Seven reasons to abstain from approving amendments to the AASW Constitution

At the AASW 2015 AGM a number of constitutional amendments are being proposed. These proposals were the subject of a discussion paper in March this year and comments were invited. One could reasonably have expected, at the very least, that comments or submissions would have been published on the AASW website. And at best, that there could have been some online discussions on the back of comments received. Sadly neither occurred.

I sent a submission last June, based largely on my previous blog post on the topic and received a polite thank you- and then…. nothing.

After publishing this post, I sent a version of it to the AASW, asking that it be published in the interests of fair and balanced discussion. The answer? A polite no. I then sent the AASW a number of questions based on my concerns. These have been published. Tricky to find- and so I have provided a direct link here.

I have incorporated the answers in this piece. You will see that I am less than impressed with the AASW responses, but I would like you to make your own judgements.

My reasons for abstaining from these proposals are set out below.

The problem of putting diverse amendments as a “take it or leave it” package

Some the amendments are important and others routine. All the amendments are however being presented as one package. This means that members cannot pick out and vote in favor of the proposals they agree with, whilst voting against others. Personally I am comfortable with longer terms of office and other routine matters that provide for fair elections or alignment with corporate law. But the amendments are being put as a “take or leave it” lump. I am therefore compelled to vote for abstention, until my concerns can be addressed, and the amendments are presented separately further down the track.

None of the proposals are urgent. There is no reason why they cannot be deferred for further consideration. I therefore urge all members who cannot attend the AGM to carefully consider the AASW proposals and send in an abstention proxy if any of the proposals is not to their liking.

The considered AASW response is

” the Board has thoroughly reviewed and endorsed the changes and it is because they see them as important and uncontroversial that they are presenting them to members at the AGM to be accepted with a single vote. This is also seen by the AASW’s lawyer as best practice for Constitutional amendments because a single vote will ensure consistency in the outcome”

The plain english translation is- trust the Board assessment that all these matters are related and uncontroversial, and beside our lawyer tells us it is best practice.

Sorry, not good enough. A lot of the amendments are unrelated and controversial. I also need to know why something is supposedly “best practice”.

Stripping our values and principles from the Constitution

I find it distressing that this issue was not even canvassed in the March governance discussion paper; i.e., the proposal to completely expunge the section on the values and principles that inform our code of ethics. These include belief in the equal worth of all human beings, respect for others (including compassion fairness, equity and justice), belief in collaboration as the cornerstone of effective practice, high quality social work service provision, respect for privacy, the promotion of human rights, and positive change that brings about growth and development for human beings. These values should be regularly reviewed- but certainly not deleted.

The proposed deletion has been justified by legal advice that the Constitution is not the “appropriate” document to detail values. Lawyers tell us that a constitution should only set out a company’s rules and legal requirements. According to the AASW,

“The risk of not following this particular piece of legal advice is that the Constitution is used inappropriately and therefore not for its proper purpose. This particular proposal is about moving, not deleting, language to its proper document. It’s an administrative change to ensure the Constitution remains contemporary.”

I struggle to think of an instance where one could use our values “inappropriately” if they remain in our constitution. Can you? In the corporatist universe the Code of Ethics is informed by …..well… the Code of Ethics. In reality the Code of Ethics has the same status as any other by-law. It should be guided by a higher set of principles. And what more logical place is there for those principles to be found than in our Constitution? We are above all else a professional association. Without our values in the Constitution, the AASW moves towards being a corporate shell.

Locking membership eligibility clauses into the constitution to protect the members from future rogue Boards

Some readers may be puzzled by the need for membership eligibility clauses to be locked into the Constitution. Currently the Constitution allows for broad consultation before the Board makes any changes. This proposal is a bit like putting an extra deadlock on your door, because you’re afraid that the existing one is not enough.

There a many things that frighten me- global warming, free market fundamentalism, and the erosion of social capital -to name a few. But I am not frightened of the prospect of a rogue board betraying the will of the majority of AASW members. I trust my fellow members to behave ethically and democratically.

