Last week I received the dubious honour of being the first member of the Workers’ Party (WP) to be expelled. The justification for this primarily resolves around my role as 2009 President of Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA).
Was this expulsion justified? Have I moved away from the socialist politics of the WP and become another self serving bureaucrat? Did I stand in the VUWSA elections in late 2008 under false pretences? The answer to these questions is no. The reality is that my expulsion from the WP says more about the current direction the Party than it does about my politics, or the work I’m currently doing in my role as VUWSA President.
According to WP National Organiser Philip Ferguson:
Her [my] actions suggest that Jasmine may have been a member for a number of years but her understanding of our politics is either zero (and determinedly so) or else she understands them but rejects them in practice, and does so particularly flagrantly.
The implication of this statement was that I didn’t (and still don’t) understand that the WP is anti-capitalist. Moreover, Phil’s comments imply that I’m just some middle class student in training for a cushy public service advisory role.
Moreover, in reality I have experienced firsthand the injustices of the capitalist system.
The first 8 or so years of my life were spent rather comfortably, at least in economic terms. My parents owned and operated a small business, employing a dozen or so people. My mother also taught allocution part time, having given up teaching when she started having children. I attended a private school, went to ballet lessons, and had every toy a young girl could desire.
In the late 1980s my parents separated. My mother made the decision (if you can call it that) to flee with myself and my three younger siblings from an extremely abusive relationship.
We relocated to Porirua, north of Wellington. My mother was forced to go on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. She had four children under the age of 9, including a newborn baby who required physiotherapy every 2-3 hours. Returning to the workforce was simply not an option.
My family, like many others, was hit hard by Ruth Richardson’s 1991 benefit cuts. While at least initially my mother felt incredibly shamed at being on the benefit, she gradually started to speak out about the harsh realities of existence below the poverty line.
Mum became somewhat of a beneficiary rights advocate, writing letters to the editor and to ministers, participating in protests and appearing in numerous documentaries, including Alistair Barry’s In a Land of Plenty.
Life was difficult. We didn’t have enough food to eat. We didn’t have a car for over 5 years. It was not uncommon for our washing machine to be out of action for months at a time. If something broke, it stayed that way. There was simply no money to fix it.
I started secondary school at Tawa College in 1994. The walk from home to school took a good two hours one way. This was a walk I did many, many times. Money for train and bus fares was more often than not a luxury we couldn’t afford.
I first enrolled in tertiary study in 1999. Throughout that time I have often worked multiple jobs in order to survive. The day after my son Kalani was born, despite feeling incredibly sick, I had to return to my teaching job in order to pay the rent.
Between 2003 and 2008 I was employed by Victoria University in various sub-lecturer jobs, the last 2 years of which I spent as an Assistant Lecturer while trying to complete my PhD. Last year (at Study @ Vic Day, no less) I had a copy of the 2009 prospectus thrown on the floor in front of me, with my name and the courses I taught crossed out. This is how I found out I no longer had a teaching job.
The fact is that I have experienced working class life in New Zealand, and experienced the poverty and injustices caused by capitalist exploitation. This is in contrast to most Wellington members of the WP, for whom regular paid employment is a foreign concept.
Moreover, I understand the need to try and build a better world free of exploitation for profit. When I do political work I endeavor to make sure it’s of a high standard with the hope that it’ll be taken seriously and has a chance of helping to bring about positive change. Until recently I thought this was also what the WP was about.
My membership of the Workers’ Party: a misogynistic Party
I first came into contact with the WP, then called the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (ACA) back in 2002. I remember arguing with Jared Philips at a VUWSA Clubs Day stall about their policy of ‘equality to gay men and women’. I argued that this was a fairly conservative platform as it excluded a number of other sexual and gender orientations and identities. For the following 6 years I regularly argued for this wording to be changed – often facing ridicule or disinterest. Finally in 2008 the wording was changed to “equality for … people of all sexual orientations and identities” from the more conservative wording that in the 21st century even National and Act likely wouldn’t use.
I became an active member of the Wellington branch in 2003. For the vast majority of that time I was the only female member of the branch. Until my recent departure I was also the longest serving member of the branch.
Over the last half a decade I have been involved with a number of political projects as a WP member. I was heavily involved with the campaign to unionise Burger King in 2003-04. However, whilst Unite’s leadership were keen to have us run blitz-style recruitment of members, no follow up work was done with these Unite sign ups. Within a few months most of these young workers had moved on or quit the union due to lack of action. This was a fairly demoralizing experience, and one which didn’t leave a good impression of Unite and its level of seriousness.
The birth of my son Kalani in mid 2004 also impacted upon my experiences and impressions of the WP.
