VUWSA forced into costly climbdown
VUWSA has caved into the New Zealand Union of Students’ Association’s demands, paying the national body its outstanding membership fees and agreeing in principle to hold a referendum on its continued membership.
In September 2014 the Executive decided to withdraw from NZUSA. This followed a 2013 student-initiated referendum on whether VUWSA should remain a member. 63 per cent of students voted “Yes, but only with reforms”—however, there was no straight “Yes” option. The Executive claimed reform hadn’t occurred and that this gave them a mandate to withdraw without holding a further referendum.
With NZUSA’s constitution requiring members to give 12 months’ notice of withdrawal, the national body has continued to invoice VUWSA for its $45,000 annual membership fee. VUWSA had intended to withhold over $20,000, and budgeted accordingly. But with NZUSA threatening court action, and legal advice that VUWSA would lose, the Executive has brought itself up to date with payments.
In doing so it has potentially scuppered its chances to post its first profit since 2010. VUWSA President Rick Zwaan confirmed that a review of the budget was currently underway, and that VUWSA may need to reprioritise its funds, particularly its $15,000 campaigns line.
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The payment follows a secret meeting between the VUWSA Executive and NZUSA President Rory McCourt on 11 May. At this meeting, McCourt tried to persuade the Executive of the continued need for a unified national body. He described the meeting as “positive”, although he also delivered a legal threat over the fee.
After hashing out an agreement in private, the Executive voted on the proposal at an official meeting on 4 June. Salient, which is usually invited to all Executive meetings, was not told of the meeting or sent an agenda.
VUWSA has chalked this up to an administrative error. However, insiders have also confirmed that the 11 May meeting with NZUSA was deliberately concealed from Salient and no official record of the meeting exists.
As VUWSA’s withdrawal is to take effect from 23 September, its 2015 membership fee had already been reduced on a pro-rata basis. It budgeted only $11,250 for NZUSA levies and has now paid $25,000. VUWSA is yet to decide whether it will pay the remaining fee of around $11,000, which will be due sometime in July.
VUWSA’s climbdown flies in the face of recent precedent. The Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) recently negotiated a partial payment of its remaining fees after notifying its withdrawal last November, and Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) has withheld all of its fees since mid-2013 after announcing its immediate withdrawal. NZUSA has refused to recognise WSU’s withdrawal and has continued to send it invoices, none of which have been paid.
With VUWSA and OUSA’s impending withdrawal, Auckland association AUSA will be the only large association left in NZUSA. The three associations contribute the majority of NZUSA’s funding and have been propping up the national body for some years.
The VUWSA Executive had previously discussed the levy at length, and decided that the 12-month notice period was unreasonable. They agreed that NZUSA provided no value to Victoria students and was unlikely to pursue the fee through legal channels for fear of political embarrassment.
According to a VUWSA insider, though, McCourt was relentless in his demands for payment. McCourt said that the NZUSA Executive “has shown that it is not willing to have member associations throw tantrums over levies they owe”.
VUWSA’s climbdown was also influenced to a large extent by its ostracism from smaller students’ associations, who were angry at VUWSA’s attempts to withdraw its financial support from NZUSA.
McCourt accused VUWSA of “shitting on the other associations” by withdrawing without paying its full levy. “It’s like a flatmate moving out without paying what they owe under the lease … the other associations will have to pick that up.”
McCourt said that since announcing its withdrawal, VUWSA has only paid lip service to the idea of a national student voice. He said VUWSA was “ostracised because VUWSA hasn’t engaged, it hasn’t stepped up and worked with the other associations”, and that VUWSA’s relationship with smaller associations “doesn’t exist” outside of NZUSA.
Zwaan admitted that he “wouldn’t say it’s a rosy relationship” between VUWSA and the smaller associations. He said there was “some truth” to the claim that VUWSA had harmed its relationships by withdrawing.
However, many within VUWSA also believe that McCourt, a former VUWSA President, has actively whipped up resentment toward VUWSA in an attempt to pressure the association into paying—a strategy that appears to have worked.
This year, Labour MPs including David Cunliffe and David Clark have spoken out against the exodus from NZUSA, and the perception within VUWSA is that it is losing the media battle.
McCourt’s desperation was reflected in comments he made to Critic magazine in March, in which he claimed that NZUSA would be forced to close by June unless the internal disputes over fees were resolved. He also claimed that NZUSA would lose its seat on the Committee on University Academic Policy (CUAP) in June if VUWSA and OUSA had not reversed their decisions to withdraw.
The two associations are now paid-up until the next quarter, although a question mark remains over $33,750 of fees for the remainder of the year. NZUSA’s position on CUAP will be determined at the Committee’s next meeting later this month. Neither VUWSA nor OUSA has reversed its decision to withdraw.
This year McCourt and Zwaan’s relationship has deteriorated to the point where Zwaan no longer responds to McCourt’s emails. The pair were once close, but the ongoing dispute over membership and fees, as well as VUWSA’s refusal to cast a vote for McCourt in the NZUSA presidential elections in January, has soured the relationship.
For his part, Zwaan was determined not to give in to NZUSA’s demands. He is understood to be frustrated by the Executive’s willingness to continue giving money to NZUSA.
VUWSA has not yet officially announced a referendum on continued membership, but this is expected to take place alongside the Executive elections in September.
McCourt was critical of the 2014 Executive’s decision to withdraw, claiming that the 2013 referendum result did not provide a proper mandate. He said that many of the promised reforms had in fact been delivered, and that “many, many members of [the 2014] Exec have expressed regret about that decision [to withdraw]”.
Although most of this year’s Executive including Zwaan are in favour of withdrawing from NZUSA, they also want to secure a stronger mandate. There are also fears that a pro-NZUSA field could sweep the 2016 VUWSA elections. A referendum is seen as less risky than the prospect of a future Executive reversing the decision to withdraw.