Fight looms over MEAA union ‘corporatisation’ push to put in CEO

MEAA1Senior members of the union representing journalists, actors and musicians are calling for a greater debate over moves by the union to scrap the current model of an elected federal secretary in favour of a new system which would see an elected board appointing a CEO.

The push has been privately described by some in the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) as an attempt at a “coup”, coming just weeks after federal secretary Chris Warren announced he would step down after more than two decades at the helm of the union.

That decision had led to strong rumours Fairfax journalist Marcus Strom would become the next federal secretary, with many expecting the first election where there would be an open field for the position in more than 15 years.

However a meeting of the MEAA on March 17 and 18 will now see the union vote on whether to abandon an election for the leadership in favour of what official documents being circulated describe as “a professionalised structure” which would see a CEO appointed by  “senior honorary officers on the MEAA board”.

Among those to come out against the proposal are multi-award winning business journalist Adele Ferguson who told Mumbrella: “I don’t agree with the move to give the Federal Management Committee the power to appoint the next leader of the MEAA. It is far more democratic to allow members to elect their leader. Member involvement in choosing who represents them is a good thing.”

Senior TV producer Andy Nehl said he also had concerns. “I’d generally be of the opinion that members should be able to elect their representatives”, said Nehl, who has produced shows such as The Chaser, Gruen, Hungry Beast and Hamster.

Comedian Dave Callan said he was concerned that the debate was happening “in the shadows” and that members weren’t aware of the major change.

“I wasn’t even aware this was happening until a few days ago,” said Callan. “Its very important that members have a say . Choosing a leader is never an easy thing to do but taking their vote away will only lead to more disengagement.

“The biggest concern we’ve got with this, this isn’t happening publicly or if it is it is happening in the shadows it is not happening in full daylight”.

Many other senior journalists and actors contacted by Mumbrella also expressed concern about the push but declined to go on the record with their concerns.

Federal secretary Chris Warren said he would not characterise the push for a CEO as corporatisation, adding: “This is about modernising the organisation with a democratic model that is relevant to the industry in the 21st Century.

“The organisation has been on a long term process away from having elected officials and having employed staff who are answerable to elected journalists, performers or film makers. This has been a three year process and Federal Council will be looking at considering that.

“It has not been without controversy… once elected it is almost impossible to be unelected and you are not really answerable to people.”

When challenged about whether he had been answerable to membership over his many years in the role Warren said: “Of course I’m answerable to them but I am not subject to direction from the board in the same way an appointed CEO is. I believe I have always responded to the members but it remains the reality and this is true of any union it is almost impossible to be unelected.”

Comedian Charles Firth is one of a number of members to express their concern about the moves and has joined with others to launch a website “MEAA needs democracy.” The website is calling on members to post comments of support on the website.

“I think they are trying to solve the wrong problem,” said Firth. “My concern is that the federal secretary already has too much power. Chris Warren has been there forever — it was the Cold War when he took over — what they are trying to do it that we won’t have that (problem) again by having someone we can sack, but that’s not how CEOs work.

“An effective CEO is a political being who gets very good at organising the people around them. To my mind term limits are the solution — give them two terms and then tell them to move on.”

Yesterday, the MEAA published a list of reasons why an appointed leader would be more beneficial for the union. Warren said a term limits proposal was considered “unattractive”. “That’s never been an attractive option to our union because they don’t want to sacrifice experience for that, but also when you are looking for new staff you need to be able to cast as widely as possible. The skills to enable someone to be elected are not necessarily the skills you need to run an organisation.”

Ben Butler, Vice President of the Victorian Branch of the MEAA also condemned the move as being undemocratic, arguing it would only increase membership disengagement.

“I’m completely opposed to abolishing elections. I think it is a bad idea,” said Butler, who is a business journalists for The Age. “There is a complaint out there that members are disengaged but the solution is not disenfranchisement — that is ridiculous.”

Butler said an election for union secretary was first time many MEAA members would have to vote on the leader of the union.

“This is a chance for members to say what they think the future of the union should be and that should not be taken away from them,” he said.

Morning news editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Marcus Strom declined to comment on the issue, but is thought to be opposed to the corporatisation push.

Nic Christensen 

Declaration: Nic Christensen is a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. 


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