of the insurance arm was a bad move, and this has been borne out lately,’’ he said.
Was he serious about launching yet another campaign, after all this time and at such huge personal cost?
“Thanks to my wife and family, we have a stable home life but I am still deeply concerned over the NRMA’s future and yes, I am seriously considering taking the fight up to the entrenched incumbents who control the group, yet again’’.
Well, they can’t say they haven’t been warned, now can they!!
RICHARD TALBOT’S MAJOR NRMA SUCCESSES
Preserved NRMA Road Service as a member owned mutual company.
Invented the HELP campaign used extensively throughout past decade.
Successfully advocated for the introduction of insurance premium rebates for policyholders which returned $296m over three years to members and increased insurance renewal rates to record levels.
Successfully advocated for the return of profits to members via increased road service benefits and rewards for long-term membership ( NRMA Plus and Gold membership loyalty recognition programs.)
Politically ensured that the road service operations were subsidised by insurance profits resulting in fees being the lowest in Australia.
Introduction of new tow truck allocation and repair quotation systems.