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

By 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.

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