TOPICS | POLITICS

More than just a vote: why a community election matters

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Sydney-based Filipino-Australian umbrella association called the Philippine Community Council of NSW, or PCC for short. The results of its presidential elections tomorrow will determine whether its milestone celebration will be led by the incumbent, the challenger or the reformist, writes MICHELLE BALTAZAR.

 

17/03/2014: The new board elected for 2014 can be found in this article. Below is the article written a couple of days before the election.

If the Philippine Community Council of New South Wales, or PCC for short, were a company, its critics would say it needs a restructure from the top down.

Not only was it under investigation for breaching Office of Fair Trading and fundraising rules (since resolved) but it also suffered a major setback four years ago, when almost half of its membership base broke away to form another group, the Alliance of Philippine Community Organisations, Inc (APCO, Inc.).

With reported rumblings and infighting at board level, and rising member dissatisfaction, an overhaul sounds long overdue.

But PCC is not a company. It is a non-profit volunteer body. It is largely made up of individuals whose good intentions form the backbone of,  what should be, at its heart, a unified voice for a migrant community: Filipino-Australians residing in NSW (primarily in Sydney).

For all the short-term hoopla and criticisms, PCC also bears a proud heritage, counting among its past presidents and board members an elite group of Filipino-Australian achievers who have gone on to sway local politics, influence state educational curriculum and raise sizeable funds for charity back "home" and here.

Most of all, PCC members, by the voluntary nature of their work, have committed blood, sweat and tears to facilitate the needs of thousands of Filipino-Australians, with varying degrees of success.

Therein lies the rub. Despite the good intentions, the highs and the lows, and achievements through the years, it appears to some (not all) that the PCC trajectory has stalled - derailed by an unstable and divided board. In the last few years, three key board directors have resigned, supposedly out of frustration with the leadership at the time.

And yet to put in context, current president Dr. Elsa Collado said in her speech at a Meet-The-Press forum last Sunday that the rumblings come from a minority few and that 2013 was in fact one of PCC's better years. The group cut its operational costs and attracted no less than the attendance of three heads of state, including the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at its 2013 annual Independence Day Ball (although cynics might argue that this was before the leadership spill when the PM's position was fragile). 

It is against this backdrop that PCC is holding its board elections tomorrow, March 15 (Saturday) at the Hub, Mt. Druitt in Western Sydney. Dr. Collado is seeking re-election for a third term (read her speech here). 

Her seat will be hotly and vigorously contested by Jose "Jun" Relunia, Jr., the president of the Philippine Australian Society for Senior Citizens, Inc. (read his speech here) and Danilo "Danny" Peralta, founding president of the Tagalog Association of Australia (read his letter explaining his platform here).

Below are some key observations from the event.

MEET THE PRESS FORUM: MORE, MORE, MORE

Last Sunday (March 9), all three running candidates had the opportunity to field questions from the media and PCC members in a Meet-The-Press forum at the PNoyLounge Restobar in Blacktown. The Western Sydney suburb of choice couldn’t have been more apropos given Blacktown is densely populated by Filipino-Australians.

Starting at 1pm and ending at around 3.30pm, the Forum was hosted by Manny Diel, a past PCC president and now a staffer of the Philippine Community Herald newspaper, and Josie Musa, lead co-ordinator of Adhika, a non-profit group of Filipino-Australian community broadcasters.

More than six media representatives were in attendance, including SBS Filipino Radio (Louie Tolentino, official timekeeper of the forum), Philippine Community Herald Newspaper (Evelyn Zaragosa, Manny Diel, Aida Morden, Neria Soliman), Ang Kalatas Newspaper (Marilie Bomediano), The Australian Filipina (Michelle Baltazar), Radio Adhika (Josie Musa), Radio Agila (Bomediano), Radio Sandigan (Baltazar), plus press photographers Gerry Musa and Jade Cadelina.

It was on this blistering day that more than 30 attendees, PCC members and media representatives, gathered to hear their presentations and get answers on how they would lead PCC.

