The Wilderness Society splits

The tensions between staff and management in The Wilderness Society (TWS) have been building for years. Beginning as a small activist organisation that battled to save the Franklin Dam and won, it has evolved into a large, professional organisation with 45,000 financial members, campaign centres in most capital cities, and 150 paid staff.

Its most recent campaigns have been to stop the proposed Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania, protect wild rivers on Cape York and protect the River Red Gums along the Murray River in Victoria and NSW.

Over the past 10 years, TWS has grown quickly with an annual revenue of $15 million and this growth has put pressure on the organisation.

Executive director Alec Marr wants to continue to “professionalise” TWS, to build it into a much larger organisation that can have a global reach,and have much more serious lobbying power with governments.

This conflicts with the values that TWS was founded on, such as democracy and consensus decision making. Many staff feel that they are excluded from decision making and their views are ignored.

The tension comes down to a fundamental difference about the way forward for the organisation. Some environmental groups, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, use their membership purely to raise money.

A large part of TWS’s membership is also passive — their action is limited to paying monthly donations — but TWS does have a strong volunteer base and regularly organises supporters into rallies to back its campaigns.

For example, TWS threw its weight behind rallies against the pulp mill that attracting as many as 10 000 people in Launceston. These public rallies were a crucial part of swinging public sentiment against the mill.

When management refused to acknowledge issues raised by staff and act on them, staff looked towards the 2009 Annual General Meeting (AGM) at which a new management committee could be elected. Worried about being voted out, management held the AGM in secret in December with just 14 people attending. These 14 re-elected themselves as the management committee and changed the constitution so in future 10% of the membership would have to vote to change the leadership.

The opposition to TWS management is not a minority. After the secret AGM was exposed, 144 staff and volunteers signed a document calling on Marr to resign. All the campaign centres, with the exception of South Australia, have created a new group called Save TWS. This group challenged the legality of the previous AGM, and in April this year the Tasmanian supreme court ruled that the 2009 AGM was invalid.

This cleared the way for a new AGM. On May 2, two meetings were held in Canberra. The purpose of the first meeting, called by TWS management, was to change the constitution to allow postal votes for future AGM’s. But two days before the meeting, a judge ruled that under Tasmanian law it is illegal to change the constitution by phone, so this meeting went ahead without any official business to discuss.

Save TWS called the other meeting for the same place to elect a new management committee. Because Marr refused to close the first meeting, and it was doubtful that the second meeting would be legally valid, Save TWS supporters walked out and held their meeting in another hall close by where 267 members of TWS elected a new management committee.

TWS has now effectively split and there are two management committees, each claiming to be legitimate. Another AGM had been called for the end of June, but it’s not known if this will still go ahead as planned.

What attracts many volunteers and members to TWS is its ability to be an active campaigning organisation that has strong links to its grassroots base. This is what would be lost if the current management committee holds on to power.