State of the UQ Student Union, 2013

As the sun sets on 2013 at the University of Queensland, so too does it on 6 years of Liberal National-aligned ‘Fresh’ Party rule of the UQ Union. Eventually ousted following one of the most contentious periods in the Union’s 32-year history, Fresh leave office in mid-December with serious questions about the conduct of previous executives left unanswered.

The past 18 months, which has been witness to two shambolic elections and a damning University-commissioned audit, has given rare insight not only into the inner-workings of a habitually opaque Union, but also the complete ineptitude of University bureaucrats all too keen to wash their hands of a mess they’ve helped to create and perpetuate. Most remarkable about this chapter of the Union’s history is how little is still known, and how little has changed, despite relative public and media interest.

Many remain understandably cynical as to whether newly-elected Labor/Independent coalition, ‘Reform’, can bring meaningful, long-term change to a fundamentally broken system. Indeed, with a Union that’s given the liberty of making – and breaking – its own rules, the community as of now can but hope that Reform will live up to their name.

In August of 2012, tensions overflowed when Labor-aligned ‘Pulse’ discovered their name had been pre-registered in elections by an associate of the then Union President, Colin Finke. Unable to afford to re-brand campaign merchandise, Pulse defiantly withdrew from the elections, and even despite a picture surfacing of Finke and the presidential candidate for Pulse, Zach Draheim, looking particularly chummy together at a Union function, the Electoral Tribunal – the peak body responsible for ruling on electoral matters brought before it – declared Fresh’s victory valid.

While the decision appeared to vindicate Fresh, thousands marched on the Union and the media moved in. Facing a reputational crisis, the University surprised everyone by announcing an independent audit of the Union, apparently due to allegations that money was being misused. Green-aligned Abraham O’Neil, one of the key figures of protest who helped to create and became a mouthpiece for the Democracy 4 UQU movement, remembers the announcement coming out of left field.

“Something people constantly forget is that in mid-august we had a press release from the University basically saying ‘there have been concerns raised by students and members of the community that things are going wrong in the Union’. Now the only concerns raised at that point had been that the elections had been stolen, and when we eventually saw the audit it didn’t address any of those concerns,” O’Neil said.

The audit, conducted by BDO Australia, handed its findings to the Union in January of 2013. At the time, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj urged the Union to make the audit’s findings public “no later than early March”, though also curiously told The Courier Mail that “there was no finding of misappropriations of student funds” and “from a strictly legal point…there has not been a technical breach of the constitution”. A summary of the audit’s findings however, quietly released on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, told a very different story indeed.

BDO not only exposed constitutional breaches, but also far more serious breaches of the Student Services and Amenities Fee and Funding and Services Agreement rules – the guidelines by which the University and Union negotiate funding arrangements. Most significantly, it found almost $70, 000 of spending by 2012 executives on Fresh-banded shirts, visors, pens, marquees, banners, flyers, condom wrappers, wristbands and balloons, as well as parking tickets, food, alcohol, textbooks and a Young Liberal National Party convention ticket. In what that could be considered bribery, Fresh was also found to have funded Grace College ‘O-week’ activities, and to top it all off the audit also found no Union Council meetings had been held between February and November of 2012 – a clear breach of the constitution in its own right.

Engaged students stood dismayed as the audit recommended legal advice be sought, which President-elect, Josh Milroy, believes is a condemnation of Fresh executives.

“When an audit body says ‘you need legal advice on this’, it’s code for something pretty serious. They’re not lawyers, they’re accountants, and when they’re saying you need legal advice on something, it’s not a good sign,” Milroy said.

Meanwhile, the University began to distance itself, as evident in UQ Senate minutes from the 18th of April which simply note that “Professor Høj said that no evidence of any formal breaches in the last election process had been found”, with no mention of the apparent misappropriation of money being made. Likewise, a media release at the time completely failed to address the issue, instead expressing support for the Union.

While the Union is partially funded by the Student Services and Amenities Fee, which is paid each semester by students, the majority of its $20 million turnover derives from University-owned property in Union control. Former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Mick McManus, who was the Union’s key contact at the time and instrumental in commissioning the BDO audit in 2012, explains why the University’s involvement was so important.

