Post VUWSA Executive

Leaving university and student politics is never easy for the hardened addicts. Much worse if your departure was not voluntary. While this could be perceived as just not letting go, actually there is a good reason why a number of us ex student politicians still lend a hand to help out from time to time. The executive and staff turnover in student associations is high when compared with other member organisations, due to students only being around on average 3-5 years (often less).

One way in which exec officers remain involved, is to be on the election committee for student association elections. Your role is guide the returning officer as to how to run elections that are consistent with the constitution. This would be a relatively painless task were the constitution well written. However prior to 2012 the VUWSA constitution was an over complicated and prescriptive document that could be inadvertently breached very easily. Us seasoned VUWSA exec members had all been through this and knew its many pitfalls, so we knew when someone claimed the constitution had been breached that a) it probably had, and b) how to stop said minor breach from derailing the entire election.

The other role I played was to support candidates in both 2007 and 2008. Having won elections 4 years out of 5 on campus I was seen as someone who knew how to play that game. What I soon realised was that while I could get people elected, this would then mean I’d also be heavily relied on for support. I did find it hard seeing successors in the various roles I’d held doing things differently, or worse making the same mistakes I’d made. After a year or two I found it easier to be an ex president who was willing to help when called upon, but not involved in the actual politics on campus.

Where I still found I did need to be involved was during the Voluntary Student Membership campaign. The ACT Party had put up a private members bill to make all students’ associations voluntary. Up till that point the decision about universal or voluntary membership was decided by referendum, and the majority of students’ associations had voted to retain universal memberships. The bill had little support, and over 90% of submissions at select committee were against the change. Despite this, the National led government felt obliged to support a bill from their junior coalition partner.

The campaign for the VSM bill, involved a lot of nonsense. They’d cite examples of students’ associations wasting money. One involved a case of fraud where the police had arrested someone and the money was recovered. The others were generally examples of executives making dumb decisions, and usually those involved were voted out or left in disgrace. Contrast this with the major financial institutions who around the same time had plunged the global economy into recession due to their greed and incompetence. In this case the institutions were bailed out and their executives continued to receive bonuses. This, unlike petty issues at students’ associations, was of no concern to the National or ACT partys.

Post VSM coming into force in 2012, I along with 2004 VUWSA President Amanda Hill were part of a review of the VUWSA constitution. Now that VUWSA had voluntary membership the constitution needed amending. This also gave VUWSA the opportunity to develop a much more user friendly constitution. After about 3-4 months of regular evening meetings and rewriting clauses, we eventually made a recommendation. I helped present this to a reasonably well attended Annual General Meeting who voted for the changes.

After this my stints on election committees were significantly easier. From 2013 to 2016 I reenrolled as a post graduate student, while still working full time. Unlike at undergraduate level, for postgrad I attended classes every week and finished assignments on time. As a result my time for extra curricular activities such as student politics diminished.

I still try to keep a eye on VUWSA stuff. In 2017 I attended a VUWSA exec reunion. At some stage I’d be keen to help organise a VUWSA alumni event in London as there are a couple of us over here, and probably others who’d be prepared to travel to it.

Being involved in student politics has a significant impact on my early adult life. I loved being involved and don’t regret for a second the involvement I had. I hope that students’ associations will continue to be strong advocates for their members. Further that attacks on these institutions by short sighted political ideologues can at some point be reversed.

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Governance – 10 things to consider

Governance can be a very misunderstood concept by those who aren’t familiar with it. Sadly it often isn’t that well understood by those who are serving on governance boards.

My first governance experience was as a the student representative on the Victoria University of Wellington Council in 2006. During my induction it was explained very clearly by Chancellor Tim Beaglehole that in our governance role we were not managers, and would not be involved in operations or employment matters. Further our role was to provide strategic leadership.

My time on this governance board was surprisingly enjoyable and rewarding. And judging by the job offers I got at the end of it (and declined, in retrospect probably foolishly) I managed to gain the respect of my peers.

Later in the time in the New Zealand union movement I sat on the national executives of three trade unions, the equivalent to a governance board. I also sat on the National Affiliates Council of the NZ Council of Trades Union. Also in my time in the Public Service Association I at times sat on temporary governance structures of projects or change processes. I also have been part of advisory boards or have had oversight of projects or campaigns in a governance capacity.

Governance boards serve two major purposes in my experience. One they are a check and balance on an organisations senior management team. Secondly they are there to set the overall direction for the organisation. It is very hard for people working in an organisation to do either of these, so a governance structure is in place to ensure this happens.

