At a meeting on May 27 the ANU Council issued an order effectively forcing the separation of the roles of student association president and student representative on the ANU Council. Beginning in 2017, ANUSA and PARSA will be obliged to hold separate elections for their Presidents and their respective representatives on the Council.
As a result, student association presidents will not necessarily occupy a seat on the ANU Council as they currently do, unless the same candidate runs for both positions.
These changes come as part of proposed amendments to the ANU Act governing the University, spearheaded by the Department of Education. According to ANUSA President Ben Gill, the ANU Council has been working closely with the Department in drafting the changes.
He also noted that the Department has been “firm in its persistence on this issue” in particular.
Furthermore, while these amendments do not come into force until passed in Federal Parliament, the ANU Council is implementing this recommendation beforehand to demonstrate their commitment to the Department’s proposed reforms.
In the document directed to PARSA, several constitutional amendments were listed. It was stated that if PARSA did not approve these amendments by 2017, “the instrument has a tool which can remove the election of the Postgraduate member of the ANU Council from PARSA, a situation that is undesirable to both PARSA and the ANU.”
ANU Administration would then conduct the election of the student Council member themselves, according to PARSA election regulations, if the constitutional amendments were not passed.
Gill acknowledged that ANUSA was in a similar situation.
At the PARSA Annual General Meeting (AGM) on the same day, the attendees overwhelmingly voted against the changes, delaying the issue to a future meeting.
Chris Orchard, General Secretary of PARSA, stated that the reforms were “an attack on student unionism” and dilutes student involvement in university affairs. Concerns about possible conflicts of interest between the president and Council representative were also raised.
Given the constitutional changes recommended by the University, there would also be no requirement for the Council representative to sit on the PARSA board.
Students at the PARSA AGM also noted that the changes could make PARSA more political, as students wanting to push specific political agendas through an ANU Council seat would be more inclined to run. Also, while a specialised role may yield benefits, the Council representative would also be less accountable, given that they would not have the same level of student exposure as the president.
The reforms being forwarded by the ANU Council were recommended in a 2014 report by Professor (Emeritus) Sally Walker from Deloitte. Commissioned under then Education Minister Christopher Pyne, the report evaluated the efficacy of the ANU’s “legislative and governance arrangements.”
The Walker report argued that a student functioning both as a president and Council member would be overburdened, and that the inability of former presidents to run for election to the Council prevents experienced students from contributing to the decision-making body. Walker also asserted that voters should be given the ability to vote for the two positions separately.
The report also stated that the short one year tenure of student Council members would make it difficult to “meaningfully contribute to Council fulfilling its responsibilities.”
It continued, “We are not persuaded that having staff and student members on Council is the best way to ensure that Council is aware of the views of staff and students.” However, it noted that breaking the tradition of student involvement on the ANU Council may trigger a widespread loss of confidence in the Administration.
Arjuna Mohottala, PhD student and former PARSA President (2013/2014), ultimately felt that the separation would have to take place, but opposed the changes as they did not provide safeguards against possible frictions between the President and Council member, and would not hold the Council member accountable to students.
He claimed that a specialised Council representative position could make their work more efficient and independent of internal student politics. However, drawing on personal experiences of sitting on the Council himself, Mohottala noted that “there can be falling outs between the President and the Representative on the ANU Council” in terms of differences in opinion.
“Without making the necessary constitutional and other regulation amendments to curb as much as possible, any future friction that may arise from two individuals holding the office of president and rep, both associations may be walking into a disaster that has taken place in other universities/student associations,” he told Woroni.
Given the special nature of the Council membership, especially the confidentiality of matters discussed therein, Gill told Woroni that there were benefits to having a specialised position. He underlined the difficulties in making the Council member more accountable to the SRC, and stated that “I don’t report to SRC on council things, as they’re confidential.”
He also stated that the politicisation of the role could easily apply to the president position as well.
However, he claimed that a downside would be the running of candidates using the Council membership as a form of prestige. He said that he would hold suspect students who run for the Council position but do not run for the presidency at the same time, especially since the president is primarily tasked with representing student interests.
Gill concluded that having the president as Council member would make student representation and understanding the University as a whole easier, but assured that there were ways to make their separation possible.
“If students feel so strongly about [the separation]… they should vote for the same person for both positions.”
According to Gill, the proposed changes to the ANU Act are expected to be tabled during the upcoming spring session in Parliament.