“(The audit) was the lever we had to say to the Union ‘if you don’t pull your head in, we’ll take away your access to facilities’, and they had to listen. The critical things that students need to understand is that while you might call it University money, it’s really taxpayer’s money, and so we have to be very much accountable and make sure that we use it in the appropriate way,” McManus said.

2013 Union President, Rohan Watt, insists that “the audit has been resolved and the Vice-Chancellor has expressed his support”, however is censorious of the audit process.

“(The audit) was used as a tool to discredit and intimidate. My view is that they overstepped and it was to the detriment of the University’s reputation and it was to the detriment of the student experience. I think the University’s learnt a lot of lessons from it, and I think we’ve learnt a lot of lessons from it,” Watt said.

In an attempt to address concerns – some of which had not been properly investigated by the audit – the Union produced a 24-point action plan to be implemented with the consultation of the University “prior to the commencement of second semester”, according to a statement from Watt. Strangely, the Union flatly rejected one of BDO Australia’s key recommendations: for annual audits to have increased scope. 2003 Union Secretary and the prime drafter of the Constitution and Electoral Regulations, Antonio Ferreira-Jardim, believes this should be a priority.

“The Union’s auditors are very well-regarded auditors, but they can only audit based on the information provided. I think what the Union should do is expand the capacity of that auditor, to say, ‘we don’t just want you to look at our statements and make sure the left-hand column matches the right-hand column, we actually want you to go through the executive spending’. Now all of that information should be openly available to students – under the rules they are, but the problem is that the Union never followed the rules and so you need an enforcement body,” Ferreira-Jardim said.

Milroy agrees that current annual audit processes are inadequate.

“If you’re doing an audit in the sense that you’re checking that no money has been stolen, then that’s fine, but the audits that have been happening for the last 6 or 7 years don’t check what money’s being spent on. Was it audited in a technical sense? Yes. Does it sound good to the average student? Yeah, absolutely! It sounds great! In reality, there’s no checking whatsoever of any of the funds that were spent,” he said.

Calls for expanded annual audits have been exacerbated by the discovery that the Union print contract was tendered to MBE Maroochydore, a business managed by the mother of 2009 Vice-President, Matthew Chadwick. Milroy is naturally scathing of the revelation.

“What happened there is a fairly severe breach of ethics. Every Semper Floreat – the University’s student publication – is published there on glossy coloured paper, the ballot papers every year are printed there. It’s an enormous contract for someone who was intimately involved in the process”.

Ferreira-Jardim is equally flabbergasted that such a conflict of interest was allowed to occur.

“What was the open tender process? Now you’re always going to have cases where a Union gets appointed, and they know people who do certain things and so they’ll get kickbacks or whatever, but usually it’s relatively small amounts. This is a pretty substantial contract,” he said.

As the University appears unwilling to get involved, Milroy intents to audit the past 6 years, with the new Union executive open to the possibility of civil action being pursued in an effort to reclaim misappropriated money.

“(The BDO audit) was one audit in one year and in a very isolated area of their funding. God only knows what would happen if you did an audit for 6 years. I don’t want to turn it into a witch-hunt: I don’t want to get in and be like ‘four years ago they spent 40 bucks and we want it back’, but we will audit the last few years because I’ve heard from a number of sources that some pretty severe misuses of funds has gone on. I’m talking tens-of-thousands of dollars of personal expenses, and if that’s the case we will review the options,” Milroy said.

But Watt has slammed the threats as politically motivated.

“Any actions, civil or otherwise, against any former Union executive is nothing but a cultural purge, which I’m sure the new executive will go through. History is written by the victors,” he said.

According to Watt, the supposed ambiguity of funding guidelines were amended by the largely incumbent-run Union Administrative Committee. While the University holds a seat on the committee, Jeremy Crowley, the University’s Director of Corporate Operations and – as appointed by the UQ Senate – their representative on the Administrative Committee, refused to answer detailed questions put before him. His only response – sentiments echoed by the man ultimately responsible for signing off on funding arrangements, UQ’s Chief Operating Officer, Maurie McNarn – was simply that “the Union is an independent body”. As such, one can only assume that Fresh were left to their own devices in solving a problem they were guilty of creating.

