Last night the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV) held a Special General Meeting (SGM) at Trinity Grammar to try and resolve its internal issues. Simon Madden was there to report on it.
EDIT 38 December: We have received several requests for people to view and listen to recordings of the SGM, scroll to the bottom if you are that kind of person who wants to follow along at home.
Mike Tomkins (Mike-T) is still the president of the ACAV.
The lead up to last night’s Special General Meeting was fractious. Lots of online heat. lots of shouting and decrying. Lots of playing characters and playing games. Lots of stylised pontificating and heartfelt beseeching and, by my count, only 41 people turned up to Trinity Grammar. A dismal in-person turn out for what was a big occasion in the brief life of a group dealing with issues that cause such passion and angst – access to rock climbing sites in Victoria. Walking towards the school someone commented that they thought there’d be 300 packing the hall clamouring to be heard, I said, ‘Nah there’ll be lucky to be 30.’ Getting my name ticked off the attendees list, behind the table was one of those terrible portraits that grace the walls of private schools; a healthy young face, one of the privileged cherubs who attend this joint, softly illuminated by a radiant glow, staring relaxed and confidently rightwards into what will obviously be a bright future. At least there was plenty of space in the auditorium.
Proxies brought the number of voters up to 273, out of 1600-odd ACAV members; if you are a member of the ACAV, you were six times more likely to not vote than vote. Maybe I don’t really understand voluntary voting patterns in small, disjointed and dislocated community groups. Maybe the membership are not really that engaged. Maybe most of them just didn’t know what the fuck was happening due to it being a right shit show.
Down to business. There were two resolutions up for vote. Resolution 1 – should Mike-T be removed as president. Resolution 2 – should the whole board be sacked. Resolutions required a 75% yes vote to pass (this was no letter-from-the-Queen Whitlam situation).
Committee member, Mike Rockell (Mike-R, who would have stood for president had Mike-T been voted down), delivered a short statement for the board in favour of Resolution 1 – no questions from the audience. I don’t remember his speech containing any substantive charges against Mike-T, though there was mention of defamation threats stymieing a public airing. Other board members in attendance were Goshen Watts, Matt Brooks, Aaron Lowndes, Dick Lodge, Lauren Coman, Mark Woods, Steven Wilson and Leeanne Lindorff.
Current Pres, Mike-T, spoke at length against Resolution 1 – taking a few questions from the audience. His speech focussed on the general work of the ACAV. He grew frustrated at the independents chair’s repeated attempts to have him restrict his remarks to addressing Resolution 1 directly.
When it came to Resolution 2, well, it just went – no one really knew what was happening. No one seemed to know who put it forward or could adequately explain why, so after some blank looking at each other, discussion of Resolution 2 was deemed unnecessary as if everything had already been said. The independent chair tried to keep proceedings on track, but the track was quite wide; still the people I spoke to reckoned he did an alright job of it.
On Resolution 1, the tally came in with 161 in favour of sacking Mike-T, 112 against sacking him.
On Resolution 2, six voted in favour of sacking the whole board, 266 voted against it.
The results can be difficult to interpret but in a democratic process they so often are. So, the majority of the voters expressed no confidence in Mike-T, but not a sufficient enough number to surpass the level needed to bring about change. Australians know that it is hard to pass referenda and the constitutional bar for removing Mike-T was understandably high – a 75% yes vote was required – 59% voted for an ousting, 41% wanted the current gaffer to stay.
Almost unanimously voters – including Mike-T himself and his voting block of proxies – expressed confidence in the board, though you can be forgiven for being confused by that. The board naturally have confidence in themselves, but they do not have confidence in the president. Mike-T can’t work with the board but voted not to remove them as he said he would be voting to remove himself as he was on the board. Right. He also responded (paraphrasing) ‘there needs to be a board as we have work to do’. So, what the hell do the results mean the members want?
