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Two scandals: And a win for the little guys

My aunt keeps dossiers. Manilla folders with cryptic headings like ‘Chris’ [though her name is Carole], dog-eared and spattered with romantic-looking coffee stains that speak of untold hours of research, difficult phone calls, and tempers lost battling Bureaucracy.

To be fair, the majority of these files are purely administrative in content — utility bills, trips abroad, medical insurance, Ancestry.com rabbit holes, that type of thing.

But there’s a stand-out in the collection. Not in terms of size – it’s a fairly slim collection of typed documents and photocopied news reports – but in terms of the story: ‘bloodsucker’ builders, angry homeowners, outraged and crusading Minsters, homebuilding dreams turned into nightmares and, ultimately, joyously, a win for the little guy over the big corp.

It was the People vs Designed for Living by Mansard.

In Australia in 1989, my aunt and uncle got caught in the riptide of Mansard’s – then one of the country’s biggest housebuilders – unscrupulous and, in the words of Queensland’s then premier, ‘deliberate course of conduct’ of activating ‘rise and fall’ clauses tucked away in their fixed price homebuilding contracts.

The result was unexpected bills for thousands of additional dollars on top of the ‘fixed price’, lengthy construction delays, and, in the case of Carole and Ron’s place, a timber frame so shoddily constructed they had to tear it down and start again.

The customers – my aunt and uncle among them – banded together to form the Home Owners’ Action Group. They organised, lobbied, and protested and would not be cowed by Mansard’s deliberate attempts to ‘stop genuine public debate by issuing defamation writs.’

By 1990, Mansard was out of business, homeowners had been reimbursed, and my aunt and uncle’s house was finished. Justice was hard-fought, but it was relatively swift and decisive.

Compare this to the Post Office Scandal in the UK, which is unravelling in the news like a horrific but compelling multi-vehicle pile-up.

The People vs The Post Office.

More than 900 [and counting] post office branch managers across the UK have been wrongly accused of theft and false accounting since 1999 after faulty software wrongly made it look like money was missing from their branches. Some managers went to prison. Many had their reputations, finances and health ruined. Some died by suicide.

After 20 long years, this epic tragedy has been brought, kicking and screaming, into the light, most recently by the TV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

It highlights the punishing efforts the campaigners have had to go to to be heard, to be believed and to get justice, and it has sparked long overdue change. Thanks to the tenacity, strength, fortitude and belief of the campaigners, the Establishment is finally facing a reckoning, and high-profile figures from the ex-CEO of the Post Office to Ministers of the Crown to senior figures who developed the software responsible for so much anguish are being held to account.

The relief is palpable, but we might need to hold our breath before we get answers to the question: what took the powerful so long to admit they were at fault?

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