Published: September 11, 2019

Pipe Bands Australia preparing for controversial election

Pipe Bands Australia, the collective body that represents the six state associations in the country, will hold its National Conference September 15-16 at the Airport Motel and Convention Centre in Attwood, a suburb of Melbourne. The event is organized every two years, and includes the election of executive office bearers at an annual general meeting on September 14.

The AGM will see a vote for the presidency, currently held by Chris Earl. His two two-year terms have been punctuated with controversy since he took over after Greg Gordon retired.

As a collective organization, Pipe Bands Australia comprises representatives from associations – or branches – in the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. Each state association provides two delegates to elect Pipe Bands Australia officials. There is no association in the Northern Territory.

The size of each state association varies considerably, ranging from New South Wales with 36 bands and 778 individual members, to Tasmania, with six bands and 92 individuals. Regardless, each association has equal voting power. There are 112 bands and 2,383 individuals in Pipe Bands Australia.

Each association provides two representatives – generally the president and vice-president – to manage Pipe Bands Australia. Thus, 12 executives represent nearly 2,500 members.

Chris Earl

Incumbent president Chris Earl will be challenged by Ainsley Hart, a well-known pipe band leader and accomplished solo piper who is the current chairman of the New South Wales Pipe Band Association.

When asked what his vision is for Pipe Bands Australia and the Australian pipe band scene in general, Hart responded: “I fundamentally believe that a federated association of pipe bands and related activities is in the best interest of the pipers and drummers of Australia. The Australian experience has some unique attributes, not limited to our vast distances, relatively small number of bands, increasing cultural diversity, and also the huge distance between us and the mother ship of this activity.

“The heart of our association needs to be our members. It is the members that need to drive the association from the bottom up. The communication channels from the members and then returning from the operating body of the PBA need to be open and 100% transparent. There is a huge raft of genuine issues facing our organization and we need to be addressing the core grass roots business; our players, our environment, our education and learning, providing motivation and enjoyment.

Ainsley Hart

“My Pipe Band career started 40 years ago, and I am very fortunate to say that being in pipe bands and piping (and drumming) is part of who I am. I have experienced a lot of varied things along this path. I have stood in the back rank and in the front rank, in the center of the stage and nervously in the wings watching on. I stand as president to draw on these experiences and hope that when the dust settles, the piping and drumming environment in Australia will be thriving for the generations that follow.”

Earl was a drum-major with a lower-grade band until recently. Before becoming president of Pipe Band Australia, he was vice-president of Pipe Bands Victoria.

He has not responded to a request to provide his vision for the leadership of Pipe Bands Australia should he be elected to a third two-year term, but in the 60-page pre-meeting document for those attending the annual general meeting, which was provided by an anonymous source to pipes|drums, Earl’s candidate statement reads:

“To continue working with committee and council to advance our Australian pipe band movement for the benefit of all bands, branches and college; the advancement of important and initiatives we have commenced for a vibrant modern musical organization; respecting our unique Australian pipe band heritage; to further develop breadth and depth in our framework and activities to help empower bands to build their numbers and increase musical standards.”

In the pre-meeting document, Earl cited, among other things, his work to restore in full a loan from the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association that helped Pipe Bands Australia continue after the embezzlement crisis, an extensive review of the “structure and core activities” of Pipe Bands Australia, the further development of the organization’s College, and closer ties with the RSPBA.

The organization also launched a Hall of Fame in 2018.

During Chris Earl’s tenure there have been several significant controversies, including the suspension of members of the Grade 1 City of Whitehorse, which subsequently dissolved, and a fraud scandal in which some AUD$200,000 were embezzled by a former office holder.

Earl reportedly survived a vote of no confidence by Pipe Bands Australia as a result of the embezzlement crisis. He has been criticized publicly by members on social media platforms.

More recently, Pipe Bands Australia has overseen the suspension of two popular judges reportedly for making critical comments on social media. The two have reportedly been reinstated as “probationary members” for at least one year while the matter is reviewed.

Under Earl, Pipe Bands Australia created a Principal of Ensemble position for its College. Nat Russell, the former pipe-major of 1998 World Champions Victoria Police, was the first to hold the position, but resigned this year allegedly over a dispute. The role is currently vacant. Brett Tidswell and Dean Hall Principal of Piping and Principal of Drumming, respectively.


Straw polls reportedly indicate that the vote for president could be deadlocked at six for each of Earl and Hart, with no apparent mechanism to break a tie.


Straw polls reportedly indicate that the vote for president could be deadlocked at six for each of Earl and Hart, with no apparent mechanism to break a tie.

Within Pipe Bands Australia, there is a National Management Committee of five, chaired by Earl, which holds regular discussions “to respond in a timely manner to matters requiring attention and action and ensures that meetings have a full agenda where thoughtful and robust discussion form part of the process to a decision – decisions that are with all in agreement,” according to the pre-meeting document. The National Management Committee has been criticized publicly for being overly controlling and powerful.

Similar to the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, Pipe Bands Australia also has been criticized publicly for an overly controlling style, accused of communicating only through official news releases and clamping down on those who post critical comments on social media.

“The National Management Council are extremely secretive,” said a prominent member of Pipe Bands Australia who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They do not distribute any minutes across the many meetings. If you want to see what transpired, you must make an appointment with the national secretary and travel to Sydney to view them under supervision.”

While Australia’s geographical size and piping and drumming population can be compared with Canada, the latter country has six separate pipe band associations, each operating on their own and without a national body. Australia stages the Australian Pipe Band Championships every two years, member associations invited to bid on holding the event. Canada does not have an official national championship, the closest thing to it being the North American Pipe Band Championships held annually at Maxville, Ontario, and run by the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario.

While the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario have branches that are overseen by an executive parent body, Pipe Bands Australia is unique in its organizational approach as an association of associations.

The Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations has worked to bring commonality and reciprocity to rules and judges across the nine member groups.

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for more on the annual general meeting of Pipe Bands Australia.

 


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