After an appeal process, described by activists as “plagued with allegations of corruption”, the University of Wollongong (UOW) has overturned the election result for the Wollongong Undergraduate Students’ Association (WUSA).
The elections, in which more than 1500 students voted, the biggest student participation in many years, was hotly contested between the Liberals, standing as Revolution, and a broad left group Save Our Union. It followed a year of uncertainty over whether the student union would be closed down.
Presidential candidate for Save Our Union Chloe Rafferty won with a primary vote of 765. However an appeal found Rafferty had “contravened the Election Code of Conduct by campaigning in classrooms before and during the election period and after being warned by the Returning Officer not to do so” and was disqualified.
Activists with the Save Our Union have described the decision as “an administrative coup against student democracy”. They claim the university is attempting to suppress student activism after activists spent a year fighting to stop the closure of the union and assert their right as undergraduates to be members of WUSA.
Rafferty said she was shocked by her disqualification: “We now have the university overturning a democratic decision because they don’t like the result. This is a gross suppression of student democracy and free speech which I have no doubt is connected to plans to shut-down, defund or restructure the student union which we’ve been fighting to save all year."
She said making a before-lecture announcement about the elections is a standard part of student union elections on campuses across the country.
“The Appeals Panel claimed I was warned in writing that before-lecture announcements were in breach of election regulations. This is a lie that they have not backed up with any evidence, despite every communication I had with the returning officer being via email.
“We were warned about chalking messages and authorising how to votes but at no point were we told that a standard practice which is part of the democratic process for every other student election was against the regulations. It’s clear they’re trying to suppress student democracy and the left’s free speech.”
National Union of Students (NUS) President Sophie Johnston also criticised the decision: "It has always been common practice on university campuses right across Australia to make announcements before lectures. NUS has always stood for democracy within any process of student unionism and this decision undermines the many students at the University of Wollongong who overwhelmingly supported the Save our Union group and Chloe Rafferty as the 2018 WUSA President."
Incoming Education Assistant Secretary Isabelle Liddy said: “We understand that you can’t campaign during class-time, tutorials or inside the library but this is a ridiculous rule they’ve applied after the fact because they don’t like the result.
“They say they notified us in writing but where are the emails? I wasn’t even sent the Code of Conduct they claim we breached which the outgoing president helped to write.”
The Appeals Panel also found that outgoing Liberal WUSA president Jasper Brewer and Revolution presidential candidate Zachary Fitzpatrick tried to convince candidates to help overturn the election results in exchange for positions on the WUSA council.
The panel relied on written and recorded evidence to find they attempted to “prejudice the election and compromise its outcome by seeking to subvert the determination of elected candidates and their participation as members of the 2018 WUSA Council’’.
The panel also noted that Brewer was in a meeting arranged by Fitzpatrick, where ‘’he stated that he would compromise the integrity of the WUSA Appeals Panel and attempt to assert an influence over the appeals outcome by authorising a biased party as his representative’’. The appeals panel disqualified Fitzpatrick from the election.
As the top two candidates were disqualified, the panel announced the third-placed candidate, Independent Timothy Piert, was elected with 85 votes or 6% of the total vote.
Liddy said: “Jasper Brewer and other Young Liberals tried to coerce people behind closed doors to lie to this appeals panel to overturn the democratic vote. Now we have the university’s appeals board declaring someone with only 6% of the vote as the elected representative.
“We’ve been fighting for a fair, open and democratically run student union all year and we’ve seen UOW management respond by giving the Liberals free reign to ban left-wing people from the union, break constitutional rules, bribe and coerce students. Now they’ve overturned an election on the grounds that a candidate announced the election to students rather than getting appointed with no votes like last year’s president.”
Rafferty said the credibility of the appeals panel has been destroyed: “Brewer doesn’t need to appoint his dad’s lawyer to the university’s appeals panel because it’s already a joke. They’ve disenfranchised 94% of the voters in one go, sacked me, disqualified Zach, disqualified a whistle-blower who exposed the allegations of corruption, and effectively handed the Young Liberals a majority on WUSA Council — it’s an administrative coup.”
Liddy said the decision to overturn the election is an attempt to supress student activism at UOW: “The university wants us to shut up about student representation, shut up about fee increases, shut up about donations to the Liberal Party and shut up about Vice Chancellor Wellings’ refusal to fly the rainbow flag. We're not going to shut up, we're going to fight to bring back student democracy at Wollongong Uni.”
Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon condemned the decision to replace a democratically elected student president and called on UOW Vice-Chancellor Paul Wellings to restore student democracy and reinstate Rafferty as president of WUSA.
“The removal of Ms Rafferty as WUSU president appears to be politically motivated” she said. “Save Our Union campaigned strongly to save the student union from being restructured or defunded — a campaign clearly at odds with the university management.
“This is a shocking violation of student democracy and a clear attempt to stifle student dissent about university management decisions. To replace a democratically elected student president, with another candidate that only received 6% of the vote is outrageous.”
The South Coast Labour Council also threw its support behind Rafferty, with its executive unanimously passing a motion calling on UOW to respect the will of the student body.
Save Our Union activists say they will fight the decision by appealing to the University Council and Senate to reinstate Chloe Rafferty as president. They also have a change.org petition.