Student union skullduggery

Student politics has long been the playground of budding party apparatchiks keen to try out dirty tricks, but the current Union election at hte University of Queensland goes beyond anything I’ve been seen before. I expect that, when these hacks graduate to adult politics, they’ll make the headlines in due course, and not in a good way.

Over the fold a guest post from Daniel Carr, who has the details

Guest post from Daniel Carr

Just over a fortnight ago Liberal Leader Tony Abbott used an address at the Institute of Public Affairs to rail against the Gillard Government’s plans to regulate the media. He spoke of a hung parliament bringing out the government’s “authoritarian streak” and seeking to “howl down its critics using the megaphone of incumbency.”

This message seems lost on the Liberal-affiliated “Fresh” party that is seeking to win a 6th term at the upcoming University of Queensland (UQ) student union elections. Just a fortnight ago the Fresh dominated student union passed new election rules that cap-off years of last-minute rule changes designed to make it impossible for an opposition party to win office. Branching out from the now clichéd rule changes that cut the length of notice required to opposition parties concerning nominations and voting deadlines, this election the Fresh team resolved to effectively deny alternate parties from campaigning at all.

Before I outline this rule change a quick confession is in order: I was once a member of the UQ Liberal Club and ran on the Fresh union ticket in 2009. I was drafted by a friend and spent two weeks campaigning for a party I could only vaguely articulate the agenda of. I was directed to mislead my peers, slander others and saw those in the Fresh team run a series of fake-tickets with the intention of duping student voters. The experience gave me a ghastly insight into the mentality of the Fresh campaign machine: a core cadre of aspiring Liberal Party campaign managers that would do and say anything to win, rounded off by a larger team of unwitting non-Liberal candidates to ward of accusations of partisanship. “Unfortunately for each of the former Fresh Presidents,” I wrote to Colin Finke, the current UQ Union President in an effort to convince him to cleanup these elections, “they’ll be tarred with having overseen an election process that no reasonable person would judge to be in the spirit of honesty or fairness….If you want a real challenge…clean up the ugly spectacle that is Union elections.”

Though at the time Colin indicated he agreed with me, sadly it seems my appeal has been forgotten. Lawrence McLean, a student who had intended to run for Union Vice-President under the opposition ‘Pulse’ party, alleged that just three days before the election date was called, Fresh Councilors passed a new set of election rules that removed the protections surrounding use of party names. Traditionally, the Pulse party had been the only sizeable opposition to Fresh and the new regulations allowed Fresh to register fake-ticket under the name ‘Pulse’.

Imagine if in a State or Federal election the incumbent changed the rules and registered the chief opposition party’s name. Every voter intending to cast a vote for the opposition would be duped into voting for the incumbent’s fake ticket. The general public would not stand for it. Nor should UQ students.

Lawrence McLean and the Pulse ticket found out about this latest change on Friday August 17 and had till noon Monday to register under a new name or be forced to run as independents. All campaign material that has been purchased over the years is now worth nothing as it bears the Pulse name. Arranging shirts, leaflets, banners and other campaign material in just under two weeks is not realistic. Running as Independents will mean that student-voters will have to ask for a below-the-line ballot form to cast a vote for Lawrence McLean or any other opposition candidate. As of Monday August 20 the Pulse team is frantically trying to appeal the new regulations.

This rule change has effectively won the election for Fresh already; the election itself will be a mere formality for this taxpayer-funded organisation with a turnover of over $16 million per annum.

The University of Queensland itself has so far failed to bring a measure of transparency and fairness to the elections. Each election sees Fresh reduce the notice given to opposition parties and raise hurdles to registering legitimate opposition parties. Nothing is done despite numerous complaints. Last year when I reported evidence to a UQ election official that Fresh Senate Candidate Brodie Thompson had set up a vote-for-a-snag stall to swell his vote, it was dismissed as not being a ‘coercive’ enough measure to justify action.

There is a clear disconnect between these actions and the values that Tony Abbott and other Liberals espoused just a few short weeks ago. It is a worrying omen for Queensland’s next generation of conservative MPs. We are already seeing Fresh campaign directors graduate to larger roles in the Liberal National Party (LNP). Ben Riley, a perennial Fresh student union campaigner, is now Young LNP QLD President. Fresh campaigners have moved on from organising fake ‘Green Party’ tickets that misdirected Green-leaning students at UQ Union elections to larger game. The 2010 Federal election saw the LNP threatened with legal action by the Australian Electoral Commission for using volunteers in green shirts disseminating flyers with Greens slogans in an effort to capture Green preferences for Jane Prentice. As Laney McLaren, a Fresh and LNP campaigner working when this occurred told ElectionWIRE reporter Elise Worthington, “I have no issue with what that how-to-vote was designed to do.”

