In what has been described by some as an outrageous move, the ANU’s postgraduate student association, PARSA, removed their newly elected president within hours of him taking up the post.
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Game of Thrones
PARSA’s electoral system is organised into three distinct stages. First, an online election is held for two representatives from each of the seven ANU academic colleges (the Seven Kingdoms). Once these 14 people are confirmed, an online ballot is held for 15 general representatives from across the ANU-at-large. These 29 elected members form what is called the PRC (Postgraduate Representative Council) and it is this body, at its first meeting only days before the official start of winter, which elects the president and other executive office bearers.
This year was PARSA’s most competitive election on record. According to Returning Officer Dale Brosnahan there was a voter turn-out of 883 postgrads, almost twice as many as the previous year. And for the 15 general representative positions 43 people were nominated. This hotly contested election saw factions form across the ANU with at least four distinct groups vying for the PARSA leadership.
A secret ballot took place at the PRC’s first meeting of the 2014/2015 term, where three candidates stood for the presidency. The incumbent Arjuna Mohottala, former social officer Laura Parker, and PRC member Pidison Pradhan each gave short speeches and asked for the support of the 29 PRC members, who each were entitled to one vote.
Once the votes were counted (though the exact vote count has not been revealed), Pidison Pradhan was declared president and immediately took the chair. Mr Pradhan’s election appeared to surprise many of those at the meeting, especially supporters of both Mr Mohottala and Ms Parker, who assumed that their strong support among the postgraduate student community would see one of them elected.
It was later pointed out by one PRC member, however, that with Mr Mohottala and Ms Parker both running for president, they ended up splitting the vote of a group of around 16 people who had either been heavily involved in PARSA over the previous year, or who had been brought in to support either one of them, or Benjamin Niles, the former equity officer who many expected to run due to a widely known campaign effort he and campaign advisor Kayjal Dasan were running in the weeks leading up to the election.
With Mr Niles not standing, his supporters were stuck between choosing Mr Mohottala or Ms Parker, and with that voting bloc clearly split, Mr Pradhan was able to get through with what was estimated to be around 11 or 12 votes (out of the 29 PRC members).
Mr Pradhan presided over the election of the vice president, a position won by George Carter, who was close to both Mohottala and Parker, but said he stood for the role to build a bridge between what he described as worrying factions that had developed within the new PRC. The new treasurer elected was Faraz Junaidi, and a number of other executive positions (see below) were contested.
But in a surprise twist, immediately after all the executive officers had been elected, the outgoing president, Mr Mohottala, who is also Treasurer of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), moved a motion of no confidence in the new president, Mr Pradhan.
Woroni understands Mr Mohottala raised the motion of no confidence because of his concern about Mr Pradhan’s performance as a College of Arts and Social Sciences representative on PARSA. According to Mr Mohottala, Mr Pradhan failed to perform his basic duties in that role and did not attend a number of key meetings in CASS as well as a number of PARSA meetings. In addition to that, Mr Mohottala and other PRC members expressed concern that Mr Pradhan had revealed that he was only at ANU for one more semester, that is until November this year. The term of the PARSA president is May 2014 until May 2015.
While many anticipated there would be tough competition for PARSA’s Iron Throne, it seems no one was prepared for a motion of no confidence. Mr Mohottala’s motion was strongly opposed by some members of the PRC and a major debate erupted as to its validity. Instead, a vote was called for by supporters of Mr Pradhan to determine whether or not the motion of no confidence could even be put. Debate ensued for 20 minutes with a number of supporters of Mr Pradhan arguing that the motion of no confidence was both undemocratic and unfair on a newly elected president who had not even had an opportunity to perform his new role. Others argued that it was the constitutional right of any elected member to put a motion on the agenda.
Eventually, the student association lawyer was called in to give advice on the constitutionality of Mr Mohottala’s motion and he advised that there was nothing in the constitution that prohibited PRC members moving and voting on a motion of no confidence. Some appeared unwilling to accept that advice and continued to argue strongly against the motion being put, while others were growing increasingly impatient and demanding that the vote take place. There was a thick tension in the air.
Finally, after more than an hour of debating the motion’s validity, with the vice president George Carter in the chair acting as the King’s Hand, a vote took place. Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Baker, who was at the PARSA cocktail event in the hall adjoining the meeting room with around 100 waiting guests, was called in to oversee the vote count because the returning officer had to leave (due to the meeting going well past the scheduled time). After some confusion, and accusations of some people voting twice, another vote took place and majority of the elected representatives agreed that a motion of no confidence could be put. Mr Mohottala’s motion was then immediately put to those present and it was passed by a majority of PRC members.
