Tasmanian Times

Environment

Into the Wilderness Inc.?

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.

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19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Susie

    May 5, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Well said, Greg.

  2. Greg Ogle

    May 5, 2010 at 10:38 am

    A lot of the comments on the General Meetings talk about voting and how many people were “present” on the phone. However, we should remember that TWS works on consensus – not voting. That is how the constitution says decisions are made, and it is one thing that makes TWS special (and difficult to govern).

    Having members dial in en masse to the General Meeting was an interesting experiment. However, having facilitated a number of TWS national meetings in the past, my impression from being in the hall in Canberra was just the sheer impossibility of conducting a consensus decision making process with a large number of people individually dialling in to a meeting.

    The process was about listening and voting, rather than about building consensus. Many of the tools of consensus decision making (eg. small groups, fishbowls, body language, white-board drawing) would have been impossible in that environment.

    Broadening the reach of the meeting by phone link-ups sounds good and democratic, but the impossibility of consensus decision-making in such an environment means that the issue is not simple. Phone voting, and similarly the proposed entrenching of a postal ballot to elect Management Committees, represents a profound cultural shift for an organisation based on consensus. Such a (further) shift from participatory democracy to more distant representative structures should not be undertaken lightly.

    Of course, there are real challenges in running such a large organisation with consensus decision making, and it may be that the only way to govern a large organisation is the same way everyone else does, but many (me included) will not accept that. It is an important discussion to be had in a calmer space and the decision should not be made simply because it is convenient or useful in any one particular situation.

  3. OpenEyes

    May 4, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Commentators on this meeting should take great care in how they reflect on the adjournment from the advertised venue to the new venue. At that stage of the meeting there were over 800 members present at the meeting both in the hall and by phone. Mr MacKenzie TOLD those present in the hall that the meeting was ‘adjourning’ to a new venue.

    There was no motion put to members to consider whether or not they wanted to quit the advertised venue, and there was no vote to confirm that relocation.

    It is a safe bet that had the motion been put to the meeting the nearly 600 members present on phone would have said no as would have many who remained in the room.

    In the absence of following due process, whatever happened at the rally that gathered down the road was of no consequence whatsoever. Clearly it was not an adjourned General Meeting. The real meeting continued in the Convention centre, the advertised venue, duly following the requirements of the TWS Inc Constitution.

    Think about this. . . The usurpers claim to have the acumen to govern TWS Inc, yet they can’t even follow the most basic meeting conventions. I’m sure he is a nice and well meaning man, but one must wonder what qualifications Mr MacKenzie thinks it takes to govern an organisation of $15m pa revenue. For a start, a great deal more concern for members’ rights than he displayed on Sunday.

    I don’t blame Mr Marr for keeping Mr MacKenzie out of his Canberra offices.

  4. Serious

    May 4, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I’m starting a group called Save the Save the Wilderness Society. Anyone want to join?

  5. Bazzabee

    May 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    As an impartial observer not to mention a careful reader of the TT I am amazed that not one of your corespondents has noticed who and what is behind the problems that the Wilderness Society are currently experiencing.

    I for one am convinced that the current problems can all be sheeted home to the nefarious dealings of Forestry Tasmania aided and abetted by the demon of the bush John Gay. This is entire scenario is in fact one great big forest conspiracy aimed at the very heart of the peace loving caring innocent naive environmental movement and their Green cousins.

    How could the impoverished Wilderness Society with only 150 staff and less than 50,000 members a tax free income of $15 million a year be expected to withstand the this assault from the mendacious forest industries aided no doubt aided and abetted by the Forest Union lead by the Irish Beelzebub himself Mike O’Connor.

    My heart goes out to you all and if you ask nicely I will send a cheque to help start a fighting fund after all twenty million bucks in reserves goes nowhere these days.

  6. Jon Sumby

    May 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I hope the people who phoned in to attend the TWS Inc. meeting knew that they could not vote!

    The Supreme Court of Tasmania ruled that phone voting for Constitutional change was not allowed.

    Since the only items on the agenda for the TWS Inc. general meeting of Sunday, 2nd May, were changes to the TWS constitution, no votes by phone were valid.

