Those who dig the hole will not fill it in….

Those who created the problem and dug the hole, will defend their positions. They will not find bridges or alternate pathways to resolution. The deeper the hole, the more intractable the resolution. The debacle unfolding in the Australian equestrian sporting governance bodies needs intervention. But what?

For those who don’t know Equestrian Australia (EA) is the equestrian sport’s governing body – sets the rules, liaises with the international federation, manages equestrian participation in world events like the Olympics, is the recipient and distributor of Australian Government funding and so on.

There are six state and territory bodies, cleverly named Equestrian Tasmania and so on. They are independent bodies but constitutionally are the ‘members’ of EA with one vote each at AGMs. They appoint the Board Members and history shows they create voting blocks. Riders, judges, coaches are called Participating Members by EA and have no real rights. They are Members of the State organisations where they do have voting rights. The National Body administers their membership payments, and gets about 45 per cent of dues. EA is funded by the Participating Members and federal government grants.

It’s a nightmare in management. No one would set a business up this way. That’s the important point – its not a business that serves itself. It exists to serve the Participating Members. The nightmare is real. Several states are clearly unhappy with EA, they have just been to an AGM and appointed three new Board Members. They now want to hold a Special General Meeting to remove three existing Board Members citing lack of confidence. Equestrian NSW disagreed, so they are a pariah among the States, though 48 per cent of Participating Members come from NSW.

EA is now bringing in the lawyers, testing if the demand to spill the Board is constitutional. I understand why they would do that, but it is that a waste of money. Being correct doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it. I can’t see a pathway in that approach that leads to resolution, only further conflict.

Anyone with an MBA will redraw the structure into a hierarchy, and there have been multiple suggestions from within the sport to do just that. To quote an old saying, ‘if you wanted to go there, you wouldn’t start from here’. The States don’t trust EA so why would they give up power? Even if the membership thought it a good idea, they are disenfranchised and can’t force it. The existing and cumbersome structure in place only works if the players want it to make it work. They are no longer trying, each only wanting to win.

They are defending their holes.

It is all a bit curious really. The EA Board Members were voted in by the States, so no confidence in the Board is surely a recognition of failed nomination process. It seems that the three new Board Members are expected to act under direction of the States. That is poor governance by today’s standards and puts the State Boards in a legally dangerous place.

While I have little doubt as to the dedication and commitment of all Board Members, it is hard to be confident in their expertise to govern and lead a complex entity. These Boards and organisations have challenging and broad legislative and regulatory responsibilities, and a duty to the participants in the sport they lead. It requires professional expertise and education in governance, strategy, risk, compliance and performance – well beyond that found in good-hearted people staffing community association committees of management. It also needs an understanding of enlightened servant leadership that is not in evidence.

If the existing representatives have dug-in and are defending their holes – how do we decide what the future looks like, how do we make that change and how do we get there?

The answer is dislocation. We need to step away from the warring parties and put the decision of the future in the hands of someone else. A logical choice would be the Participating Members, after all it’s their future.

Leave the existing structure in place for 12 months but have the EA Board and the States accept they are in caretaker mode and the future will be decided by the broad participating membership. Seems a hard point to argue that the membership is self determining.

Establish a small team, a Review Team, from outside the existing governance – perhaps three or four individuals with experience in sport, not for profit governance and with dealing with highly charged situations. Give them the task of identifying some implementable governance options that will foster a unified sport. Have them conduct a plebiscite across the membership, then implement the chosen approach.

Two options are easy to define: no change to the current model, or a simple, single hierarchical organisation. There are hybrids such as maintaining the State based organisations who appoint say three directors, three directly appointed by the Board, and three appointed by national vote of membership. There are nuances on how independent State organisations might continue that maintain a local focus and level of independence. I don’t have an answer, I am open to good ideas and a sensible debate.

A plebiscite is certainly achievable with modern technology. If we only got 5 per cent of the Participating Members to cast a vote, that would be an extraordinary increase on today’s engagement where communication is low and influence even less. Set the Review Team a constituency engagement target – that will improve the current fragmented communication. The current federal Public Sector Review has a reasonable model on which to build.

I do know two things – the existing approach isn’t going to resolve itself, and the broad participant membership should be involved in the future of the sport. I doubt wise choices will be made to resolve this debacle without significant nudging.

Given that the participants are disenfranchised, I can only see one influencer of note. The one with the money: SportAustralia.

Will they choose to lead?