English: UQ Union Logo (Photo credit: UQ Union)
The 2013 University of Queensland Union (UQU) elections were discontinued on August 7th due to the incumbent ‘Fresh’ UQU office bearers failing to follow due process in selecting a Returning Officer to administer and adjudicate the election. This stemmed from an appeal by the ‘Lift’ group, who were prevented from running due to a small error in a nomination form.
Whilst this shows that at least some check-and-balances are still operating in the UQU system, the entire situation is a product of the UQU having the power to write its own election rules and appoint the Returning Officer. This is likely to cost the UQU tens of thousands (such is the cost of handing out $5 food vouchers to voters). At other Universities, an independent body holds these powers to ensure the incumbents do not make unfair alterations to the rules and select a ‘friendly’ Returning Officer (which is exactly what Fresh did last year).
This is all rather embarrassing for Fresh. Last year they managed to get away with trying to lock out opposition parties by changing the election regulations to disadvantage legitimate opposition tickets, then following these new rules to the letter. This left the Electoral Tribunal unable to intervene – and Fresh was able to waltz in with only faux-parties filled with mates to provide competition.
This year it seems they got sloppy in their attempt to rig the election by failing to follow the rules they themselves had written. Though ‘Reform’ managed to navigate the opaque nomination system to get themselves registered in time, ‘Lift’ were not so lucky (curiously so, considering their Presidential candidate is a current Fresh UQU office-bearer).
At any rate – if this doesn’t prove that the UQU is broken, nothing will. It’s the second time an election has been marred by Fresh’s failure to run a transparent process. This problem won’t go away – regardless of who is eventually elected. It’s a problem hardwired into the UQU Constitution: the UQU incumbents have the power to write all election rules, determine who adjudicates them, and retain complete discretion as to what information is released to the public. However, Fresh has taken advantage of this flaw in an unprecedented manner, leading to a situation where the UQU has become opaque, self-absorbed and unresponsive to the needs of UQ students.
Last year, an open letter signed by over 30 past and present independent student leaders, and viewed by over 4,000, advocated UQ step-in. The resulting intervention failed to address the imperfections in the electoral system and instead focused on claims of misappropriation of funds by the UQU executive. At a cost of $35,000, UQU’s books were independently audited by the accounting firm BDO.
With little fanfare and some five months since its last public comment regarding the audit, the UQU released selective findings from the BDO report on April 12 of this year. The report provided a number of insights into the spending priorities of the Fresh executive. Merchandise branded with Fresh livery accounted for some $63,983.70, with over $51,000 suggested to have fallen outside the Union’s constitutional remit.
Essential funding was used to pay office-bearers’ parking fines, purchase tickets to a Young LNP conference, enjoy pints of ‘product testing’ beer and order 4,000 ‘Fresh’ branded condoms.
That’s a disgrace.
The reforms outlined below would put the UQU at the forefront of transparency. Given the dramatic loss of faith in the UQU’s ability to run a fair electoral system, observe council meeting requirements and manage finances responsibly – a higher standard is necessary to restore student faith in the UQU.
Tacking documents to a physical notice-board is not a reasonable form of dissemination for a $18 million dollar public organisation that has a duty to serve the 40,000 students of UQ. When we say ‘made public’ we mean publishing to the UQU website in an easily accessible form. This is the norm for most student unions – even a cursory search on the University of Melbourne Student Union website yields complete records of meeting minutes, election notices, Returning Officer appointment and contact details, election appeals and findings, full results for prior elections and copies of the UMSU Constitution and electoral regulations. To obtain these from the UQU you would need to be making near-daily visits to the UQU office complex to check if they’d been tacked onto a noticeboard.
This is what is needed:
1. Electoral Reforms
Have an impartial body write, execute and adjudicate the electoral rules – not the incumbent UQU Executive.
This year the election was discontinued as Fresh failed to select a Returning Officer in the designated manner. Having this decision in the incumbent’s hands at all is not a sound idea.
