On university campuses across Australia, big personalities vie for political control, enabled by factions of their supporters. It’s easy for things to go wrong: for lobbying to descend into manipulation, for assertiveness to become intimidation. It happens at the University of Sydney. And it’s only magnified when you reach the national level.
At USyd, students are removed from the national political movements that determine the direction of the Australia’s student union. Our university is so distracted by its local stupol scene that it’s quite easy for Sydney students to forget a wider world exists past Parramatta Road or King Street.
For students at smaller campuses, or with student unions hamstrung by university management, national representation is much more important. It’s a chance to have your voice heard, and influence politics on a wider scale. Elections of students as delegates to the National Union of Students (NUS) are much more heavily contested and high-profile.
One of the NUS’ major events is its Education Conference, or EdCon, which this year was held at Flinders University in July. EdCon is where education policy is workshopped and where national factions elect their convenors for the next year. The convenors coordinate their faction and negotiate to get their candidates elected to office bearer positions at the NUS’ all-important national event, NatCon.
One of the major national factions is a coalition of Grassroots and the Independents. At this year’s EdCon, they came together with the aim of forming a more powerful voting bloc, electing Ethan Taylor as one of their national convenors. Taylor is a high-profile student activist from the University of Melbourne. A Warumungu man, Taylor has in the past said he plans to be “the first Aboriginal prime minister”.
Taylor convened the first ever National Indigenous Students’ Conference. At this conference, he founded the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students as a parallel body to NUS, as the peak representative body for all undergraduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. He was the first President, a role which he held until earlier this year.
At the University of Melbourne, factional groupings ‘Stand Up!’ and ‘More!’ dominate student politics. Stand Up! is run by the National Labor Students, or NLS, and More! broadly comprises Labor right, Grassroots, and Independent students. More!’s NUS delegates have usually joined the National Independents.
Taylor emerged as a rising star in More! and the national Grassroots/Independents faction. But then Taylor was removed from his faction and banned for a year from two political factions on UniMelb campus.
Earlier this year, a former University of Melbourne Students’ Union (UMSU) Women’s Officer had investigated allegations that Taylor had acted disrespectfully towards a former partner. A document listing the allegations and signed by four Melbourne students was presented to Taylor.
Taylor told Honi he was confronted in public during the closing stages of the investigation, and that he admitted to some of the allegations as a way of removing himself from the situation. He states he was never given a proper chance to respond and that More! offered him ten days to prepare a written statement. Taylor told More! that he was preparing a response and would contact a lawyer regarding possible defamation. He told Honi that he felt safer responding to the investigation in writing, but says More! disseminated the allegations before he did, something he claims meant that he was never given a proper chance to respond.
Since More!’s internal investigation, Taylor says he has undergone extensive counselling to remedy the behaviour complained of.
More! expelled Taylor from the faction and agreed with Stand Up! to ban him from campus politics for one year, something Honi has confirmed with both factions.
Despite being locked out of two campus factions, Taylor still managed to attend EdCon, and even run for the Grassroots/Independent convenorship. But it’s unclear who in Taylor’s faction knew of the allegations prior to the election.
Honi understands that members were not widely aware of the allegations at the initial Grassroots/Independent caucus which first elected Taylor. Senior Independents Liam O’Neil and Ashley Sutherland, were both present and had been informed prior to EdCon, as was Megan Lee, Taylor’s current partner and another senior figure in the faction. O’Neill (President at Curtin Student Guild) and Sutherland (President of Flinders University Student Association) did not respond to Honi’s request for comment, while Lee (President of UWA Student Guild) confirmed her presence. According to some observers, Taylor made his election speech as though he were still part of More!, and detailed his upcoming plans for UMSU. Taylor denies these claims, stating “I didn’t discuss UMSU at all!” He did not mention the allegations. The three other people present who were also aware of the allegations, and all presidents of their respective campuses, did not mention the allegations to their faction.
Other factions also knew about the investigation. USyd NLS campus head James Newbold confirmed to Honi that he was informed of the allegations against Taylor while at EdCon.
Following the election, it is understood that USyd SRC President Imogen Grant, who was at the conference as a Grassroots/Independents member, became aware that allegations existed and brought concerns back to the caucus about his election. NUS Women’s Officer Kate Crossin (NLS) had approached Grant, who had just been appointed a national negotiator for the Grassroots/Independents. Neither Crossin nor Grant would confirm to Honi that the meeting concerned the allegations against Taylor.
The senior members of Grassroots/Independents held an emergency caucus to discuss their knowledge with Grant and decide whether Taylor should stay on as convenor. His election was upheld. Taylor told Honi that the previous year’s Grassroots/Independents convenors had been sent the document of allegations, something which Honi understands occurred prior to his first election.
Taylor says that he sought to immediately address his caucus’ concerns as soon as the investigation came to light. He says the alleged behaviour was a result of hazing, abuse he himself had survived and his subsequent mental health surviving an unhealthy relationship at the time. He stresses that as an Indigenous Australian man, continuously reliving his trauma has been extremely damaging. He told Honi that the University of Melbourne have warned that the investigation and allegations should not progress any further.
The allegations have breached well beyond the confines of UMSU and look set to boil over at NatCon in late December. It is important to note that Taylor admits to problematic past behaviours and seems intent on rectifying them. He will be eligible to fully participate in UMSU student politics early in 2019.
This article’s original title and byline was updated following publication and the following sentences were inserted: “Taylor denies these claims, stating “I didn’t discuss UMSU at all!” and “surviving an unhealthy relationship at the time.”