SASS exec elections ruled invalid second year in a row

A fresh AGM will likely be reheld next year

For the second year running, the USU Board has annulled the election of the entire Sydney Arts Students’ Society executive, following complaints that the society’s 2018 annual general meeting was mismanaged.

The Board has ordered SASS to conduct a fresh AGM, but it is unlikely the meeting will happen before next year, which could leave the official arts faculty society without an executive to organise its OWeek events.

The society has long been a career stepping stone for student politicians, and it appears this year was no different. There are reports that a deal between Labor Right faction Centre Unity and members of the moderate Liberals went sour for Unity, who then attempted to have the meeting annulled.

At the October 24 AGM, 17 executive positions stood to be filled and all elections were to be conducted using optional preferential voting. Only SASS members who had attended at least one SASS event in the previous year were entitled to vote.

After the AGM, the USU’s Clubs & Societies’ office received at least one complaint. It’s believed the complainant was Liam Thomas, a member of Unity, who unsuccessfully ran for queer officer at the meeting.  

The complaint alleged that, during the meeting, some executive candidates had told voters they could only write one name on their ballots. In fact, under SASS’ preferential voting rules, voters were allowed to write as many names as they wished.

Honi understands the complaint further alleged that the returning officer had accepted votes from students who did not meet the eligibility requirements.

C&S referred the matter to the USU Board for consideration, who upheld the complaint at their November 2 meeting. According to USU President Liliana Tai, the Board found “there were unclear instructions on the system of preferential voting” and “some individuals who were not members of SASS were marked as eligible to vote”.

Outgoing SASS President and Board director Lachlan Finch, who oversaw vote counts at the AGM, denied that he or other members of the 2018 executive had mismanaged the meeting. “The voting instructions for the whole AGM were issued from the returning officer, and were repeated many, many times throughout the course of the AGM.” The returning officer, who also chaired the meeting, was outgoing Secretary Jack Gibson.

Finch went on to say that: “No members of SASS exec knowingly accepted votes from students without voting rights.”

Two Board directors conflicted off last Friday’s meeting: Finch himself, who is a moderate Liberal; and Connor Wherrett, 2017 SASS Socials Director and Unity member.

It’s understood figures from Unity approached Finch to negotiate a deal ahead of the October AGM. Finch denies that he entered into negotiations: “I said that I would not take part in any discussions on behalf of the moderate Liberals whatsoever, and that it would be a complete conflict of interest and highly inappropriate”.

Sources suggest Unity then entered talks with Nick Rigby, another moderate Liberal involved with SASS, who was elected secretary at last month’s AGM. A deal emerged out of these talks: Unity member Thomas Condon would receive one of the vice president roles; and Liam Thomas, also a Unity member, would receive either socials director or queer officer. In exchange, Unity would not contest any other positions, leaving them for Modlibs and independents.

At the meeting, neither Condon nor Thomas won any of the positions they had negotiated for. Vice president (external) went to Labor Left member Nick Forbutt, vice president (internal) went to independent Katherine Anagno and queer officer went to independent Lawson Grimes Wrigley. The two socials director positions went to Yanyan Chen and Georgia de Mestre, an independent and moderate Liberal respectively.

Members of Centre Unity were contacted, but did not respond to our request for comment.

The AGM annulment may have implications for the society’s activities next year. USU President Liliana Tai refused to comment on when the meeting would be re-held, but it is likely to be in Semester 1 next year. Under the SASS constitution, an AGM can only be issued with 14 days’ notice. That means if a replacement were held this year, it would either have to fall in the second week of exams, or after the end of semester. It’s possible that both these options would see the meeting be inquorate.

However, if the AGM is postponed until Semester 1 next year, SASS risks going into OWeek 2019 without an executive. The society is traditionally very active during OWeek, running a high-profile stall, a welcome event and a major recruitment drive.

SASS figures are trying to ensure the society will have an OWeek presence notwithstanding the annulled AGM: according to Finch, the outgoing executive is “currently asking C&S if we are able to have a stall for OWeek regardless of when we need to hold the next AGM.”

This is not the first time a SASS AGM has been plagued by stupol intrigue and mismanagement. The club has a reputation for being moderate Liberal heartland, and the past three presidents (Lachlan Finch, Jacob Masina and Ed McCann) have belonged to the faction. In 2016, there were suggestions Masina and his allies stacked the AGM to ensure a Modlib win.  

Then, in 2017, then-President Masina conducted the AGM under constitutional provisions that had been ruled improper by the Board. That meeting was annulled in late March 2018, and the entire executive—including Finch—had to recontest their positions.

USU figures suggested that the politics around SASS had become a problem point. “We are aware there have been troubles in the past so we will be keeping a close eye on future AGMs,” said Tai.

Finch added that: “I am incredibly disappointed that some students felt the need to intentionally try to cheat in the SASS AGM. I think what we need at the University of Sydney is a culture shift.”

Incoming President Brooke Salzmann, who will now have to recontest her role, could not be reached for comment.