Grand Master’s Speech Grand Lodge Communication, October 2019
12 Oct 2019
“My job for the next eighteen months is clear cut: to catalyse action”
MW Past Grand Masters, Most Excellent First Grand Principle, Most Worshipful Mark Grand Master, Right Worshipful, Very Worshipful, Worshipful Brethren, Master Masons, Fellow Craft and Apprentices,
Welcome to this auspicious occasion in our masonic calendar.
We have, earlier today, acknowledged the traditional owners of this land on which we meet today.
This speech will be longer than usual because I have much to tell you.
Brethren, as Grand Master, I have communicated with the membership via letters, plebiscites, the Communicator, inviting the Chairman of Community Relations, Assistant Grand Master and CEO of the Freemasons Foundation and the Grand Chaplain to attend Board of Management meetings, ongoing briefings to the Grand Wardens and the Grand Director of Ceremonies.
It is now time for me to make it clear to all members that in April 2018, after I had been installed as Grand Master, I had the opportunity to take a closer look at our Organisation, only to find that our administration company, AF and AM Inc. was in such dire strait financially. We owed $2.25 million on this building and the bank was seeking $750,000 repayment of principle; the returns on the share portfolio barely covered the $2.25 million debt interest payments. The portfolio itself was decreasing in amount because it was also propping up membership services, including the library and the museum, and the running costs of an inadequately leased Hall, the latter amounting to some $260,000 per year. The asset fund was also used to prop up running costs and was rapidly decreasing in amount.
I also discovered that your Board of Management, prior to my Installation, had agreed to lend one of our trusts, $100000.
Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard however, was, in relative terms, almost empty.
The administration company’s office procedures were outdated, inefficient and costly.
Another one of our companies, Masonic Homes, had not been wound up and there was no clear direction for the disposal of its funds.
Another of our companies, the Freemasons Foundation had no achievable plans for the future of the Freemasons’ Centre for Men’s Health. An agreement with the Adelaide University winds up at the end of this year.
There was no clear knowledge of Lodge assets or trusts, estimated to be around $ 25 million or more.
Succession plans for Officers and the appointment of Grand Stewards were almost non- existent. Several men, who had been openly critical of me, were invited to Offices but refused for reasons valid to themselves. They are all long term Freemasons and I wonder, in retrospect, if they had been aware of the parlous state of our Organisation, whether they would have been more willing to help.
I was disappointed, sought a forensic analysis and moved on.
These are the initiatives I have guided as your Grand Master.
My assessment, and that of the experienced businessmen I called together, was that the organization needed a focus. That focus is the Square and Compass. We are gradually getting people to think not as separate companies, but as companies working together under the square and compass for the good of Freemasonry in South Australia and the Northern Territory.
97.5% of our $100 million liquid assets are dedicated by law to Charity.
My responsibility to you is therefore twofold: grow the corpus of our charity assets and reset the structure of our administration company to meet current and future needs. Simultaneously your positive support is needed to grow Freemasonry in general.
As I speak, the following further initiatives are in train.
You posed five questions to me with respect to the sale of Masonic Homes:
Who authorized the sale?
Why was there an urgency to sell?
Why the decrease in value?
What benefits did the Directors receive?
What led to the confusion with the ACNC ruling?
What communication was there with the members of AF and AM Inc?
Why was the option of paying the surplus to Freemasons’ Foundation never considered?
I posed these questions to the Board of Masonic Homes and, after considerable investigation and interview, these questions have just been answered; subject to independent legal advice on confidentiality they will be made available before the end of the year.
Masonic Homes will be wound up in a few weeks; the red brick units in Darwin are in the process of being transferred to the Helping People Achieve Group in Darwin; this was a consensus decision of the Brethren of the Top End.
