Corporate logic trumps democracy: the AASW poised to remove the right of members to elect the National President

podcts whit text psdThe AASW has released a discussion paper proposing changes it would like to see agreed to at the next AGM in November. (You will have had an email about it- and you had until June 29th to comment.)

In relation to electing the National President the Paper states,

“..the National President and National Vice President will be elected by the Board from amongst their number on an annual basis, rather than be elected by the members..The President being elected by the Directors rather than the members is the usual practice in contemporary association governance. This is because the Directors will have closer experience in working with potential office bearers than the membership at large. The primary role of the President is to chair and manage the work of the Board. This means that the Directors are in a better position to assess who would best perform this role.” (my emphasis)

A “closer experience”? It is quite possible that many Directors will be meeting each other for the first time.  The Board is asking the members to leave these decisions to the grown-ups because they know best. Am I the only one who feels patronised?

In fact, the current Constitution is rather more expansive about the role, stating that the President,

 is available to consult with the CEO and delegated staff on Company matters between Board meetings;

c) represents the Board and the Company between its meetings;

d) reports all important interim actions to the Board;

e) in consultation with the Board, nominates convenors of all national committees who are ratified by the Board;

f) is an ex-officio member of all Company Boards, committees and other Company forums (excluding the ethics panel) but must not be appointed as a convenor of a national committee or a division of the Australian College of Social Work while holding the office of the National President;

g) assumes portfolio responsibilities for national committees as outlined in the By Laws and determined by the Board;

h) shall regularly communicate with members about the Company, its operations and issues affecting the profession;

This proposal will in effect downgrade the role of President to an annually elected chair of the Board. Currently, the President is a guide, mentor and Board communication conduit for the CEO, as well as being the public face of the profession. The AASW proposal seeks to put these duties in the “governance charter”- where of course they can be changed at the whim of any future Board without consultation.

Democracy is the wisdom of the crowd – and direct elections that involve all eligible voters are truly consequential. If the US election had been directly decided by the voters, Hilary Clinton would be President, have gotten 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. Similarly, if the Labor Party had directly elected their leader, it would not have been Bill Shorten, and if the Greens members had had their say, it would not have been Richard Di Natale.

Stripping students of voting rights

Another dubious idea  floated in the Discussion Paper is to deprive student members of the right to vote. The paper states,

“It is common in an association of professionals for Student Members not to have voting rights until they become a full and qualified member of the profession. Not all Student Members will go on to become social workers. Completion rates for students undertaking Bachelor of Social Work courses hover are around 64%, with lower completion rates for students who study off-campus, are part-time, are mature-age students, have low ATAR scores or are of low socio-economic status.” (my emphasis)

I find this deeply offensive on many levels. Students are adults. As prospective social workers they have (up until now) had the right to participate in choosing their professional leaders. What is the relevance of ATAR’s and completion rates? Could they have kept the right to vote if they were smarter and more well off? Does the fact that it is “common” elsewhere for students not to vote make it right? Has conformity become a guiding principle of the AASW?

There are around 15,000 social work students in Australia. The AASW has been able to enrol a paltry 10% of these students as members. Our students are graduating into a precarious work environment. Full time permanent jobs are diminishing. Temporary contracts are the norm, and private practitioners’ incomes fluctuate with the whim of government. We need to enrol far more students as members now! Having a commitment to social justice and building the social work profession means being inclusive and fostering diversity. It also means being as democratic as possible.

Moving messy stuff (State Branches, The College, Ethics Committee) into the by laws

The proposal states,

The Australian College of Social .. is not a part of the governance structure of AASW. It is more appropriate that the rules around the College are placed in internal policy documents or the by-laws, rather than in the constitution.

And

.. branches are not a part of the governance structure of AASW. It is more appropriate that the rules around branch operations are placed in internal policy documents or the ByLaws, rather than in the Constitution.

6.2 The current clauses B15 and B16 regarding payment of capitation fees will be removed. The allocation of the Association’s finances is the responsibility of the Board based on the agreed plan and budget. As the Branches are not separate legal entities, the management and control of funds rests with the AASW Board and under delegated authority to the CEO.

And

Current rule D20 lists 3 mandatory Board committees. This will be amended so that the only mandatory Board committee will the Finance, Audit & Risk Committee. The Constitution should give the Board flexibility to set up (and cease) other committees as required (my emphasis)

 The Discussion Paper doesn’t bother to tell us what these committees are. And so -a reminder- the 3 committees are Finance, Risk Management and Ethics. In effect, 2 committees are being combined and the Ethics Committee will be banished to the Bylaws or another sub document. Ethics is the main purpose of our profession! Our heart and soul.

Whilst lip service is paid to the Branches, the College and the Code of Ethics , once they are removed from the Constitution to the Bylaws, they can be radically changed or abolished without consulting the membership at all. Any current Board that seeks to reassure that such a thing could never happen, cannot guarantee the action of future Boards.

So why make it possible? The net effect is to unnecessarily centralise power and diminish diversity. The Branches, The College, and our ethics experts need a measure of power, authority and relative independence.

The AASW is a broad church. Whether it be College experts; brilliant researchers; ethicists, branch committees; or mature aged students, struggling to finish their degree whilst keeping food on the table; all are entitled to a voice. We need a constitution that is a platform for a robust exchange of ideas, not a cosy consensus amongst a handful of powerbrokers behind closed doors.

Some of the key values of social work are empowerment, inclusion and participation. Let our structures embody our values. I hope the membership give this emerging monoculture a reality check.

The AASW want the membership to approve these changes at the AGM in Perth in November this year. The consultation process around these proposed changes has been very poor to date.

