Address by MEAA Federal President Simon Collins to 2023 Federal Council

This is an edited version of the speech given by MEAA Federal President Simon Collins to open the Federal Council meeting in Sydney on Friday, February 17, 2023.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and to pay my respects to their elders, past and present. I also recognise other First Nations people attending this meeting and pay my respects to them.

My warmest welcome to everyone attending this meeting of the MEAA Federal Council.

I am so pleased that we are finally meeting in person after the disruptions of COVID. It is fantastic to see familiar faces once again – along with so many new ones.

The elections at the beginning of last year resulted in considerable renewal within the ranks of our Federal Council, with 43 new delegates elected in total.

As new leaders, this council provides the best opportunity for you to join in networks across the whole union and get to know leaders from other sections. Be proud that you are part of the history of our union, and I hope that during your term we will see our union continue to grow and develop.

Karen Percy is attending her first Federal Council in her new role as Federal President of the Media Section.

Jason Klarwein is also attending his first Federal Council as Equity Federal President after taking over from Chloe Dallimore towards the end of 2020.

Let me record my appreciation to both Chloe and to Marcus Strom for their time as presidents of Equity and Media, respectively.

And it is great to see Fiona Donovan, President of the Crew Section back for another term.

Our Musicians Section President, Cameron Brook is one of our longest serving Board members – and is unable to attend this week due to performance commitments in Perth.

And of course, I am also delighted to welcome our Chief Executive Erin Madeley for her first Federal Council in that role. Most of you will know Erin already, and if you do not, you’ll soon discover that her enthusiasm for our union is infectious. Erin has brought a strong vision and she is an incredible unionist and passionate advocate for all sections of the MEAA.

Could I also acknowledge that this union would not be in the position of strength it is today without Paul Murphy’s commitment and leadership over seven years.

Yesterday, you met in separate groups to discuss the strategic plans for each of the sections of the union, identifying priority areas for campaigning and the tactics and resources we need to grow power and to win in the workplace and beyond.

Federal Council is where we spend two days working together on how to build a stronger union. At this Council we aim to engage everyone in discussion around three general themes which go to the heart of our strategy:

• decent, safe, and quality jobs,

• organising the unorganised, and

• winning beyond the workplace.

MEAA aspires to respect, acknowledge and work positively with First Nations people. Council will receive a report regarding our organising and engagement with First Nations members. This is not a tick a box exercise, it is work that is undertaken as part of a broad reconciliation agenda.

* * *

Since the last Council, one of the most demanding challenges for our members, their industries and our union was COVID. We know COVID continues, and the challenge will continue.

I am proud of MEAA’s quick and decisive action – which minimised the impact on our members and our union. We took on the Government for ignoring many of our members and we acknowledged the financial distress to members by creating fee relief. We were also responsible employers supporting our staff in every way that we could.

The cost of living continues to be a challenge to those who remain in the industry and was the reason why many were forced to leave.

As a union, our priority over this period has always been to focus on our members. At its heart, a union is a community, and we know – because they have told us – that our members felt that sense of solidarity was crucial in the darkest of times.

We stuck to the strategic plan adopted by this Federal Council in February 2020. We determined that we would not allow COVID to distract us from the opportunities to build a bigger, stronger, and better union. While we have not hit all our targets, that decision has certainly paid off.

We are in decent shape and I know that like me, you will have been buoyed by the reporting of the growth, the organising successes and the financial stability that we have maintained.

* * *

Our job here is to look to the future, informed by the lived experience of our members.

As always, we cannot rely on governments alone to give us what we need. They change, and even with a progressive government, interests don’t necessarily align with ours. In a rapidly changing world, we cannot predict what will happen nor what may cause significant change.

This does not distract from the fact that the election of the Albanese government last year was a game changer. We have already seen positive reforms, like the National Cultural Policy, the end of the war on the ABC, and the first tranche of workplace law reform.

Ultimately, governments respond to community pressure. As the largest and most established union and industry advocate for cultural workers, the community looks to us to lead and show direction, to lobby for change and to push for a better deal. And we are well positioned to do that.

In her first weeks on the job, Erin was included in consultations for both the cultural policy and for the workplace law reforms. MEAA’s submissions were well received and we made a meaningful contribution to that discussion.

