Newton’s third law: if it were so simple

By April 1, 2009News

Newton’s Third Law states that: “for any action force, there is always an equal and opposite rection force.” Whilst this holds true in the world of physics, it is not necessarily so in the human realm. When confronted with the recent round of cancellations (the actions force) we are empowered to respond appropraitely rather than “equally and opposite”.

I see two core issues that the recent busfire period has raised for UCC. These are cancellations and bushfire risk management practices. In this issue I will discuss cancellations.

However, first and foremost we must all reflect upon how fortunate we have been and keep those who have suffered tragic losses, both of property and life, uppermost in our thoughts and prayers.

As most of us are by now aware, the flow-on effects of the devastating events of “Black Saturday” and subsequent Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) directive regarding the cancellation of camps across Victoria in the week commencing 2/03/2009 have been significant. One of the next big challenges for UCC and the camping profession is how we respond/react.

The large number of cancellations before, during and after the DEECD directive has had a significant financial impact on camps across the state. This has resulted in many conversations regarding the need for “common” cancellation policies across campsites. Many stakeholders believe a tougher industry approach to late cancellations is required.

The current situation sees a broad range of approaches, from organisations like UCC that take only a nominal booking fee, to sites that require a significant payment months before the camp takes place. Others are indicating they will invoice cancelled groups around 75% of the total value of the camp.

It is understandable that initially there appears significant support for the “get tough on cancellations” approach. For many this equal and opposite reaction force seems justifiable given the serious financial and emotional consequence of a decision made from afar and often without consultation. The instinctive human response to threat or danger is “flight or fight”, hence many instinctively seek to achieve what they see as “justice” through fighting back. In this situation a response of “getting tougher”.

This challenges us to consider our definition of justice. If it is about “getting equal”, quid pro quo or protecting only what we see as our “rights”, I think we have missed the mark. True justice can only be achieved through dialogue, relationship building and reaching a position of respect and mutual understanding. I believe we must make a response that has compassion and understanding as the driving force. Compassion and understanding should be our primary reaction, not disregarding mutual obligation and responsibility or the reality of financial/business imperatives, but ensuring that we care for others before seeking to get what we think we deserve.

In practical terms this tougher approach thinking causes me serious concern. I believe taking this punitive approach against groups that cancel will do little to recover losses, since typically schools do not have the financial resources to meet such charges. Furthermore, I fear requiring a school or community group to make a contractual financial commitment for say 50% of the total value up front will create yet another barrier to participation.

At this time, caution, rather than reaction, is what is needed when considering such significant changes.

The most recent “ACA Survey of Prices and Occupancy” results indicate that from the 76 respondents during the 2007/08 year, 94% of sites experienced less than 5 cancellations that caused a significant impact on their business. Of these, only around 50% were within one month of the dates booked i.e. less than 3 groups per annum. In a “normal” year it seems cancellations, and particularly those at short notice, are not causing significant problems for the industry.

Our UCA underpinning principles and ethos call us to reach our decisions not based upon what may make us feel better at the time or what we think may protect us from similar situation in the future. Beneath all that we do in Uniting Church Camping is the principal of beginning, establishing and growing relationships. Our visitors are our guests not our customers or clients. The relational nature of our interactions can build deep mutual trust, respect and understanding. From my years in camping, operating from this perspective, groups/ camp coordinators do not make the telephone call to cancel without a strong sense of having disappointed a trusted friend i.e. the campsite.

Whilst the Commission for Mission Camping Committee is yet to consider this issue and personally I am still contemplating if any changes to our procedures are warranted, the principles around which we grow in our sites will remain the same. Fairness, equality, access, justice and building relationships are always central to how we do “business”. I believe as long as we are not naively being exploited or going broke, we should leave the hard nose business approach to others.

Andrew McGuckian


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