Overall, the message was that each of the three candidates will deliver more, more, more: more consultation with members on what to do, more engagement with the wider community and more improvements across the board. 

For more than two hours, all three candidates were “grilled” with questions from the floor ranging from how each of them would increase PCC’s membership and how they look to right the wrongs from the past.

Still, it was a very successful forum, providing a neutral ground for PCC board members to air their concerns and for each candidate to explain their platform.

The forum had its kinks, including a microphone that refused to cooperate, candidates running overtime on questions, and on one occasion, confusion arose on whether the candidates should answer a question from the floor about proposed changes to the Constitution (that’s another story).

But broadly speaking, the feedback from the audience was positive, with requests for more Meet-The-Press events from the organisers.

A TALE OF THREE LEADERSHIP STYLES

If there was some point-scoring around how each candidate fielded the questions and their manner of delivery, The Australian Filipina sees presidential candidate Danny Peralta as leading the field. His answers were thoughtful, decisive and full of conviction. “I care about PCC,” he says, explaining why he is running for presidency. Peralta has his own supporters within the ranks but as far as the inner circle goes, he would be seen as the outsider.

Peralta stayed on message all throughout the proceedings and the message was: the reformation of PCC.

“PCC needs a massive reconstruction, both organisationally and socio-culturally,” he says.

“Organisationally, PCC needs to clearly define itself, its roles, functions, aims and objectives and then its programs and plans.”

He continues, “The current PCC competes rather than assist its members. It tails rather than leads. PCC needs to practice good governance in running the organisation.”

Peralta explains that his career experience – he says he is an expert in business restructures and recovery – provides him with the professional skillset that can be applied in turning PCC around. That is, if you are of the belief that PCC needs serious mending (a view shared by many, but not all).

Based on his platform, existing members should expect a major disruption within the rank-and-file, designed to uplift and improve upon what he describes as the “current downgraded and denigrated PCC”.

Tough words, indeed. By laying open his card of reformation, Peralta runs the risk of alienating the board members - from whom he needs the votes from – who may not necessarily welcome his open criticism, even if his intentions are well-meaning or well-founded.

But his presidential run is not just for the benefit of the board directors but the affiliates, too. Disaffected members and community groups who wouldn’t have contemplated joining PCC could see his platform as a fresh chapter – a root-and-branch cleansing of an umbrella organisation. He is unencumbered by legacy issues and can therefore start with a blank slate as PCC ushers in 21st century style community advocacy.

To put in context, however, some argue that PCC doesn’t need restructuring. When PCC was formed back in 1990, its structure and the objectives were sound and vigorously debated by the founding board.

It is just the implementation bit in the last couple of years that needs to be revisited and corrected.

That on the side, Peralta is very articulate. Given the choice on who could lobby for the Filipino-Australian community in front of mainstream media and the general community, his performance on the day showcased ample media savviness and preparedness that will make many Filipino-Australians proud.

The other challenger to the throne, Jose “Jun” Relunia, Jr., also scored well on the Q&A, though not with the same chutzpah and quotable quotes as Peralta.

That said, Relunia is the charmer and the diplomat, pinning his platform on the oh-so-delicious acronym L.O.V.E. (Leadership, oneness, vision and engagement).

He is also more of a “known” entity, having shown his pedigree as a community leader in his work with senior citizens within the community.

His manner in answering questions also demonstrated thoughtful consideration and the intention to collaborate and listen – a consultative leader, if you like.

To get the job done, Relunia hopes to steer the association away from the emotions behind any decisions.

“My motto will be: ‘It is not about you; it is not about me; it is all about PCC of NSW.’”

He says, “My leadership style will earn the respect of the members of the new Board and the affiliates therefore getting their cooperation and thus achieving success in working together towards the objectives of the PCC of NSW.” 

What he said goes to the heart of the missing ingredient that Peralta also alluded to in his speech – cooperation. Reminiscent of the great folly that tore the Labor Party to shreds, and saw Australia stand before THREE Prime Ministers in one year, is that lack of unity within the association. Again, the level of discord depends on who you ask.

