Tribunal Rejects Appeal of GSA Election Results

30 May 2018

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) electoral tribunal has rejected an appeal from candidates of Better GSA about the recent elections, which made allegations against GSA staff, the returning officer and members of rival ticket Renew GSA.

On 28 May, the tribunal heard the appeal, which was initiated by Better candidate ShiYu Zhou—who failed to gain a spot on council. All six allegations put to the tribunal were rejected. The allegations, detailed further below, included breaches of the election regulations, manipulation of the results by the returning officer and GSA staff, breaches of privacy law and discrimination against Better.

In her submission to the tribunal, Zhou listed a number of possible actions that she believed should take place given the allegations. These included clearing all of Renew’s votes, disqualifying all Renew candidates, appointing an external investigator, appointing a new returning officer and checking all of the votes one-by-one.

The returning officer provisionally declared the results of the election on 15 May. In order, the councillors elected were: Xiangqi Zheng, Geng Huang, Tangshuang Qin, Zimo Wang, Siyu Liu, Lubna Meempatta, Sepideh Jahangiri, Georgia Daly and Brad Knight. The first five councillors were Better candidates, while the latter four were from Renew.

Due to the appeal, the tribunal has not yet been able to confirm the election results, meaning that the new council was not able to elect its office bearers at the annual general meeting. GSA councillors serve two-year terms, so four current councillors will maintain their positions. Farrago understands that Better will form the majority on council.

Many of the allegations targeted current GSA General Secretary Brad Knight.

“The appeal submitted by Ms ShiYu Zhou and her accomplices sets an ugly precedent for the future of GSA general elections, whereby frivolous complaints that are intended to be used as a tool for harassment and bullying against other candidates are accommodated,” he said, in a submission to the tribunal.

Renew candidate Hannah Billett was “disappointed” that the case was brought to the electoral tribunal.

“Obviously the allegations are very serious and they have every right to bring them to the tribunal, however given that they had no evidence it seems irresponsible to take it and waste time and resources given that there was clearly a very small chance that the tribunal would have ruled in their favour,” she said.

Candidates from Better have not responded to Farrago’s requests for comment.


What were the allegations?

The first allegation brought to the tribunal was that Knight untruthfully stated in Renew’s campaign materials that the ticket had members from China, a violation of section 32.1 and 32.2 of the election regulations—“any dishonest conduct in an election is prohibited” and “any conduct intended or likely to mislead or deceive a voter is prohibited.”

Correspondence, seen by Farrago, between current GSA President Georgia Daly and the returning officer, confirmed that Renew did in fact have a member from China.

The second allegation claimed that GSA staff members assisted the Renew campaign by helping their candidates strategise, designing the Renew website and posters, and translating campaign materials from English to Chinese. If true, this would be a breach of section 32.3 (j) of the GSA election regulations—“using GSA or University facilities or property (including intellectual property) not generally available to all members”.

In Zhou’s appeal, she called for an investigation into this matter. However, the electoral tribunal does not have the power to conduct an investigation of their own, and could only consider the evidence brought to the hearing.

“This is a serious allegation. If you want to sustain it, you have to give us some evidence that it happened,” the tribunal told Zhou. She was not able to produce any evidence to support her claims.

Knight said that he designed and built the Renew website, and showed the tribunal and Zhou evidence that he is completing a Masters of Information Systems and hence had the capacity to do so. In a submission to the tribunal, Sepideh Jahangiri claimed that she designed the Renew posters—a claim which other members of Renew supported. In regards to translating campaign materials from English to Chinese, Daly was able to show correspondence between herself and the student who translated the materials.

The third allegation concerned a Renew poster placed on a Faculty of Business and Economics noticeboard. The returning officer confirmed that this was a breach of election regulations, because the noticeboard is only available to clubs and societies. However, no action was taken because he was not made aware of the poster until after polls closed.

When asked by the tribunal who had put the poster on the noticeboard, Zhou alleged that it was Jahangiri. The tribunal asked whether the poster had been reported to the returning officer, to which Zhou replied that it was only reported after the election.

In his submission to the tribunal, the returning officer also stated, “I do not believe that the misplacement of a single poster is likely to have changed the outcome of the election.”

The fourth allegation was that the returning officer and GSA staff manipulated the results of the election. Zhou stated that the returning officer, Stephen Luntz, used “different rules to calculate the votes without informing others which violated the fairness of the voting system” and “they even designed a new algorithm to elect Brad [Knight]”.

Luntz explained in his submission to the tribunal that he realised that the initial algorithm used was not in line with the GSA’s election regulations, and the difference was substantial enough to potentially affect the outcome of the last councillor. Luntz contacted the voting company used, BigPulse, to design a new algorithm which matched the regulations.

Zhou questioned Luntz as to why the new algorithm was necessary, given that it was used last year. Luntz explained that the mistake would not have made a difference to the results last year, but with this year’s results “the discrepancy was large enough it could affect the election of the last position”.

Zhou claimed in the hearing that Luntz was “not neutral”, but could not provide any evidence for this claim. When asked if she could see anything wrong with the second and final results, Zhou said, “I don’t think so.”

The fifth allegation was that Knight violated section 32 of the election regulations, “prohibited conduct”, and “Australia Privacy Law and Practice”, by taking a photo of one of the Better candidates when she was in class talking to a friend.

Zhou claimed that the candidate was “too afraid to be [at the hearing]” because of Knight’s actions.

The tribunal asked Zhou how taking a photograph impedes with the conduct of the election, to which Zhou replied, “The photograph was not taken with the consent of the person.”

Knight admitted that he did take a photo of the candidate, as he believed that she could potentially be instructing the person how to vote online, which he believed could be a “potential violation of the secrecy of the ballot”. Knight made a complaint to the returning officer, and claimed that he took the photo in case the returning officer required it to make a ruling on whether there had been a breach of the regulations or not.

When asked by the tribunal if he had spread the photograph, Knight replied that he had only showed it to the returning officer because the returning officer had asked for it. The tribunal and the returning officer deemed that this was acceptable behaviour. Knight also said that he was prepared to delete the photo if requested.

The final allegation was that GSA staff and the returning officer used a confidential document to penalise the Better ticket. The document in question was the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) Agreement 2016, an agreement between the GSA and the University of Melbourne which outlines what the GSA is permitted to spend its SSAF funding on.

The initial complaint was brought to the returning officer by Daly, who suspected that some of Better’s campaign promises might not be permitted under the funding agreement. The returning officer found this to be the case, and hence asked Better to remove the posters—although they did not do so until “just over a day until polls closed”.

Zhou attested that it was not fair for the returning officer to use a confidential agreement to penalise Better. Yali Zhao—a current councillor and Better organiser—claimed that she had not seen the funding agreement. Farrago understands that this document was provided to the 2017 GSA council.

The returning officer said that he also told Renew to remove posters for a similar reason, and hence rejected claims that he was biased. He also noted that Renew removed the posters straight away.

“Indeed, a case might be made that it is members of the Better GSA team who should be having their elections appealed in the light of their refusal to follow an explicit directive of the returning officer, a breach of [regulation] 32.3 (i).”

After the hearing, the electoral tribunal took only a few minutes to decide to reject the appeal.

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