So what have I learnt and observed about governance:

  1. Yes governance is not operations. The governance structures do not need to approve every stationary order, or be across every employment arrangement. Governance groups, particularly in the community sector, who have tried this have generally found themselves entangled in a messy situations. But…
  2. Governance boards with no idea of what is happening on the ground, can make very poor decisions. If you have a governance role, you should be getting regular updates. These don’t need micro-detail, but should give a helicopter view with an overall picture of an organisation.
  3. Too often the information from Management to governance boards is not the full picture. Many governance boards suffer from senior mangers or other influencers swaying decisions. This can be just as damaging as the problem highlighted in point 1.
  4. A governance board’s size does not in itself correlate to how effective its output is. While a large group can be more challenging to handle, a small group who lack the relevant skills, experience or interest is frankly pointless
  5. Having the right mix of people is crucial. Having lots of technical experts from your industry in governance roles may add value to understand the products or services delivered. But if thats all you have your governance board could lose sight of other issues – specifically product or service demand.
  6. Also on the choice of team, having people with experience in a variety of sectors is good. But they need to a) understand and b) not only have an interest but a believe in the thing they are on the governance board for. People who turn up to some meetings and contribute little are not adding value, whatever their background.
  7. Having stakeholder representatives can be valuable in my view. This view is certainly not shared by many. The reality is that having input specifically from the users (the customer, the student or whoever uses the product or service) and from the producers (the workers) can really help. Depending on the organisations there will be other stakeholders who could (should?) be included. If the users and producers input is ignored by a governance board, the quality of decision making will likely decline.
  8. Governance boards often are made up with people who have been successful in business. Also they need to be people who have time to contribute. Middle age and retired white men, in my experience, tend to be heavily represented on governance boards. Some governance boards are paid, but many are not. So financial and time constraints limit involvement of those in full time work, or who have dependants. This is not me saying old white guys don’t add value, they do. I’ve work with some brilliant people on governance boards who are white, male and over 55. But with diversity brings different experience and perspectives. Removing barriers to participation may help bring in the people you need.
  9. If you are on a governance board, speak up. And tell the truth. There is no point serving on a board if you are not going to contribute. And sometimes this means opposing the CEO, or the majority view on the board. It is possible to do this without just being a naysayer or alienating your colleagues. Key to this is to remain positive and respectful, whilst also telling it how it is (this takes practice).
  10. If you are in a leadership position, either a senior manager on a governance group, take criticism. Also respect differing opinions, and foster an environment where people can question and challenge. Do not respond to disagreement by trying to remove the person who raises the issue. Most leaders would read this and think ‘of course.’ In reality many leaders struggle with criticism and disagreements (its not easy), and an automatic response is to try and silence the views you don’t want to hear.

In conclusion, no governance structure is perfect. No business or organisation is perfect. We should always try to improve things, but don’t pretend there is some magic formula for governance to run perfectly. The above considerations I believe will help make a governance board more effective. I have identified some of the most common mistakes or problems with governance structures. If your board is at least aware and taking some measures to help with the above, you’ll be much better off.

VUWSA President – realities of leadership

I was elected Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) President at the end of 2005. This was two days before the New Zealand General Election where the 5th Labour Government were elected for the third and final time. Students had played an important role in this election, with Labour promising interest free students loans which in a close election helped them across the line. Student fees were still going up each year, and student debt was nearing $10 Billion NZ. The promise was a start, but fundamentally user pays were still in place.

Coming in as a student president the year after a general election, and after a modest win, it was always going to be a challenge. My attention as student leader quickly turned to internal matters both within the University, and within the students’ association.

A major win was resolving a 40+ year ownership dispute of the student union building. From this VUWSA became a central player in the university redevelopment where over the following half a decade the campus hub was significantly developed and improved.

I sat on the University Council, the governance board of Victoria University as one of the two student representatives. My earlier interactions with the University Council had mostly been when disrupting fee setting meetings or other similarly heated situations. Despite the many misgivings of the University Council members, I soon established a positive and constructive relationship with all members of the Council. As a result we were able to advance a number of issues affecting students ranging from academic issues through to student welfare.

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The 2006 University Sports awards. In 2006 Vic won the University Games. Photo taken with the University Shield, October 2006.

The biggest challenge I faced however was internally. The executive were quite young and generally inexperienced, even by student association standards. Further the internal issues of the association really came to the fore that year. The Student Association levy had remained at the same level for nearly 2 decades. In that time Victoria University had expanded from 1 campus to 4. Further the Students’ Association had increased the welfare and advocacy services it provided to students, as user pays had meant there was greater need than in the past.

