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.