Some thoughts on the UNESA Constitution

A society or club may be just a gathering of friends but, to gain limited members liability, it has to become a legal entity through incorporation. Only then can it enter into contracts. This requires something that defines the entity, namely the constitution. An association is therefore embodied in its constitution. The Constitution is a Contract The constitution defines the services supplied by the association and the rules under which members receive those services. It is in fact a contract between member and association. When applying to join, members have to agree to be bound by the constitution which establishes both rights and obligations. Before the last UNESA elections, applicants were not asked to abide by the constitution and hence strictly speaking there were no members and the elections were actually invalid.

Some History behind this Constitution With its first words, the UNESA constitution tries to gain authenticity by claiming to be based on the model constitution of the NSW Dept of Fair Trading, but this has been changed quite significantly by both students and administration. The process appears to have been dominated by university fears of student malfeasance (as happened a few years ago at UNE when members of the committee ran off with thousands of dollars) and an overly paternalistic attitude to students.

UNESA is a Controlled Entity The result is that UNESA is a controlled entity. The university has the right to sack the Board if they do not like their decisions, replace the Board with another Board of members chosen by the university, and nominally has to approve all changes in the constitution. Some students may feel safer having this university overview but, if the association is going to represent students that may be in dispute with the university, then this overview is unacceptable. It creates an atmosphere of compliance and supplication, not independent representation.

Lack of Independence The lack of independence is exemplified by the executive officer position, filled, under the constitution, by a university employee whose manager is the head of Student Services. This would seem to be an untenable position, with two bosses, liable to lead to serious conflicts of interest. The Executive Officer should be employed directly by the Association, independent of the university.

The Returning Officer should also be independent of the university, not appointed by the university. Otherwise we have disgraceful situations like last year when the postgrad association executive agreed unanimously to call fresh elections but the Returning Officer refused to allow it. The Returning Officer should also be independent of the Executive Committee, not a member of it, as in the current constitution.

Democracy and Free Speech UNESA is meant to be democratic, but this requires free speech. In all associations, there must be a register of members. In the NSW model constitution, this includes contact details. This requirement has been removed in the UNESA constitution. Normally, any member may contact any other member about matters relating to the association but not in UNESA. Clearly the member must not abuse the right of communication, free speech, but it must not be denied.

A full membership list including contact details (email addresses are sufficient) is necessary to underpin the essential free speech within a democratic organisation.

Directly elected Presidents The issue of whether the President should be directly elected by members is the same issue that has arisen in relation to Mayors of Town/City Councils. Directly elected Presidents tend to become despotic, doing what they wish, not what the Board wishes. The President needs to look up to the Board, and work with the Board. To ensure this, the person should be elected by the Board.

Elections would be best held in Trimester 1 so that the Board has most of two “normal” trimesters to get together and get things done. Trying to run the Board in Trimester 3 is very hard with most students being off campus. Many students, especially one-year postgrads are only here from late Feb to September. Many final year students leave at the end of Trimester 2, potentially decimating the Board for Trimester 3. A rolling election with two-year terms and half the board being elected each year to maintain institutional knowledge would be preferable. Finally, as there will be many new members this year, given application forms in registration, the sooner we give them a say, the better. We always used to have elections in Trimester 1; having them in Trimester 2 is purely a historical result of the mismanagement of elections in Trimester 1, 2012.

Values and Vision If you look at other constitutions—e.g. Sydney or Melbourne unions—they have a clear set of Objects of the constitution. Instead, UNESA has a couple of vague value and vision statements. The first value statement is “to create an environment that respects and develops leadership”. This is quite frightening. It’s almost saying we must obey our gruppenleiter with his blue, or is it brown, shirts.

In encouraging student involvement, some universities actually say words like “become a student rep, learn new skills, improve your CV”! Many politicians including student reps, are in it for themselves, for the kudos, the indulgence of spending funds, enjoying the parties, etc. Who is UNESA really supposed to benefit?

The Vision statement of UNESA is “To represent without fear or favour, the students of the University of New England. To encourage participation in a fair and just tertiary experience through shared higher thinking”. This is weak motherly statement nothing like the 12 meaningful and concrete objects of the Sydney Union.

And although UNESA is supposed to respect and value diversity, the current executive, rather than engaging in dialogue, has bitterly attacked anyone speaking up.

What do we see as the role of UNESA? There are two distinct roles for UNESA: a. running of a student union with bars, cafes, shops, concerts, etc, i.e. create a real social hub as at Sydney and ANU; and b. representing student views to the university, advocacy, counselling, defending students caught in university maladministration, etc.

These two roles are quite different. The first is a managerial role involving large sums of money. This should be run by a professional CEO with the necessary skills, employed through the normal competitive process with full CVs and interviews, leading to 3 or 5 year contracts. The CEO should answer to a Board which could then concern itself with the representative role. Members of the UNESA Board are currently elected on the basis of a ridiculously small 200-word bio. This is not a good basis for selecting people to run an organisation with a significant budget.

Effects of the SSAF structure set up by the Commonwealth The student association has been put in the role of a supplicant, seeking to get funds spent in a certain way. This conflicts with the association’s role as representing students in disputes with the university. It has also pushed the business of the association almost totally towards what to spend the funds on. The role of representation has been almost totally forgotten as in the past SSAF debate. There also seems to have been no representation over the many postgraduate issues of poor supervision, poor resources and inequitable funding.

What I am tending towards here is a constitution very like those of Sydney and Melbourne Universities. There you have a Board which employs a CEO and Secretary to run the commercial aspects and handle the money. Rather than have a Board with reps based on internal versus external constituencies, UNESA could have an Equity Officer, a Media officer, etc, all roles for which everyone can vote. This might create a much more unified association than the current board of external student reps, college students and townies. These are a few ideas for discussion; I tend them purely as my own. This is a very lay document; I apologise for its many shortcomings. Would those who would like to see the calling of an SGM to change the UNESA constitution please contact me.

Colin Hargreaves colin.hargreaves@une.edu.au

“We need feminism because ... Equality for Women is Progress for All”

In Defence of the Constitution...(and a response to the attacks on the UNESA Board)