Something you don’t get to see very often is a bunch of environmentalists baying for blood. Vegetarian jokes aside, a political campaign led by a powerful group of disgruntled ex-staff, members and internal staff is attempting to topple the heads of The Wilderness Society’s National Management Committee and Executive Director Alec Marr — and in doing so is threatening the organisation’s ability to protect Australia’s environment.
The internal conflict at TWS has recently made the news, generating plenty of potentially damaging publicity for the organisation. In a recent article in The Age, serious allegations against Marr — including bullying, financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency — appeared in print.
Not surprisingly, this piece came to the attention of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz who gleefully issued a press release in response denouncing the organisation, which he termed "the industrial arm of the Australian Greens", for its "hypocrisy". Andrew Bolt too took the opportunity to have a dig at TWS — and the climate movement more broadly — in his blog.
Marr’s opponents launched a website — Save The Wilderness Society — in advance of an extraordinary meeting last weekend. These very public denunciations mark the culmination of a yearlong internal smear campaign against Marr and other senior staff but, so far, there has been little in the way of public response by, or defence of, those being targeted. Marr seems to have been reluctant to join the debate in the interest of minimising damage to TWS having spent the last 15 years facilitating the organisation’s growth in both size and influence.
TWS has long been a safeguard for the environment and a hurdle to destructive developers, industries and governments. Over the last 33 years TWS has grown from a small volunteer-based group into a large multi-million dollar organisation with a professional workforce. Though still totally dependent on volunteers for many of its core activities TWS is even more dependent on the 45,000+ members who voluntarily donate to the organisation.
TWS offers a unique, non-government, non-corporate perspective in the political landscape of Australia. TWS is much larger than Friends of the Earth, more independent than the Australian Conservation Foundation as it does not accept corporate sponsorships or government funding, more grassroots than the World Wildlife Fund and, with TWS campaign centres spread across Australia, more local than Greenpeace. By working closely with communities TWS is able to mobilise thousands of people within a few weeks to rally on environmental issues in Australia’s major cities.
This is not the first power struggle TWS has endured. In the mid 1990s a similar conflict almost brought about the collapse of the organisation. The winner of that power struggle, Marr, has since led an unprecedented period of peace within the organisation. Marr has used the organisation’s ever increasing resources to identify and grow a breed of passionate campaigners and then send them to finishing school by encouraging participation in intensive leadership and strategic thinking training. However, Marr’s use of contractors to help bring specialist knowledge and skills into the organisation has drawn criticisms of financial mismanagement from the aggrieved.
Marr has also encouraged campaigners to move away from TWS’s traditional use of non-violent direct action and protest as the prime means of shaping public perception to environmental issues. Inspired by the Wildlands Network in the USA, Marr has been leading an innovative vision for conservation in Australia called WildCountry. WildCountry is a science-based continent-wide conservation plan that involves community groups and other Environmental Non-governmental Organizations (ENGO)s working together to provide the resilience necessary to permanently sustain Australia’s natural landscapes.
Pressure from Marr to utilise new ways of thinking, new tools and science-based environmental protection has been embraced by many younger staff members but resisted by some long term campaign staff. Now, the finely crafted campaigning skills Marr has imbued the organisation with have been turned inward with some campaigners calling for generational change and for Marr to step down.
Marr’s leadership style can be gruff and abrasive, at times lacking the nurturing tendencies some desire from a boss or comrade. The anti-Marr camp is attempting to brand Marr’s forceful style as "bullying". However, when this issue was raised internally last year, not a single case of bullying from anyone within TWS was able to be identified and people from across the organisation could not agree on what constituted bullying.
Overseeing the steep growth of TWS over the last decade has certainly challenged Marr to stay in touch with the organisation’s ever-growing workforce across the country. Marr’s workload doubled when, in 2004, Tasmanian logging giant Gunns Ltd launched a $7 million writ against him, TWS and other environmentalists. He was forced to find innovative ways of keeping TWS’s eyes on the game of campaigning while he built a legal team and strategy to protect the organisation.