The last hold up is the action with respect to the 10% interest in the remaining assets of Masonic Homes owned by AF and AM Inc. It is my opinion that we should follow the direction given in your response to my previous plebiscite to you with respect to the $50 million distribution: i.e. transfer the 10% AF and AM Inc share to masonic charities and permit the balance of Masonic Homes assets to be transferred to Masonic Charities, and get on with the further consolidation of that company. It is fair to say, that not everyone shares that view.
Masonic Homes’ assets, in my opinion, were never meant to pay down debt.
You all need to be aware that Masonic Homes may yet have several millions of dollars debt to the Australian Taxation Office; this will only be known when the company is finally wound up.
To expedite controlling expense, income and investment in AF and AM Inc, I formed several task forces. One remains to overview the building refurbishment, rental and website. Under normal circumstances, one could contract this out, but we do not have access to consultancies because of lack of available funds to AF and AM Inc. When it comes to reducing expenditure, some of our members think that 2 plus 3 equals 110; Brethren it only equals 5-always has and always will. There is an opportunity cost to members when reducing expenditure-even more so when it has to be done as a matter of urgency. So unless you know how to print money, please accept the inconvenience you may experience in the interests of the greater good; stop your criticism and start helping yourselves more. Your fellow Brethren are providing, pro bono, their expertise to ensure that the new system will not be inconvenient; it will certainly be more efficient. We do not set out to remove services but simply to provide more services more efficiently and to get AF and AM Inc.’s balance sheet back in the black.
Having also found this building to be grossly dilapidated, we had to look for money to refurbish it. Contact was made for funding from the Heritage Incentive Scheme. An account was opened with the National Trust to establish under their shield a National Trust Freemasons Hall Conservation Appeal. Donating is open to Lodges, all Freemasons and the public generally. Fortuitously, Sir Samuel Way Lodge donated $50000 and we were able to commission a formal Dilapidation Report. The heritage architects have advised that refurbishment of the primary building is estimated to cost in excess of $5 million; the Great Hall and the Sam Jacobs would cost a further, almost $2 million.
The last refurbishment was in 1984 and, as I understand it, the Lodges paid for it. This is a different time, our members are older and many are on fixed incomes. I do not believe that a levy is an option. Bearing in mind what I have already disclosed, I asked the Board of Management for the following: consider the issue of bonds: $2.25 million to cover the repayment of the loan to the bank and a further $5 million to cover the refurbishment costs of the front half of our building in North Terrace, the latter to be on a draw down basis with no issue unless costings, quotes and heritage approval is provided in advance. The refurbishment can be spread over 10 years. My suggestion to the trustees of the Hall trust is to pay back in 5 years, commercial interest at reserve bank rate plus 1.7% and reviewed yearly in April.
This business plan allows us to get on with refurbishment, meet the requirements of the bank, remove the necessity to pay back $750000 principle in the short term and give the Board of Management time to negotiate the sale of the southern half of our block. Such a sale has been on the tracing board for several years. Once a solid proposal is developed, I will call a Special Communication of the Association to discuss a formal proposal.
The Centre for Men’s Health and Well Being is a new proposal to create a collaborative group formed of: Masonic Charities, University of Adelaide, South Australia University, Flinders University, and Charles Darwin University/Menzies School of Health with admin services being supplied by SAHMRI. Each one of the Academic bodies will fund to the tune of $300000, Masonic Charities $900000 and the Federal Government $1.2 million every year.
We wish to ensure appropriate governance and on Thursday 3 October, two of the Board members of Masonic Charities meet with relevant parties to discuss further arrangements. I wish to ensure that the square and compass is represented in a significant way on the Board of this new research group. With Lodges spread out over SA and the NT, I have previously advised the Universities that we have a large role to play in directing research.