Pidison Pradhan was removed from the office of president less than four hours after he was elected. His time at the helm of PARSA is probably the shortest in its history and, for some it seems, just as controversial as the tragic end to the short reign of King Joffrey Baratheon. Of course, the difference here is that Mr Pradhan and his supporters are still members of the PRC, and their votes will matter in any major decision the PRC has to decide on over next 12 months.
After removing the president, a call was immediately made for nominations to fill the vacancy. In what can best be described as musical chairs, or perhaps, in line with the Game of Thrones – a fight for King’s Landing – the former equity officer, now education officer, Benjamin Niles nominated for the post, having earlier in the day been the person to nominate Laura Parker to stand when the first presidential battle took place. Ms Parker was nominated yet again, and also joined by the vice president George Carter who was, somewhat surprisingly, nominated at the last minute. Pidison Pradhan was not re-nominated and neither was Arjuna Mohottala. Mr Pradhan immediately left the room and, perhaps in an attempt to deny the meeting a quorum, tapped a number of his supporters on the shoulders and motioned for them to leave with him. But the meeting continued with a quorum in place.
Benjamin Niles was elected president of PARSA by a majority of those 17 members present and the meeting was promptly drawn to a close, almost 3 hours later than planned, in order for the PRC to join their guests who had been gathered in the function room outside for almost two hours (fortunately for them, with food and drinks available) waiting to meet PARSA’s new leadership team.
Credit should be given to PARSA’s full-time staff members, Monica Fernandes, Gaea Cornelius and Wayne Joseph who kept the election going professionally and under immense pressure while also having to ensure the guests were being catered for at the cocktail party happening outside. A quote that could easily be in reference to this team, who in the space of a few hours had three different bosses, comes from Lord Varys: “Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.” That is probably how the PARSA staff see themselves in this Postgraduate Game of Thrones.
In the days after the PARSA elections, a number of messages were posted on Facebook pages across the ANU by disgruntled supporters of Mr Pradhan claiming that what occurred at the PRC meeting was undemocratic.
New PRC member Upul Wickramasinghe wrote on ANU’s Facebook page that what “happened during the PARSA PRC meeting… is one of the most undemocratic events in my life”. Shahid Islam also posted on the page and strongly criticized Mr Mohottala’s right to move the motion. “The whole thing was unethical, abnormal and a type of craziness indeed from a defeated ex-office bearer whom I supported and respected a lot!!” One senior member of the PRC responded saying that there was “nothing unethical about Arjuna’s motion. He did the right thing. We would not have supported Pidison if we knew that he was only going to be here for one more semester. That is not fair on PARSA to have someone run for such an important office when he is only going to serve half the term”.
In further support of Mr Mohottala, the former Communications Officer Khushbu Agrawal, said that for this to be described as undemocratic is incorrect. “The guy was elected democratically, and removed democratically. There is nothing undemocratic about this”, said Ms Agrawal.
Yesterday, the new PARSA leadership put out a statement where the only mention of the election controversy was shrouded in the following quote: “While we leave the euphoria and emotion of the election behind us, what we do not stray from is the unity the election has forged”. Assumed to be a sign that the new leadership does not want to focus on the controversy, the statement goes on to say, “we have a committed, vibrant and culturally-diverse group of leaders who look forward to serving you in the year ahead”.
The challenge for the new leadership will be to make these statements a reality in what is clearly a divided PRC. They will also need to sort out their election procedures and regulations to ensure any contestation of votes and executive positions at future elections can be managed much more smoothly than they were this year. That said, they can rest assured that a fiercely contested election with a range of views expressed freely, with equitable and fair voting, is a sign of a healthy democracy. And all the heated arguments and hot competition aside, there is no doubt things will cool down because one thing is for sure: Winter is not coming, it is already here.
PARSA Office Bearers 2014/2015:
President: Benjamin Niles
Vice-President: George Carter
Treasurer: Faraz Juniadi
International Student Officer: Kim-Marie Spence
Equity Officer: Sarah Adlong
Indigenous Advocacy Officer: Mbipan Gilbert
Environmental Officer: Eryn De Leon
Social Officer: Fausto Villota Alvarado
Communications Officer: Kimberly Ashby-Mitchell
Education Officer: Vacant
Photos by Tara Shenoy