ANUSA Environment Officer Investigation Prompts Accusations of “Nepotism”, “Ableism” and “Gaslighting”
By Eleanor Ellis
At 1:35pm today, ANUSA released a statement affirming the validity of Rex Michelson’s nomination for Environment Officer on the ‘Power in Community’ ticket. This announcement came three days after Hayden Mendoza from the ‘Jedi Council for ANUSA’ was disqualified, as his nomination was deemed unconstitutional due to his inactive status in the ‘Environment Collective’ (EC).
The annual ANUSA Elections opened 26 September and closed at 12pm today.
On 25 September, Carter Chryse, who has been an active member of the EC for four years, informed Observer that Michelson and Mendoza were being investigated by the Probity and Returning Officer. Chryse is also currently running for Education Officer and NUS Delegate on the ‘Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS’ ticket.
Both candidates were facing allegations that they did not attend a minimum of three Department meetings. The ANUSA Constitution, section 7.3, stipulates that nominees for the Department Officer of the Environment, BIPOC, Disabilities, Indigenous, Women’s, and Queer* Departments must be active members of their respective departments.
“Active” membership means “attend[ing] three meetings of that Department in that Academic year”, with the exception of the Disabilities Department, which requires attendance at two meetings.
If the nominee does not satisfy this, they may still be considered an active member “by a majority vote of the members of the Department… taking into account apologies and evidence of exceptional circumstances”.
Upon being notified of the eligibility concerns, an investigation was opened into all three candidates’ constitutional legitimacy, including Wren Somerville from the ‘Climate Action’ ticket.
Regarding Mendoza’s eligibility, ANUSA has stated:
“The initial investigation showed there was no evidence that Hayden Mendoza has attended any EC meetings. There was no response from any member of the Jedi Council for ANUSA ticket on the issue. This led to Hayden being excluded early on Monday 26th September.”
Mendoza commented under ANUSA’s post, “Robbery”, and laugh-reacted to other comments. He has not responded to Observer’s request for comment.
The investigation into Somerville showed ”they had spoken at, and therefore logically would have attended, at least three meetings, and was determined to have been eligible to nominate,” based on the Rolling Minutes. Somerville’s nomination was deemed constitutionally valid.
Michelson’s status as an active member, however, created conflict between ANUSA, Michelson, and other members of the EC. ANUSA noted that Michelson “promptly with a claim that he attended at least three meetings of the EC this year”. However, the investigation by the Probity “was made substantially more complex by a lack of a clear record of attendance at [EC] meetings through the available minutes”.
The Department meetings minutes only include people who spoke, and does not necessarily indicate attendance. Evidence of attendance therefore relies on a combination of the minutes and testimonial confirmation by other EC members.
The Returning Officer ultimately decided to accept Michelson’s nomination and to “let the election for Environment Officer continue unobstructed with Rex and Wren as the two nominees”.
“The threshold for this question is whether or not it is reasonable to assume based on available evidence that three meetings have been attended by Rex Michelson. A number of pieces of evidence were provided, along with statements from individuals, which collectively led the Returning Officer to determine that Rex had attended 3 meetings and therefore met eligibility requirements for the position of Environment Officer.”
Speaking with Observer, Michelson asserts that the accusations against him are “unfounded” and seem “vexatious and malicious”. He added that he is “definitely adding recording attendance to my policy”.
The minutes from the Department meeting on 26 April show that Michelson was in attendance, as he was voted in as the General Secretary Co-Convenor. As General Secretary, Michelson claims to have worked on “the activities and outreach of EC”.
Michelson also stated “without a shadow of a doubt” that he attended meetings on 29 March and 30 August. He also “recall[s] but cannot unequivocally attest to” attending meetings on 10 May and 24 May.
The EC Officer, Freya Brown, has announced her support of Michelson’s claims, saying “Rex is a current co-convener and has attended at least 3 meetings, I believe 5 out of the 8 this year”.
According to the Constitution of the Environment Department, 16.1.1, “the duty to take and store minutes rests with the Officer”, which is currently Brown.
However, several members of the EC, who wish to remain anonymous, have contested Michelson’s attendance at meetings, as well as his involvement in other Department activities.
One active member, who wishes to remain anonymous, said “I have not seen Rex at a meeting…[and] I have also never seen either of them [Michelson and Mendoza] at any other environmental organisation meetings”.
This member said they did not attend the meeting where Michelson was voted General Secretary. However, they did explain “there’s no barrier to someone who is inactive being put into a position internally…[and] what’s happened is friends of the office bearer have the positions”.
