The University of Newcastle Students’ Association is facing allegations it drafted student election rules to stifle candidate criticism of current UNSA representatives. Yak Media spoke with numerous election stakeholders about some of the concerns being raised over recent changes made to the student election process.
Student elections are an important part university culture. They provide student representatives with an opportunity to gain hands-on experience, build positive relationships and represent fellow students.
The University of Newcastle Students’ Association (UNSA), began operations in July 2020 after the merger of three student associations, NUSA, NUPSA, and Yourimbah. So, it stands to reason, as with most new organisations, there will be some wrinkles to iron out as UNSA crafts its identity and tests the waters.
UNSA provides many valuable student services, such as student representation and advocacy, educational and social engagement, Clubs and Societies governance, and support & advice to students.
What’s the Controversy?
Upon nominating herself for UNSA President, 21-year-old Business and Laws student, Ashley Harrison, says she discovered some of the most restrictive campaigning guidelines at any University Association in the country and is concerned many students are not even aware of the stringent campaign guidelines and their impact on the elections.
“At other Universities, candidates trash their Uni and their SRC all the time. You see the candidates at USYD [University of Sydney] and they absolutely trash their association,” said Ms. Harrison.
However, UNSA’s Election Etiquette and Campaigning Guidelines include a provision which states:
“Candidates and their supporters must not publish or promulgate* sentiment that brings UNSA, UNSA’s staff or UNSA’s representatives into disrepute.”
Ms. Harrison found this provision to be vague and wide-ranging, and she points out, if defamatory statements are made during an election, it would be a legal matter and not for UNSA to police or micromanage.
“They didn’t say defamatory, they used the word disrepute. What counts as disrepute? If I say that one of their decisions was a bad decision and here’s why, anyone [at UNSA] can try and say I’m bringing them into disrepute.”
Ms. Harrison classifies this provision as a ‘protection provision’, intended to maintain sitting representatives and the status quo at the student association.
“Why else would they do it?” stated Ms. Harrison, who then highlighted that a number of current representatives were elected from a ticket. “They made all the promises in the world when they were elected, and now we’re not allowed to point out they never delivered.”
Ms. Harrison says this ‘protection provision’ proved itself last week, after the Deputy Returning Officer, Fiona Mundie (responsible for overseeing the election), requested that she remove a social media post about the need for Crisis Accommodation on campus.
Ms. Harrison told Yak she was in no position to refuse the request, as the guidelines include another provision, “Candidates cannot refuse a direction of the RO (Returning Officer) or DRO (Deputy Returning Officer).” The RO for the 2021 UNSA Election is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Mark Hoffman.
Ms. Harrison says that this provision is being used as a “blank cheque”, pointing to an email sent by the DRO, stating that clubs, societies, and associations are not allowed to endorse candidates in the upcoming UNSA election.
Despite clubs, societies, and associations not being included in the campaigning guidelines at all, the DRO later clarified that if an endorsement was to occur, the candidate “would be acting contrary to the direction of the Returning Officer.”
So, how do Clubs come into this?
UNSA’s dealings with clubs and societies caused controversy earlier this year when a ‘Conference of Concerned Clubs’ was convened by UON Liberal Students and Newcastle Christian Students. The conference expressed concerns around UNSA’s fitness and capacity to manage clubs.
“Student Unions are incredibly politicised and controlled by political operators. Handing control to UNSA would see politicised decisions made regarding Clubs’ funding, affiliation status, sharing of resources, and participation at O-Week.” A statement from UON Liberal Students read at the time.
“UNSA has previously stated their intention to be A-political, but their actions stand in stark contrast to their words.”
The issue recently flared up on Thursday 16 October, at an online Q&A for Clubs with questions about the transfer to UNSA. The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) club president, John Davis, strongly and vocally opposed the guidelines and requirements imposed on clubs by the student association.
“[These] guidelines went far further than what is listed in the SSAF legislation…there is no clause forbidding proselytization*,” he said, according to World Socialist Web Site, “UNSA is in fact restricting the political activities of clubs on campus.”
The IYSSE also warned that “the reinterpretation of the SSAF legislation is setting a precedent that will be used to prevent students from developing the political means to fight these attacks.”
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) states “[SSAF] Providers must not allow fee revenue to be used to support political parties, or to support the election of a person to a Commonwealth or State and Territory Parliament or Local Government body.”
You can view the department’s full webpage on the guidelines here.
SSAF, Federal Guidelines and the meaning of ‘Apolitical’
Ms. Harrison says there seems to be a pattern of behaviour in UNSA, and how they interpret the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) Expenditure Guidelines. She says UNSA is incorrectly applying the meaning of apolitical.