Even if you think my trust is naïve, and the extra deadlock on the door makes you feel safer, be aware that unless the constitution includes the entire body of our accreditation standards, and lists every approved university course, it is still actually the Board that decides who is eligible for membership, because it is the Board, not the membership that approve accreditation standards, which can be changed at any time. The Board also decides which universities meet those standards. Future “rogue” Boards can simply change university accreditation standards without having to change the Constitution.

The AASW simply confirm my analysis when in response to my question about this the Board states,

“As with any changes to our core values, any changes to our core education standards would be undertaken in consultation with members and stakeholders and following a full review of the ASWEAS.”

The current Board also claims that this amendment will assist our registration campaign. In reality, our campaign for registration is over, and there is not a shred of evidence that this amendment would help to revive it.

The need to make provision for accrediting overseas qualifications

There is no provision for the current practice, which often involves granting membership eligibility to overseas applicants with 3-year degrees and sufficient experience deemed to make up the difference. Additionally, applicants from New Zealand with 3-year social work degrees are granted eligibility in a special deal that the AASW has with that country. I have no problem with this, but I cannot see how, on any plain reading of the proposed amendment, that any allowance is made for this.

The AASW response is as follows,

The key principles in international qualifications recognition are comparability and outcomes, not equivalence and inputs. The AASW’s role as a skilled migration assessing authority is to determine whether an applicant has the key transferable skills and knowledge required to evidence the competencies needed to practice social work in Australia, not a comparison of the structure as to how these were acquired. In operating an international qualifications assessment program, it is not possible or reasonable to require an exact match of course structure and content between countries. Further, the AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) global education standards which are intended to promote the individuality and uniqueness of national standards while acknowledging the commonalities needed to compare diverse training programs throughout the world; to facilitate movement of social workers between countries; and to identify core purposes of social work globally, while still maintaining and valuing national/local creativity and innovation in social work education. Furthermore, the IFSW/IASSW states that “from an ethical point of view the migration of those social workers that wish to practice in another country should be enabled and not blocked” (IFSW, 2012).

I am comfortable with all the above, but it misses my point. Anyone reading our proposed Constitution would not have a clue about any of the above.

We have a contract with the Federal Government to assess overseas credentials for skilled migration. The AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work global education standards. The values of the IFSW/IASSSW as stated above should be the enshrined in the membership section of our constitution to provide the ethical underpinning of our work in assessing overseas credentials.

Barring students from standing for high office

The proposed amendments prohibit student members from being elected to the National Board or to the offices of Branch President or Branch Vice President.

The AASW rationale is as follows,

” it is not appropriate or reasonable for a person who does not hold the qualification for a profession to be responsible for or represent that profession. Further, to allow this would serve to diminish the importance of the qualification.”

I consider students to be colleagues and I have learnt a lot from them over the years.

May I remind you that the average age of a social work graduate is 30 and that we have many outstanding student members with invaluable experience and qualifications in other fields.

It is crucial to point out that elected offices are political offices. It is voters who decide fitness for office, and what perspective a candidate might offer.(including a student perspective)  Provisions that bar entire categories of people from standing for office do not pass any test of democracy.

Some boards also actively seek people with a particular perspective- for example consumer, legal or finance expertise.

Imagine the reaction to a proposal that only people who had successfully completed year 12 of high school would be allowed to stand for parliament?

We have thankfully arrived at a point where we allow voters to decide the particular merits of any candidate on an individual basis, rather than barring whole categories of people as being unsuitable. We can trust our members to sort it out.

Deleting the requirement that Branch Presidents be required to participate in annual strategic planning.

The March governance discussion paper stated that,

The Branches are integral to the functioning, success and relevance of the AASW. The Board, Branches and members have identified that the role of the Branches is not as well protected as it should be in the Constitution. A key goal of this review is to better define, strengthen and protect the proper role of Branches in the Constitution..”