I often found it hard to participate in Party meetings or events due to the lack of childcare. At one national conference held in Wellington I spent much of the time sitting outside of the conference room looking after my son. Only one person came out to talk with me the entire weekend, and this person wasn’t even a Party member. At another national conference I presented a paper with Kalani on my hip. Not a single Party member offered to help.
According to the Party’s official programme, the WP claim to be campaigning to:
… ensure that child care is seen as a collective responsibility and to avoid the isolation of women at home measures need to be taken to make it possible for them to return to work. Establishment of nurseries/creches for infants and young children and rooms at work places. Breast feeding mothers to be allowed recesses of at least half-hour duration at intervals of not more than three hours; such mothers to receive nursing benefit and their working day to be reduced to six hours; parental leave with right of return after twelve months.
How ironic it is that I am now accused of rejecting or not understanding WP policy. Yet, the above policy about childcare being seen as a “collective responsibility” was totally rejected in practice at national gatherings and most other party events.
In 2008 the Wellington branch finally agreed to a policy whereby active branch members would take turns at babysitting my son on the weeks that I have care of him (I have a 50/50 joint custody arrangement with Kalani’s father). This policy was enacted so that I didn’t have to miss every second weekly branch meeting (and then get backstabbed for not being active within the branch).
At the national retreat of the WP in January 2009 I attempted to put forward Wellington’s childcare policy for ratification at a national level. This met with all kinds of resistance from members. One argument was that if the Party offered a crèche service during the national conference, legally they had to get someone with a NZQA qualification to run the service. (Ironic, considering that when debating issues regarding VUWSA I and others were accused of hiding behind “bourgeois legality”). However when it suited them such as on the childcare debate, using “bourgeois legality” was apparently fine.
So as a result of this my level of activeness within the WP was often limited, and as such I was repetitively accused of not being active within the branch, such as participating in street sales of the Party’s monthly paper and the like.
My contact with Party members outside of the Wellington branch was also often very limited. Whilst others in the Party often contacted each other off the internal e-list to discuss given issues of the day, I was often kept out of these discussions.
The exceptions to this were when certain individuals within the WP hierarchy propositioned me for sex, or felt it appropriate to claim me as their private property. This behaviour began from about the time I joined the Party.
A particularly bad case involved an Auckland WP member and Unite Union activist. This specific member had made unreceptive advances to me off and on for a number of years. Mid last year he completely barraged me with text messages and phone calls at all hours of the night, demanding sex and revealing very upsetting and highly emotive details about his own personal life. This continued for quite some time, despite the fact that I alerted the Party’s leadership to the problem. After a few months of this carry on, I received a spate of drunken phone calls from him, which consisted of him yelling at me, “You’re not my comrade, not anymore”. When I asked why this was, he replied “You’re not my comrade because you’re fucking my mate” (in reference to the fact that I’d started going out with another Party member, Nick Kelly.)
This particular member had developed a drinking problem largely due to the stress and long hours created by his employment at Unite. Some in the Party did recognize there was a problem and tried to talk to him about this. I approached Party Secretary Daphna Whitmore about the issue at the Party internal retreat this past January. Daphna was initially rather excited to discuss it with me, exclaiming that it was an interesting source of gossip. When I suggested that the Party national leadership needed to step in and do something to prevent this from happening again, she became less interested in the conversation and moved on to talk to someone else.
Despite this unacceptable behaviour, the Party did begin to become slightly more serious around late 2008. The WP was involved with the Tramways Union lockout in Wellington, after Nick Kelly was elected the Union’s branch President. The Party also got the necessary 500 sign ups to register on the party list for the general election, and the Party saw its 3rd member in 4 years elected VUWSA President.
However things weren’t all plain sailing.
The Wellington branch had to hold 5 special branch meetings between May 2008 and January 2009 based on Joel Cosgrove (WP member and 2008 VUWSA President) either a) not doing work he’d promised to do for the general election campaign or b) disgracing himself or the WP through actions he’d undertaken at VUWSA in his capacity as President of the Association.
Nationally various disagreements and tensions took place throughout the year, with most members holding back until the end of the general election campaign with the hope things would be sorted out after that. While some of these issues were satisfactorily resolved, others were ‘fixed’ by certain members resigning, including the Party’s then- National Organiser. A great many remain unresolved, or unclear.
The most significant of these unresolved issues was (and still is) the WP’s relationship to campus and student politics.
The WP has had members on the student Executive at Victoria University since 2002. I was the third member of the WP to be elected VUWSA President, the first being Nick Kelly in 2006, followed by Joel Cosgrove in 2008.
WP members have been involved in a number of campaigns on campus including opposition to the US led invasion of Iraq, opposing student fee increases, campaigning for student allowances, supporting the Civil Unions Bill and demanding full equality, opposing work hour limits for international students, and various other progressive campaigns serving the interests of students both as students and as citizens.