If you are as worried as I am, join those who want a longer, more inclusive and comprehensive consultation process. Sign this online petition so that we can slow down this process and make it more transparent and inclusive.

Click here to go to the petition at change.org

 

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3 Responses to Corporate logic trumps democracy: the AASW poised to remove the right of members to elect the National President

  1. David Gould says:

    This anti-democratic measure is the AASW equivalent of today’s news that Turkish President Erdogan seeking to abolish the prime minister, centralise parliamentary power in his executive rule.. these reforms are less of a reform and more of a legislated coup d’grace , in which democracy is further weakened.

    Democracy? A joke. It was mortally weakened when optional preferential voting was abolished, and now we are expected to trust non social worker so-called experts with our membership association? We’re expected to trust an oligarchy of elected and non-elected directors to select from amongst themselves our national president?

    Branch Presidents need to speak up and oppose this measure which will be the nail in the coffin of any real place for them. The Australian College of Social Workers ought to be smart enough to see that being dependent on the grace and favour of a handful of directors who will be even less accountable than they are now.

    It seems this year’s election will be a battle between the regime and those of us who want more for our membership fees that to be governed and trickle fed ideological spin.

  2. Vittorio Cintio says:

    My colleague Brian Wooller has kindly allowed me to republish below his feedback to the AASW on this issue.
    ……. there area number of points I would like to make re the discussion paper and the proposed changes to the constitution. I have had a long association with the AASW serving at the Branch and national levels in a variety of elected roles and was involved in the last major overhaul of the constitution. I am also a life member.

    The background information is not totally accurate and creates a misleading stage for the changes. The AASW was set up principally to advance the profession, protect its members, set standards for education and practice and stand for the principles and values of the profession to the wider community. It was in its early life a federally registered Trade Union with a federated structure of a Federal Executive Council of all Branches and a Federal Executive for day to day management. The union registration was surrendered as a result of a plebiscite which led to the formation of the AASW and the Australian Social Welfare Union. Prior to its registration as a company it is not true to say that it was an unincorporated association, The Western Australian (WA) and South Australian (SA) Branches were both incorporated under there respective State laws ( it was a federation of Branches). When it was decided to become a national legal entity with a move to the ACT (which was not self governed at the time) it was refused registration as an incorporated body under the ACT ordinance and was left with the only option to become a legal entity via the company ordinance of the ACT. In doing so it there had to register separately in all jurisdictions as “foreign” company which required the disincorporation of WA and SA. This new arrangement was done on the clear understanding that Branches would retain their autonomy and authority over their functions and assets. This of course was eroded with an increased trend to reduce Branch involvement (originally each Branch provided a Director with a Nationally elected Executive). The single entity was all the go and a reduced Board all of whom were elected by the membership. The removal of capitation to Branches will complete this with Branches simply being agents of the centre with no real direct power. This was all contributed to by the decision of all State governments agreeing to a uniform company law at the federal level. Governance then became the focus which effectively meant compliance to rules external to the AASW such as the Companies Act etc. Membership, the essential reason for the AASW continued to take a back seat to corporate requirement.

    Some comment on the content.

    1. In a multi cultural environment the objects should not only focus on advancing ATSI social work, it needs to see social work in its broadest sense. The objectives as proposed have weakened rather than strengthened the raison d’être.
    2. I was unaware that students had voting rights, certainly not during the time of my involvement.
    3. With a minimum of 5 Directors, 2 of whom are non elected, gives too much authority to too few and could easily lead to poor decision making or at worst leave the way open to corruption. A quorum can be as low as 3.
    4. Why restrict appointed Directors to “one of whom may be ATSI descent. These 2 positions need to go to cover deficits in the Board and should be open to the best available, not bound by ethnicity.
    5. The election of the President by the Membership is part of the tradition of the AASW. If annual election to this position occurs it should be retitled Chair and Deputy Chair. Usual practice doesn’t make it the best option, tradition is important. Also, annually doesn’t aid continuity.
    6. Interesting that with the current situation there doesn’t appear to be too much corporate knowledge retained.
    7. Suggestions re Branches and the college effectively takes them out of the decision making frame and leaves them totally at the mercy of the Board, certainly not in accordance with the undertaking made when the AASSW became a company ( so much for the retention of corporate knowledge).
    8. 6.2 makes it clear that Branches have lost any autonomy or opportunity to develop, a sad day.
    9. 7,2 And if there are 5 Directors a quorum is 10.
    10. Technical requirements in relation to the law need to be clearly separated out from the other changes, they have little option to be ignored.

  3. Sylvia Ramsay says:

    I had made a submission at the time and the post above mostly covers it. I am glad to see that the reduction in quorum is highlighted (see point3).

    As a current postgraduate social work student I was going to add my perspective about the ‘voting’ of students. It seemed to me to be very inconsistent with the profession’s ethical guidelines to restrict students from voting because many face significant social and economic barriers that may mean they won’t succeed in getting qualified. Surely we have an ethical obligation to welcome and include such people? Wouldn’t their perspectives be invaluable insuring that the AASW remains relevant and not a top down patronising organisation? Irrespective of their academic achievements these people have real life experience that should be heard to ensure the AASW remains inclusive.

    Also as a student I have donated significant amounts of time and effort to benefit the AASW, setting up and doing work that made AASW events possible. Student members of the AASW really want the organisation to be successful. I sincerely doubt that ‘students’ as group would use their voting power to nefarious ends.

    I understand that there has been concern among some students that it is very difficult to undertake the placement blocks if one has to work to support one’s self while studying, or if one has children or other dependents. There have been calls to make the placement more flexible. I would hate to think that our representative organisation would be attempting to make the problem ‘go away’ rather than finding ways to assist people to negotiate a situation that is largely created by larger socio-economic forces.

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