    TWS Inc. dropped their agenda, so all people on the phones could do was to listen to speeches and ask questions.

    As for the SaveTWS meeting, they could not legally change the TWS Constitution to allow for phone voting. They had a valid, legal, and correctly called meeting that was above quorum.

    Since phone voting was legally doubtful, their only choice was to adjourn to another venue to protect and maintain the legality of motions passed at that meeting.

  7. Neil Smith

    May 3, 2010 at 2:45 am

    Like BGW (#4) and unlike Salamander (#3) I had no problems dialling into the meeting (on Skype) and neither did my partner (on a Telstra landline). The following is what I thought happened:

    There was canned music prior to the advertised starting time but the meeting got away almost on time, with facilitator Larry O’Loughlin explaining that owing to the decision of the Supreme Court of Tasmania 2 days before, the business originally set down for the meeting’s consideration could not be voted upon, either by phone or by those present in person.

    At that stage there were a reported 540 on phone lines, and approximately 300 in the room (the Bradman Room at the National Convention Centre).

    Mr O’Loughlin also stated that the 2009 (truly) AGM of TWS Inc would be held in Adelaide on 30 June 2010. It must go ahead as the National Management Committee had given an undertaking of such to the Supreme Court. As all committee positions are spilled at each AGM, a new committee would be elected then, “whatever happened today” (his words).

    Further, he said that the Supreme Court had rejected an application for an injunction to prevent the additional business proposed by a group of 20 requisitioner Members being dealt with (that is, the proposals to dismiss the current committee and elect another one).

    Accordingly, he stated that he intended to hand over to a chairperson representing the requisitioners. He “urged members not to pass the resolutions proposed by the requisitioners”, and cited legal advice the TWS Inc committee had obtained that the meeting may be illegal. As I remember he did not state why he thought it might be illegal.

    Mr David Mackenzie took the chair as invited, and stated that he represented the requisitioners. He declared THAT meeting open, and checked that a quorum of members was present. The names of various members present on the floor of the meeting and constituting that quorum were called (presumably they had raised their hands).

    Thus although it had originally appeared as though the original meeting was to be extended to deal with the business of the requisitioners, it now seemed that the requisitioners’ meeting was to be formally separate – although it was clearly to proceed with the cooperation of the organisers of the “other” meeting. Perhaps it was not the chairmanship which was being voluntarily handed over, but rather the venue and the microphones etc.

    Mr Mackenzie then adjourned the meeting, for it to resume shortly at St John’s Church, 43 Constitution Avenue, Canberra. People on the phone were asked to “stay on”, although it was not immediately clear whether they would be linked to the Convention centre meeting or the Church meeting.

    Paul Oosting’s statement that “A small group …left that meeting and held a separate meeting. About 200 people attended…” is not quite accurate, in that the “separate meeting” (if such it was) definitely did begin at the advertised venue (28 minutes later than the advertised time), before being adjourned to a different place.

    It turned out that the phone lines remained connected to the Convention Centre, and phone participants had only the choice of hanging up or continuing to listen to what turned out to be a continuation of the first meeting, albeit with no agenda items to deal with. Some time later we heard that “70% of the audience had left” which seems to match Paul’s “200 people”, although whether 70% of the attendees constitutes a “small group” is debatable. Phone participants of course had no choice.

    The rest of the meeting we heard was taken up by various people (principally Alec Marr) attempting to answer (or evade answering) various questions from the floor and from phone participants.

    Eventually, around 5:30pm we were asked to vote (press 1 for yes, 2 for no) whether the meeting should be closed or remain open. “Yes” won and the meeting was declared closed at 5:34pm, with further questions on notice to be answered via a TWS website.

    I can’t help with what went on at the rest of the “other” meeting.

  8. Mike Bolan

    May 3, 2010 at 2:43 am

    While this entire story has been portrayed as one of autocracy versus democracy, it’s pretty unlikely that there would be a near collapse about management style if the rest of the organisation actually agreed with the decisions that were being made.

