Distrust and a deep sense of insecurity in UQ Union

The Dalai Lama spoke truth in saying “a lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity”. As 6 years of LNP-aligned Fresh UQ Union rule concludes, doubt remains whether Labor/Independent coalition Reform can fundamentally change a broken system.

This year’s election cancellation, costing $120, 000, exemplifies UQ’s hands-off approach following 2012 controversies and a university-commissioned BDO audit.

In response to the audit, an action plan was to be “implemented prior to the commencement of second semester,” according to President Rohan Watt.

While the plan requested a university-appointed Returning Officer, the Electoral Tribunal ruled the appointment inquorate due to invalid voting and Fresh association.

Former Tribunal member, Professor Graeme Orr, believes pressure prompted the decision.

“Compared to problems of teams whose names had been squatted on, it seemed this was less of a substantive problem. At some point a tribunal — it reads The Courier Mail, it has seen allegations — is going to start saying, ‘things aren’t quite right in the state of Denmark’. So rather than being purely legalistic they’ll think, ‘okay, we need to act here’.”

Orr’s position was removed from 2010 Tribunal rules by Fresh.

Moreover, a letter to the Returning Officer from constitution and regulations drafter, Antonio Ferreira-Jardim, was ignored.

“The peculiar thing about the ‘above-the-line’ ballot is you cannot exercise a preference. That, in effect, is against the constitution,” said Ferreira-Jardim.

Director of Student Affairs, Andrew Lee, assessed the Electoral Charter but declined to comment.
Watt regards criticism “the equivalent of Clive Palmer attacking the AEC”.

The BDO audit prominently recommended legal advice be sought on almost $70, 000 of spending by 2012 executives.

“When an auditor says, ‘you need legal advice’, it’s code for something pretty serious; they’re not lawyers, they’re accountants,” said President-elect Josh Milroy.

While the union is partially student-funded, most of its $20 million turnover derives from university-owned property.

“The critical thing that students need to understand is, while you might call it university money, it’s really taxpayer’s money,” said former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Mick McManus.

“(The audit) was the lever we had to say to the union, ‘if you don’t pull your head in, we’ll take away access to facilities’.”

Watt said “the audit has been resolved and the Vice-Chancellor has expressed his support”.
However he also said: “it was used as a tool to discredit and intimidate. My view is the university overstepped and it was to the detriment of their reputation, to the detriment of the student experience, and I think the university has learnt a lot of lessons and we’ve learnt a lot of lessons”.

The funding issue, according to Watt, was amended by the largely incumbent-run Administrative Committee.

Jeremy Crowley, the university’s Director of Corporate Operations and Administrative Committee representative, simply stated the “union is an independent body”. It is unclear if he attended that meeting.

“I presume the union has been asked to explain and has given solid, sustainable explanations as to what happened with that money,” said McManus, who has retired from his position and been away during recent developments.

Ferreira-Jardim has little faith in university involvement.

“They’re on the main administrative body of the union and do they turn up? I honestly doubt it.”

There were no council meetings held between February and November of 2012, and no opposition present this year.

Fresh, still in control of the union until December, have cheekily used Reform colours and union signage in UQ Senate campaigning.

In a statement, current Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Joanne Wright, reiterated the union’s independence but wouldn’t detail action plan progress.

“We accept that this process isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, or one that can be completed quickly. This year’s student executive has taken the first steps, and we will be working closely with the incoming student executive to strongly encourage them to continue this important piece of work.”

Milroy said: “With all due respect to those involved, I don’t think anything came of (the action plan), and I think it was largely a piecemeal thing to keep certain people happy”.

Ferreira-Jardim thinks: “it’s easier for the university to do nothing. For them to do something would be admitting that they were not properly overseeing the union”.

While the union rejected recommendations to increase scope of ongoing audits, Ferreira-Jardim thinks it should.

“The union should expand the capacity of the auditor; say ‘we don’t just want you to look at our statements and make sure the left hand column matches the right, we actually want you to go through executive spending’.”

Milroy agrees.

“Is it audited in a technical sense? Yes. Does it sound good to the average student? Absolutely! It sounds great! In reality there’s no checking of funds that were spent.”

Tender processes are also lacking, with the union print contract being handled by the mother of a former union executive.

Milroy, who wants AEC involvement, greater transparency and Tribunal powers, intends to audit the past 6 years. Civil action is possible.

“I don’t want to be like, ‘they spent $40 and we want it back’, but we will audit the last few years because I’ve heard some pretty severe misuse of funds has gone on. If that’s the case we will review the options”.

Watt said “actions against any former student executive is nothing but a cultural purge”.
Milroy, Ferreira-Jardim, and prominent Democracy 4 UQU spokesperson, Green-aligned Abraham O’Neill, all support incorporating the union.

“I think the solution to the accountability deficit is to incorporate the union. That would open the internal rules of the union to enforcement by the courts,” said O’Neill.

“It would exercise a disciplinary influence on the people who are in charge knowing they can be very easily taken to court; you don’t need to go to court, you just need the threat of going to court.”

But there’s only so much council can do, and lack of transparency in the university is as much of a problem as in the union. Until processes are open, the community must hold these important institutions to account.

Indeed, as of now one can but trust that Reform will live up to their name.

Democracy may appear to have prevailed, but the real work is yet to be done.