It is important that VUWSA, as with any other functioning organisation, has adequate strategic and operational procedures in place in order to ensure that the Association can best serve its members. Whilst never as sexy as organising protests or gigs, ensuring the nuts and bolts of the organisation are working properly is an important political question. Organisations such as trade unions and students’ associations can play an important role. But their effectiveness is severely hampered if internal weaknesses are left to fester and spread.
In 2008 Joel Cosgrove and VUWSA Campaigns Officer Sonny Thomas authored a “Consultation document for a revised structure of VUWSA business”, AKA their now infamous (at least within student politics circles) ‘Change Proposal’ report. Joel has admitted that this document was lifted from one written by Victoria University management who were restructuring and laying off a number of staff at the College of Education. According to Joel, the Change Proposal’s aim was "minimising financial risk" and "maximising efficiencies”. In practice this meant the contracting out of VUWSA’s clubs and activities to the University, and laying off at least 3 core VUWSA staff members – though other redundancies were also planned.
The response from the WP was total opposition to what was being planned. The Christchurch and Wellington branches passed a resolution that “Joel should publicly oppose the 'change proposal' and that not doing so would constitute bringing the party into disrepute in the eyes of the working class”. This was never adhered to by Joel, who became particularly irate when this and other resolutions regarding the Change Proposal were made public. One of our ‘special branch meetings’ was called to discuss this issue. At this branch meeting I tabled the idea of me standing for VUWSA President on a platform of opposing the Change Proposal. This was agreed to unanimously by the branch. Joel said nothing at the meeting, but afterwards expressed concerns that this may harm his chances of becoming the Editor of Salient, which he had applied for.
Joel did begin to distance himself from the original Change Proposal. This was particularly so after Sonny allegedly physically attacked Joel in his office, after Sonny discovered I was standing against him for President.
The campaign was one of the roughest VUWSA has seen. While a number of presidential candidates stood in the election, it soon became evident to most that it was a head to head race between me and Sonny. I was under constant attack from Sonny and his supporters. More than once Sonny yelled abuse about me in front of lectures full of students in my presence. I had all sorts of personal slurs made against me about everything from my personal life, to my conduct at work.
As mentioned above, the Wellington branch unanimously voted to support me standing for VUWSA President. I also sent a memo outlining my proposal to stand to the internal national WP e-mail loop. Nobody outside Wellington said anything.
On the day before polling started, after a hard and at times grueling fight against VicLabour in the VUWSA elections, some members of the Christchurch branch raised concerns about the campaign. Whilst enjoying a latte at some coffee shop, Christchurch members came to the conclusion that my platform wasn’t “revolutionary enough”. The platform I stood on was described as “sub-SW” (SW is Socialist Worker, a rival Socialist organisation the WP derides for moving too far to the right). I was informed that “There wasn’t anything in our platform [that of myself and the two other WP members I stood with, Marika Pratley and Sam Oldham] that SW, Labour, Greens, even liberal Nats and Act types, could not have said.”
These were pretty demoralizing words. Clearly, in the eyes of at least some of the WP leadership, I was no better than my opposition. Despite the fact that I had clearly stated my platform to the WP, nobody said anything until deciding to turn around and bag me the day before polling started. This is despite the fact that my campaign explicitly encouraged student control of student affairs, and blatantly opposed the proposed redundancies and contracting out of core VUWSA services recommended in the Change Proposal – a left campaign that I very much doubt any National or Act type would run.
I stood for VUWSA President because I felt (and still feel) that the Change Proposal was steering VUWSA in a dangerous direction. While I acknowledged at the time that VUWSA required major changes in order to best serve its members, implementation of the contained recommendations was not the optimum way of going about it.
At best I expected a close victory. Instead I won fairly comfortably, and better still the election generated one of the highest voter turn outs ever in a VUWSA election. While VUWSA does not collect statistics on why students do and don’t vote, I suspect that this was in large part due to student clubs coming out to defend their interests, and perhaps in result of students wishing to defend the principle of the students’ association running as a collective by its members for its members.
Transition and Inheritance
I anticipated that having one WP member handing over to another would result in a relatively smooth transition. Failing this I at least expected an adequate one. From the beginning of October to the end of December 2008 I worked full time (the first two months without pay) at VUWSA as the incoming President. The theory is that this time provides an opportunity for the outgoing President to train the incoming President in everything from operational matters to high level business.
From basics like working the fax machine through to arranging various meetings with the University, I soon found I either had to organise it myself or work out what was going on by asking others. Joel was no help at all.
Joel would often come into the office late, leave early and spend much of his time watching YouTube videos. Despite the VUWSA President being a full-time job, Joel habitually turned up about 10am and left again around 2pm. He spent most of his time in his office sleeping with his door locked. He would often tell me how he just wanted everyone (i.e. VUWSA staff, Executive members, students, etc) to leave him alone and stop “bugging” him.