    The usual scenario is disputes arising over the decisions being made and frustration from not being able to reverse, or affect those decisions.

    So while this dispute is being framed as about style, it is more likely about substance.

    It’s worth reviewing results achieved, money spent, alliances made, internal distributions of money and power, strategies and focus on the environment.

    E.g. Noel Pearson doesn’t sound happy which seems strange given TWS claimed commitment to indigenous concerns.

  9. roger

    May 3, 2010 at 2:30 am

    writer’s note: it does actually seem that the advertised Extraordinary General Meeting was not used for any vote. According to Alec Marr, David Mackenzie called on the audience to follow him to a meeting at another location for an undisclosed purpose. Apparently 270 people who had mainly come from Sydney and Melbourne followed him and the Save TWS group to a location where they held a vote which they then sent out a press release about saying that it had made them the new TWS Inc. Obviously the rejuvenating properties of such an act have to be called into question.
    Meanwhile, Marr and the other TWS Inc. took questions from the 50 audience members who remained and the 560+ members who phoned in were able to listen on. I’m not sure if they could also ask questions.

    So the correction would be that in saying “the newly elected TWS Inc.” I have been misinformed and sorry for confusing any readers. This whole thing is confusing enough as it is and it’s surprising that people involved would want it to continue to be that way. The membership dollars that the winner of this spat gets their paws on at the end of it all shall be severely diminished I would expect.

  10. TWS employee

    May 3, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Corrections and expansions on Mister Oosting’s observations, as I too attended both meetings:
    – The ability to change the constitution via a phone vote was found to be less than legal and injuncted in the Supreme court on Friday 30th April. TWS Inc was left with no agenda items for the meeting.
    – The Agenda items from Save TWS to dismiss the Management committee was raised on 24 December and injuncted before the February meeting in Melbourne based on the secret AGM in November. Once the secret AGM was declared invalid in the Supreme court the original agenda items were requested to be added to the EGM agenda(May 2), which was refused so the requisitioners decided to hold a separate meeting and advertised it in all TWS offices and a Tas paper as per the constitution. This was challenged by TWS Inc and went to the Supreme court whereby the Judge denied the injunction.
    TWS Inc had apparently agreed to close their meeting and handover the “audience” by 4:30 for the alternate meeting to commence, but kept making speeches, and did not close their meeting for the alternate/Save TWS meeting which was allowed by the Supreme court to commence. TWS inc had not closed their meeting leaving legalities blurred, as two separate meetings cannot exist in the same place at the same time. So the requisitioners, moved to plan B and moved the meeting down the road 200 metres by clear instruction, unfortunately leaving about 530 people on the phones unable to participate in the second meeting.
    The room is said to hold 300 people, all seats were taken as well as a lot of aisle space, making approx 350-400 people in the room. So about 900 attended the meeting.
    Once the move was declared about 300 people moved down the road. leaving 40 people in the room and phone members for the question and answer session with no resolutions or votes besides closing the meeting.(see photos on the SaveTWS facebook page).
    Independent scrutiny was provided by “Above Quota” who conducted all votes and elections.
    The TWS constitution was followed and consensus failed to remove the management committee as if I recall 2 people voted to block consensus. The meeting moved to modified consensus and easily achieved the 75% agreement as per the constitution.
    The new committee was elected without contest, consensus was achieved on all candidates. and no voting was required.
    The Senior management group at TWS Inc in an update today now consider both management committees to be interim until the 2009 AGM is legally reheld possibly on June 30th (as the previous one was found to be invalid “The subterfuge in relation to the meeting of 5 November 2009 was blatant to the point of dishonesty, This is demonstrated by the letter, set out below, from Alec Marr……)
    Senior managers also admitted that the phone technology was only designed for a Yes/No vote on the 2 Constitutional changes disallowed under the Supreme court ruling.
    Alec also locked out and refused to speak to Dave Mac at the Canberra office today.
    This dispute has been going on for at least 3 years. All the Senior management team have changed as well as most of the core fundraisers. TWS was being torn apart from the inside long before this became public.
    The ex-brickie/deer shooter has done great things for the Society but is now out of his depth, with too many instances of broken trust. Time to step aside.

