New referendum rules insult accountability in student representation

Words by Ivan Bucalo Jankovic

In early December last year, we reported on a student-led petition that had been delivered to the desk of the Adelaide University Union’s Executive Officer, Gary Sutherland. It called for a student-wide vote to dismiss the sitting AUU Board and re-elect all Directors.

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Image source: The Conversation

The petition eventually fell through due to it containing some unclear wording and because a few students had signed it more than once.

Before you could say go, the Board acted swiftly in response to this threat. Schedule 3 of the AUU Constitution was passed quietly only days later, with little fanfare. Schedules need to pass two consecutive meetings to be enacted, leaving time for discussion, debate, and amendments. The second meeting was called on the same night, virtually minutes after the first. All the deliberations occurred in-camera at the President’s discretion (the in-camera power allows part or whole of the meeting to be totally confidential from the public, which includes ordinary students). Schedule 3’s implications for the power of the AUU Board, however, are momentous.

To recap: the AUU Constitution allows Adelaide Uni students to hypothetically dismiss the elected Board. It’s a mechanism that has not been initiated since 2007, when it was unsuccessful. After 1% of student have signed a petition of no-confidence, and it is successfully delivered to the AUU, students go to a non-compulsory referendum; at least 7% of students need to vote in the referendum, period, for any result to be passed. As you can see, it’s a laborious, difficult process that no one ever really believed would actually see the light of day — in normal circumstances.

Things are, however, far from normal.

With Board Directors being dismissed for not signing gag orders fast enough, and the Women’s Collective’s fight for AUU affiliation raging on, student politics is messy, and getting messier by the week. That this petition gained such considerable momentum is a sign of that.

So, what’s Schedule 3 all about? On the surface, it’s object and purpose is to “ensure that referenda are held fairly and equitably”. But the changes which it proposes make initiating a referendum considerably more difficult, and for entirely the wrong reasons.

Firstly, those in favour of recall are now required to successfully produce two petitions instead of just one: one of 0.5% of students, and one of at least 1% which can only be signed in-person at the AUU Office. Those who signed the first petition therefore need to do so again. Then, of course, if both are successful, the same students will essentially take to the polls a third time to actually cast a vote, then a fourth to elect new representatives. And because the referendum will only be ratified if at least 7% of students (roughly 1400) vote, there’s little incentive for the against-side to campaign at all. Or, it could play it by ear and see how much traction a pro-recall movement gains before deciding if campaigning is necessary.

It’s an uphill battle through and through. Recalling elected officials should be no easy task, but then you have to wonder about the basis on which these rules were formed. Why didn’t the Board require three or even four petitions, just to make extra sure signatories have made up their minds? Moreover, what will be done to accommodate students who study at the Waite and Roseworthy campuses? Why are students who graduate 6 month out prohibited from signing? Why only 3 days to vote in a referendum and not 5 as is customary in general student elections? One imagines these rules would have been constructed differently by a party with no vested interest in the matter except ensuring fairness and equity, and that alone.

Secondly, from a legalese point of view, it is curious that this matter has fallen under the jurisdiction of Schedules, not Rules.

Constitutionally, Schedules are much easier to pass, requiring only a 2/3 majority of all Board Directors present, which the ruling Progress-Connect (Liberal) coalition certainly have. Rules are a bit more stringent: they govern matters which are crucial to the Union’s operation, including the conduct of general elections, committees, and honoraria. Once passed through the Board twice, the resolution attached to the Rule is put to the University Council, a body made up of staff, academic, and student representatives. The additional scrutiny ensures important changes can’t be rubber stamped by a faction with the right numbers.

Because referenda aren’t governed by Rules, the Board can choose to make the process as arbitrarily difficult as they please without public reason. They may decide, as they see fit, to ban online campaigning if it would scupper a pro-recall campaign. They may decide to spring section 4.2 of the new Schedule at an opportune moment, which states:

In other words, it leaves open the possibility of a counter-referendum, if you will, either to block a recall vote, or to tighten the Constitutional recall process even further. Either way, all it would call for is a simple majority vote of the Board, unlike the three-pronged hurdle required for a recall vote to succeed. The odds are definitely stacked against the latter, but it’s not for me to say whether the ease with which these changes happened — practically overnight — was the intent of the Constitution’s drafters, or an oversight by not including referenda in the list of items governed by Rules. It is certainly worth noting at any rate.

It’s also worth noting that viz-a-viz recall referenda, the Constitution specifically instructs that:

Nowhere else in the Constitution will you find these words appended to another clause. They were put there for a reason, though what that reason may be is a matter of interpretation for the Board itself. The problem is that it wouldn’t possibly look at these words and consider they might be a check on on how much the referendum process can be modified, which is certainly a possibility. That is the role of bodies like the University Council and, for that matter, students at a polling booth. At least one of those options has been significantly hamstrung now.

Ultimately, Schedule 3’s existence demonstrates that no constitution, no matter how well thought out, is fool proof. The issue is not that it should be easier per se to dismiss elected representatives. The issue is that the rules which govern this process have been made by the very same people whose positions have been threatened, which is patently absurd. After all, you don’t ask a turkey if it likes Christmas, and you don’t ask elected officials to scrutinize themselves. The fact that they are evidently allowed to do just that by what seems to be a loophole is an insult to students at our institution.

On Dit contacted Board President, Angela Qin (Progress), and Vice-President, Isaac Trumble (Connect), for further comment. Neither responded to our email asking for clarification about the reasoning behind Schedule 3, and its constitutionality.

So, what happens next? The avenues for appeal are limited, but they exist. Section 28 of the Constitution allows an AUU member who has been “adversely affected” by a matter of constitutional interpretation to appeal to the University Council, whose decision is final. It remains to be seen whether things will go that far and if so, whose side the Council take, but recent history has shown that too far is a term absent from the arena of student politics.

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Ivan Bucalo, Stasi Kapetanos, Isobel Moore, and Michelle Roylance. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com

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