Announcement of the results led to more questions and comments from the floor than there were prior to voting. Clearly people in the room had already made up their minds and so pre-voting stump speeches wouldn’t change anything. There were a few who questioned Mike-T’s mandate given the majority view was of no confidence in The Pres. Some asked directly if Mike-T would step down – no, was his answer. People in the crowd expressed disappointment that the disciplinary hearing was not held prior to the SGM so that the membership could vote with complete knowledge. (The disciplinary hearing was stalled due to Mike-T initiating a ‘grievance’ against the board’s disciplinary process and defamation threats probably play some role in it all. It’s hard to get a handle on this as we have seen little detail on the grievance and the disciplinary action.) Most people wanted some commitment to a productive relationship between The Pres and The Board, which was not forthcoming. People wanted to know what now for an organisation so divided.
So what now? Mike-T remains the president of the ACAV. One board member, Steven Wilson, resigned on the spot, walking from the stage immediately as the results were given. The other members of the committee were more circumspect about their futures, with results split between a wait-and-see position to definitely staying as the fight is too important to quit the field, divided in what appeared to be equal numbers. Three committee members were not in attendance (Jackie Bernardi – interstate, Matthew Tait – abstained and some guy named Andrei Svetski who no one appears to know much about) and so their intentions are unknown.
Last night’s results and the ACAV’s infighting bring to the fore questions over what the roles of president and board should be. Mike-T expressed a desire for a reduced number of committee members stating it would make the board more ‘agile’ (read: not belaboured by too many opinions) and functional. The committee refuted this, saying that the number of board members is irrelevant, it is leadership and coherence that are important to good governance.
Some thoughts on Democracy
‘Climbing representation should be more democratic.’ Few would argue against this statement but it bears some thinking about.
Democracy is a word that is thrown around liberally but that doesn’t mean it is widely understood. Claims to democracy can be misleading, we have all learnt to be wary of anyone who has democracy in their name – see DPRK, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the literal embodiment. Equally think about the way that the United States of America, supported by Britain and Australia, used ‘bringing democracy’ as part of the smokescreen for invading Iraq in 2003. ‘Democracy’ is often used when what people actually mean is ‘get my way’ and sometimes you end up with something unsavoury, look no further than Trump, in the White House only by the grace of the electoral college. Democracy is often invoked but rarely interrogated.
In reality, democracy is changeable and contested. There are many different forms that it can take. Thinking only about representative democracy, the people elected can be charged with simply conveying the will of their constitutes or they can be recognised as having special skills and knowledge and so be empowered to also use their own judgement. At the SGM, committee member Goshen Watts provided an example of this by stating that the board is charged with making decisions on behalf of the climbers they represent. Democracy, though, can be direct, in that the citizens must actively participate in the nuts and bolts of decision making, governing directly by deciding on policy initiatives and voting – at the SGM Mike-T entertained the idea of holding referenda of the ACAV membership on key questions.
It’s obvious that the infighting is set to continue. Mike-T is pursuing his grievance against the committee. This administrative process is his rebuttal to the committee’s attempt to hold him to account in a disciplinary hearing. The grievance is allegedly moving towards mediation though Mike-T confirmed that it may take months to work through. Members of the committee confirmed that they will continue to push for a disciplinary hearing. Corporations law is complicated – I am not an expert in it, not even an interested amateur – and like all law it requires interpretation. Based on competing comments last night Mike-T and the board have different interpretations of the grievance/discipline relationship in terms of what cancels what. If you want to know about grievances and disciplinary action, add the Corporations Act to your summer reading list, slot it in between the dictionary and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
To the victor go the spoils, but as the climbing community batters itself once again one wonders just who that is. Apparently access work will be done.
Post script: we have received several requests for video and audio recordings of the ACAV SGM. Apologies for the quality and lack of mic coverage of the room, these were never intended to be a record of proceedings.
Audio of pre-voting
Wrap your ears around an hour-and-a-bit of the pre-voting audio.
Video of results announcement and post-results speech: