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UniGate Week 1 – Derrick Armstrong retires, NTEU leaves SRC to pay arrestees’ legal fees, and the USU organises another suspect party

All the rumours, hearsay, and downright slander from the world of student politics and culture

USU racist again, no one surprised 

This winter, from the makers of ‘Back to School’, ‘Thrift Shop’ and the critically acclaimed ‘Headdress’, comes ‘Day of the Dead’. The University of Sydney Union has outdone itself again. It’s unclear which of the USU’s marketing airheads thought it appropriate to host a themed party based on the Mexican festival of the dead, but you would have thought that by this stage they’d have learnt their lesson. Alas, to the dismay of the Gate and the incredulous Facebook masses, they have not.

The theme has been variously described as ‘racist’, ‘appallingly racist’ and ‘fucking blank racist’ on the party’s event page, and, to be frank, we can’t help but endorse those epithets. Why is it so difficult to choose a theme that doesn’t involve promulgating offensive stereotypes? Perhaps, as was alluded to on the event page, the USU is not content with letting colleges have all of the culturally insensitive fun. We have no further comment, except to say that we’re more than willing to save the USU’s creatives some time and offer a few suggestions for future themes. St Paul’s has already given us a Raj party, but how about a Hajj party? Will you make the pilgrimage to Manning and dance to Macklemore in a onesie? We have more ideas, USU, just shoot us an email.

Edit: Since going to print the USU Board has apologised for the theme of the party and changed it to ‘start of semester fiesta’. Read their response to the backlash here

Derrick, we hardly knew ye: a man of many emails steps down

Literary fans of a very specific genre will be feeling a sharp loss at the announcement that Derrick Armstrong – the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (education), Registrar, occasional acting Vice-Chancellor, and professional email writer – will be stepping down from his role at the end of this year.

If University management-watching is a keen hobby of yours, you’ll recall that Armstrong was a key player in the nearly catastrophic 2011 University-USU negotiations, in which the University suddenly announced its intention to take control of the USU’s provision of commercial services (that is, its control of Manning, Wentworth, and Holme buildings, and the commercial venues run out of those buildings). Famously, this decision was announced while USU President Sibella Matthews was overseas and emailed to all students in spite of the fact existing agreements dictated the USU could continue to run the buildings until 2017. The ploy was unsuccessful  – the USU lost some aid in the negotiations but still controls the buildings – and led to a backlash which bolstered student support for the USU.

It was Armstrong who sent the email and led the University’s suddenly hostile negotiations, but students familiar with the process told the Gate they believed Armstrong was in fact the good cop to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s bad cop. Whether the gaps between his apparently good-faith negotiations and suddenly aggressive tactical turn were because of Spence’s influence or his own duplicity is unclear, but one student privy to the process told the Gate “I think he was a person quite friendly and approachable, and it was definitely easier to lay the USU’s concerns to him in a straightforward way than the VC.”

Having perhaps done less than all he could to ingratiate himself among the USU crowd, Armstrong also left a poor impression on the organised left on campus this year after he was charged with sending all student emails encouraging students to break picket lines on strike days. His emails also appeared callous, as he continued to promise police presences at these events. This tactic, outwardly to help some students feel safe, was read in a sinister tone by the students who had already had ribs cracked, legs broken, and bruises left by police violence at previous strikes.

Armstrong’s background is then, perhaps, a little confounding. The Gate understands that Armstrong dropped out of high school to become a welder and later went on to become his family’s first University graduate and eventually completed his P.H.D. Whatever his relationship with student organisations, Armstrong seems to have had a genuine affection for education and its power as a means of social mobility. He served as the Dean of the Education Faculty before moving into the Vice-Chancellor’s office.

Finally, Armstrong must get credit for his performance at an exclusive USU event last year, which sources say was a particularly well stocked party. On his turn to address the crowd, Armstrong allegedly made fun of the Vice-Chancellor’s well known fundraising adventures, claiming the VC had skipped the event to wine and dine a wealthy business interest. “The things people will do for money,” he allegedly mused in front of the crown. Indeed.

SRC foots the legal bills for strike arrestees

While next week’s 48-hour strike is fast approaching [Eds: correction – not so fast! The strike has been postponed until August 20-21], the legal troubles from the last strike are far from over. Eleven protesters were arrested at Carillon Ave on June 5. Seven people were subsequently charged with offences including failure to comply with move on orders, blocking roads, offensive language (saying “fuck” is a crime – fuck!), hindering arrest and resisting arrest, and protesters incurred $1000 worth of fines in total. Four USYD students are now defending the charges in court and will receive the date for their joint hearing on August 15. USYD’s SRC has hired a barrister to defend those charged, and is offering the services of the SRC solicitor.

So who is fronting up the cash for the lawyers and fines? It looks like it won’t be the NTEU. The SRC already contributed $500 to the legal troubles following the last 48-hour strike in March and has now decided to support those charged and fined on June 5, in combination with autonomous fundraising. This support isn’t limited to USYD students, but extends to other arrestees.

When the Gate asked about the NTEU’s lack of financial support for the arrestees, Sydney Branch President Michael Thomson said: “fuck off!” He elaborated by explaining that he hadn’t received a formal application for financial contribution and was happy for his members to make donations, and then told us to “piss off”. When we called the NTEU office, we were told that Thomson is the only person who can speak on behalf of the branch, so we’re unable to bring you a more cogent explanation from the horse’s mouth.

In an alternate universe where Thomson has undergone media training, he might have explained by saying that none of the arrestees are members of the Sydney branch of the NTEU, and that the branch probably doesn’t have all that much money (its officers aren’t paid, and it has been paying the wages of every casual who has lost earnings due to the strike). But then, the national body of the NTEU has $1 million to spare to campaign for the Greens in the upcoming election campaign, and the Sydney branch has relied heavily on student support on the pickets to bolster its bargaining position with University management. It seems it would hardly be impossible or inappropriate for them to stump up some cash for the people who’ve stood alongside their members on the picket lines.

The question is now whether this will have an impact on the student presence at next week’s strike. A number of those arrested are certainly disgruntled. One, who is defending three charges, told us that “the students, unionists and community members who have to pay fines and legal fees were arrested helping the NTEU. I don’t think it’s much to ask that a trade union donate a bit of money to picketers, especially when they can afford to put a million dollars into ads for the federal election.” Another said: “While the strike was undoubtedly a staff-led strike, you can’t deny that a majority of people on the picket line are students, and to not receive final support from the NTEU after our arrest that led from supporting them doesn’t inspire me to participate in the next strike.”

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