If we want to be an effective union, we need to win beyond the workplace. We must connect with the community so that the work our members do is protected and valued and respected at all levels.

It needs to be constantly reinforced that without MEAA members informing, entertaining, and reflecting the Australian community, civil society would stagnate, quality of life would decline, social disfunction would accelerate and democracy would weaken.

We need to educate the community that we exist not only for entertainment but for a decent and civilised society. This is so important for the protection of press freedoms and journalistic independence.

Campaigns like Make It Australian and Hands Off Our ABC have been successful because they have done just that.

Over the next two days you will hear a lot about our strategic campaign for a comprehensive cultural agenda.

Art, creativity, and culture are central to our lives and essential for community well-being and a vibrant civil society – whether it be reading a piece of investigative journalism, seeing a new film at the local cinema, or listening to music on your daily jog.

* * *

I want you to be focused on the fact that you are here as leaders of the whole union and not just your section of the union. We must go forward together as one union respectful of our various creative disciplines yet knowing that our sustainability relies upon internal solidarity.

I also want to remind you that it is so important that despite having a more approachable Government, we cannot relax and hope that politicians will do it for us. They will not. It is our job, not theirs, to represent our industries and workers.

We had to work hard in defence of our union under the previous government and now we must move into offence and seize this opportunity.

I feel strongly that we need to be vigilant and use this time to strengthen and position ourselves so that when the political situation inevitably changes, we are stronger.

My own union activism was ignited nearly 40 years ago. The management of our symphony orchestras was painfully inadequate, and our union was missing in action… even in collusion with our bosses. Working conditions fell way below international standards and overuse injuries were rife. I, along with a few colleagues, determined that things could be so much better.

We learned to be activists. We learned that a good crisis is a golden opportunity to organise. We learned to be leaders.

We organised 500 workers across six states – and there was no internet then. We trained ourselves to negotiate and to represent ourselves in the industrial tribunal. We forced the change that was needed. We restructured how our work was scheduled. We reduced injury rates of musicians. And we advanced our pay. That movement evolved into SOMA.

Today, MEAA members in every section face crises – golden opportunities to organise.

Insecure work predominates right across our Union. Thousands of good journalist jobs lost – to be replaced by freelancers and bloggers paid piece rates by the word. Freelance dancers, actors and musicians exploited by a broken system. Crew members working dangerously long shifts under constant threat and with inadequate contracts.

So, I am asking you to remember this is what you are here to do. You are our leaders. Our job goes way beyond the governance of the union. The staff are incredibly dedicated to our cause and well-managed. They are implementing our strategic plans. What we need to do is to work in total solidarity with all in the union. We must be leaders and be active in our roles.

Enhancing participation in cultural activity is crucial. Participation leads to demand, which leads to good jobs for our members and better civil society outcomes. Every lever of public policy and investment must be directed towards increasing participation in cultural and creative activity.

The National Cultural Policy is a good start, but it is very much a blank canvas. It is up to us what we do to ensure real outcomes for our members. It’s not just a case of sitting back and calling for more funding. We must engage with the wider community at a grassroots level to increase recognition of the work of our members and to make cultural practice a central part of who we are as a nation.

Connecting with community also means being representative of society. We cannot be, or be perceived to be elitist, monocultural, monoracial or gender biased. Our objective must be a union that is as diverse as the society it comes from – not in a tokenistic way, but genuine diversity in our leadership as well as our membership.

It means taking a stance on issues that matter to our broader community:

• elevating the profile of First Peoples and advancing the cause of reconciliation;

• the humane treatment of refugees;

• advocacy for the LGBTQIA+ community;

• the restoration of press freedom, including the plight of Julian Assange.

* * *

At the end of the day, despite the physical changes to workplaces, the requirements of workers from their union are still the same: to advance their pay and conditions, to protect their rights at work, to ensure they have healthy and safe working environments, and to give them a voice in the workplace.

MEAA is up to the task. Looking around this room, we have the experience, the talent, and the commitment within our union to meet the challenge head on, and to win.

Federal Council is a forum for robust but respectful dialogue and discussion. Over the next two days, I am looking forward to hearing debate about substantive, strategic issues, and the future direction of the union so that when we conclude tomorrow afternoon, we will emerge united and energised.

Let’s get on with it.

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