Far from being cowed by the Gunns court case, Marr revamped the campaign to protect Tasmania’s forests, moved staff to play key roles in dealing with the case, stabilised an anxious National Management Committee and protected the campaign work of the rest of the organisation from getting caught up in the attack. Marr also worked to firewall the organisation by strengthening governance, tightening up on organisational procedures and decision-making processes.
Gunns finally dropped their case against the remaining defendants earlier this month. It is not unreasonable to claim that without Marr’s leadership the outcome of the case could have been very different.
The court case did steer Marr away from the more hands-on style of management that he had used previously. Whereas in the past Marr was always moving around the country to work one-on-one with campaign teams, his workload since the Gunns 20 case largely involved business, governance and legal issues. At the same time, TWS staff numbers grew considerably and many old and new members found that Marr had less time for working with them individually.
A recent wish list made up by disgruntled campaigners for Marr’s role includes wanting an executive director who displays "exceptional functional/visionary/mentoring leadership … who works more closely and collaboratively" with "unquestionable personal integrity and capacity to maintain trust and confidence of the whole organisation".
More serious allegations have been levelled against Marr in the recent media articles, on the Save the Wilderness Society website and at a public meeting in Melbourne. But do these allegations have any substance?
The anti-Marr faction claim that "specific decisions and actions were taken to drastically limit members’ knowledge and awareness of the 2009 Annual General Meeting." The meeting was advertised as per the constitution but some staff members were angered that they were not informed about the date of the AGM at the national Policy and Planning meeting a few weeks before hand.
With a vitriolic attack by some campaigners to dethrone Marr and the National Management Committee at the AGM being openly threatened, Marr and the committee decided that it was in the best interest of a stable organisation that they not make themselves an easy target. Marr and the committee believed that a coup could have much wider repercussions than the rebel group realised and would split the organisation in two, rendering it powerless and confused.
So Marr and the committee kept the AGM’s advertising to a legal minimum and enacted constitutional change, increasing the number of people whose vote could call a meeting in which the board might potentially be overturned from just 20 people to 10 per cent of the organisation’s membership. This change was enacted to bring TWS in line with the Tasmanian Associations Incorporation Act under which it is incorporated and thus to protect the organisation from destabilising attacks. Preventing the committee from being ousted in a coup would allow time for mediation and for a more comprehensive consultation to be undertaken with the membership of The Wilderness Society.
The article in The Age also stated that more than 60 staff had left the organisation due to Marr’s management style. These allegations fail to take into account that, in response to concerns that had been raised about this issue, an internal turnover analysis had already been completed and distributed. The analysis discovered that 43 staff had indeed left the organisation: "32 staff left to travel overseas, to take up studies, to move from casual or part time work to permanent or full-time work or to take up new positions which furthered their careers or interests, to take maternity leave/start a family. Eight departed because they were unhappy in their positions. Two were dismissed."
The Age also incorrectly reported a petition of 145 "staff" against Marr. Actually, the petition was orchestrated by some fractious senior staff and largely signed by volunteers and members with limited knowledge of both sides of the issues.
Despite the ongoing attacks on Marr no leadership alternative has been put forward (in fact, before this current dispute, Marr had already told his management committee to start succession planning as he was ready to step aside when his contract expires in two years) and many of those at the centre of the attacks have been careful to keep their names out of the spotlight. The conflict is currently impeding the effective functioning of the organisation with campaigners who don’t agree with the anti-Marr camp being excluded from campaign working group meetings. The rebels’ call to arms of "transparency and integrity" is being undermined by their own questionable tactics and provides cheap shots for those hostile to the environment movement.
Is there a lesson here for other environment groups and non-government organisations? It may be that when any organisation grows quickly, long-term staff will experience a sense of ownership over quite different elements of the organisation that may then generate conflict according to different priorities.
A permanent split could be on the cards for TWS if mediation of the dispute proves impossible. An overt ongoing stoush that threatens public support for TWS is highly dangerous territory for a donations-reliant organisation.
At a time of looming climate crisis, and with state and federal elections in the coming months, it seems that some members of Australia’s most virile environmental organisation are too busy looking inwards to realise how their dispute is crippling their campaigning capacity. Perhaps they can’t see the forest for the trees.
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