Before long it became very clear to me that I was out on my own. Joel clearly couldn’t cope with the role (a fact he confessed frequently to me). It was blatantly obvious that he was totally out of his depth. The most basic task, such as filing, was too much for him to handle.
At every meeting I’d have as the incoming President I had to apologize for the mistakes of my predecessor/s, request all the relevant paperwork for the last two years (as my predecessors opted against filing), and reinforce my intention to work to turn VUWSA around during 2009. Usually it was only after doing this that people would consider taking me seriously.
The Change Proposal didn’t help matters. Instead of closing the thing down as the student body had voted to do by electing me, Joel and the 2008 Executive instead opted to continue the process of submissions on the report and suggest changes to it. I was encouraged to participate as a non-voting voting advisor to the Change Proposal Committee. At the time I reluctantly accepted in the hope I could turn the report into something more appropriate. In hindsight participation with the Committee was futile. The Committee had no choice given the VUWSA election result but to scrap the old recommendations regarding clubs and activities at VUWSA. Instead it went about making other recommendations which were generally little better. One such recommendation was to appoint an unelected General Secretary-type role who would, effectively, usurp power from the Executive and ultimately the student body. This role was to be charged with doing everything from setting policies to making all public statements. The Committee also raised the idea of making certain positions redundant. I was alone in opposing these suggestions. Worse, I found that anything I raised would almost automatically be opposed by Joel, who wanted a General Manager/Secretary staffer who did everything that he hadn’t been competent at in 2008 – so basically everything.
Eventually in December 2008 I resigned from the Committee, as the recommendations it was making were not ones I could put my name to.
During the course of 2009 I have managed to turn around some of the worst aspects of the original report. I created a new Association Manager position, and am currently in the process of filling this role. Amongst other tasks, the Manager will address high level administrative tasks and day-to-day employment matters, ensuring that there is consistency each year and that the mistakes of particularly the last two years can be avoided.
When I finally took over the office in January 2009 it was resoundingly clear that both Geoff Hayward (2007 VUWSA President) and Joel had done little in respect to just about every aspect of their jobs.
There was a mountain of outstanding admin, grievances and complicated issues left from the 2007-2008 period. When I checked the President’s landline and cellular messages I discovered that Joel hadn’t even bothered to check them since September 2008. I spent a depressing evening listening to literally hundreds of messages, a number of which were fairly urgent, including one from a highly distressed student that had been referred to VUWSA by a counselor.
Next was dealing with my predecessors’ blatant abuse of student money.
In late 2007 outgoing President Geoff Hayward made the decision to spend roughly $22,000 on ‘pimping’ VUWSA’s shoddy 1994 Toyota van.
This expenditure had not been approved by the Executive and for the amount spent on this embarrassing makeover VUWSA could have purchased 3 equivalent vehicles. The 2008 Executive put together a report on the van debacle outlining a number of different options, which unfortunately included the suggestion of “don’t tell anybody and hope it doesn’t come out”.
Unfortunately Joel picked up where Geoff left off. In March 2008 Joel was authorized by the Executive to go to Melbourne in order to research the voluntary membership situation and implications that a comparable situation could have for VUWSA (Australian students’ associations became voluntary after Howard pushed through law reform before losing office).
By the end of 2008 Joel had still not submitted a report. Members of the 2008 and 2009 Executive’s were demanding it be produced, as were a growing number of students. At the final meeting of the 2008 Executive, held shortly before Christmas, Joel promised that he would submit his report to the first meeting of the 2009 Executive.
The meeting was held on 8 January 2009. Despite numerous reminders, Joel failed to produce the report to the meeting. I thus put forward a series of motions demanding that Joel repay the cost of his Australia trip. These monies include airfares, a daily living allowance, and the salary that he received instead of taking annual leave (as he claimed he was doing work). The motions passed unanimously, and I informed Joel of them in writing shortly after.
A week or so later Joel submitted a report about voluntary membership in Australian universities. The report contained no reference to Joel’s visit to Melbourne, people he had meet with, campuses he had visited etc. In fact, much of the report was concerned with locations in Australia Joel has never visited in his life. Worse, a quick Google search found that most of the report had been very obviously plagiarized from reports written by Australian student unions. The report was rejected. I also wrote to Joel saying that he needed to repay further outstanding money - a week’s salary advance he’d taken just before finishing his term as President.