In addition to this the students’ associations budget setting process was inadequate. A zero budget system had been established a few years earlier, whereby elected representatives would built the whole budget from scratch each year. Nice idea, but when 2/3 of the cost were fixed and when the exec turnover was high this meant budgets often weren’t set in a timely manner meaning control of spending was a challenge.

 

In September 2006 I launched a financial review of the students’ association. As part of this I got a motion through a general meeting (on the 2nd attempt) to increase the membership levy, and for it to be inflation adjusted from then on after. I also got in a auditing firm to do a financial review of the organisation. Thirdly I started the process of having a proper management structure within the association – something that wasn’t completed until 2009. Up till then the Student President had been the employer, the financial leader and general manager of the Students’s Association. They also had to represent 20,000 students and be the student rep on the University Council. Looking back I didn’t do too badly given I was 23. But the reality was it was too much, and the association needed proper management.

2006 wasn’t an easy year, and I had been forced to make some difficult decisions. The longstanding tension between myself and Labour and its activists continued to be an issue. This came to a head at the end of 2006 when I ran for re-election as Vic Labour ran a candidate against me, and won. I felt I had done my best, and believed what Labour did was align with the right to score a political point. Maybe they did? But the reality was I lost that election.

Losing an election hurt. And it did knock me for awhile. But in time I came to accept the result. One of the things I do look back on with pride is that after losing I kept working really hard till the end of the year. While at the time the animosity between myself my successor was fairly high, a few years later we were to become friends and of course both members of the Labour Party. Further I look back at the year that Geoff Hayward had as VUWSA President and saw he faced many difficulties of his own. Geoff also failed to win a second term at the end of 2007, and I suspect like me he grateful of when looking back later.

I loved my time on the student executive. I am proud of what I and the people I served with achieved, and what my successors continue to achieve today. The skills I learnt as a student representative have served me well in the roles that have followed. And I made a number of life long friends from across the political spectrum, including those who at the time I considered adversaries. I didn’t want to leave at the end of 2006. But it was time. And there were new challenges awaiting…

 

 

Student Union Building

One of the things that make for strong students’ association is the services they provide. Specifically things like clubs and on campus events throughout the year which contribute to the student culture.

The heart of the student culture is and should be the student union buildings and facilities. These will generally include student bar and cafes, the common room and club spaces, gymnasiums and sports fields and various other social spaces.

Not all these services are necessarily owned by students associations. Quite often the institution and the student association will do joint ventures and share the cost of building and maintaining these services. This is great. However when you do business there is one important thing to remember – sign contracts and keep records.

The Victoria University Student Union Building opened in 1961. Victoria University contributed about a quarter of the costs, the Students’ Association contributed about 1/3, and the rest came from alumni and other community investment. These figures are rough, as records were not kept. Further no deed or agreement about ownership was signed. The assumption at the time was that the students’ association would manage most of the day to day operations, but this was vague and not written down. Before long disagreements started…

By the late 1990s things had really become ugly. With treats of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) from the government, the university started asserting it should have full control of the student union complex and services. This resulted in the students association losing control of the bar and beer prices soaring, an ugly tug of war between the university as the students’ association over control of clubs and countless other disputes.

When I was elected to the student exec in late 2002, I saw this as one of the key issues facing the students’ association. Most of my colleagues felt the same way. In 2004 VUWSA President Amanda Hill really brought things to the fore during her term by threatening to take legal action against the university. In 2005 there was a change of Vice Chancellor, who started an informal dialogue with VUWSA about trying to find a resolution. In early 2006 a negotiating team of myself as VUWSA President, Dave Guerin (1993 VUWSA President) and Mark Thomas (former exec member and 1996 National Party candidate for Wellington Central ) were on the VUWSA negotiating team. On the university side Jenny Bentley the Campus Facilities Manager and Victoria Healy the university lawyer. These negotiations were very professional and I still believe the compromise we came to has served students well in the years that followed. Personally I learnt a great deal from these negotiations, something that was to become very useful in later life.

The solution was a Deed of Strategic Partnership set up a governance structure between VUWSA and VUW, where the university and the students’ association had two representatives – and a chair agreed by both parties would be appointed.

My President’s column just before we signed the Deed of Strategic partnership summarised things. A week later the deed was signed, and the student magazine reporters enjoyed some free alcohol, but did also see the significance of the deed. I also had a bit to say about this in the 2006 VUWSA Annual Report.

