The four WA public university Student Guilds and affiliated unions made a significant slam dunk Friday afternoon, having successfully lobbied state parties a step further in ensuring a minimum 50% of SSAF be maintained between university senates and guilds.

In the original version of the Universities Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, this minimum drops out to a baseline 0%. Without protection at a state level as set in a regulatory framework, it becomes the prerogative of University governing bodies to make statutes to determine how much of the fee is proportioned over to guilds. In other words, the Bill would enable universities to give not a cent to their guilds should they choose – whether as penalty for getting from them a little too much sass, or simply for whatever other reason suits at the time. Frankly, universities are always going to find their guilds a little bit annoying at times. The relationship between the two is not a bosom-buddy one – and there would likely be something wrong with it if it were.

Lobbying efforts against the proposed elimination of the 50% guarantee began early this year as an initiative of the Save Our Voice campaign, involving representatives from the UWA Student Guild, Curtin Student Guild, Murdoch Student Guild, ECU Student Guild, National Union of Students and the WA Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union. Rare, for a campaign issue to see such unity, and such continuity between terms too.

The Bill is what is called an omnibus bill, with each aligning separately with the four University acts. According to ECU Guild President Lewis Price, “ECU’s VC has guaranteed the ECU Student Guild 50% of the SSAF regardless of what happens in parliament, which was a buffer of reassurance. I think some of the other Guilds got this too. But it isn’t binding – they could renege on that whenever, which is especially likely once a new VC comes in, who might take a different position.”

Our own Vice-Chancellor does things very differently. Currently, UWA’s Student Guild only receives 30% of SSAF funding – which amounts to just under $1.6M per year. The figure has fluctuated in the past five years since Senate cut the portion from 70% to 30% at the end of 2013 (negotiated at the end of 2012 during a Liberty-run Guild), but has never risen above 38%. The Guild also receives an additional 10% in capital gain.

This makes us the only University in the state not to receive half.

UWA’s unique arrangement over SSAF comes down to a highly dubious interpretation of legislature – and a highly duplicitous one at that. “The justification for giving the Guild less is simply that Johnson sees a tension between the federal legislation and the state legislation on the way the money can be collected and used,” explains Marty Braithwaite, Senior State Organiser of NTEU’s WA branch. “The federal legislation sets out ways in which the SSAF funding can be used; but it doesn’t have any prescription around money. The state legislation says you need to have a 50% distribution or more. Paul Johnson seems to believe that because the federal legislation is silent on this aspect of SSAF – and federal legislation trumps state legislation – the silence of the former means they don’t have to abide by the 50% as specified in the latter. It’s just nonsense.

“I quite frankly can’t understand why UWA Guild – with all the eager beaver law students they’ve got – haven’t run a challenge on that.”

Challenge set, Blackstone Society.

The inconsistency and resultant weasel-hole which makes allocations ‘negotiated’ has seen the Guild hamstrung in their efforts, hurting in their revenue streams, and set at a high risk of financial crisis in the mid-term future. Despite this, Paul Johnson still had the audacity to complain to the Guild about underinvestment in catering (with this year’s Guild prioritising student-facing services). Certainly, the Guild’s decreased ability to invest is expected; the closure of the Reid Library cafe during renovations cut off a major cash flow for over half a year after all.

“In the past, the University has effectively said ‘sue us’,” says 2016 Guild President Maddie Mulholland concerning the SSAF legislature discrepancy. “What we’re hoping for as a result of this amendment is that it will now give the University no excuse to withhold funds. It will still be a negotiation and lobbying effort to get there, definitely. But we regard this as vital in reinforcing our case.”

Although student lobbyists claimed victory on Friday – splashing “we won!” go-team posts across timelines everywhere –  there is still a way to go yet. The bill only just entered its second reading in the state’s lower house assembly, and will progress from there to a third reading, then council. With the Greens and Labor on-side, it is the Nationals who are predicted to call the game.  Whilst the Federal National party have shown support of keeping the 50%, the State Parliamentary Nationals have yet to declare a formalised position.

Labor has throughout the process been a strong backer, engaging unions and guild representatives in ongoing dialogue, and making use of their respective briefing notes during addresses to assembly. The party’s Member for Armadale Toni Buti MLA – a former UWA graduate and teacher, who leads the charge against the Bill – has been particularly vocal in taking to task the state Nationals to oppose the current version of the Act.

“This will test the National Party’s commitment to country students if it does not agree,” spoke Buti at the September 7 second reading of the Bill. He noted the Guild fee has been crucial to regional campus’, feeding life support to beneficiaries like Curtin’s WA School of Mines student assistance officer in Kalgoorlie, and UWA’s Albany Students’ Association. He also argued regional students living away from home tend to rely more on Guild-funded services and facilities than their metropolitan counterparts.

Implicit in the proposed elimination of the 50% guarantee is the idea that students don’t know what is best for them. This wracks of paternalism. “These students are adults,” Buti said. “Should they not be given the right to determine how these fees are utilised?”

A positive consultation outcome with Labor – yes. Things did get a little shaky for a moment there however, when Shadow Education Minister Sue Ellery MLA allegedly asked the guilds if they would “consider Labor’s passing the Bill and then working with them to review the SSAF component should they get elected in the upcoming State election,” says ECU’s Price. “We all responded quite promptly with ‘no’ – we don’t want to change and then try to back-pedal, as there’s not a likelihood that that will work in our favour.”

Two meetings to date have been held between Student Guild Presidents (with BNOC tag-on in UWA’s Ed Council President Emma Boogaerdt) and Education Minister Peter Collier MLA.

One final matter now of rather insidious import. The Universities Legislation Amendment Bill has been in its draft stages for a while now, with its early versions handed to the Vice-Chancellors in late 2015. “When the VCs addressed Senates and Councils, they swore them to confidentiality on the bill,” says Braithwaite. “They said that it was dead-set a private matter, and that senate and council members couldn’t breathe a word of it to anyone. Yet when we put that to Collier, he told us there was no requirement these things couldn’t be consulted on with the greater University. So that was a choice the VCs made. I can only speculate what their motivation was, but when it comes to taking away guild funding, you can only wonder. Why did they imply there was a need for secrecy? It was completely unnecessary.”

Why were the guilds denied the opportunity to openly consult with the student body before the Senate took a position? If lobbyists had known earlier, would their campaign have been less fraught? That Universities should be coy enough to deliberately and needlessly work to delay consultation on matters which impact the future of guilds raises serious questions. Chief of those perhaps being: what happened to transparency?

It’s been touch and go up until this point, and – although things are definitely looking up – it will continue this way yet for UWA, even when and if the amendments are enacted. Much is likely to hinge upon whether our new leader is prepared to act in good faith and respect the agency and interests of their guild, or whether they will continue to bend the rules to their own advantage. Should our Guild be successful in its endeavour for securing a 50% SSAF minimum, it will probably be a life-saver. And perhaps also why Guild Director Tony beamed at us in the tavern the other week, winked a secret wink and said we should prepare ourselves for “[expletive] good news!”

Hope you had a good Friday night, WA Student Guilds of 2016. But honestly why did this have to break at the exact same moment campaign blackout ended? Student politics. It has no chill.

Words by Kate Prendergast