ASIC records indicate Anne Aly MP did not declare to parliament her directorship of, and any associated income from, the University Co-Operative Bookshop Ltd (the Co-op). The Co-op is Australia’s largest academic book retailer, and in 2015, it had an annual turnover of $123 million from its over two million members.
Despite claiming to function as a co-operative, the Co-op functions as a corporate retailer and its history is rife with branch-stacking, factionalism, legal disputes and attempts to mislead members of their rights.
Aly was a Director of the Co-op from November 2014 until December 2016, six months after her election to Parliament. It is possible that her non-disclosure does not meet requirements.
The Register of Members’ Interest Statement requires that all MPs declare any ‘registered directorships’, any ‘substantial sources of income’, and ‘any memberships of organisations where a conflict of interest with a Member’s public duties could foreseeably arise’.
The Co-op’s opposition to parallel import restrictions, and the ALP’s current support of them, is one example of where this conflict may arise.
The seven Directors on the Board and ‘specified executives’ of the Co-op collectively received a total remuneration of $1,940,760 in the 2015 financial year. The notice for the Annual General Meeting for 2017 includes a motion to reserve $300,000 for directors’ fees, in effect setting aside approximately $40,000 for each director.
Farrago reached out to Aly’s office on multiple occasions for comment, with an initial request made two weeks ago. She failed to respond by deadline. Parliamentary interests register shows that Aly still has not declared her directorship.
Graeme Orr is a Professor of Political Law who served as a director at the same time as some of its current board (1998-1999). According to Orr, Aly’s interests should ave been declared.
“[The Co-op] is an incorporated private company – just one based on a different membership structure than an Ltd or Pty under the Corporations Act. It should be declared, for that reason and because of the purpose of the register as disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and duty. It’s a failing on her part that should be rectified,” Orr said.
According to Orr, Talal Yassine OAM – an emerging NSW Labor right powerbroker and prolific donor to Labor branches and candidates – wrested control of the organisation in 1999.
“Mr. Yassine played ruthless hardball [in order to] win-at-all costs,” Orr said.
“The Board have what you call an agency problem; a board that is always going to be prey to the same kind of problems as student union politics,” he said. “It’s inevitably a risk of running a model where it’s one member one vote but most of the members don’t care about who’s running the organisation. Unfortunately unlike a public organization it is not accountable to an ombudsman.”
Talal Yassine has been the secretary of the Co-op since 2000. Of the seven current Directors of the Co-Op, three are either directly employed by, or serving on the Board of Directors of, companies owned by the Yassine family. In addition, the Secretary of the Co-Op Board is Yassine’s brother, Hilal Yassine.
Aside from Aly, other Board directors have connections to the Australian Labor Party. According to his LinkedIn profile, Mounir Kiwan, a current Director of the Co-op, has previously worked for the Victorian Labor Government of John Brumby.
Current Director, Dianne Yerbury, is on the board of Crescent Wealth and was previously on the board of Macquarie University with Yassine. Former directors, Jeena Joyan and Hilal Yassine, Talal Yassine’s brother, also served during Aly’s directorship. Joyan was the marketing director of Crescent Wealth when appointed to the Co-op Bookshop. Hilal Yassine was a board director of Crescent Wealth. Aly has sat on boards and committees with Talal Yassine including the Arab-Australia Dialogue.
Approximately thirty students from the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University, the University of Technology Sydney, and Newcastle University have organised to attend the Co-op’s Annual General Meeting this afternoon. The Board of the Co-op decided to hold this meeting in Kooindah Waters, on the Central Coast of NSW, more than 100 kilometres outside of the Sydney central business district .
Daniel Ergas, the University of Sydney SRC’s General Secretary, has organised the campaign to democratise the Co-op.
“It’s astonishing the Co-op will go to in order to avoid scrutiny, protect their $300 000 pay packet, and prevent the vast majority of members – students – from ever having a say. To force students to undertake a six hour road-trip to attend an AGM is farcical,” Ergas said.
Ergas has motioned to censure the Board for their violations of the Co-operatives National Law, to fire all the current Directors of the Board (apart from the sole staff Director), and reduce their remuneration to $0.
“The ultimate aim of the campaign is to fix the Co-op, and reorient it to its main mission: helping students save money. We can only achieve that if it is run by students and academics, for students and academics. It’s a co-operative, not a playground for corporate wannabes,” Ergas said.
The outcome of the AGM is not yet clear.