Joel’s initial response to this was to resign from the WP due to me being “intimidating and confrontational” according to an email Joel sent to me and to members of the WP in January. As a result of this yet another ‘special branch meeting’ was called regarding Joel. This lasted nearly 3 hours and was very heated. Joel claimed that under the Wages Protection Act he was entitled to the pay he received whilst in Melbourne, despite the fact that he hadn’t completed the work he promised the student body he would. Joel also managed to successfully get a number of new members to support him, mostly people he’d signed up and influenced through hanging out with them socially. At the conclusion of this meeting it was clear that the issue was not going to be resolved in such a forum. Don Franks, who was chairing, declared the meeting closed. Joel ran out of the meeting. Myself, Don and Nick Kelly also left the meeting.
The next day I discovered that after we left the meeting, the remaining branch members decided to reconvene. Joel was phoned up and called back and his supporters passed resolutions saying they’d get legal advice on whether Joel had to pay back the money, and if whatever lawyer they called said he didn’t then the WP would defend Joel against VUWSA!!
The legal defense argument is not convincing in the slightest. Likewise, morally there is no argument for Joel being paid student money to go to Australia to do a given task, not complete the task, but keep the members money.
Eventually the Steering Group of the WP - the central committee of the organisation - met and discussed the situation. The conclusion of this committee was as follows:
SG members recognised that Joel admitted at the meeting that his failure to present the required full report to VUWSA had brought about the situation and felt that Joel should be censured for this. At the same time, we are not recommending his removal from the education officer position.
The SG concluded that the responsibility for putting things right lies with Joel. He needs to resolve the matter with VUWSA – and various options are available and were discussed. If he doesn’t do the right thing it is his reputation that will suffer.
…Therefore, the responsibility for putting things right with VUWSA lies with Joel. He needs to resolve the matter quickly, so that we can all move on.
To date Joel has made no repayments.
It was suggested that because of Joel’s conduct at VUWSA and in the Party throughout 2008, that he not hold positions of responsibility within the WP. However this fairly sensible proposition was rejected by the WP leadership. Sadly Joel took this slap across the wrist like water off a ducks back. Given the serious damage Joel had done to the reputation of both VUWSA and the WP this was not good enough. Given what the WP Steering Group were to say and do to me only a few weeks later makes the soft approach taken to Joel all the more unjust.
Fallout with the Workers’ Party
For a number of years now Wellington’s Unite Union has been fairly stagnant. As already mentioned I was part of a Burger King organising campaign back in 2004 which fell over due to a lack of commitment and professionalism by the Union. For a number of years now Unite Wellington has opted to focus on soft sites, such as the SPCA and VUWSA.
Staff at VUWSA are fairly well paid, with many staff receiving at least double that of the President’s salary. This is despite VUWSA hardly being a wealthy students’ association (in fact VUWSA has run at a deficit in 5 out of the last 8 financial years, some of them quite hefty). VUWSA Presidents are almost always either Labour or left thereof. No VUWSA President and few Executive members want their year in office marred by a big fight with the staff.
The annual VUWSA staff collective negotiations are a case in point. What usually happens is that Unite goes in to negotiate the collective, the Executive quickly cave in – and the rest of the year Unite gets involved in the petty office politics at VUWSA instead of doing the real work of organising fast food workers.
Days into taking over the VUWSA presidency, it became extremely evident that basic office procedures were either dreadful, or completely non existent. It has been common practice for staff to not turn up to work days on end without any notification, then return and apply for annual leave. The concept of office hours was apparently completely foreign. Trying to get basic operating norms in place was greeted with hostility and threats of industrial action.
In early 2009 Wellington’s Unite organiser left, and was replaced by two new organisers: one being WP member Don Franks, the other an anarchist called Matt Jones.
In late 2008 negotiations for the staff collective fell over. I have spent a considerable amount of 2009 trying to get this collective agreement settled. As the negotiations are still outstanding it’s not appropriate to go into detail – needless to say it has not been easy.
The WP has tried to argue that I needed to consult with the Party and the Wellington branch before putting forward claims in collective negotiations. While it would be completely inappropriate for any VUWSA President to do such a thing in conjunction with their political party, such actions would be absolutely unprofessional in light of Unite’s relationship with the WP.
The fact of the matter is that the majority of the WP’s Auckland branch are Unite organisers. As stated above, Don Franks is also an organiser in Wellington; a number of other WP members are Unite volunteers. Just under half of the national Steering Committee are on the Unite pay role or have close involvement with Unite. Anyone else noticed a conflict of interest?
One example from these negotiations which the WP have decided to make public is the clause in the current VUWSA staff collective giving Unite members at VUWSA the unrestricted right to strike. This was granted by one of my predecessors as it is VUWSA policy to oppose restrictions on industrial action that exist under the Employment Relations Act.