As a result of this the VUWSA and the VUWSA Trust, were able to support the University in its plans to revive the campus facilities. A few years later when I returned to campus to complete my postgraduate degree, I enjoyed a campus with far nicer facilities and better protected from the Wellington southerlies than those we endured a few years earlier.

There were many people involved bringing an end to that 45 year ownership and governance dispute. I was certainly pleased to have played a part in helping bring it to an end.

Walk 7: The Strand and Covent Garden

Walk number 7 in the 1980s AA guide book took me to Covent Garden and the Strand. I did this walk on the afternoon of Sunday 13 May, 2018.

1980's AA Guide
The Strand and Covent Garden

The walk commences at Embankment Underground Station. From there I walked up VIlliers Street names after George Villeiers the Duke of Buckingham. From here I turned right into the Victoria Embankment Gardens.

This garden located on the north bank of the Thames is a great place for a stroll on a warm spring afternoon. Full of old statues and well arranged gardens, lots of people come here to sit outside and enjoy the sun (tis a rear thing in London, especially during those winter months.

After a wander through the house the walk took me past the Shell-Mex House. From here we headed past the Savoy Hotel, famous as the home for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.

The Savoy Hotel
And its elegant surroundings

From here the walk took me past the Chapel of Savoy, the site of the ancient Savoy Palace. Rebuilt by Henry VII in 1510-16 as a hospital, now the only part that survives is the Queens Chapel.

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Queens Chapel of the Savoy.

From here I walked up to the Roman Baths, which according to the book more likely date from the early 17th century. Unfortunately they were closed at the time I walked past.

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Roman Bath on Surrey Street. Unfortunately the National Trust locked the gate.

From here the walk took me to The Strand and then past St Clement Dames Church.

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St Clement Danes Church

The next landmark on the walk is the Old Curiosity Shop, immortalised by the Charles Dickens Novel of the same name.

From here I proceeded to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, laid out in the 17th century and according to the guide book a famous haunt for duellists (I saw none during my walk). This is also the spot where Lord William Russell was executed in 1683.

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields

After this the walk took me to Covent Garden. According to the 80s guide book, until 1974 this had been a famous fruit and vegetable market for over 300 years. The book talked about how the old buildings had been renovated and were then filled with craft shops and restaurants. In 2018 it is one of the main tourist craft markets and restaurant areas in London.

After stopping for a coffee and a bite to eat, I headed down St Martin’s Lane. This took my past the National Opera and the London Coliseum with the globe on top.

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London Coliseum with the globe on top

The walk then took me down St Martins Lane and past the famous St Martins in the Fields opposite Trafalgar Square. St Martins is now no longer near any fields, but when first build in the 13th century it was in open country surrounds.

The walk then took me to Charring Cross, and this is where walk 7 ended.

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Above: statue for Nurse Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place. Cavell in during the First World War for helping prisoners of war escape. Bottom right: a child attempting planking.

 

Blogs and the political establishment

Being in the thick of student politics in the mid 2000s, I was around just at the very beginning of social media. From about 2003-2004 onwards, the big trend was the emergency of blogs. Ironically I wasn’t a great fan of them as my Presidents Column in Salient of 7/8/2006 outlined.

On reflection my distain wasn’t in fact for blogs. My weekly presidents’ column was published online in a blog format, thus I was using the medium to attack the medium. My distain came from operating in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, where the political establishment operated in an isolated bubble. In student politics, I loved being in a position where I could be a voice for change or do good. What I despised was the irrelevant gossip and manoeuvring that inevitably follows when you are near the seat of power, ie parliament.

It wasn’t that I had a particular thin skin. Having had the record for being called a c%#t in the Salient’s letters to the editor one year, to then go on and get re-elected to the executive showed me that the (usually unanimous) comments from random dickheads mattered little. What annoyed me was the time wasted when others indulged them, or made random attention seeking idiots feature writers or gave them some other platform. If this were just student politics then fine. But I could tell then and still see today, that much of the political debate in Wellington supposedly at a national political level is little more than the gossip and nonsense of a club. This sadly, sums up much of the political journalism, social media and blogging from Wellington.

This is by no means unique to Wellington. I very clearly see similar such bubbles exist in London, Canberra, Washington, Paris, Ottawa and in most capital cities in democracies. And worse, people know this. They’ve known for years that politics is an elite club.

One of the reasons that the people in these clubs are still struggling to understand Trump, Brexit or even the relative rise of Corbyn and Bernie Saunders is that many people outside the bubble are sick of the bubble. In fact there are people who are quite happy to vote for extremes on either side of politics, just to wipe the smug look off people the smug establishment.

