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Internal tension grips Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness

Internal sources reveal divisions over policy and leadership

In May last year, Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF) saw its first ever change in leadership: long term President Bruce Ross retired, precipitating an election as fiercely contested as something out of the USU or SRC. This was not the first time there had been an election for the SUSF presidency, but it was the first to bring about a change in leader. Eventually, former USU Board Director and Senate Fellow James Flynn emerged victorious, getting eight times the votes of his competitor, former SUSF Vice-President David Jordan.

Despite being a SUSF outsider, Flynn developed a campaign strategy that ensured a landslide win. As Honi reported at the time, Flynn promised college residents “free gym memberships”, a move that recognised their status as eligible voters: all college students gain automatic SUSF membership as part of their college fees.

And now, ructions among SUSF staff suggest Flynn’s tenure has been no less controversial than his rise to power.

SUSF, along with the USU, SUPRA, and the SRC, is one of the big four student service providers on campus. The organisation is funded partially by members: a basic membership costs $60—a fee that gets your foot in the door and no further—with access to facilities like gyms and pools only available after the purchase of a more expensive membership tier. In addition to membership fees, SUSF normally takes the lion’s share of Student Services and Amenities Fee, which the University distributes between SUSF, the USU and the SRC every year. And, as its name suggests, sport is serious business for SUSF: the organisation’s mission is to “manage the sport, fitness and recreational activities at The University of Sydney,” according to its website.

But this charter has little currency with the new president, some staff say. [Flynn] is not invested in sport”, one source told Honi, suggesting that Flynn sees SUSF as a stepping stone in his career. And it’s a career that’s off to a racing start: beyond his student leadership roles, Flynn was once a staffer for  NSW Minister for Planning and Housing, the Liberal Party’s Anthony Roberts. Flynn resigned from this role in 2016 after a controversial Facebook post saying Malcolm Turnbull should “return to the Labor Party”. His association with the Liberal Party is well-known, and his LinkedIn reveals an ongoing but unexplained role as a “political consultant”. And last October it was revealed that Flynn funded the registration of 90 people to the NSW Liberals constitutional reform convention, in an apparent attempt to increase support for the “Warringah Motion”, reforms to party decision-making processes pushed by Tony Abbott and the state’s right.

Whatever his motivations, Flynn’s actions as president are causing real concern within SUSF. There’s a perception that Flynn is pushing a corporate agenda emphasising revenue raising schemes which see SUSF hiring out its venues to third parties. Even his language, some staff say, reflects this corporate bent: he allegedly refers to SUSF’s “management committee” as “the board”, vice-presidents as “directors”, and his own role as “president of sports”.

The most controversial item on his agenda, though, is a push to turn SUSF into an incorporated entity. Currently, SUSF describes itself as an “unincorporated body affiliated to the University under a resolution of the Senate of the University” and as a charity registered under the name “Sydney University Sport”. If a body is incorporated, that means there is a fictional legal person who can act and be sued on its behalf, whereas an unincorporated entity only exists insofar as its actual members do. Flynn maintains that a 2016 University review recommended incorporation, in particular because it would shift legal liability away from the SUSF management committee and onto the organisation itself. However, Flynn hasn’t yet shown this review to the rest of SUSF’s management, despite assurances that he will. Whatever the University’s position, one source made it clear: incorporation has been discussed many times before, and consistently deemed unnecessary.

It’s thought that incorporation will spell changes to the makeup of SUSF’s management committee. A source privy to discussions around the proposal told Honi it would likely make Executive Director Robert Smithies’ position in the organisation more tenuous.

Indeed, Smithies seems to be a barrier to Flynn’s plans. One source said that Flynn “wants Rob gone”. Should incorporation go ahead, Smithies is not expected to be reappointed to his current role. Either way, Honi was told that things are so acrimonious between the pair that SUSF can’t continue with both—“one has to go”.

These divisions appear to have split the organisation’s management into two camps. The same source told Honi that Flynn’s support is limited—likely no more than four out of 30—and that while some are apathetic, the majority—including senior management—are on Rob’s side. But Flynn allegedly has support from the University itself, in particular from Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson. According to former SUSF President Bruce Ross, Senate Representative Annie Corlett, is also a “major supporter” of Flynn, whom she interacted closely with while Flynn was a Senate Fellow.

Hostile though some parties may be, by all reports Flynn’s experience as a political organiser has helped him hold his own. During May’s vice-presidential elections, Flynn successfully managed the campaign of Boat Club President Sarah Cook in an apparent attempt to increase support within the organisation. Following a tested formula, Flynn made promises to college voters, including upgrades to Oval No. 1, a bridge over Western Avenue and a new basketball court for the Arena Sports Centre—which is where voting occurs and collegians hang about Ralph’s cafe. Wallaroo Emily Chancellor, who lost that election, claims Flynn told voters she was “anti-college”, the same description that was directed at David Jordan, Flynn’s competitor in last year’s presidential race.

Flynn is believed to rely on voting as a way to resolve disputes on the management committee, rather than consensus. This contrasts with former President Bruce Ross, who told Honi he “never once asked people to vote”. While Flynn’s approach may seem democratic, he allegedly holds regular “pre-meeting meetings” to help swing votes. Whereas Ross told Honi he made it a priority to reduce factionalism within SUSF—telling people to “leave their club at the door”—Flynn allegedly plays clubs against each other. In one example of this approach, Flynn apparently allowed the Kendo and Netball clubs to butt heads in a dispute about access to training space.

Honi understands Flynn is not especially open to criticism. Earlier this year, another management committee member complained that Flynn was bullying them; in response Flynn created a new sub-committee to deal with bullying complaints and, Honi was told, appointed himself the chair. Unsurprisingly, the committee member did not pursue their allegations.

All these maneuvers, if true, seem well-placed to advance Flynn’s agenda, especially as tensions escalate. But an incident earlier in the year, during SUSF’s annual sports award night in the Great Hall, may have been a misstep. Honi was told that Flynn refused to do an acknowledgement of country, telling SUSF staff in the lead up that his Indigenous friends thought it’d be insincere coming from a white man. In spite of this, the agenda still called on Flynn to do an acknowledgement at the start of the event, a specification he ignored on the night. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence later delivered an acknowledgement, and did not sit next to Flynn on the night.

That Spence chose Smithies as his chaperon for the night perhaps reveals his position on these affairs.

James Flynn and sources close to him were approached for comment and did not reply.