  11. Sam

    May 3, 2010 at 12:41 am

    If one Googled TWS’s prior media releases from Oosting et al,I wonder how many related to corporate governance of other organisations ? The good old saying “people in glass houses…”

  12. Mark

    May 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    It seems fairly simple to me. Declare all positions vacant, call for nominations, send out ballot papers by either email or post and allow 21 days for the return of the votes. Then count them.

  13. Mrs Fastbucks

    May 2, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    If NGO’s or TWS in particular are to learn any lessons from this it is that non renewable employment contracts for a three year period with a six month probationary period would be a useful employment policy to implement. This proposal has been ignored in TWS for over twenty years.

    Employment positions in NGO’s are few and far between and many have viewed these positions as a privilege not a tool for paying mortgages or for European holidays. The more people who have the opportunity to work in NGO’s the greater the pool of experienced mentors to train new highly skilled activists. Fresh minds with new ideas and contemporary ways of working can only benefit NGO’s. If the commitment to the issues is truly there for a person mentoring new blood would also be viewed as part of that priveleged position.

    TWS has become an envirocracy with its dead wood hanging on to pay mortgages etc just like in any other workplace. This was certainly not the intention in the birthing days of organisations like TWS.

    May be now would be a good time also to look at the TWS charter and whether the environmental work that needs to be done today is as relevant to the name “Wilderness Society’ as it was over two decades ago.

    Time for Change?

  14. roger

    May 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for that information, Paul Oosting. Feedback from anybody else who attended both meetings would be useful.

    Propaganda’s such a subjective term but certainly both sides have been involved in digital efforts to share their perspective.

    If the meeting held by Save TWS didn’t actually meet the prerequisites to be the TWS AGM, then their press release proclaiming a new order really does nothing but usher in a new era of bewilderment.

    Save TWS are claiming legitimacy. Alec Marr’s version of TWS Inc will surely dispute this, as would Paul Oosting’s version of events. Anybody know better?

  15. Chad C Mulligan

    May 2, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Sorry Paul,

    Locks were changed this morning. Names were removed from financial instruments.

    It’s over.

  16. BGW

    May 2, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Re:#3 Unlike salamander,I had no problems dialling into the Wilderness Society meeting, along with 560 other members, using the phone number and access code provided to me by email. I listened to the entire proceedings, including calls from other teleconference facility users. Unfortunately I could neither listen to, nor vote at the Save TWS meeting. Maybe salamander should lodge a complaint with his own phone service provider, whilst pondering which of the two meetings offered the best opportunity for members to have a voice.

  17. salamander

    May 2, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Alec Marr kept up a barrage of propaganda to members, even sending out text messages the day before yesterday’s meeting, telling members they could still vote by phone. But a call on the number produced only canned music, and no chance to take part in the voting. TWS Inc’s meeting had no agenda anyway, so it is hardly surprising he received flack.

    Save TWS’s meeting has at least provided hope that the organisation can get back on track, focussed on the task it was designed for instead of one man’s private agenda.

  18. Chris Harries

    May 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    There was possibly a valid case that the Wilderness Society was in need of reform, to modernise it structures or streamline its decision making processes. Alec Marr, as the CEO, obviously believed so – and may have even been correct on that point.

    But to bring on the open-aired warfare we have witnessed in recent months is a classic lesson in how NOT to go about internal culture change. Other NGOs should pay close heed.

  19. Paul Oosting

    May 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    The TWS Inc Board were not voted out last night.

    I attended the advertised TWS Inc meeting and most of the other one held by SaveTWS at un-advertised venue, which was sprung on people mid way through the legitimate meeting (which had originally been called by TWS Inc in order to improve the constitution to allow postal voting so that all of The Wilderness Society’s members could participate in future EGM’s and AGM’s – that agenda item was blocked by SaveTWS through an injunction).

    Over 600 people attended the TWS Inc meeting, some in person, some on the phone.

    A small group representing SaveTWS left that meeting and held a separate meeting. About 200 people attended and they are now claiming to have elected a new Board of TWS inc.

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