They further stated that Mendoza’s investigation concluded earlier because “he was running on a joke ticket” while Michelson “has connections to the people who appoint the Returning Officer (RO), the Probity Officers, and who usually run the SRC, including many of the current Exec”. The member disputed Michelson’s nomination, saying “it’s a model of doing politics that’s based not on activism, but on nepotism”.
Similarly, Chryse stated Mendoza had not attended any meetings and said “Jedi Council for ANUSA are a joke ticket.”
Chryse claims to have attended meetings on 29 March, 10 May, 24 May and 8 August, and said they did not see Michelson at any of them. They also claimed to have attended the meeting on 30 August, stating Michelson “possibly [attended] on Zoom, but if so, he didn’t contribute”.
Another member of the EC said they have been at “every EC meeting from Week 6 Semester 1” – six meetings to date – and claims they “saw Rex for the first time when he was elected as co-convenor….It also struck [them] as quite peculiar that [they] didn’t see him again at any meetings, even though he was co-convenor”.
They continued, that they “think it speaks volumes that Rex isn’t even recorded as speaking even once in an EC meeting – [they] think that is far short of active participation…[and] it seems quite clear that [Michelson’s] nomination is unconstitutional, in the same way Hayden’s is”.
Both Chryse and an anonymous EC member expressed confusion over the fact that Mendoza was quickly disqualified, while Michelson continued to be investigated.
The first anonymous member said “the only difference I can see is that he’s on a large ticket with institutional connections” and that these tickets “have parachuted in candidates who have nothing to do with environmental activism in order to fill spots…speak[ing] to an apolitical culture at odds with environmental activism.”
However, a different EC member, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said “there is a big difference between never having touched the EC with even a 10 foot pole,” referring to Mendoza, “and being actively involved but attending an unclear number of meetings that might be less than 3,” referring to Michelson.
They also said “from my memory, all I can say is that he has been to at least 1 meeting this year, maybe 2….[but] all I have is my memory, so understandably take this with a grain of salt and no guarantee of reliability.”
In the initial statement released by Chryse, they expressed concern “for the democracy and accountability of ANUSA” due to the “lack of transparency [and] clarification of the standard of proof of this process.” They stated the issue should be resolved “in an open, clear, and democratic way” to ensure “the legitimacy of the 2023 Environment Officer”.
ANUSA, however, has said they are “committed to delivering a free and fair election in which students can have the highest level of confidence”. Their statement continues:
“The Probity Officers have worked tirelessly with the Returning Officer to deliver an outcome that students should know shows the integrity of ANUSA’s elections. ANUSA is proud of the time and due diligence the Probity Officers and Returning Officer have shown through their patient and thorough investigation.”
Chryse, however, further criticised the investigation process for continuing while voting has already opened. They claim:
“The student body hasn’t heard anything about how the validity of candidates has been questioned, apart from Hayden being disqualified. It is undemocratic – students deserve to know the truth of the ‘activist credentials’ of the people they’re voting for…Not just letting ‘Power in Community’ the incumbent ticket with tons of power, resources, and connections, get away with bullsh*tting students…I think it’s quite unlikely the full picture will be revealed and they’ll get to set the narrative”.
Michelson claims he has obliged with every step of the process, explaining, “[he] was asked to provide the dates of three meetings [he] attended. [He] did this almost immediately last night and [has] now signed a statutory declaration today.”
In response to the accusations, he continued, he “believe[s] that if politically motivated, this [situation] brings up its own set of questions regarding weaponising the mechanisms of this election.”
This conflict came to a head at the tenth EC meeting, which took place on 27 September 6pm-8pm at the ANUSA boardroom (Level 2 Di Riddell) and over Zoom. Christian Flynn and Ben Yates, who is running for ANUSA President, ANU Council Member, and NUS Delegate on the ‘Power in Community’ ticket, were also in attendance.
The agenda included a discussion of Michelson’s “honorary membership” and a motion was raised to dispute his active status. Michelson again asserted he was present at least three meetings, and claimed he has also assisted the department in other areas as General Secretary, including outreach work with other groups, planning meeting agendas, and assisting in the organisation of events this year.
Yates voiced his opinion on what he views as the “incredibly bratty behavior” of some of the EC, continuing “the level of disrespect you’ve shown to [Michelson] is…absolutely disgraceful”.
