Veteran Melbourne Press Club committee member Sushi Das has quit the organisation, accusing it of being a “blokes club” and raising concerns over decision-making processes she claims are monopolised by a clique of male insiders.

In a frank and fearless parting shot sent last week to all committee members, and leaked to Crikey, The Age‘s opinion page editor calls on dissidents to nominate for the president’s role at today’s annual general meeting, saying it would be “one step towards addressing the most unfortunate reputation that the club has among Melbourne journalists of being a ‘bloke’s club’.” She wrote:

“During my seven or so years on the committee I have done my best to campaign for more female Quills judges and a more serious consideration of female guest speakers for the Quills.

“Others shared my view that we needed a greater gender balance in club activities — not special favours for women, not tokenism, but a recognition that we should redress an obvious imbalance. Yet I felt that sometimes these efforts were mocked and that I was being goaded.

“This, at times, was humiliating.”

The current MPC 2011 committee contains just six women out of 19 total members, however one woman, Sylvia Bradshaw, recently stood aside after moving from Melbourne’s Leader stable to run the commercial side of The Gold Coast Bulletin.

Crikey understands that at the last MPC committee meeting, Nu Energy spinner Eric Noel elevated Das on to the ballot paper during a fiery debate over gender balance. However this placed her in an invidious position because the other candidate was her boss, senior Age editor Mark Baker. In her email Das declines to accept the nomination but says she will back Baker in the absence of another candidate.

The withdrawal and resignation clears the path for Baker to ascend to the MPC throne, filling the shoes of ex-Nine News boss Michael Venus, who recently upped sticks to Abu Dhabi to spin for Etihad Airways.

But Das’ assessment of the club’s succession planning process is scathing:

“From what I have observed a small group of committee members decide amongst themselves who the next president could be, and without consulting the rest of the committee, invite their chosen person to consider accepting a nomination for the role.

“The process is not inclusive, lacks transparency and effectively allows a small group of people to install whoever they want as president. Of course under the rules, anyone is free to nominate anyone, but we all know this rarely happens.”

Das says it’s in the “club’s best interests to deal with this issue of a kitchen cabinet as a matter of priority” but expresses confidence in Baker, who has apparently promised to reform some structures.

In a response to Das, and CCed to other committee members, MPC titular head and former Age editor Mike Smith defends the club’s processes, explaining the anointment of a new president was forcibly rushed because Venus had to leave quickly for the Middle East. He wrote:

“…Michael had a firm view (as he expressed in committee last week)  that Mark was the best person for the job. I have not heard anyone argue otherwise. Mark ticks the boxes on all criteria. Also, it had been many years since The Age held the presidency.

“Once Michael came to this view and shared it with a number of people who agreed, it would have been inappropriate for him to consult you. It would have placed you in a position almost as uncomfortable as the one you found yourself in last week.”

Under MPC rules, the position of president can be nominated by any financial member and goes to a vote of members if there are multiple candidates. But aside from Das there appears to have been little competition with Herald & Weekly Times committee member Genevieve Brammall and Baker expected to be elected unopposed this afternoon to the positions of vice president and president respectively. Minter Ellison lawyer Peter Bartlett will continue in the second vice presidential posse.

The latest controversy will increase pressure on the Club following Crikey’s revelations last week that Brammall had pressured colleagues to nix a planned launch of Bruce Guthrie’s book Man Bites Murdoch. That story led to Das’ Fairfax colleague, Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn, admonishing the club on Twitter for contradicting “every principle of journalism”.

Here is the email spat between Das and Smith in full:

Dear all,

In the interests of keeping everyone informed I am sending this email to all members of the committee.

I have decided not to accept the nomination for president. And I have also withdrawn my nomination for committee member.

The surprise nomination for president left me in the uncomfortable position of potentially having to stand against not only a colleague, but also my boss. Besides, an election would not have been a good look for the club. I believe Mark Baker will make an excellent president and he has my full support.

All organisations work best when members are honest and open with each other, so I hope you will not mind me speaking frankly. I believe others share my concern over the process by which the club chooses a new president.

From what I have observed a small group of committee members decide amongst themselves who the next president could be, and without consulting the rest of the committee, invite their chosen person to consider accepting a nomination for the role.

The process is not inclusive, lacks transparency and effectively allows a small group of people to install whoever they want as president. Of course under the rules, anyone is free to nominate anyone, but we all know this rarely happens.

It’s important, surely, that people feel free to nominate anyone they want for the president’s role, without them or the nominee feeling they have somehow put a spanner in the works. I think it would be in the club’s best interests to deal with this issue of a kitchen cabinet as a matter of priority.

To do so would perhaps be one step towards addressing the most unfortunate reputation that the club has among Melbourne journalists of being a “bloke’s club”.

During my seven or so years on the committee I have done my best to campaign for more female Quills judges and a more serious consideration of female guest speakers for the Quills. Others shared my view that we needed a greater gender balance in club activities — not special favours for women, not tokenism, but a recognition that we should redress an obvious imbalance. Yet I felt that sometimes these efforts were mocked and that I was being goaded. This, at times, was humiliating.

I am heartened that Mark Baker has indicated to me he is keen to reform some of the club’s processes. That is something to look forward to.

The Melbourne Press Club is an important organisation for journalism in this city. The committee is made up of good people doing good things. Being on the team has been a rewarding experience. I’ve enjoyed being part of the engine that drives the Quill awards and I’m enormously grateful for having had the opportunity to do my bit for Melbourne’s journalistic community. I wish the club well.

Sushi

***

Hi Sushi

Thanks for the note explaining your position. Your efforts as a committee member and chair of the Membership Sub-Committee are acknowledged.

I agree you were placed in a most unfortunate position.

I’d like to share my experience of succession planning based on my 12 years’ experience at the club.  It has been traditional for the outgoing president to manage succession planning. This has been done through consultation with others in the leadership and often with the more active members of the committee and committee representatives of the major media organisations. In my experience, all presidents have considered the following qualities when thinking about their successors –  high or reasonable public and industry profile, senior positioning and good reputation as a journalist/editor/broadcaster, ability to have their phone calls taken in high places, ability to chair a meeting and, preferably, some experience on the committee. This process is good business practice and good governance.

Usually succession planning has taken place over several months as an outgoing president prepared to complete his term.

This year, the process was rushed because of Michael Venus’s  sudden appointment to an overseas job and his absence on leave during the  lead-up to AGM deadlines imposed by our Constitution and/or Rules.

These special circumstances created some clumsiness in the process this year.

That said, Michael had a firm view (as he expressed in committee last week)  that Mark was the best person for the job. I have not heard anyone argue otherwise. Mark ticks the boxes on all criteria. Also, it had been many years since The Age held the presidency.

Once Michael came to this view and shared it with a number of people who agreed, it would have been inappropriate for him to consult you. It would have placed you in a position almost as uncomfortable as the one you found yourself in last week.

As you point out, it is open for anyone to nominate someone for the presidency and it is up to the nominee to decide whether to accept a nomination.

One of the features of our Rules is that the Presidency is decided by the members, not the committee.

That said,  a new presidency is a good time to review our governance. But changes to the Rules require a special meeting of members.

Meanwhile, the duty of committee members is to follow the Rules and act in the best interests of the club.  I have no doubt that the succession process in place for this year’s AGM has been done in the best interests of the club.

Hope to see you at club functions in the future.

Mike

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