On seeking legal advice regarding various issues surrounding the VUWSA collective I was advised that this clause has no standing as it was not possible to contract out of the ERA. I have subsequently received legal advice from various other union lawyers who also agree that this clause has no standing. The risk of course is that VUWSA staff could take industrial action believing they had some legal protection under their collective agreement, which in fact would have no standing in court. When this was discussed at a WP Steering Group meeting, Party Secretary and Unite Organiser Daphna Whitmore stated “Mike Treen believes that the clause is fine”. Full stop.
Mike Treen (Unite’s National Director Organising) and Matt McCarten (Unite’s National Secretary) were of course high up in the Alliance during the late 1990s and up until 2002 when the party imploded. These days these social democrats seem to have become unofficial leaders of the supposedly revolutionary socialist WP.
My letter of expulsion, authored by Wellington branch Secretary Marika Pratley, claims:
Your public role as VUWSA president … constituted expressing a political view in direct opposition to the aims of the party set out in section (1) of the Workers Party constitution. This is grounds for expulsion under section (4)(i)(a).
(1)(iii). For the unrestricted right of workers to organise and take industrial action and no limits on workers’ freedom of speech and activity was breached through the following actions:
In the VUWSA Staff Collective Agreement you made amendments which are not in line with (1)(iii). Emphasis was placed on anti strike laws in accordance with the ERA in this Collective Agreement. The emphasis of the ERA in the VUWSA Staff Collective Agreement clearly shows that you have put limits on the right to strike and these workers' freedom of political activity. The ERA clearly restricts the rights of workers to strike action. You have also limited the action of workers by making them give 14 days notice to the employer for Union meetings, and other limitations for workers if they wish to take part in Industrial Action at VUWSA. The Workers Party, both at Branch and National level made it clear through motions that were passed at every branch (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch) and recommendations from the Steering Committee that they strongly oppose the decisions made to include the reference to the ERA in the Collective Agreement. You refused to accept the guidance from the Steering Committee or the Branches to take this out of the agreement.
Aside from the obvious political interference that the WP seem to favour, it’s pretty obvious that these kids don’t actually understand how negotiations work. I haven’t made amendments, I put forward a claim at negotiations – interestingly enough a claim that Matt Jones of Unite and VUWSA’s site delegate agreed with. The claim wasn’t put forward as a political opinion. The claim was about telling the staff at VUWSA the truth, i.e. they legally they don’t have the unrestricted right to strike. If the WP think it’s more appropriate to lie to workers, then this says more about them than it does about me.
Marika was of course one of the 3 other WP members elected to the 2009 VUWSA Executive. After 3 months of doing little to no work, she resigned. Meanwhile I had to do the bulk of her job, as well as being the VUWSA President and covering various vacant staff positions. The other two WP members, Sam Oldham (Campaigns Officer) and Kassie Hartendorp (Women’s Rights Officer), remain on the Executive.
Kassie has an interesting role to play in my departure from the WP. On 1 May 2009 I received an e-mail from Daphna Whitmore entitled “Suspension from WP”. This e-mail read:
I want to draw your attention to the motion to suspend you from the WP for your action against Kassie. It was passed at the Wellington branch meeting tonight. The motion is also supported by myself and Phil in our roles as national secretary and national organiser.
Of course you have the right to respond to the suspension. My own view is that your politics and the politics of the WP are quite far apart.
By way of background: I caught Joel Cosgrove and Kassie Hartendorp running a copy of the draft staff collective through the VUWSA photocopy machine on Sunday 26 April. When I questioned them as to what they thought they were doing photocopying a document that they had no right of access to in the first place, they said it was none of my business. Joel then grabbed the documents and ran off. When I questioned Kassie as to what photocopy code she was using, she said she was using the women’s rights budget code (but that apparently she would pay it back).
Perhaps predictably, my expulsion letter continued,
You also would not willingly share the VUWSA Collective Agreement with anyone from the Branch or at a National Level. When Joel was scanning the document, you laid a formal complaint through VUWSA against Kassie Hartendorp (another comrade at VUWSA) for allowing this to happen. Not only do factual errors exist in this complaint, but your response shows clearly that you did not want or intend for the Workers Party to see the Collective Agreement, or give any advice on what was appropriate for the Collective Agreement. The Wellington Branch had made the decision to suspend you after Kassie received this complaint.
It is longstanding practice that the VUWSA staff collective and any drafts are not made public. The reason for this is that the document clearly stipulates what the salaries are of each staff member. It has been the staff who asked that this document not be placed in the public arena for this very reason. So you can imagine my shock to find Kassie photocopying copies of the draft staff collective and handing them to Joel. It is accurate that I have issued a formal complaint against Kassie for this, and for this I make no apologies.
Joel, who himself was unable to settle the negotiations during his presidency, has continued to try and involve himself in staffing issues at VUWSA.
Nowadays Joel busies himself interviewing VUWSA staff members in a pathetic attempt to compile dirt to pass on to WP members and Unite.
