Disputed elections for staff and student representatives for Monash University’s council have spawned contested results, a successful appeal to the Victorian Ombudsman, hastily rewritten regulations and a call for the state’s Higher Education Minister to consider changing the relevant laws to ensure impartiality.
The biennial online election, held in October last year, comes after Victorian universities reluctantly reinstated democratic elections for staff and student representatives in 2015 in line with the incoming Labor government’s election promise.
One of the student candidates, James Whitehead, contacted the official Monash returning officer on the second day of the five-day election to note that another of the candidates, Micky Fisher, then Monash student association president, had not been a student for the previous 12 months and so was ineligible.
The returning officer, Tony Calder, dismissed his concerns, Whitehead said. “He provided quite an odd explanation as to why Mr Fisher was eligible before saying, in his own words, that ‘the method was tried and tested’, and that I should hire a solicitor if I wanted a third person to check the regulations.”
So Mr Whitehead went to the Victorian Ombudsman, who found that Mr Calder — who has since left Monash — was incorrect and Mr Fisher had not been eligible to stand. The election was voided and another is set to be held soon.
Mr Whitehead would prefer the election results to stand and the victory to go to the runner-up — him — but the university contends that, because the voting was optional preferential, that would not be considered fair or representative of voters’ intentions.
For his part, Mr Fisher said his win last year had been overturned on a technicality in the regulations (which have since been amended by the university council, rendering Mr Fisher eligible to contest the forthcoming poll).
He had been granted a special intermission from study to work for a year as president of the Monash student association, Mr Fisher said. “The university’s practice and intention in that provision is to allow students in my position to run,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate he had been caught on a technicality when previous Monash student association presidents had been successfully elected to council.
“From my view, obviously it’s disappointing, but right after the election the chancellor was very sincere in having a chat with me,” he said. “He convened a meeting and they fixed the regulations.”
Although he is a member of the Labor Party, Fisher said the council elections were not political.
“There’s no Labor ticket, there’s no Liberal ticket, for council,” he said. “I’ve always openly said I’m a member of the Labor Party, but definitely not that senior. There’s a lot of people who try and tar student elections with this brush of toxicity and corruption and so on. I support Labor candidates in elections because that’s a party I believe in. But I’m not some kind of big-shot powerbroker.”
The election for the Monash council staff representative was equally contentious. According to Monash staff members, an associate of Professor Ross Coppel used a large staff email list to send a mass email exhorting colleagues to vote for the professor.
Professor Coppel subsequently won the election.
Access to these mass email lists is limited and Nicholas Kimberley, Victorian president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said the inequity meant the election was unfair and should be conducted again. He cited a provision in the regulations (4.2.1) that the returning officer was responsible for the “conduct of an election”.
The council has since also revised election regulations to limit the use of mass email lists.
The “questionable conduct” in regards to the Monash elections highlighted the inadequacies of the current legislation on the subject, Mr Kimberley said.
“The intent of the legislation is to provide councils with greater democracy and greater transparency, but current legislation allows universities to totally control how they run these elections,” Mr Kimberley said.
“And Monash has shown that universities can behave in ways that contravene the principles of democratic and fair elections.”
The Victorian NTEU, he said, would now call on Higher Education Minister Gayle Tierney to bring forward legislation that would change the election process for university councils so that universities would be required to appoint independent and external returning officers.
“As it currently stands, at Monash for example, the returning officer is a director of executive services,” he said, adding that Professor Coppel’s position on the council was untenable.
“The university passing new guidelines after the election is an admission in itself of the inappropriate conduct of the election.”
However, Monash chancellor Simon McKeon disagreed.
“Examination of the election of a staff representative indicated the university and the candidates had followed proper process and that the election had been conducted in line with all requirements at the time of the election,” he said in a statement. “There was therefore no basis to void the election outcome. Since the election, Monash has established guidelines providing greater clarity as to what constitutes acceptable campaign processes for future elections.”
With regard to the election of the student representative, he said, it had been “indicated there were inconsistencies regarding rules around eligibility, and therefore a fresh election (under revised regulations) should be held for this position”.
Photo: Monash University student James Whitehead lodged a complaint with the Victorian ombudsman about the conduct of the university’s council election. Picture: David Geraghty