How Did We Get Here?

In my last Swimwatch post I discussed the poor performance of New Zealand in the 2017 World Swimming Championships. With good reason I recommended that the Swimming New Zealand Board resign and new ideas and a fresh approach be given a chance to guide the direction of the sport.

Essentially what this means is that the current very central control of the organisation by the Swimming New Zealand Board be replaced by a genuine regional, federal structure. Power and responsibility for performance needs to be devolved down to the people who can actually effect change. Currently people like Cotterell, Miskimmin and McKee who know little and can actually do even less have all the power and the money. In a federal structure their influence would be placed in the hands of people like Jeremy Duncan, Labara Gennadiy, Brigitte Mahan, Martin Harris, Andy Adair, Gary Hollywood, Sue Southgate, William Benson, Emma Swanwick, Judith Wright, Thomas Ansorg, Igor Polianski, Monica Cooper and many others.

Swimming New Zealand should have been governed by a federal structure for several years. In 2011 there was a focussed effort by the NZ swimming Regions to federalize the sport. Instead the opposite happened. A constitution was approved that centralized the sport into an authoritarian oligarchy. It is worthwhile looking at how that happened. In 2011 we were so close to really good reform and it was snatched away. We know the result has been an unbroken series of competitive failures. How did this happen? Who let federal reform slip from our grasp? Who out-maneuverer the reformers and imposed the current discredited and failed structure? Here is what happened.

In 2011 the push for federal reform was being led by the Auckland CEO, Brian Palmer and Bay of Plenty administrator Bronwen Radford. Opposing Palmer and Radford was Sport New Zealand CEO, Peter Miskimmin. Palmer and Radford had done a remarkable job of cobbling together an amalgamation of Regions demanding change. There was a popular demand to move away from central control to federal regional based governance. The Regions had asked for a national special meeting to reform the sport: to introduce democratic federalism. Miskimmin’s vision (called Project Vanguard) of a centralized elite program based around one pool in Auckland was a lost cause – and Miskimmin knew it.

And so he made a decision to call Palmer and invite him to a meeting in Wellington. At that point I knew our reform movement was in trouble. Palmer called me the night before the Wellington meeting to discuss what was likely to happen. We talked on and on until 12.30am. Over and over I warned Palmer that he was walking into a trap. He would be wined and dined – not literally, Palmer is a Mormon and does not drink – and conned into accepting a compromise. I told Palmer he was walking into a lion’s den of bureaucrats. Promises would be made, threats would be hinted at and in the end what we wanted would be lost. Palmer said I had nothing to fear. He could handle it. The movement for reform had not come this far to be lost to some smooth talking Wellington civil servants.

Palmer’s apparent contempt for the people he was dealing with gave me even more cause for concern. These were skilled operators; taking them lightly was extremely foolish. I felt Palmer would be seduced by the charm of Wellington power. Difficult reforms such as this one demand personal courage and an irrational lack of concern for personal safety. I hoped all would be well, but after that phone call, I was concerned Palmer would be eaten alive. Our reform would be lost.

And that is what happened. When he got back from Wellington I called Palmer to find out what had happened. Unlike the night before he was now extremely guarded. He said he could not talk much because all those attending the meeting had accepted a condition of secrecy. I asked whether he thought that was appropriate for a sport that was owned by the membership. Didn’t the membership have a right to know the content of the sport’s most important meeting in one hundred years? Palmer was clearly embarrassed. He ducked and dived. I’m sure he knew that I would see the conclusion of the meeting as a betrayal of all we had fought to achieve.

Over the days that followed the truth emerged. Palmer had backed away from the reform plans and had accepted Miskimmin’s proposal for what became the Moller study and report. Palmer told me that he had no option. If he had insisted on federal reform lawyers would have been called in and court cases would have been the result. All that may or may not have been right – who knows? What we do know is that Palmer folded. He accepted Miskimmin’s position and agreed to the Moller study. In six hours in Wellington Palmer’s decision to abandon the cause and appease Miskimmin began events that have resulted in six years of Swimming New Zealand pain.

A year later the Moller Report was produced and accepted. Far from recommending the federal structure the Regions wanted, Moller recommended even greater central control; an even greater autocratic government. By this time the Regions were tired and beaten up from the fight. They would accept anything in the cause of peace. And at a Special General meeting on 28th July 2012, by a vote of 35 in favour and 13 abstaining, the Mollar plan was approved; the inevitable conclusion of the Wellington 2011 abdication was completed.

The 2011 meeting in Wellington sowed the seeds for the defeat of Regional influence on the sport. When leadership was most required it was not provided. It was a serious error that has had long term serious consequences. The vote at the Special Meeting accepting the conclusion was merely rubber stamping the obvious. It is relevant to question some of the votes at the meeting. The New Zealand Swim Coaches Association voted for the Moller plan. Surely they must have been aware that a central structure was going to rob their members of power and influence. The organisation responsible for the health of coaching voted for its evisceration. Bay of Plenty, the home region of one of the leaders of the reform movement Bronwen Radford, voted for the Moller plan. That was strange about face. And finally Southland, a Region that has always justifiably prided itself on its independence voted in favour of Moller. Had those three votes been different Moller would have lost.

Palmer’s 2011 meeting set in motion events that would hurt swimming in New Zealand for a generation. Last week at the World Championships we began to learn just how serious. None of us, including Swimming New Zealand, know just how far further down the bottom will be.          


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