Barnaby Joyce once promised to give many of the Fresh team a “kick up the backside” after they signed up to a Facebook event heralding Gough Whitlam’s birthday as a sign the former Prime Minister was “old and nearly dead.” This time I think a little more is needed if the Liberal Party wants to practice what it preaches.

50 thoughts on “Student union skullduggery

  1. student union politics was always a sandpit that proved that the maturation of personality and personal ethics is not finished until people are in their early to mid-20s.

    political junkies should consult which is hosted by the author of Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential History. This blog, like the book, takes a historical look at dirty politics.

    people take the low road in elections when they think they can get away with it. the worse get to the top in politics as hayek explained.

    negative and attack ads, however, are a clear plus. Explaining why your opponents are not worth voting for is basic to democracy.

    You need to define yourself as a candidate and define your opponent to the voters; and if you can be the person who defines your opponent — as opposed to your opponent defining him or herself — you can win.

    Positive advertising is mostly self-serving puffery. Negative ads bring-out differences between candidate and past performance into sharp focus. Negative advertising is used because it works.

  2. Blackboards/whiteboards around campus today with the message not to vote for Pulse this year; as it is set up to funnel votes to Fresh. Facebook allegations that the ticket is filled with Fresh associates.
    Incidentally, Laurence with a ‘u’.

  3. Purportedly the original nominations sheet. Shows current President Colin Finke’s brother running as a ‘Pulse’ Admin Officer (the supposed opposition party, who’s name they stole after removing part of section 105 of their regulations, which protected the names of political parties):

    Also, another story on Triple J:

  4. I was around in the Brazil days (looking on from the dullness that was the-one-that-shall-not-be-named in the cbd) and thought it was bad then… but this is insane!

    Then I came to UQ to do a PhD from 2005, and found it a very disheartening experience indeed. Funding, support and general morale were very low. It was a case of get my piece of paper and get the hell out of there.

    Somehow this all does not surprise me.

  5. Student politics has long been the playground of budding party apparatchiks keen to try out dirty tricks

    Well then clearly student unionism must be made compulsory so that the dirty tricks are well funded.

  6. For anyone interested, here is the relevant story published in MX today: .

    The UQ Skeptics Society has been doing some very interesting work mapping out Facebook friendships – they’ve shown that most of the ‘Pulse’ (fake) candidates registered this year are friends of Fresh Presidential candidate Rohan Watt at St John’s College. Check out their Facebook page for more details:

  7. @TerjeP
    It happens to be your side of politics responsible for the dirty tricks this time, TerjeP. If you want to be taken seriously, you should take the time condemn this action, instead of gratuitously pushing your long-ago won VSU hobby horse.

  8. Sam – I have condemned student politics since I was a student. It is a pile of pigs poo. What is described here seems to indicate that over the years nothing has really changed.

  9. p.s. my side of politics is the LDP. The LDP is not affiliated with Fresh. Fresh is as far as I know a front for the conservatives.

  10. IMHO it’s no coincidence that the UQ LNP kiddies have gone to these lengths in the first Union election since the election of an LNP State Government. I think it’s highly likely that the Fresh mob have concluded that their big mates in George Street will take care of them if they are faced with any serious opposition or intervention, and that the UQ management will keep its head below the trenches in the current State political climate. Mind you, the Labor Right at Griffith and elsewhere used to make similarly arrogant presumptions of friendship in high places when we had AWU-controlled Labor State governments.

    As for the current UQ Union President Colin Finke, when he runs for LNP Federal or State preselection ten years down the track, it really will be a case of “from little Finkes big finks grow”.

  11. Firstly, if these allegations are true then the conduct of Fresh and its members is utterley despicable and deserves to be condemned and acted upon.

    But, as a recent graduate of both the UQ School of Economics and the UQ Business School I could not agree more with TerjeP’s disdain for both student politics and compulsory student unionism.

    I don’t have any hard data, but based on my anecdotal experiences over my 5 odd years at UQ I am found that most, or at least a significant proportion of, students that I encountered couldn’t care less about student politics or the pathetic games they play (I acknowledge that my personal experiences do not constitute a representitive sample of the population of UQ students, however). To the average student the petty wrangling seen on all sides of student politics appeared to be nothing more than arguing over who got to spend the funds taken from mostly hardworking students without their consent. It does not surprise me that when the potential reward for misconduct is increased (i.e. higher union funding through forcing students to pay whether they consume union services or not) the incidence and/or severity of misconduct increases. That is not to say compulsory student unionism caused this behaviour, only to say that it increases the incentives for it to occur.