“Apolitical can be taken to mean two things: No politics – where you can’t express any sort of view, or in a university setting I would take it to mean all views. That’s how we have the Liberals’ Clubs, we have the Labor Club.”
“You have to have everyone or no one,” Ms. Harrison continues, “I don’t think it’s consistent with the right interpretation. I think they’re deliberately making those rules suit whichever topic it is they want to deal with.”
Ms. Harrison points to UNSA’s September SRC meeting as an example of the association picking and choosing when they want to be political.
The September minutes include an excerpt in which Ms. Harrison says contradicts UNSA’s statement of being apolitical.
“Members agree that SRC members are elected to reflect their own views and vote how they see fit.” – UNSA SRC Meeting Minutes, September 2021.
Ms. Harrison says, “Of course politics affects students, but this sets a very strange precedent for the powers of UNSA. It sets a precedent where individuals’ political alignments are having an impact on how UNSA is run.”
“I note that no conflicts were declared despite the President’s serious affiliations with the Labor Party.” Ms. Harrison continues, “If you put this on the other foot, if it was Ash Barnham as a member of the Nationals, everyone would be up in arms over him not declaring the conflict.”
“It’s one rule for one group and one rule for another, and it’s going unvetted. That’s my big problem.”
When Yak spoke with UNSA General Manager, Georgia Killick in May, she stated, “Ultimately we are governed by an elected student representative body. We don’t ask on students’ applications which political club they affiliate with because honestly, it has no relevance or bearing on the activities of UNSA.”
However, on the form students must complete to nominate for a position on the SRC, students are required to declare these affiliations, despite that information never being made publicly available.
The form reads, “You are required to list affiliation with, or membership of, all UON clubs or societies and other UON student based groups.”
How did we get here?
Yak Media spoke to a current representative within UNSA, who has asked to remain anonymous because speaking with Yak about these concerns would breach UNSA’s media policy. We will refer to the representative as Ms. X.
Ms. X shed light on the process undertaken to create these election guidelines, stating feedback was taken at ‘Election Review Sessions’ before an Election Guidelines Working Group was formed with SRC members to review and consult on what would become these current regulations.
Election review sessions were held after the March and September 2020 elections, in July and November, respectively. Across both sets of review sessions, according to the printed record of attendance, only 23 students contributed in these sessions. According to UON’s 2020 Annual Report 39,137 students were enrolled at the university in 2020.
The student election review document, distributed to attendees after the sessions, confirmed the attendance of staff and external members of the UNSA board at the review sessions. The notes also confirm that a separate “session for UNSA staff was held.”
“It did seem very much like it was the current staff and current representatives that were the most vocal.” Ms. X said.
According to the publicly available financial report on UNSA, available on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website, UNSA spends the equivalent of 45.4% of its total expenses on employees.
Ms. X clarified the feedback sessions were purely for feedback and not to craft the guidelines, however, could not explain why staff members were present and actively contributing to these meetings.
“I think it’s great that they were in the room, but having them talking about how the election was run probably wasn’t appropriate.”
Yak spoke to multiple attendees at these review sessions, who confirmed the version of events as recited by Ms. X.
The Election Guidelines Committee
After the review sessions, a ‘working group’ was formed and was comprised of five student representatives – Georgie Cooper (UNSA Vice-President Experience & Engagement), Lucas Dowling (Student Member on University Council), Harry O’Brien-Smith (Newcastle Campus Convenor), Jessica Philbrook (UNSA Vice-President Welfare & Wellbeing), and Shuang Zhang (International Students’ Senate Convenor).
Despite a number of representatives at UNSA gaining their positions by campaigning on a ticket, one of the key points of criticism of the UNSA election regulations is the decision to ban group tickets.
Lucas Dowling was recently re-elected as the Student Member on University Council after campaigning on a ticket with current UNSA Vice-President (Education) Chloe Jones, who was running for a position in the Academic Senate. While group tickets are banned under UNSA (which is independent of the University), the University itself does not have a ban in place.
According to the DRO, the decision to ban group tickets was not made by the working group, rather, “it was to enact the majority decisions of the students attending the Review Sessions.”
The Election review notes do not recount a comprehensive overview on how contributors felt on issues, and only indicate the level of support in the room in terms of a ‘majority’.
The working group also developed guidelines on etiquette and behaviour to ‘encourage’ candidates to run positive campaigns.
Yak Media asked Ms. X how the rule “Candidates and their supporters must not publish and promulgate sentiment that brings UNSA, UNSA’s staff, or UNSA’s representatives into disrepute,” came to be.
Ms. X said that this measure was introduced by UNSA “Out of a need to protect their staff and candidates.” They clarified that to the best of their knowledge, there was no occasion of a staff member being the subject of any attack during an election process.
