Why I Support Democracy (I know, it’s a very controversial position)

MEAAby Charles Firth

Whenever I bump into Chris Warren (usually at a booze up), I always make a bee line over to him to discuss one thing: term limits for union officials.

I do this partly because I like seeing his flushed, pink cheeks tense up with irritation, but also because I have been a frustrated member for many, many years.

Unless you’re of the generation where the Vietnam War was the major issue, you probably feel a similar level of frustration.

The MEAA’s business model has been broken for a long time. For years it seemed to be based on a rather optimistic hope that the internet would go away, so big newsrooms would come back into vogue.

It certainly has never worked out a way to become relevant to the thousands of independent production, digital media and PR professionals who aren’t quite journalists, aren’t quite actors, aren’t quite production staff, and yet do all of these jobs (and many more) on a daily basis.

These people crave the legitimacy, standing and ethical autonomy that a healthy craft union would give them, but for many years there have been few talking points you could make in favour of them joining the MEAA.

Back when I first joined they had this system where they would get vaguely famous volunteers from the Equity arm to ring you once a year, to have a chat, update your details and make sure everything was fine. It was a genuine selling point, and allowed me to organize half a dozen new members, simply off the back of a great anecdote about being rung by that guy who was in that movie we saw.

But as Equity was dragged down by declining density in the rest of the union, those calls dried up, and for many years, I heard nothing from them at all.

At its nadir, the only communication I received from the union (beside the annual schedule of fees) was a condescending “survey” which was a thinly veiled attempt to get us to happily acquiesce to an undisclosed merger with the CPSU, in order to save the union’s dire financial situation.

But in the last year or two, the green shoots of hope have started to appear. Marcus Strom started holding the fantastic Media Drinks events, which allows for professional networking within a highly social context, and more to the point, gives you anecdotes to talk about when you’re trying to convince people to become members (“well, you get to go along to these fantastic drinks where you meet other really interesting people in your own profession”).

And Mal Tulloch has been another brilliant addition to the MEAA. I have no idea what half of his emails mean when he’s organizing deals for the production staff of large productions, but the fact that I’m getting the emails, makes me feel in the loop, and part of something bigger.

Point being: the MEAA is starting to look up. There is a new generation coming through who are changing the way things are done.

But they’re about to get stopped in their tracks, because the Federal Management Council wants to make itself the central decision-making body, and appoint the next leader of MEAA, rather than allow members to elect them.

This is a terrible idea.

For a start, I feel like it’s a condescending throwback to a different era. (“Hey, member, you don’t know who’s best for you, let us faceless people in a smokey room decide for you.”)

Secondly, it feels like a bit of a rip off. Being able to vote for the leader is one of the very, very, very few benefits of membership of the MEAA. Eliminate that, and it’s like the world’s most expensive subscription to the Walkley Magazine.

The only reasonable reason I can think of for abolishing direct election of the Federal Secretary is that you’d never again want to get stuck with the same Secretary for two decades.

This is a specious argument. Making the leader unelected doesn’t solve that problem. To solve that problem, the Federal Council should bring in term limits. Make it so that nobody can be there for more than, say, two terms – eight years. That would do it. Eliminating direct democracy to get there seems a little bit like overkill.

Furthermore, the MEAA is actually in a different situation than we’ve been for the last couple of decades. With the Royal Commission looming, gone are the days that incumbency of a union brings with it a large, imposing election fund that enables you to shit-sheet any potential challengers. If there’s one good thing about the Royal Commission, it’s that union leaders of all stripes know they have to play fair and by the rules.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the problem with the MEAA in 2014 is there aren’t more elected officials. The lack of elected officials has meant over the years that purges have been able to occur because the staff have increasingly been there at the Federal Secretary’s behest, rather than as elected representatives of various constituencies.

Indeed, if you look at what has happened to the MEAA as its de-democratised, you could argue that having an unelected CEO will actually allow them to further consolidate their power over time.

In my experience, the whole point of a good CEO is someone who is able to manage their board. Over time, an effective CEO will make sure that those on their board (the Federal Management Council) support them, and make sure the information flow goes that way.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that an effective CEO will, over time, make sure they have a sympathetic Federal Management Council to support them, is being naïve at best.

You could say the same goes for a directly elected Secretary – it’s in their interest to organize the Federal Management Council – but at least we’ll have the possibility of directly unseating such a leader, should the worst occur. If we had an unelected leader, it will be even worse than the situation we’ve found ourselves up till now.

Point is, the proposal to eliminate the direct election of the Federal Secretary is a perfectly understandable reaction to the worry that we’ll end up having the same person there again for another two decades.

