When Reform Fails

By David

Almost always efforts to reform swimming in New Zealand have failed. Usually those in power simply waited until the reformers ran out of steam; a condition that never took all that long. Occasionally, a determined opposition successfully demanded that a token remit be passed at an Annual Meeting. Flushed with success, the revolutionaries trooped off back to New Plymouth, Napier, Nelson and Auckland confident that this time things would be different. Of course they never were. The remit was either never ratified or was stamped and forgotten. Life in Wellington went on as normal. Swimming New Zealand knew full well that even the most determined reformers were too tired to go through all that again.

However the effort to bring about reform in 2012 was different. In this case the opposition was made of sterner stuff. It was better organized, its leaders were determined, it had generous popular backing and it had the support of a sympathetic media. The revolutionaries even had a name. They called themselves The Coalition of Regions. All the conditions necessary to ensure victory were in place. Success on this occasion was not going to require the skills of a Lenin or a Castro. This should have been a walk in the park. But alas it was not to be. The opportunity was there; the conditions were perfect; it was the chance of a generation and The Coalition of Regions blew it.

At first The Coalition of Regions was formed to oppose an effort by Swimming New Zealand to sell a concept called Project Vanguard. This scheme proposed that the sport change from a federal diversified structure to a form of central unitary management control. Massive resources were poured into promoting the plan. I’m not sure how much Swimming New Zealand spent trying to persuade its members that Project Vanguard was the way things needed to be done. There certainly would not have been much change out of $500,000.

But The Coalition of Regions had right on its side. Wellington never stood a chance. The Regions were not about to vote themselves into oblivion. Swimming New Zealand was in a corner and knew it. If you will excuse the pun, Project Vanguard was dead in the water. If Project Vanguard was going to succeed a change of direction was required. Sport New Zealand, in the form of its CEO, Peter Miskimmin, was called in. After all if Project Vanguard failed Miskimmin’s organization had much to lose. It was clearly going to be more difficult for Miskimmin to control a federation of strong swimming Regions than govern a handpicked Board in Wellington. The Coalition of Regions was flown to Wellington. Earnest discussions were held and important Confidentiality Agreements were signed. In every way the Coalition members were wined and dined, patted and preened. In a skilful display of persuasion, flattery and coercion Miskimmin did in one day what Project Vanguard had failed to do in six months. He rolled The Coalition of Regions.

By the time the Coalition members were in a taxi on their way back to the airport it was all over. The sport of swimming had been sold out by those the membership had charged with the task of their defence. The poacher had turned gamekeeper. The freedom fighters had thrown in their lot with the occupying power; had become collaborators. And then Miskimmin did what he does best. He got the members of the Coalition of Regions to sign a water tight confidentiality agreement. No one could talk to anyone. Coalition administrators went to Wellington as representatives of their regional membership. They came away not willing or able to talk to their members. That was treasonous and should not be forgotten. And it took one day.

From then on it was all pretty simple. The hard work had been done. The opposition had been silenced. A skilled operator called Chris Moller was hired to write the new Project Vanguard Constitution. A Special General Meeting was called. Subtle and not so subtle threats were made to ensure the Special General Meeting vote would not be a problem. Not that any threats were necessary. The Coalition of Regions was over. There was no opposition. Oh, Auckland tried to make much of the fact that it abstained from voting for the new Project Vanguard Constitution. But abstaining only made New Zealand’s biggest region look weak and a touch pathetic. If Auckland had sufficient reservations to abstain, then it should have had the courage to vote no.

And that’s pretty much where we are today. You see the problem with losing a battle like this one is you end up in a worse position than you were at the start. That has certainly been the result in the case of swimming. Skilled operators like Miskimmin and Moller saw the turmoil in swimming as an opportunity. And the naivety of the Coalition of Regions did the rest. Sport New Zealand was allowed to impose a far tougher, far worse Project Vanguard Constitution than Swimming New Zealand had been plugging for in the first place. The Coalition of Regions’ ineptitude was stunning. The sport ended up with a Project Vanguard Constitution. The opposition was defeated and in disarray. Gone was the determination to fight. Gone was the resolve to do what was right. Game, set and match to Miskimmin and Moller.

Or was it? No, I do not think so. Long before there was a Coalition of Regions, long before there was Miskimmin or Moller, there was this sport’s loyal opposition, searching for a better way. And there still is. We have not been rolled. Swimwatch has not been silenced. We may be of no concern to Miskimmin and Moller but we will continue to champion the cause of federalism and independence in sport. We will continue to oppose centralization and state control of swimming in New Zealand. To their cost, Jan Cameron, Mike Byrne and Murray Coulter discounted us once. Let’s hope Miskimmin and Moller make the same mistake; with the same result.

I have written this potted history of what went on last year as an independent record. The spin – there are some who would call it lies – that comes from the Swimming New Zealand PR machine should not be the only record of what went on. The Coalition of Regions’ account of these events will be no more reliable. Their spin is understandably coloured by embarrassment at their abdication, collaboration and certainly failure to manage the business.