Jeff Waters: No free speech but plenty of secrecy at the #MEAA

A week ago, Charles Firth, Greg Miskelly, John Roper and I started this blog, because we were worried about a proposal to end to full democracy in our union – an effort which could easily lead to even more secrecy.

The most concerning part is the proposal to introduce a CEO model to the way our union is run.

It’s difficult to find out much about this plan, in spite of the fact two of us are elected councillors on the union. We are being blocked from communicating with the rest of the MEAA’s federal council. For a democratic organisation, MEAA is often opaque in its communications with members.

For example, in order to gauge the view of members, I was even told by the union officials that as a Federal Councillor I could not have access to a mailing list of my fellow councillors, for privacy reasons. Federal secretary Chris Warren, though answerable to the federal council, simply ignores my emails and calls.

As a democratically elected rep, it seems I am not trusted to communicate with my fellow reps. All communication must go through head office.

However that same list is now being used by the proponents of the plan to wheel out propaganda on their side of the debate. No free debate; no free speech, and in the alliance of all unions.

After our blog started to get traction, and thanks to coverage from independent media outlets like Crikey and Mumbrella, some emails, and press releases were released to some members through the MEAA website.

We’ve heard now reasoning from national officials Stuart Washington, Philippa Mcdonald, Gina McColl and Simon Burke as to why they are recommending this plan. Words like ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘being modern’ are used to explain why your vote is being traded away.

Another argument made is that not having elected officials, who are accountable to members is an easier way to end arguments between factions and ‘get things done’. That’s fine, if you running a club, or a corporation.

Democracies aren’t meant to be easy, in fact, they are designed to foster debate, testing of ideas and deep discussion. The aim of that is to lead to strong collective decision making, inducing responsible outcomes and the betterment of the group. Today it seems some within MEAA want to outsource the decision making, the responsibility for its outcomes, and the hopes and dreams of its members, for reasons not fully explained.

This new model doesn’t change the secrecy, and lack of consultation within the top level of MEAA. It simply puts the scrutiny of a highly paid, corporate leader in the hands of elected volunteers – all working journalists, actors, crew and musicians.

It’s true that a CEO would have to deal with the sometimes bitter factionalism and feuding that plagues volunteer organisations, but in this model, this happens without the bolster of a democratic mandate. There would likely be no recourse for the wider membership to remove such a person from the role if things went wrong. It’s a game of Russian roulette, with extra bullets.

What is being proposed is fraught with unknown dangers. We don’t know who the CEO will be. We haven’t been told how the CEO will be appointed by the ten member panel. Ten members out of 16,000. We don’t really know much about who the people are who will choose him. Apparently a model has been fully developed within the management committee. A nice model, presumably from nice people. It would be nice to see something published online by the architects of the scheme about the detail that they have worked out. We’re calling for that here on this blog, and were publishing all sides of the debate. But in truth we shouldn’t have to be.

A lack of consultation is nothing new from MEAAs mostly voluntary political officers. While excellent individuals, programs and projects abound across all areas of MEAA, it seems a ‘closed door’ mentality exists deep in the leadership structures.

Volunteer officials seemingly have had a ‘rubber stamp’ approach, where discussion and debate has been shunned in order to get on with daily business. Minutes of meetings, updates, and election notices are rarely, if ever published directly to the members. Where they are published, the detail and debate is usually lacking.

When complaints are raised they are ignored, or ‘people being busy’ is to blame. Last year Federal Council promised to consult with members about reforms. That hasn’t happened in time.

Today we want to know if members of the management committee are willing to answer the following questions:

1. Are any members of the management committee – committed to fill elected roles – planning to apply for the job of CEO, or, for that matter, the Walkley Foundation, which the current committee has been trying to separate from the union?

2. Are their conflict of interest procedures in place, to ensure that those who do nominate for CEO, step down from their elected positions prior to the position being designed, advertised and recruited

3. What sort of capabilities are expected of the CEO candidates – top level experience in unions, business or NGOs? Financial expertise? Tertiary qualifications? Experience in running industrial campaigns? Political lobbying? Legal skills?

4. Is there a large pool of candidates – or is it expected to be fairly small? Perhaps, again, including members of the management committee?

5. Is it expected that outside head-hunters, such as ‘executive recruiting agencies’ will be employed – at huge expense to members?

6. Have experts from outside the union – eg lawyers, corporate governance analysts etc, provided independent advice on the feasibility and governance aspects of the model?

7. What sort of remuneration will be offered to the role? Will pay and conditions be negotiated as part of the selection process? Will bonuses and incentives be on offer for the CEO to remain in the role? Will relocation, travel and other expenses be funded by the union?

8. Will the CEO’s role be modelled on that of the current federal secretary – with wide ranging political powers to participate in decision making bodies of the union, and, indeed, the power to influence nominations to the management committee itself? If not, what checks and balances will be in place to ensure that the CEO position does not become political and remains answerable to the board?

9. What sort of performance management plan has been devised for the CEO? Which members of the ten-member panel have direct oversight of performance management?

10. What are the KPI’s for the CEO – such as financial management, mba, industrial experience, media spokesperson experience, experience within creative industries? Is it expected that the candidates will have prior knowledge and familiarity with the policy areas and industries MEAA works in. Will membership growth, or industrial outcomes be part of the measurement of job performance?

11. What sort of background checks will be conducted on the CEO prior to appointment?

12. Will the CEO have to become a member of the union?

13. What duration of contract would the CEO fulfil – 12 months, 2 years, 4 years? Would they be subject to annual reviews?

14. What dismissal mechanisms are in place – given the difficulty boards often face removing CEO’s when contracts are terminated early?

15.  Has the management committee costed the recruitment process in full – search, advertising, convening to interview, legal advice, fees, etc – compared to the cost of election (which is funded by Fair Work Australia – not the unions)

16. Why haven’t the detailed figures and costs been released?

17. How will the CEO report back to members – directly through written reports, as the current federal secretary does to federal council, or via the management committee (which, in my experience as a member of the union’s “supreme governing body” is extraordinarily quiet)?

18. Will Chris Warren remain as CEO of the Walkleys Foundation, in effect meaning MEAA funds two CEO positions? Should a new CEO take over running of the Walkleys Foundation?

19. What are the actual direct advantages to members of a CEO?

20. Has the management committee conducted any independent review of its own governance arrangements – given the volunteer status of its members – as to the efficacy of its own oversight of a non-elected CEO.


In the current political climate it’s more important than ever that this union moves toward more democracy and more transparent accountability – not less.

I appeal to all federal councillors – particularly those who may have been swayed by some management committee members – to think long and hard about how closed a little club our union could become.

And I urge all members to make your feelings on this matter known to your delegates, organisers, and, most importantly, the federal councillors who will be voting on this next week.

Jeff Waters

Melbourne ABC delegate to Federal Council


One comment

  1. good points jeff. I think we all know the only person that will benefit friom this arrangement will be Chris Warren. What will stop him from applying for the position of CEO ( even though he is ON record saying he won’t) (he is a well known “flipper” when it suits) when that role will be decided by the Federal Management Committee and not the rank and file. The proposal is a dangerous one.

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