The WP has accused me on their internal list of “acting like an employer”. Actually I am the employer of the VUWSA staff, as were the previous WP members who served a term as VUWSA President.
It seems the real problem is that I don’t simply bow down to the WP leadership and make decisions on the basis of whatever they want.
Instead I make decisions on the basis of what I believe to be best for the organisation which I head.
The Anzac Day fiasco has been cited as yet another reason for my expulsion. Like many other years in VUWSA’s history, VUWSA chose not to lay a wreath at Anzac Day commemorations in 2009.
In past years, whether or not VUWSA laid a wreath or had any sort of presence at Anzac Day was up to the Executive of the day: some years VUWSA has laid a wreath in support of Anzac Day, some years no wreath has been laid, and other years VUWSA has laid wreaths linking Anzac Day to imperialism and the like.
It was the decision of the 2009 Executive that it is important to get clear direction on occasions such as Anzac Day, rather than it being down to the personality politics of given Executive members every year. The Executive thus decided to maintain a neutral stance until we had clear policy on the topic.
Somehow a few media commentators got it into their heads that I was going to burn a flag on Anzac Day. This was somewhat ironic, considering that at the Executive meeting where we discussed the topic I clearly stipulated to Executive members that I did not want them burning flags on Anzac Day (as a group of anarchists had in 2007) as doing so would be most inappropriate. Thus, like many a good rumour, its factual basis was non existent. Whilst receiving numerous hate letters, one or two death threats and copping a lot of abuse on the blogs – particularly from the right, the WP’s Don Franks was busy denouncing the position taken by myself and VUWSA as “agnostic”. In response to the VUWSA Executive’s decision to take the Anzac Day issue to a Student Representative Council (SRC) meeting in order to seek a mandate from students, Don had the following to say:
Is the Workers Party upholding democracy at the university?I don't think so. This is a sickening capitulation to the right. It buys completely into the reactionary notion that ANZAC day is a no go area for leftwing politics. The Workers Party's forbears courageously led the way in combating NZ nationalism. With the latest events we have become shamefully compromised.
Further to this I had, according to the WP, the audacity to invite a representative of the RSA to the SRC meeting. This is despite the fact that VUWSA has a history of inviting speakers from across the spectrum to its meetings, not necessarily endorsing what they say, but hoping to encourage debate and critical thinking amongst the student membership. As it happened the RSA’s Chief Executive fully endorsed the motions that I had intended to put forward at the SRC – which without waiting to find out what the motions actually were was seen as positive proof that I’d sold out to the right and betrayed the WP and its politics.
These proposed motions (which I provided to Salient, the Dominion Post, and a number of other media outlets at the time) were as follows:
1. That VUWSA support the right of individuals and groups of students who wish to express themselves on Anzac Day by laying wreaths, including those with messages. However the VUWSA Executive will not lay wreaths on behalf of the student body unless directed to do so by its members at a Student Representative Council or General Meeting of the students’ association.
2. That VUWSA coordinate a forum with the VUW History Programme and other relevant VUW programmes in order to discuss and explore the history of Anzac Day, and how the social meaning of this day has changed over time. This forum should include a wide variety of views and perspectives with the aim of informed discussion around this significant day.
The WP has since issued statements that Anzac Day is being increasingly used as a day to glorify imperialism and militarism. The hope of the latter above motion was that such a forum would provide an opportunity to explore, discuss and debate such issues with the aim of consciousness raising concerning the Day. But apparently promoting democracy within VUWSA and informed debate about Anzac Day made the WP “shamefully compromised”.
Interestingly of course the WP’s Wellington branch did not organise a protest or any other action on Anzac Day. For all Don’s bleating about VUWSA being agnostic, so too was he and the WP.
However Don already had a bone to pick with me.
Don was (and still is) very angry that I hadn’t bowed down to Unite’s demands concerning various other matters. Don had been hoping to debate Labour Party President and EPMU General Secretary Andrew Little during VUWSA’s recent Students as Workers Week on the topic on supporting open borders and opposition to calls for ‘Kiwi jobs first’.
This debate never took place, the reason being that while Andrew was on campus during that week, it was to participate in a panel discussion primarily organised by VicLabour and the Greens on Campus. Despite attempting to reason with Don, he became increasingly obsessed with debating Andrew. Not only was he very rude to me for not magically fulfilling his wish, but he also displayed highly offensive behaviour to one of VUWSA’s Vice-Presidents, who he also blamed for this perceived failure.
In an attempt to calm Don down, I invited Andrew to debate Don on the same topic at an SRC, but this offer was declined by Andrew. According to Don I have undermined any possibility of such a debate, and thus it became another ground for my expulsion.