McManus, who retired from his role at the start of the year and has been on long-service leave throughout recent developments, said he “presume(s) the union has been asked to explain and has given solid, sustainable explanations as to what happened with that money”, but current DVCA, Joanne Wright, wouldn’t detail what progress has been made or whether the recommended legal advice had been sought, again reiterating the Union’s independence. In a brief statement, Wright said that the University accepts 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”.

Ferreira-Jardim believes this lack of real progress is completely inadequate.

“The University should have withheld funding until everything that they wanted was done, but I think it’s easier to do nothing. For them to do something would be in a way admitting that they were not properly overseeing the Union themselves – they’re already on the main governing, administrative body of the Union and do they turn up? I honestly doubt it,” he said.

A disheartened Milroy agrees.

“With all due respect to those involved, I think (the action plan) was largely a piecemeal to keep certain people happy, which it didn’t even do because anyone who’s interested in what’s going on looked at that document and saw it was an absolute farce”.

The most concrete evidence of the University’s neglect comes via this year’s election cancellation, costing $120, 000. Part of the action plan was an assurance that the University and Union would consult on the Electoral Charter – the rules by which elections are conducted – as well as to have the University appoint their own Returning Officer to oversee the elections. Fresh however, elected Peter Travers, an appointment which was subsequently ruled inquorate by the Electoral Tribunal due to invalid voting and Fresh association.

Former Tribunal member, electoral law Professor Graeme Orr, believes pressure prompted the decision from a typically legalistic body.

“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’, and so rather than being just purely legalistic, they’ll also think in the back of their minds, ‘OK, we need to act here’. Compared to problems of teams whose names had been squatted on, it seemed this was less of a substantive problem,” he said.

Orr explains why the election of the Returning Officer has become such an issue in recent years.

“For some years now, the Union has had trouble getting a qualified, independent Returning Officer in. There was a long-standing Returning Officer and their deputy who’d done the elections for many years, but for whatever reason they had a falling out with the Fresh team 3 or 4 years ago, and since then they’ve had trouble replacing them.”

Alarmingly, Orr’s position was removed from 2010 Tribunal rules by Fresh because of, as O’Neil believes, perceptions that he was too progressive, despite having the ample knowledge required for the role – yet another symptom of a Union allowed to write its own rules.

“The Electoral Tribunal before 2011 was a member of the Alumni Association, the Bar Association, the Law Society and a member of the Law School Faculty. In late 2010, the Union changed those rules to exclude the reference to a member of the Law Faculty. Just think of it as a redundancy – if you want to get rid of someone, make their position redundant,” O’Neil said.

Of particular concern to Ferreira-Jardim was that the Union also appeared to be breaching the constitution in their interpretation of the preferential voting system. A letter imploring the ‘properly’ re-elected Peter Travers to restore the system as Ferreira-Jardim had intended was brazenly ignored.

“The constitution says that voting must be via optional preferential voting, but the way the voting system actually works is that you have an above-the-line ballot, and you have to request a below-the-line ballot. Now you would only request it if you knew about it, and I bet most students don’t. The peculiar thing about the above-the-line ballot is for you to vote above-the-line, you cannot exercise a preference. That, in effect, is against what the constitution says,” Ferreira-Jardim said.

The Director of Student Affairs, Andrew Lee, was the individual tasked with consulting on the Electoral Charter and Returning Officer appointment, but declined to comment. Likewise, Wright would not detail the role Lee had, nor what was reported to the University regarding such blatant shortcomings in electoral processes.

Watt, however, has condemned such criticisms, saying that “it’s the equivalent of Clive Palmer attacking the AEC. It’s attacking a robust system which this year was defeated on a technicality”. But still in control of the Union, Fresh have been audacious enough to use Reform colours and Union signage in UQ Senate campaigning, with some concerned that the Union funded free sausage sizzles in support of their candidate, Elliott Johnson. Fresh have also been accused of trying to secretly run Administrative Committee elections, all of which has infuriated Milroy, a man clearly itching to take power.

“Union elections used to have to be in October and then Fresh removed that so they can basically have it whenever they want. This is why we have this odd system now where Fresh lost at the beginning of semester, but are still in power for another 3 months. It’s a bizarre system which they’ve bastardised to keep them in power,” Milroy said.