I share this with you today because we are running out of time in order to maintain continuity of the good work the Freemasons Centre for Men’s’ Health, albeit on a much larger scale. Such being the case, I will not be conducting a plebiscite as promised previously. I will be disappointed if you do not agree that this matter is being handled most responsibly. In your consideration of this proposal please take into consideration that this entity involves six academic and tertiary research organisations spread over campuses in South Australia and the Northern Territory, rather than the one with which we have been involved to date. Also, we have Lodges spread over a similar area and can input into the needs in our multiple communities. Previously, we dedicated about 7.5 % of our corpus via Freemasons Foundation and now, we will have a 1.8 % of corpus involvement.
Between now and mid-November, I invite you to communicate directly with the Masonic Charities Company Secretary, R WBro Robert Clyne OAM to ask questions or note your objections.
With the $50 million transferred across to Masonic Charities now being well on the way to careful investment, to ensure our ability to distribute 4% yearly and grow the corpus, I am encouraging that Board to turn their minds to professional fund raising, a requirement for maintenance of its charity status.
The area concept philanthropy, as part of the 4% yearly distribution, is being progressed as we speak.
I hope that the above enlightens you with respect to what has been done, is being done, and will be done, for Freemasonry in SA and the NT from now until April 2021.
Brethren, “The Craft can be a potent factor in raising the moral tone and in moulding the character of the community; but the measure of our success depends on the standard of our own conduct. If we wish, as we do wish, to maintain that standard, we must make it abundantly clear that any deviation from that standard meets with our strong disapproval and will not under any circumstances be tolerated.”
These words are not mine, but those of one of my predecessors, M WBro His Excellency Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven VC, and delivered at a Communication; they held then and hold now.
I challenged for the Office of Grand Master in September 2017 and was elected by a majority of the members who voted; the voting system was changed and I was challenged in September 2018 and was elected by a majority of the members who voted; there was a protest about the result; I was challenged again in September 2019 and was again elected by a majority of members who voted.
I have earned my right to be Grand Master of the Freemasons of South Australia and the Northern Territory. I have never taken your respect for granted; I have always worked hard and honestly to gain and maintain that.
Since February 2017, I have forgiven criticism as I have been taught to do as a Christian, and I have extended the hand of friendship and brotherly love to all Brethren, including my most ardent critics, as I have been taught to do as a Freemason.
To those who have maintained, and wish to continue to maintain, a constant barrage of criticism with its consequent destabilizing effect, I say this: recall the Charge after Initiation, in the ceremony of initiation into Freemasonry, and take leave until a Grand Master is installed who possesses the qualities you seek. The majority approve the way I go about the enormous task I have been presented!
I do not ask such men to leave Freemasonry, simply to take a holiday if you are not happy, until a Grand Master comes along who has the qualities you seek.
No one goes to Lodge to have Regulations jammed down their throat and to listen to constant complaints; we all go along to enjoy ourselves within the teachings of our Ritual-and beautiful they are.
To the young Freemasons, I say this: you are privileged, as I am, to be a member of a voluntary, ancient and traditional organization. It is for you that I work so hard.
Join me soon when I invite you to redefine the plan to make us most relevant in this rapidly changing era: the world is crying out for what we have to offer. I hope that you will accept the reasons that I have elucidated above for not having completed this exercise of strategy earlier.
To all other Freemasons, I say thank you for your support during this difficult journey of reconstruction; such support has always allowed me to stand tall.
To all Grand Lodge Officers and Grand Lodge Stewards, I say thank you for a great job; you also have been very supportive; entering Lodges that you know have been quite cool towards me has not prevented you from performing your work maximally. Thank you also to your wives and partners who have also been very supportive and loving to my wife Norma in some trying moments.
To all, I say, Lodge meetings are not occasions to simply belt through the agenda; Lodge meetings are for men of common interest to meet and chat each month in a non- threatening environment; to be happy and promote happiness; to develop our skills in those three great arts and sciences: Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; a time to discuss how we can help each other to be better men and how we can help mankind.
I have so much to do and so little time in which to do it; you have the opportunity to reap the benefits of our work and the membership of a truly great organization.
May TGAOTU bless you.
MWBro Dr Neil Jensen