It is currently a constitutional requirement that Branch Presidents be involved in annual strategic planning. It is therefore quite bewildering that the Board is proposing deletion of this requirement. Removing this to a governance document simply means that it is no longer guaranteed. It is a further step in eroding the already diminishing power and influence of the Branches; the exact opposite of the intentions stated in the governance paper. The AASW now states,

“references to strategic planning and operational issues are not relevant to a Constitution.”

Really? It begs the question of why the Branches are in the Constitution at all?

Abolishing the Board Executive Committee

Currently the Constitution requires that an Executive Committee be established, consisting of the National President, two Vice Presidents and the CEO. The AASW states that “governance and legal advice is that this is not best practice, as Executive Committees can create a real or perceived ‘Board within a Board’.” Why is it not best practice? I have never before encountered the phrase- “Board within a Board”. Where does it come from?

My experience of Boards suggests that there are greater risks of concentration of power in finance committees.

During my time as Vice President, everyone involved valued the diversity of views and robust testing of options in Executive meetings. There are risks involved in concentrating more power in the hands of the President. Has this been considered? We don’t know- because the process has been less than transparent.

The constitution defines relationships not just for the current Board but also for all Boards. The logical consequence of the proposed amendments is to dispense with Vice Presidents altogether. After all what is the point of a Vice President?

The essence of the AASW response is that the change will,

“remove any perception of too much power resting with the National President and Vice Presidents.”

Frankly this response simply evades the question.

Capacity of Board Directors found in serious ethical breach to delay termination of membership

Our Ethics By-Laws provide for the termination of membership of members found to have seriously breached our Code of Ethics. But it appears that we have legal advice “that the Corporations Act deals with breach of fiduciary duty by a Director and it is not appropriate to use the Ethics By-Laws in that context. If a Director refused to resign as a Director as a result of a breach of fiduciary duty, then removal by a general meeting would need to be sought.”

It beggars belief that Board Directors are exempt from routine termination of membership in these circumstances. Common sense would suggest that if a Director is no longer eligible to be a member of the AASW it should also be impossible to continue to be a Director.

I am not satisfied that this issue has been thoroughly explored and would like to see the legal advice. We all need to be completely satisfied that all legal avenues have been exhausted in finding a means for Directors to be subject to termination of membership in the way that all other members are.

Just as importantly, if it does turn out to be the case that the only way of getting rid of an unethical Director is through a general meeting then the mechanism for this must be spelt out in detail within the Constitution. Who would call this meeting? In what time frame? Who prepares the brief and motions for the meeting? How is the meeting funded? Without robust provisions for the immediate triggering of a general meeting, a rogue Director could drag out a legal process for months or years and expose the AASW to enormous legal costs and ongoing reputational damage.

The AASW response is less than comprehensive!

Clauses C.6 and C.7 of the current Constitution already set out the provisions for the calling of a general meeting. No changes are proposed to clauses C.6 and C.7.

 Clause C.6 cannot apply since corporate law dictates that directors cannot remove other directors. Clause C.7 requires 100 members or 5% of the membership to initiate a general meeting. How would the members know? Well….the names of members who are found to be ineligible for AASW membership due to serious ethical misconduct are published on the AASW website. (Seriously, this is the AASW answer to my questions on this issue) When is the last time you looked at this list? If this is genuinely the only way we can be rid of a director found to be ineligible for membership- then there must be an automatic trigger in the constitution for a general meeting to speedily deal with the matter.

Send your proxy to the AASW

If you share my concerns on any or all of the above matters, remember that they are being put as a package- not as separate proposals.

I will be attending the AGM to speak in favor of abstaining on the package. Many of the proposals need further consideration. Just as importantly they need to be put as separate amendments at our next general meeting, so that members have a real choice about voting for or against all items on a case by case basis.

If you would like me to hold your abstention proxy at the AGM you can download the form here, fill it in and send it to the AASW by Wednesday November 25th.  If you wish you can send it to me and I will forward it to the AASW for you.

If you allocate your proxy to me,  my membership number is 200763.

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