Sitting in the middle of the two contenders was Dr. Elsa Collado, the current president and a long-time member of PCC.

Dr. Collado is a familiar face to many. She has supported majority of the events that happened in and around Sydney in the past 12 months either through her attendance or her active participation.

A dentist who previously worked at the Malacanang Palace, she is an example of a successful Australian migrant story, building a comfortable life for her and her family since they left the Philippines a few decades ago.

It is important to write about her as a person, not just the title that she currently bears. She has had to face a torrent of criticism, some of which got really personal and unwarranted.

She says, "To lead PCC, one needs to have a tenacious character to withstand all the challenges and constant criticisms thrown at the organisation."

Admittedly, it comes with the territory but, to put in context, participation in community associations by nature are voluntary roles and she’s got the toughest job of all – her fellow board members are all equally strong-willed and independent that she might as well herd cats.

Still, the misdirection of some funds under her tenure was a big no-no and she paid a hefty price (see some background info in this article). This was such a big issue that a quarter of the time spent at the forum ended up being a “Please Explain” session for her.

To be clear, shortfalls and misdemeanours during her tenure, and certainly before her tenure, were not all her doing but such is the price of leadership, you have to take accountability for the group you represent.

As for her ability to field questions, she scored the lowest compared to the other two. There were a couple of awkward moments where she failed to answer the questions correctly and on the occasions where she did answer them, her responses were too brief to give ‘voters’ enough of an idea of the way she would run PCC this year and next.

However, as it turned out, she wasn’t feeling well on the day and was suffering from vertigo, putting her at a severe disadvantage and leaving some of the press members underwhelmed.

THE VERDICT

Based on their presentations and manner of delivery alone on the day of the forum, Peralta leads with Relunia as close second. Collado was disadvantaged due to her illness on the day although she did manage to articulate her platform very well during her closing remarks.

But elections cannot be won by one Meet-The-Press forum alone. It is the responsibility of each of the candidates to ensure their voting constituents understand what they hope to deliver and their ability to deliver.

It is understood that based on the leanings of those who are eligible to vote tomorrow that Collado will likely get the highest number of votes, while Peralta and Relunia will split the remainder.

If some board members change their mind, it is understood that Relunia stands a better chance for election over Peralta.

Why does this election matter? After all, PCC does not represent all Filipino-Australians and some have already gone to the alternative, APCO, which is now a formidable group on its own based on the community projects it has accomplished since its 2010 formation.

The elections do matter. Setting aside feelings of nostalgia that past leaders feel about PCC back during its glory days, the association today has a duty of care to its existing member associations.

It needs to set aside ego, pride and self-interest so it can pave the way for the next generation of community leaders. PCC had noble beginnings but after 20 years, the association has somehow morphed into a group full of "kampi-kampi" or cliques within its upper ranks.

If the association goes back to respecting the objectives it was founded upon, hundreds of Filipino-Australians stand to benefit.

And with the Filipino-Australian community now among the top five fastest growing ethnic groups in Australia, the importance of the community as a social and economic driver cannot be underestimated.

In short, PCC - if it plays its cards right - has the potential to influence national policy-making as it affects migrant communities.

But baby steps first. Tomorrow’s election marks a battle between three presidential candidates, each with a different leadership style, but all with the same zeal to improve and empower their member associations.

May the best candidate win.

Photo credit: Jade Cadelina and Gerry Musa

Transcripts of the candidates speeches and platform of government

Dr. Elsa Collado http://www.australianfilipina.com/article.aspx?aeid=39081

Danny Peralta http://www.australianfilipina.com/article.aspx?aeid=39080

Jose Relunia, Jr.  http://www.australianfilipina.com/article.aspx?aeid=39082

Disclosure: The author of this article is a member of Adhika, Inc., the host of the Meet the Forum. She is also the daughter of Cleo Baltazar, an active member of an APCO affiliate.

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