But the way to solve that problem is to use this opportunity to bring in term limits, rather than further undermine the already rather marginal value of membership of the union.



  1. I agree with you Charles with more elected officials making them more accountable to the masses. My experience from different Unions (each Admin role usual means a new Union) is those referenced in the story regarding the Vietnam era still don’t get the need for Unions like Charles mentioned and the changes to members lifestyle requiring a different approach to representation.

  2. Chris Warren has been sulking for 3 years about not getting his amalgamation with the CPSU through and has spent the last 3 years slowly ripping the union apart. One can only hope that if his ridiculous proposition gets up he doesn’t put his hand up for the gig. Watch that space.

  3. I too support democracy in the union and the changes proposed increase democracy and finally put the control of the union firmly into the hands of the elected honorary officials.
    I stress elected They are not “faceless men” or faceless women even. They are people who work along side you everyday and for them to be accused of being unaccountable and acting as some sort of unelected cabal is wrong.
    Charles it would be good if you understood how the union worked through its various sections, councils, executive and management committees. If you took the time to understand and got involved and elected to these bodies you would see you have a right to be heard and a right to put proposals and with the new structure a chance to see the wishes of the federal council carried out. Sitting on the sidelines composing a wonderful spray is good theatre but it shows an ignorance of the proposals and the way the union already operates. II am puzzled by one aspect of this campaign and that is the desire for a strong man or woman leader as though people are frightened of being part of the decision making process and want to be led by the nose.
    These changes make the honorary officials the leadership of the union. There will be no opportunity for than elected Fed Sec to defy the wishes of the federal council as you so clearly think is happening now. As Tina Turner said “We don’t need another hero we need a fed sec operating under the control, of the elected officials through fed council, fed exec and federal management committee.
    Finally the foll wing is worth reading
    Dear Alan,

    In about 10 days, the peak decision making body of your union – federal council – meets to talk about the challenges facing our industry, and the role of the union in protecting the rights of journalists in these difficult times.

    As two of the members elected to represent journalists’ interests on MEAA’s federal management committee and guide its leadership, we are writing to you to briefly outline the reform package the federal councillors are being asked to endorse as we confront the challenges.

    Let us say at the outset: standing still is not an option.

    As the media industry goes through significant change, MEAA has to reshape itself to ensure it is meeting the changing needs of its members.

    To this end, the people you elect to manage the union are asking for broad support on a package of measures including:

    Reshaping the way the union interacts with and serves its members, through a fantastic new website and smart use of back office resources.
    Putting staff members into new areas where we need to develop and grow, while maintaining the strength we have built in our traditional areas.
    Changing the way the union selects its employed leadership team, moving from direct election of federal secretary and branch secretary roles to appointments based on merit selection.
    The changes are not without pain as the union faces up to falling income as the number of journalists employed in major publishers declines.

    Federal councillors are being asked to approve increases in membership fees by 2.5 per cent annually to keep pace with rising costs. And they are being asked to approve a binding commitment to maintain union staff costs at 60 per cent of revenues. Both measures are necessary to ensure the union stays financially strong.

    Structural strength and flexibility in changing circumstances also means reforms are necessary.

    The federal management committee has supported over several years a reduction in the number of elected officials in the union, to allow us to move to a structure where national directors manage the overarching goals of each industrial section, which are then pursued by state-based staff.

    Appointing rather than electing these directors meant a more straight-forward line of responsibility and authority: the elected leaders of the union (your fellow members elected to council, or those elected to management committee) agree on strategy and priorities, and then direct the managers to oversee their implementation by staff on a day-to-day basis.

    These changes have proved successful, allowing us to reduce inefficiency as membership numbers have declined. We think now is the time to continue this process of reform.

    A union that is balkanised by competing elected officials cannot provide the protections necessary to the broad cross section of members we now serve. It wastes energy better expended in furthering members’ industrial and professional interests.

    That is why we no longer have elected assistant federal secretaries – because federal council recognised their electoral duties were in conflict with their pastoral duties. And federal management committee believes that argument extends to the federal secretary’s role.

    We need to be fleet of foot. We need to embrace change. We cannot stand still.

    We encourage you to support the package so that our great union can continue to protect our rights and advance our industries.

    Want to know more? Visit alliance.org.au or reply via email.

    Stuart Washington
    Federal president, Media section, MEAA
    The Sydney Morning Herald Gina McColl
    Federal vice president, Media section, MEAA
    The Age
    Philipa McDonald Philippa McDonald
    Federal vice president, Media section, MEAA

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