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Autonomy  •  10 October 2021  •  Offhand

SA President's Statement RE: UTSSA

The following is a statement from the UTSSA President, Aidan O’Rourke. This statement is not written on behalf of the UTSSA and is a personal statement and reflection from the President. The views expressed in this piece do not represent those of the Vertigo Editorial Team.

By Aidan O'Rourke

“A student union should be fundamentally a reflection of the needs of students. Our union over the last decade has served two roles. Firstly, a successful and engaging service provider. Noting that Night Owl Noodles and the UTSSA Legal Service is rated amongst students as some of the most ‘satisfying’ student services at UTS. Secondly, as a student’s advocacy body – coupling negotiation and case building with differing levels of management and activism.

The crux of the tension within the UTSSA can be attributed to the fine balance between these roles. That balance emerges because while the UTSSA operates on student money, we are allocated that money by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. This creates the dilemma that we want to engage the university with hard-hitting campaigns while also protecting our services.

This balance historically has never affected the UTSSA’s ability to be an effective independent voice for students because we always engaged in these campaigns legitimately. We did not, for example, post on public pages boasting about our intention to break university rules or slander each other in student publications. This year has been notable in this regard.

It should be noted that an argument will be mounted to claim that this is about posters and Blu Tack. This is an astonishing distraction from the real issues. The measures set out by the UTSSA has always been about ensuring that our rules are followed. When our rules are broken, we become illegitimate, unaccountable, and not transparent. Words that should never be heard in an over-a-million-dollar organisation. Rule-breaking also significantly affects our ability to secure funds from the University, period.

In my role as President, I have not taken any direction from university management nor have management given me a direction, with only one exception – that both university rules and our own rules be followed. This was directly following the decision of Collective leadership to publicly withdraw from the union rules almost in entirety because they disagreed with specific sections of the By-Laws. Many of these sections have been amended and dealt with.

The response from the UTSSA to the rule-breaking was simple. Funding and UTSSA resources to rule-breaking Collectives would cease until they agreed to follow our rules.

The Collectives argue that this amounted to censorship. This argument ignores two facts. Firstly, Collectives could elect to follow the rules and mount a full-throated campaign on any issue of their choice. No university or UTSSA rule prevents Collectives from engaging in any campaign or from campaigning in university spaces. Secondly, the decision to withdraw from support of the UTSSA [sic] meant that the SRC could not provide funds in accordance with any rule, or By-Law. In effect, our hands were tied. From any other perspective, the withdrawal of support amounted to self-censorship.

This effort by the Collectives was a concerted political attack on the President and the SRC to create the illusion of censorship and aid their inevitable election campaign later this year. The fact is if these critics were elected and allowed the degree of rule-breaking they were advocating for, they would be committing fraud.

The matter of the Grievance Committee is similarly straightforward. The UTSSA Constitution (reformed in 2019) requires the SRC to establish a standing Grievance Committee – that is always in operation – to hear and manage disputes within the UTSSA. Last year’s President failed to set up and build the required procedures of the Grievance Committee which left it to this year’s team to build them instead. That project was initiated and supported by every Councillor and Collective at the time. As Collective frustrations with SRC emerged support for the Grievance Committee waned because they recognised that the Committee would penalise the breaking of our rules. Effectively, opposition to the Grievance Committee is driven by a want to break rules without punishment.” ~

“Notes on the rules in question:

Meeting requirements: Each Collective is required to send five days’ notice of the meeting, each meeting must be attended by at least five people (Quorum), minutes and attendance of the meeting must be recorded. Attendance may be recorded anonymously. The meeting requirements are in place because these meetings frequently approve funds to be spent. Whenever money is spent the relevant documentation must be available to ensure individuals are not abusing the UTSSA’s budget for personal gain or advantage. Sums of up to $1500 can be approved in these meetings. Students require adequate notice so that they can make an input in decisions about funds and policies more broadly. Quorum makes it harder for one person and/or their friends to abuse the system. Minutes record the intention of the meeting and provide people not present an opportunity to know what matters were discussed. Attendance ensures accountability for quorum requirements and a record for the purposes of accreditation for elections and work health and safety.

Social Media Policy: Ensures that the use of social media is appropriate, particularly regarding cyberbullying and conduct broadly that can negatively impact the UTSSA and its operations.

Media Policy: similarly, as above.

Code of Conduct: This sets our expectations of students in UTSSA spaces. They include rules on harassment, bullying, not following direction for security/authorities, fraud, etc.

Each of these policies and rules were/are in breach by some Collectives and members of Collective leadership.” 

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