Ms. X told Yak that they had only ever seen one example of a student representative declaring a conflict of interest and abstaining from a vote during their time at the association. The abstention was on a vote regarding the appointment of Mark Vaile as Chancellor of the University and was made due to a conflict of interest surrounding political affiliation.
Ms. X characterised the association as “very much monopolitical” and questioned whether there were ulterior motives behind the move to regulate speech and ban group tickets.
On the topic of group tickets, Ms. X said the Deputy Returning Officer “expressed a view against” allowing them, and four of the five students on the committee supported upholding the ban. The only student who allegedly supported rescinding the ban was Newcastle Campus Convenor, Harry O’Brien-Smith.
Ms. Harrison also supports rescinding the ban, saying banning group tickets, when coupled with the inability to criticise the Student Association, leads to “serious inequity”.
“They’re making this a personality test. Someone with 300 Facebook friends doesn’t have the same reach as someone with 2000,” Ms. Harrison continued, “If you can make a page and can run a ticket, you have a chance at getting the same reach.”
Ms. X said the ban was introduced to “make it more equitable for independent candidates”, and to “make sure an election wasn’t politicised [along party lines].”
Ms. Harrison challenges that proposition. “If everyone is allowed to run a ticket then it’s fair game. USYD can have five or six tickets running at once. There isn’t five [major] political parties in Australia, so this idea that tickets run along party lines is just not true.” Ms. Harrison also sought to clarify that she is not associated with any political party.
Ms. X said that they understand Ms. Harrison’s position, but that this “wasn’t the view of the committee”, and that while “views can change”, it was hypocritical of people who were elected to their positions on a ticket to be voting to ban group tickets.
“If you say no tickets and then run on a ticket, it’s hypocritical.,” Ms. X continues, “It’s easy to change your opinion after the fact, and it’s unfair that they can now use their standing as the current representatives to boost support for themselves at an election where there are no tickets.”
Ms. X said that in both the feedback meetings and committee meetings, expressing an opinion or raising an objection was quite hard as the opinions of UNSA Staff and current representatives were given more weight than others.
What does UNSA say about all this?
Yak reached out to Fiona Mundie (DRO), who insisted that she had to remain impartial and had remained impartial throughout her time in the role. Ms. Mundie insisted that she had only ever provided secretarial support during her time working on the association.
When asked about the ability of the DRO and RO to stifle free speech, Ms. Mundie explained there was opportunity for candidates to appeal any decisions via a complaints process.
“Earlier this year UNSA approved a complaints and appeals process specifically for their [UNSA] elections. Before the ballots opened all Candidates attended an Information Session and the UNSA Election Complaints & Appeals Process and the Terms of Reference for the independent Assessment Panel were part of the content covered,” stated Ms. Mundie.
Yak also reached out to UNSA President Luka Harrison, who rejected the idea that UNSA was stifling criticism and pointed to the recent UNSA Presidential Debate as evidence of this.
“I’ve seen a number of candidates put up posts similar to that in terms things they would like to improve, or areas they would like to see UNSA improve in and also, I think a number of the Presidential Candidates brought those ideas to the debate a couple of weeks ago,” Mr. Harrison continued, “I don’t think any of them were pulled up on that. So, I think there’s definitely room [in the guidelines] for [criticism].”
Mr. Harrison also defended the association’s interpretation of being ‘apolitical’, saying; “I think there is no rule against any candidate being politically aligned. In terms of being a-political, I think a lot of people are interpreting that as UNSA saying that you can’t be politically active or you can’t be a member of a political party or something like that. I don’t think that’s true.”
Mr. Harrison responded to the proclamation that UNSA’s ban on group tickets was to avoid politicisation and to avoid one group having total control over the association.
“I think that UNSA’s interpretation is that even if you are a member of a political party or you have a certain political leaning, when it comes to UNSA it’s not appropriate to take those leanings or allegiances into account.”
This view on UNSA’s interpretation would appear to contradict the assertion in the Election Review Sessions that group tickets would lead to one-sided politicisation.
Ms. X stated, “the election guidelines are extremely messy and full of red tape, and are hard for students to understand. Furthermore, they’re enforcing rules that are not written in the election guidelines, which presents an issue for both clubs and societies, as well as candidates that are running.”
Ms. Harrison agreed that candidates found the guidelines “Quite intimidating”.
“It’s pretty clear from the outset that these guidelines are pretty restrictive and really quite daunting for those of us who just want to represent our community.”
Voting for the next UNSA SRC opened Monday 11 October and is open until 5 pm Friday 22 October.
Yak encourages all students to engage in the democratic process.
*Promulgate: to promote or make widely known.
*Proselytise: to convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief or opinion to another. To advocate or promote an idea.
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Feature Image by Cienpies Design