The fact is people who don’t live in the world of the political chit chat, or endlessly read the inane political blogs like this one may view the world differently. The world views of people outside the bubble are not only valid, they actually are often more informed than those in it. People in the bubble to will claim to know what is happening “on the ground.” Yet something like Brexit or the Trump election hits, and those in the bubble are shocked.

My experience during my student politics years was to be labelled mad, looney, extremist, idealistic and unrealistic. Many of those positions I took at the time such as free tertiary education are now government policy in New Zealand. Democracies work well when voters are given a genuine choices and can be part of serious debates about the future of our society. When this reverts to name calling and pettiness by those who would rather protect their position in the club, this undermines democracy.

VUWSA Campaigns

In 2003 and 2004 I was the Campaign’s Officer at the Victoria University Students’ Association. The big campaigns over those two years were student fees, and in 2003 the US led invasion of Iraq.

However I ran and was involved in a number of other campaigns over the two years I held the campaigns role. I remained active in student campaigns in the two years following when I was Welfare Vice President (2005) and Students’ Association President (2006).

In 2003 we reestablished the Student Representative Council meetings. These had earlier been abolished in 1989. These were essentially lunch time forums where students could debate and vote on issues. From 2003 onwards we were to debate and vote on issues ranging from homelessness, GE foods, taxation, employment rights, recycling, legalising marijuana and my favourite naming a toilet bowl after a politician hated by many students.

We ran campaigns on a number of these issues. I was regularly leaflet dropping lecture halls or doing poster runs around the campuses for upcoming events. At the same time I was spending many evenings and weekends selling lefty magazines or other radical activism. It was fun, but looking back I could have taken a bit more time out to go to party’s or enjoy student life (not that I didn’t engage in quite a bit of that as well). My marks in the years 2003 to 2005 probably suffered from almost never attending class. Remarkably I still passing everything I enrolled in. During one campaign I had a history assignment due, the result was I submitted a History book review for a book I’d never read and passed with a B (and they say academic standards have slipped).

In 2004 the right on campus organised and pulled a bunch of members to an SRC meeting. This was to highlight how easy it was for a small group to get numbers and pass a bunch of resolutions. Members of the National and Act party managed to pass motions supporting users pays education, tax cuts and a particularly amusing motion in support of capitalism as “making money will help you pay off your student debt.” Most of the motions passed were later repealed (of course). On the day many of the progressive students tried to call a quorum count to stop the meeting – I very strongly opposed this and insisted that the meeting proceed and that the right be given free speech and democracy. Later members of the young National Party bought me beer at the student bar for this stance (from memory I declined the beer and my mate grabbed it).

This highlighted the weakness of weekly meetings. They were great for creating debates and in conjunction with stalls could create a carnival atmosphere (when it wasn’t a freezing southerly). But it became clear that better measures were needing for enhancing democracy. In 1997-98 VUWSA had trialled lecture meetings, whereby elected class representatives polled students on issues quickly before class. In 2006 we trailed this again, successfully getting a few thousand students to opposing raising international student fees that year.

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2004 VUWSA President looking nervous during the 2004 Destiny Church counter rally.

A couple of campaigns that really made an impact during my time on the student exec were prostitution law reform and the civil union bill. The former legislation change was supported by the women’s group on campus and a number of students signed petitions and made submissions to parliament in support of the change. The Civil Union bill in 2004 became quite a big campaign in New Zealand, after the conservative Destiny Church organised various rallies against the country. In August 2004 a few thousand Destiny Church members came to Wellington to protest against same sex couples having rights. The queer community, students and social justice activists united to organise a counter rally, called ‘Love does not discriminate.’ We organised a number of other events throughout that year before the bill was successfully passed. 8 years later the NZ parliament legalised same sex marriage, by then opposition to this change had greatly diminished.

These were great campaigns to be apart of, and at the time I really felt like I was doing what I loved. I still look back with pride at what campaigns like ‘love does not discriminate’ achieved. However the key thing I learnt during this time is not to be a hyper activist, and the importance of winning wider public support and bringing people along with you. Its easy when you are passionate about something to throw lots of energy into campaigns or causes. But you can substitute yourself for a mass movement, and building those takes time. Its also important to listen to opposing views, and even be prepared to change your mind.

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My car The Mighty Starlet, was a regular attendee at protests in Wellington while I was Campaigns Officer. Usually carrying people and gear. This photo taken in Parliament Grounds in Wellington 2004.