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Factional sparks fly as NUS seeks legal advice on removal of president

The president of the nation’s peak representative body for students is under fire amid tension between two powerful Labor factions. Tom Joyner reports.

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Simmering tensions within the National Union of Students (NUS) have precipitated the organisation’s general secretary seeking legal advice on the removal of president Sinéad Colee.

Colee, who is just three months into her year-long term, has reportedly neglected presidential duties by repeatedly failing to file monthly reports to the organisation.

Not a single president’s report has been submitted since the election of the national executive in December, meaning Colee, a member of the National Labor Students (Labor left) faction, is automatically stood aside according to section R54 of the NUS constitution.

NUS general-secretary and member of the Student Unity faction (Labor right), Cameron Petrie, sought legal advice on the matter upon gaining the formal approval of other national office bearers.

“It is, in our view, negligent not to receive legal advice about what is a very serious matter,” he said in a motion moved during a meeting of national executive on February 23.

In the interim, Honi understands Petrie has assumed presidential duties until a new president is selected to replace Colee, whose current role hangs in limbo.

Tensions have run high within NUS recently after the personal belongings of a member of national executive were reportedly vandalised, prompting an internal investigation.

Colee has also faced criticism for allegedly misrepresenting NUS policy on university trigger warnings in an interview with The Australian and cancelling an ABC interview at the last minute, in what a motion led by Petrie described as “negligent behaviour driven by an ideological agenda”.

It is not the first time Colee has come under fire for neglecting her presidential duties. In February, Honi reported on a $50,000 donation given from the Monash Student Association – where she was then president in 2015 – to a private PR company that she failed to report back to successive meetings despite repeated requests from fellow councillors.

Section R54 of the NUS constitution stipulates that if the president “[fails] to give a written report in accordance with B61.1 for three consecutive meetings of National Executive (excluding any emergency meeting) of which they have been given notice,” they automatically vacate their position.

Pending legal advice, a by-election is expected to be held within NUS national executive to determine who replaces Colee. No members of the NUS national executive Honi contacted, including Colee and Petrie, were able to comment due to NUS rules, but it is understood recent events have caused friction between the two dominant Labor factions.

According to tradition, whichever candidate is pre-selected by the National Labor Students caucus to replace Colee will be unilaterally endorsed by Student Unity.

The two factions control NUS national executive under the so-called ‘sweetheart deal’, a power-sharing agreement that guarantees every year the role of general secretary to Student Unity and president to National Labor Students.  

The deal has been in place since the inception of NUS in 1987, and any break from it would be without precedent.

This tumultuous start to the year comes as the NUS builds towards its first National Day of Action on April 13 and a federal election slated for July 2. A vote is expected to be announced in the coming weeks at the next meeting of national executive.