President Tara Waniganayaka recently sent an email to the USU membership outlining reasons why the Board plan to pursue Tom Raue for legal costs. Here, students from Stand with Raue respond to these claims, and ask the newly elected Board Directors to challenge the Raue decision. A copy of President Waniganayaka’s email can be read here.
A new group of USU Board Directors are about to commence their term, and the organisation now has a new President. But the Union’s sustained campaign against Tom Raue continues unabated. Following the Board’s vote on May 29 to pursue Tom Raue for costs the Union accrued defending itself in court in 2013 and 2014, outgoing USU President Tara Waniganayaka sent an email to all USU members to justify the decision. Among those who voted to pursue Tom for costs on May 29 were Waniganayaka and the USU’s new President Alisha Aitken-Radburn, both of whom had publicly supported Tom in the past and condemned the Union’s attempts to eject him from the Board.
Waniganayaka’s email, which presumably represents the Union’s current position on the Raue issue, purports to give members a “statement of the facts”. But it contains a series of distortions and outright falsehoods that we feel compelled to respond to. Sadly, the “ill informed” commentary to which Waniganakaya refers has largely been perpetuated by the USU itself. The Union’s campaign against Tom has been contradictory and reprehensible from the very beginning. The new Board must immediately drop its pursuit of costs and end what has been an embarrassing saga for the USU. What follows is an attempt to provide details that were omitted from the Waniganayaka’s email, and correct some of the distortions of the facts.
- Paragraphs 1-7 of Waniganayaka’s email attempt to paint a picture that Tom had a history of ill-discipline as a Director, and frivolously “commenced legal proceedings against his fellow directors”. The implication seems to be that Tom did this for personal reasons, to save his own position on the Board, and that the USU had no choice but to respond in court.
- The motion to censure Tom that would have seen him expelled from Board (had it passed) was drafted in response to Tom’s leak of information proving that the University had collaborated with the NSW Police during the 2013 USyd staff industrial action. This collaboration had previously been denied by the University. There was a significant public interest in Tom’s disclosure, given a number students were harmed by police on picket lines during the strikes.
- But even if one denies the public interest merits of the leak, it was a relatively minor infraction – a mere sentence of an entire report was disclosed – and the USU Board had the opportunity to resolve its grievance with Tom in a way that did not involve a censure motion designed to eject him from the Board. Thus, Waniganayaka’s attempt to frame Tom’s court action as heavy-handed and disproportionate is highly misleading and hypocritical. The Board itself had sought the most punitive action possible under its constitution from the very beginning. No attempt was made to negotiate an alternative solution to censure.
- Paragraph 7 of the email claims that the USU had no choice but to defend itself in court, lest it be found in contempt. The USU, of course, had the opportunity to avoid the court action by not moving to eject Tom from the Board. But it also had the opportunity, contrary to Waniganayaka’s misleading claims in Paragraphs 13 and 14, to negotiate with Tom upon the filing of his action in the Supreme Court.
- Indeed, the Union had the opportunity to negotiate with Tom throughout the seven month duration of the case. The USU could have dropped its provocative and heavy-handed motion to expel Tom as a Director at any point, or, if it was not willing to lose face, it could have attempted to mediate the dispute outside of court. The USU never attempted any such mediation. Some form of mediation would have been highly appropriate and could have saved USU members tens of thousands of dollars.
- Paragraph 8 of the email contains perhaps the most egregious distortions of all. Waniganyaka claims that “the USU Board chose legal representation appropriate to the circumstances and the court in which the matter was to be heard”. But we understand that the Board was never presented with options regarding legal representation or the approximate cost of the legal representation it ultimately used. These decisions were made by the Executive and the Union’s senior staff. The claim that the “Board chose legal representation” implies that this decision was made by the Board. It was not.
- Paragraph 8 suggests that the USU’s legal counsel was “appropriate to the circumstances and the court in which the matter was to be heard”. Given Tom’s legal representation was pro bono, we find it difficult to accept that $113,000 in legal costs was appropriate in either sense. On what basis did the USU decide that this amount of money was proportionate to the matter at hand? The $113,000 figure, released by the USU for the first time in Waniganayaka’s email, is the real outrage here. Did the USU properly consider that, win or lose, it was unlikely to recover the money?
- Further, claims that the USU’s legal counsel was chosen democratically are not credible given many members of the Board openly expressed concerns that the process involved in choosing the counsel was far from democratic! Among these directors was Waniganayaka herself, who justified voting against ejecting Tom from the Board in part by citing a lack of Board consultation in the initial stages of the legal proceedings.
- Waniganayaka’s email also omits the fact that not all Board Directors were represented by the USU’s counsel. Tom was offered no legal assistance by the USU, and Bebe D’Souza withdrew as a defendant. The USU is not an incorporated legal entity and was thus not party to the legal proceedings; the defendants were the USU’s Directors. It is therefore very unclear why those seeking to eject Tom from Board felt it appropriate to use USU money – ultimately students’ money – to fund their defence. The Executive and senior USU staff failed to consult the Board in making decisions about legal representation, but more importantly, they failed to consult the thousands of USU members whose money was to be spent.
The USU’s relentless pursuit of Tom Raue over the last few years has been nothing short of disgraceful, and it has brought the Union into serious disrepute. The organisation is, at present, fundamentally broken. It urgently needs to democratise: by stripping power from unelected staff and senate-appointed Directors, implementing transparency measures for Board meetings and other decision making channels, and properly consulting members. Waniganayaka’s email is a piece of petty propaganda, and the very fact that it was sent is indicative of many of the USU’s problems. The new Board must distinguish itself from previous Boards, if it does not, the damage that has been done to what is left of its democratic structures may prove irreparable and terminal.
Sign the Stand with Raue petition demanding for the USU to overturn their decision and implement greater transparency measures here.