    I realise that expressing this opinion on this particular blog will likely draw some heavy criticism from the regular commentators but I feel that it is likely that there is a significant silent majority in the student unionism debate and that this opinion needs to be heard.

  12. UQ Alumni, I would agree that there have been and are some fundamental institutional weaknesses in student unions which have led to abuses by student union managements from across the political spectrum. However, I don’t agree that compulsory student unionism on its own, in the absence of these other factors, necessarily makes such behaviour more likely.

    Three of the most important such factors are:

    1. Decisions about expenditure and investment of student union resources being made by decision-makers who are almost entirely insulated from the risks of bad decision-making, and usually even more insulated (due to youth and inexperience) from awareness of such risks.

    2. The absence of accountability and compliance measures which are not ultimately subject to the partisan politics of student unions and the wishes of the dominant faction/s and/or their patrons in high places (see my comment @41).

    3. General “democratic deficits” in student union structures such as winner take all voting systems, insulation of incumbent executives from rank and file accountability, etc. Ironically, in some cases such democratic deficits exist because of the insistence of university managements that the student unions adopt more corporate-style modes of governance.

    It is my view that setting in place mechanisms to overcome these weaknesses is a better way to prevent and, where necessary, rectify mismanagement in student unions than abandoning complusory membership.

  13. In my time as a student at UNSW in the early 1990’s I never saw the student union ever do anything I regarded as useful. Not one thing. Ever. I don’t want these institutions to be better run, I want them gone. Not as badly as was the case when I was a student but gone none the less. Now I wouldn’t ban them, I’m a freedom loving sort of guy, but if it came down to a choice between having them compulsory or having them banned I would much prefer the later.

  14. When I was involved in student politics roughly 20 years ago activities almost as bad as those alleged here took place, but they were pretty much the sole preserve of the Labor Right. (There were worse stories from before my time from the Maoists, but they had thankfully vanished by then).

    These days the Labor Right still sometimes engages in such activity, but when it happens it is at least as likely to be from Liberal students, or from groups claiming to represent International Students (although usually being a group from one country or another, rather than representing the diversity of overseas students). The Labor Left and Socialist groups are known to engage as well. It’s a very disturbing trend.

    This one has hit the news because it is at a prestige campus, but the activities at Macquarie a few years ago sound at least as bad.

    It’s really disturbing to see it spread across the spectrum, because it makes it less likely that opponents will want to bring it up in years to come, as some of their colleagues will have their own skeletons.

    I am a director in business that administers elections for non-government organisations, particularly student unions. We have a director who is an active member of the Liberal Party to balance out my Greens involvement, as well as three who are not affiliated. We believe we can prevent these sorts of things at the elections we run. We encourage organizations to entrench provisions ensuring fair elections in their constitution, rather than regulations where changes like this can happen, but many are complacent until something like this occurs.

  15. After corruption issues at some universities under voluntary student unionism student unions were abolished. At Griffith university there was no student union for several years. That university had no student advocacy services, no student welfare services etc. A properly run student union provides students with representative services. If you have never used these services you might be unaware of what they do. When I was at university in the late 70’s early 80’s there were many more student services and union run activities than are available to my children attending university now. These LNP people have cut student services except for the profit making food areas. When no one paid union fees no one could tell what they were doing with the $16-17 million revenue as students were not interested and they did not hold meetings or release information. Now that student money is again being collected perhaps students will demand greater scrutiny of its expenditure. As an alumnus I am outraged that the money of students over the last 100 years could have been squandered by these people. How would anyone know?

  16. The NTEU has had some advice that there is a legal requirement on the University of Queensland to oversee fair open democratic elections of Student Unions.

    Here is an extract of the statement by the UQ Branch of the NTEU:

    “NTEU notes that it is the legislated responsibility of UQ under the ‘Student Services, Amenities, Representation And Advocacy Guidelines’ pursuant to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 that the university must ensure that the process by which student representatives are elected is democratic, fair and open. In circumstances where this is not seen to have happened, UQ must ensure that any issues raised in relation to the nature and conduct of the elections are fully investigated, and if found to be at odds with democratic principles, steps taken to correct these.”

  17. Hi there.
    There is legislation in place that compells the university to ensure that student representatives are democratically elected and that this is done in a transparent and open process. As such , even though the University may believe it has handed over responsibility for student elections to the UQ union, they are required by law to ensure that these meet democratic principles,and are thus obliged to to investigate any matters that would indicate inconsistencies or obstructions in the election process. Should the university fail to act, students are entitled to take their complaint to the new regulator, TEQSA, who has already spoken to UQ on other matters recently.

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