All this is but the tip of the iceberg regarding problems that exist within student politics at UQ: There’s increased factional power-broking within each political party, where only likeminded factions are supported by state party colleagues; there’s absolutely no transparency with regard to who funds election campaigns, and how much is given; laughably, the student publication, Semper Floreat, is Union-run and gone from a paper which produced journalists like Lenore Taylor and Brian Toohey, to a rag devoted to promoting alcohol abuse; and groups like the Journalism and Communications Society are equally hamstrung by Union funding and a school timid of truly holding the Union and University to account.

Clearly the two big-ticket items that must be urgently addressed are electoral reforms and enacting proper mechanisms to compel Union transparency. While Milroy wants to solve electoral issues once and for all by having either the Queensland Electoral Commission or the Australian Electoral Commission involved, there is a growing and very important debate about incorporating the Union, which currently operates as an independent trust and is largely free from legal scrutiny. Milroy, O’Neil and Ferreira-Jardim all believe this is the way forward.

“Either you need the University involved – which I think is a dream – or you need to incorporate it. Once you incorporate it then you can have corporate charges made against people, and they have to follow certain rules which are outside of their control: They have to submit all their information to the ATO; they would have to have governance that is open and accountable to their membership; they would be able to be suspended by ASIC if they do things wrong,” Ferreira-Jardim said, who hasn’t forgotten student union links to the 2001 Shepherdson Inquiry.

“There are people from last year’s executive who are working in MP’s Offices and are dealing with confidential information. It can’t be the case that there are no consequences, because that is an appalling indictment and it creates bad habits for people.”

McManus, however, is apprehensive about such legal burdens for students.

“This is an opportunity for students to learn, and one of the best ways to learn is that at times you fail. We don’t want students who are trying to develop themselves to be in a structure that’s really going to come home and hurt them,” he said.

Watt agrees.

“You get law students who think it’s the greatest thing in the world because it’s about being open and transparent, but you’ve got more ability to make real change for the Union Council if it’s not incorporated. I don’t think it’s a model that works for the organisation we have. I think it also limits first year students from getting involved in the Student Union because director’s duties apply,” Watt said.

But O’Neil thinks incorporation will simply act as a deterrent.

“Look at any number of student societies, like the UQ Law Society, which function perfectly well to an almost anal level of accountability. We have meetings and minutes and AGM’s and all this stuff is above board. You don’t need to go to court, you just need the threat of going to court,” he said.

Regardless of where this debate goes within Council – where Reform do not have a majority – such a significant change would eventually require the University to get involved. In a by now familiar response, DVCA Wright would not give any indication as to the University’s views on incorporating the Union.

The preeminent University of Queensland has not had a good year. There was outrage over the publication of a peer-reviewed paper that claimed a breakthrough in Parkinson’s disease treatment, to which the University was subsequently forced to admit that the cited research had not, in fact, been conducted. The University also had to grit its teeth through a Crime and Misconduct Commission inquiry into former Vice-Chancellor, Paul Greenfield, who resigned in 2011 following revelations that he’d provided his daughter privileged entry into the School of Medicine. Given the reputational damage that these events have caused, it’s surely in everyone’s best interest to work towards greater transparency and accountability, both within the University bureaucracy and that of its Student Union.

An independent Union is certainly vital, but at this point in time there is absolutely nothing whatsoever that obliges elected executives to act ethically or to change the status quo. Even if Reform do invite the QEC or AEC to run elections, for example, any future Union could very easily reverse the decision unless the University is willing lay down the law.

In a warning of troubles ahead, as well as a parting shot at the incoming Reform executive, Watt points out that “Labor left and Labor right have come together out of necessity. They’ve had to listen to the right in the leadership because they’re relatively more representative than perhaps some of the more enthusiastic, ideological people you find in the left. I think cracks have already started to form and I don’t think it’s good for government, I don’t think it’s good for the Student Union, and I think we’ll see some real challenges there”.

A wise man once said that “a lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity”. Until radical changes are made, distrust and insecurity of the University of Queensland and its Student Union will pervade throughout the community. Democracy may appear to have prevailed in this year’s elections, but the real work is yet to be done, and these important institutions must continue to be held to account.