Name-calling, in-fighting and brinkmanship are nothing new in environmentalism or activism generally, but now they have brought an iconic Australian environmental charity to a hazardous fork in the road. At stake for The Wilderness Society are annual revenues of $15 million, the jobs of 150 staff, the support of nearly 50,000 members, and a battle for its very identity.

TWS Inc. is that part of the organisation concerned with fundraising, membership, structure, and support for staffing. A number of state level campaign directors calling themselves ‘Save TWS’ have campaigned for the removal of TWS Inc’s current executive.

With the exception of South Australia, they sayExecutive Director Alec Marr his colleagues have made TWS an unaccountable dictatorship deaf to the wishes of members and that Marr himself is, essentially, a belligerent autocrat.

Marr views these campaigners as coup leaders intent upon capturing and wasting the organisation’s massive resources and potential. As the head of the body responsible for fundraising and memberships, he claims that his actions have been in line with the best interests of the organisation and its members. The same claim is made by Save TWS about their own actions in opposing him.

Of all the battles that TWS has fought, Save TWS versus TWS Inc may yet become its most damaging. In the first weekend of May, after court battles to determine how to conduct a legal vote to determine who actually gets to run TWS, the incumbent executives appear to have been voted out and replaced by their state-based antagonists. But the night before this vote, Marr broke what has effectively been 9 months of self-imposed media silence.

Marr said that a one-sided argument would receive less media attention, cause less distress and confusion for members and supporters, and limit the damage that might otherwise be done to the organisation by any number of its political opponents. He also said that decisions in the Tasmanian Supreme Court which found against TWS Inc. were hardly surprising.

The key sticking point for campaigners who led the vote against Marr was a vote of no confidence in him, his team, and his management of TWS, in July of last year. Marr claims that these issues were addressed during a 3-day meeting shortly thereafter, while participants hold that he did not recognize the legitimacy of their concerns and that nothing was resolved. This in fact hardened the conflict between campaign staff and Marr’s management committee.

According to the constitution of TWS, Annual General Meetings must be notified to the public in a Tasmanian paper. At the AGM, a quorum of at least 10 members is needed to pass any decision, including constitutional change, and consensus can only be achieved by at least 75 per cent of members in attendance supporting a motion. In 2009, Marr and his team used the least read major paper in Northern Tasmania to notify the holding of the 2009 AGM. Held at 8am one Thursday morning in Canberra, Marr and 13 colleagues were present to re-elect themselves, having effectively disinformed anybody else who sought to attend.

Here, though, both Marr and his opponents are agreed on the detail but the perspectives differ wildly. Opponents who may well have now unseated him point to this meeting as blatantly anti-democratic and totally at odds with the nature of TWS and its mission. Marr, on the other hand, said that in the bigger picture the November ’09 meeting was meant to ensure a better outcome for the 46,000 paid-up supporters of TWS, its 150 paid staff, and the organisation itself.

Had he not limited the awareness of the 2009 AGM, it would have been constitutionally easy for his opponents to bring three mini-vans of their own supporters and sack him and his team. Paradoxically, to keep control of the organization from falling into the hands of a small and potentially unrepresentative power block, he secured control of the organization in the hands of a small and potentially unrepresentative power block, he says.

Here again is a key sticking point. Marr holds that TWS is still ruled by its historic roots as a ragtag environment action group and that its constitution would better suit a small tennis club than the nation’s biggest green NGO. He points to negotiations with the Australian Electoral Commission over plans to ballot TWS’ entire membership as proof of his longer term vision. Opponents argue that these discussions have been a self-serving measure taken by an illegitimate committee which re-elected itself in secret.

Marr presents himself and his aggressive management style as pulling the organisation into the next decade, ready to grow massively in membership and reach, professionally operated and transparent, with a million paid-up supporters and the capacity to act widely and immediately anywhere on the Australian continent, rather than having to spend three weeks promoting a rally to raise funds to take an action. He points to a history of effective decisionmaking and handpicked consultancies which resulted in no net job losses during the GFC even when TWS’ own Board anticipated a need to cut 40 per cent of staff over a period of 3-4 months. He paints his opponents within the organisation as out of touch with modern management and innovation, and feels they would limit the operation of TWS to something reminiscent of its 1985 culture as an underfunded, barely effective grassroots movement of limited scope.

But his detractors have multiple issues with both his management style and vision. From speaking with Vica Bailey, Tasmanian Campaign Director, longtime TWS activist, and supporter of Save TWS, those grassroots are an essential part of TWS’ very character, and the autocratic corporate model imposed by Marr was inconsistent with the organisation’s spirit, its experience with community action, and out of touch with its identity as a locally responsive NGO.

Both groupings have a passionate interest in setting the agenda. Both have plenty of unpleasant things to say about each other. Both claim greater legitimacy than their opponent. Both seem willing and able to refute, sidestep, or counter most negative claims laid at their feet. And despite the weekend’s outcome, supposedly putting David Mackenzie (Convenor), Stephen Porter (Secretary), Hilton Sentinella (Treasurer), Stephen Lodge, Linda Siddall, Debbie Dunn, Daniel Beaver and Coral Robinson in charge of TWS Inc. it is very unlikely that Marr and his war-room will capitulate in any kind of hurry.

The night before this latest AGM, at which he and his supporters were apparently shouted down before being voted out, he said that the ongoing rift has taken a great personal toll and has been even harder personally than time spent as Defendant No. 1 in the Gunns 20 case. But he wouldn’t concede the likelihood of loss and his expectation was that the legitimacy of TWS meetings and its decision-making processes would face further legal challenges whichever way things went.

The newly elected TWS Inc. are hoping that Australia’s biggest green NGO can get back on with its job after a year of disruption, especially in an election year when state and federal politicians want climate change to be a non-issue, but also expect the fight for TWS has yet to be resolved. Marr’s apparent fall from grace after more than 2 decades of inspired environmental action is genuinely tragic, but there is much more at stake than one man’s personal legacy.

Whether the weekend’s outcome was the best choice for TWS is impossible to say, but it certainly won’t be the end of uncertainty and unhappiness for members, staff, or activists associated with the group. And while the new TWS Inc. are painting a picture of fresh beginnings in glowing press releases about a bright new day for TWS, it is likely that this period will herald the beginning of a new challenge for TWS, just not the challenge its membership might choose.

Writer’s note: A detailed write-up follows within a few days, based on an 80-minute conversation with Alec Marr on May 1.