Like this year’s failing, the 2012 catastrophe was the logical culmination of giving an incumbent UQU Executive and Council full control over the election process. The UQU Constitution allows the UQU Council to write (and regularly change at the last minute) all electoral regulation, pick a Returning Officer (to run the election) and appoint an electoral tribunal (to adjudicate any disputes). As UQ Law Professor Graeme Orr (a former member of the Electoral Tribunal until Fresh booted him off without explanation) said at the height of last year’s scandal: “Student unions are a bit like local governments – we don’t let each local shire council write its own electoral rules.”
Fresh’s only action to-date has been releasing a draft ‘Elections & Campaigns Charter’ that, while running to two pages, can be summarised as “please play nice”. The charter has no enforceable provisions, neither solving the problems created by the incumbent-designed UQU electoral regulations, or injecting any requirement for transparency. Beyond that, giving 72 hours for students to make submission to a document that is going to govern an election’s conduct is just woeful.
Hold a referendum to alter the UQU constitution to empower an independent Electoral Tribunal to make regulations regarding elections, appoint an experienced Returning Officer, and be a final adjudicator over electoral disputes. The suitability of a Returning Officer should also be prescribed in the Constitution to prevent appointees with no prior experience from filling the role, as has frequently occurred. Ideally, the Australian Electoral Commission, or a private election operating company with a proven track record, will be appointed. This would prevent the situation that has resulted in the 2013 election being discontinued.
The powers and membership of the Electoral Tribunal should be specified in the Constitution, not left for the UQU Council to determine at their leisure. This would prevent the inevitable temptation that all UQU executives will face each election – by taking this specific power out of their hands.
Specific suggestions for changes to the constitution are set out here.
2. Financial Reforms
The BDO audit identified numerous record keeping flaws, instances of personal spending being billed to the UQU and over $50,000 in unconstitutional spending. It’s unlikely any of this would have ever come to light had the election scandal not occurred. That is not acceptable.
Adopt the disclosure suggestions made in the BDO auditor’s report. Commit to publishing a full account of UQU finances is to be released within 4 weeks of the financial year ending. This should include significant detail in spending and all grants to clubs, societies and other non-UQU groups (i.e. the National Union of Students if affiliation occurs). It should be independently audited and be available on the UQU website.
3. Procedural Reforms
A transparent and fair clubs and societies system.
There are too many tales of clubs not being formed at UQ as they lack a friendly connection inside Fresh. Last year it took the UQ Republican Club months of repeated requests, re-filing of papers and appeals to UQ to achieve recognition. Some clubs, like the proposed libertarian ‘Friedman Club’, never even received notification as to why their request was denied (despite it meeting all stated requirements). All the while, clubs like the ‘GPS Old Boys Club’ received lavish funding to throw drinking parties due members’ connections with Fresh. Just as registering a club has been dependent with having a friend in the UQU, so has securing additional funding.
Moving towards a transparent model would also remove the leverage that Fresh has used over the years to threaten clubs with disaffiliation or funding cuts should their members run on non-Fresh tickets, or print publications that question Fresh’s electoral tactics (as the UQ Law Society found out in 2011).
Full transparency. Clear instructions for what conditions have to be met to register a club, with all relevant forms available online. A register of applications should be public that shows all applications, and their status (pending, approved, denied) and the rationale of any final decision. When office bearers have to make their reasoning public, it limits arbitrary decision making.
A similar process for requesting (and a register showing application status) for all extraordinary grants to clubs (those not apportioned based on membership size or another automatic calculation) should also be employed.
Examples of a running disclosure registry in operation can be found at:
Australian Electoral Commission – Registration decisions
UK government data – request register
A Stronger UQU Council
The UQ ordered audit of UQU found that “As monthly meetings were not held between February and November inclusive, it would appear that the Union has not complied with this section of the Constitution.” As the governing body of the UQU, it has failed to hold the executive officers to account over the last few years, facilitating the irregular spending highlighted in the audit, and failing to properly vet changes to UQU Regulations.
Require that all UQU Council meetings be held on set dates specified at the beginning of each year and at a set location (e.g. every 3rd Thursday of the month at 4pm in the Innes Room). Meetings should be open to the public. Meeting agendas should be posted on the UQU website, alongside any proposed changes of the UQU Regulations. Accurate meeting minutes should be released within one week and made available on the UQU website.