Somerville, regarding the issue of whether Michelson has been “active” in the Department beyond attendance, said “it’s very important [that] the people who go to meetings contribute to discussion…SAlt have been doing the legwork [for the climate rallies] and there’s plenty of proof”.
The Chair’s Social and Design Co-Convenor, Angel Du, said “we cannot use our memory as proof… [it is] very unreliable…Even if you don’t remember people, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there”, to which another EC member, Nick Reich, responded “we shouldn’t rely on memory, but there is no other concrete evidence that exists”.
Reich continued, “it’s a low bar to come to less than half the meetings in a year…You need to actively contribute”. Furthermore, Reich accused ‘Power in Community’ of “shoulder tap[ping] people who are friends who are then running to this ticket…[and] mobilising friendship [and] social networks”, and that “this [discussion] is a critique of that entire method”.
Another member questioned the definition of “active” membership, saying “we need to be clear on what active participation is – you can go to a meeting and not actively participate,” to which Yates replied “talking is not active participation. It’s really ableist and…entirely irrelevant”.
Brown supported this, saying “having to talk in meetings in order to participate is really sick. If that’s the level that activism requires, if that’s what the EC needs, [then] that’s not accessible, and really ableist”.
She continued, “the constitutional requirement” for active membership is “having attended three meetings, not speaking in three meetings”. Brown said she is certain Michelson has done so, and “feel[s] like [she] is being gaslit”, to which Somerville said they feel the same and that “gaslighting [is happening] both ways”.
Yates also stated that “active membership is going to three meetings” and that the motion “doesn’t change anything [regarding] Rex’s ability to nominate”. He further questioned what he views as the “behind the scenes” and “dirty” approach of “try[ing] to get the position unopposed”, asking why the EC haven’t made “the argument to students publicly”.
Speaking with Observer, Yates said the ‘Power in Community’ ticket “regards [this] as a viciously ableist and unfounded attack on Rex”. He continued:
“This was a pathetic bullying tactic from Socialist Alternative’s ‘Climate Action’ ticket…[SAlt] have embarrassed themselves with an unfounded attack on Rex. The arguments [they] have made through this process have been premised on an ableist proposition that attendance at meetings and involvement in environmental activism is determined by how often you speak at meetings.”
Chryse, who raised the motion in dispute of Michelson’s membership status, said “the idea of consulting the EC as to whether Rex is an active member is a legitimate idea…the evidence in the minutes is that Rex isn’t there, [while] Wren is… that’s just pure facts”.
Somerville is noted in the minutes as having spoken at the meetings on 22 March, 29 March, 10 May, and 27 September.
Chryse further questioned “why Rex is running at all”, claiming he is “not an active member…is not active in activism” and “has not organised any of the climate rallies this year”. They claim to have attended two environment rallies this year, saying they’re “not sure [Michelson] attended”. Chryse compared this to Somerville, stating “there is tons of evidence [that] Wren is an activist”.
Michelson called the motion “fruitless and pointless”, saying “this isn’t a referendum of what EC is [but] just what SAlt thinks”.
Yates said “you can pass [the motion], but it doesn’t mean anything constitutionally”, and Flynn added that “regardless [of the motion], this is in the hands of the Returning Officer”.
The motion then moved to a vote, with seven votes in favour and five against, and thus was passed. The EC “notes that Rex Michelson is not an active member of the Environment Collective, as per 7.3.2 of the ANUSA constitution”.
Michelson, in a comment to Observer, raised issue with the meeting on 30 August, where a motion was passed affirming Gabriel Luca-Morison’s active membership status, “despite, to [Michelson’s] knowledge, him not going to any meetings”.
The minutes do not contain any other mention of Luca-Morison, outside of this motion, for the entire year.
Michelson expressed frustration over being “stripped of active member status, despite rigorously defending and substantiating [his] status” and having “to nitpick the minutes [which] don’t record everything”.
However, he also stated he is “confident in [his] candidacy, and will be focusing [his] time on promoting [his] policies to students. [He is] looking forward to putting this distraction behind us”.
Yates added that the ‘Power in Community’ ticket is “proud of Rex’s ambitious, left-wing vision” and are “working hard to see him elected”.
Voting closed today at 12pm, and the results were released from 4pm. Michelson was announced as the Environmental Officer for 2023.
Any concerns about the election should be referred to the Probity Officers at [email protected]
An ANU spokesperson contributed:
“ANUSA is separate and independent to the University. Officers are elected by the student body to represent their interests.”
Graphics by Will Novak
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