In November last year, 14 people met in a small Canberra office. They were gathered to conduct the now-infamous "secret Annual General Meeting" of The Wilderness Society Incorporated.
Six of these people were existing members of The Wilderness Society’s management committee. Two more were partners of management committee members. The remaining attendees included executive director Alec Marr, strategic campaign coordinator Virginia Young, three other staff close to the director and an ex-CEO of The Wilderness Society.
Just 25 minutes later, the management committee had re-elected itself unopposed, the accounts were signed off without question and the organisation’s constitution had been significantly altered. Now, 10 per cent of the membership (around 4800 members) would be required to call a Special General Meeting instead of the previous requirement of just 20 members.
All of this was done without effective notice to more than a handful of people.
The conduct of this meeting stands at odds with the long history of democracy and inclusiveness within The Wilderness Society. One of the Committee members elected at this meeting, Peter Langoulant, told the Sunday Age that: "It was a secret AGM … and I think it disenfranchised people. [The Wilderness Society] was supposed to be a democratic, consensus organisation and I think it has moved away from that."
Langoulant, who has since resigned from the management committee, went on to add: "I don’t believe it was right, even though I was a party to it."
Last week on newmatilda.com, Heidi Douglas made a valiant attempt to defend the conduct of this meeting. Unfortunately, Douglas reverts to the "tyrant’s defence" when she claims that the decision to disenfranchise the membership was justified because there was a chance that the membership might vote out the existing leadership.
Undemocratic regimes across the planet say the same — that the voters can’t be trusted to make the right choice and that the leadership should not have to justify themselves. Under this thinking, the ends justify the means.
Upon joining The Wilderness Society, members are informed that one of the benefits of membership is "the right to vote at the Annual General Meeting". The secret AGM didn’t allow them this basic right. One of The Wilderness Society’s core stated values is "the power of people to make change", but the current management committee seem to support this value only as long as people don’t try to change them.
One highly respected Wilderness Society campaigner and member of 18 years, Anthony Esposito, has made a personal decision to challenge the validity of the secret AGM in the courts. But the simplest way for this matter to be resolved, and to keep it away from costly and exhausting legal battles, is for the current management committee to recall the 2009 AGM in an open and transparent manner. This would allow members to attend, to ask their questions and have them answered, and to elect the management committee that they believe is the most competent and able to restore trust and accountability within the organisation.
Douglas is right to point out the uniqueness of The Wilderness Society in the Australian political landscape but she suggests that the organisation’s current problems are the consequence of a discontented few seeking to gain control and turn against this vision or a debate about the campaign achievements of Alec Marr. This is not true.
This is not a clash of personalities or a resistance to positive change. The core of this dispute is instead about competent and accountable management, about the fair treatment of activists and staff, about concerns over increasingly centralised and autocratic power, about future directions of national campaigns, about the democratic rights of members and about financial accountability.
The debate is not confined to a few senior staff as Douglas suggests but the entire organisation as captured in an important "Values Audit" undertaken in 2008 to track our progress and resolve escalating disputes. The audit found that The Wilderness Society was beset by a dysfunctional internal culture, with poor staff morale caused by bullying, aggression and a climate of fear.
Worryingly, Alec Marr and the management committee have threatened to cut funding to the state-based campaign centres — the engines of campaign activity and grassroots organisation that deliver The Wilderness Society’s campaign successes. Some of these centres may be forced to close their doors within a matter of weeks. This is an extremely serious matter and would be a fundamental breach of the annual budget. What’s more, it would cast a series of viable organisations into insolvency, expose voluntary state committees to liabilities they no longer have the means to meet and leave large numbers of campaigners and administrators suddenly unemployed.
It is essential to restore trust and competent management to The Wilderness Society so these campaign centres can continue their valuable work and that can only happen with a transparent AGM.
The magnitude of feeling on this issue was reflected most recently by a public meeting in Melbourne. This time, in contrast to the 14 attendees at the November 2009 AGM, 250 members gathered in a very public forum to discuss the future of the organisation.
As well as these members (including some of the founders), the meeting was attended by paid and unpaid campaigners from across the country, volunteer supporters and major donors. Members took the opportunity to ask senior Wilderness Society campaigners about the current crisis. They reaffirmed that their vision of The Wilderness Society is one of an open, transparent organisation focused on the power of people to make change and they unanimously elected a "Save The Wilderness Society" committee to represent their serious concerns about the current leadership.
It is clear that this debate is also characterised by competing visions about the governance of the organisation. In a handout distributed at the Save The Wilderness Society meeting, Alec Marr suggested that there should be constitutional change and "the best model might be a company limited by guarantee". Reading between the lines, this means that it might be best to do away entirely with members and their rights and leave control in the hands of a small self-perpetuating group of people. But do The Wilderness Society’s members really want the organisation to stop being membership-based? At the very least, they deserve to have their say on any major changes.
For many months now, members, staff and volunteers from right across the organisation have tried without success to resolve these serious concerns outside the spotlight of the media. This has included a "Statement for Change" addressing the loss of trust and confidence in the leadership. It has been signed by over 150 people, including the vast proportion of staff within the organisation.
But Marr and the management committee have been unwilling or unable to act on any of these concerns. Worse still, they have adopted a highly combative "command and control" approach to the situation, repudiating people’s concerns, embarking on expensive legal action, blocking national campaign staff from travelling, threatening to terminate employment and failing to deliver campaign centre funds as agreed.
It is little wonder that so many are united in calling for the restoration of open and accountable governance in the form of a transparent AGM.
Finally, it is important to remember that while the debate rages on, The Wilderness Society’s campaign work continues, particularly through the state campaign centres. Campaigners are actively working to defend forests in Tasmania and Victoria, to stop the industrialisation of the Kimberley, to safeguard the wild rivers of Queensland and to protect the River Red Gum forests of the Murray-Darling.
When democratic control, trusted leadership and competent management are restored to The Wilderness Society, the power of these and new campaigns will strengthen and Australia’s truly amazing natural environment will be better off for it.
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