Anyway, Joel and various WP members turned up to VUWSA’s SRC on 6 May, where Joel proceeded to read out a brief statement on behalf of the WP on the subject of Anzac Day. Not long after, Joel and other WP members set fire to the New Zealand flag.
Joel’s flag burning stunt has been hailed by the WP as an action of martyrdom.
Meanwhile, the WP attack me for a public statement I made outlining that the flag burning incident was nothing to do with VUWSA. I personally had no knowledge that such an act was going to take place, and to the best of my knowledge nor did anyone outside of the WP. This then, is a clear statement of fact.
Next the WP decided to launch criticism against me for saying that it wasn’t appropriate to burn the flag. I personally agree that the freedom to express political opinion is important, and the only statement I have ever made related to flag burning was to caution my Executive members against doing so on Anzac Day. Was this inconsistent with WP politics?
Indeed, it appears not. On Anzac Day 2007 when two Wellington anarchists decided to burn a flag at the dawn ceremony, this is what National Organiser Phil Ferguson had to say on the matter:
Actually, when I saw on the news that someone had burnt a NZ flag at the Wellington ANZAC Day event, I kind of groaned. I don’t think it was a smart move. Our flag burning had a point. It was at the start of another imperialist war and then we burnt it again to make a political point about freedom of expression. However, I think the left needs to be rather more tactically suss about events like Anzac Day. Thousands of ordinary working class soldiers died in an imperialist slaughter not of their making. Sure, the people who go to Anzac Day are politically backward and the whole affair is fairly gross. But there are tens of thousands of ordinary people at these events and we are actually wanting to appeal to many of them – not piss them off which is what the stunt yesterday no doubt did. I think the way our Wellington comrades approached the event the other year when some members took part in the march and laid an anti-imperialist wreath and Heelnyi [Heleyni Pratley] laying the wreath yesterday is much smarter than the anarchist performance yesterday.
The “[o]ur flag burning” referred to when Paul Hopkinson burnt the flag at a protest outside a state luncheon hosting then Australian Prime Minister John Howard in 2003, when his government was sending troops to Iraq.
Further, it appears that Don Franks stance on Anzac Day is similarly inconsistent. This was what Don had to say on the matter in 2007:
I was asked by Val [Valerie Morse] to go to this thing a couple of days before.Val asked me to go and play the trumpet at the counter RSA meeting.I felt very torn about it and if I'd not been really crook on branch meetingnight I would have liked to have discussed it there, with WP comrades.I would have liked to have been part of a counter to all the militaristicshit that is so heavily pumped into ANZAC day. The day is getting closer tofever pitch every year and I can't help but feel there is going to be a biground up of NZ youth to fight capitalism's wars sometime soon. Why else allthe garish high decibel blimp stuff?On the other hand I don't trust the remnants of PAW [Peace Action Wellington]. The opportunity wasthere for me to go to the planning meeting at the anarchist headquarters.But I know they are not democratic, so there was no fair chance to put anyideas up, no more than there would have been at a CTU meeting.I realise that there is no pristine protest movement and that you have tounite with all sorts of people in fight backs. I also realise that there isa genuine residue of anti corporate sincerity in PAW underneath theindividual indulgent stuff. But I have a horror of standing at a demo withmoralists in black masks, whose image is designed to automatically repel anyparticipation from passers by , or even from fairly committed anti warliberals or workers.I also think that blowing Last Post trumpet stuff in opposition to thecurrent huge wave of pro militaristic sentimentality is a fine way to losethe propaganda war.PAW seems to me the politics of impatience. There is no anti war movement atthe moment and it cannot be substituted for by one off confrontationsunsupported by on going action.In the end I decided against uniting with PAW, slept in and spent theafternoon taking a neighbours kid out to play cricket.I think it would be very good if the WP reviewed the anti war movement andwhat can best be done in the circumstances, also if we planned some ANZACday counter for next year several months out.
The position I took as VUWSA President in 2009 was completely consistent with what Phil and Don were arguing 2 years earlier. Likewise the action Joel took at the SRC was not. However Phil’s position on Joel’s action was that he and his mates had “saved the honour of the WP.” This is the same Joel Cosgrove who only late last year was arguing for multiple redundancies, who ignored a student referred to him by the University Counselling Service, who wore an “I [Heart] My Penis” t-shirt to graduation, and who used student money to have a holiday in Melbourne. Apparently he erased all of this by burning a piece of cloth.
By contrast what I have done is apparently so terribly heinous that I had to be kicked out of the Party.
In my letter of expulsion Marika Pratley and the WP have called for my resignation as VUWSA President. As far as I’m concerned I have been totally consistent with my election promises, and also with the principles I believed that the WP held. I will not be resigning as the VUWSA President. Instead I intend to continue to carry out the platform I was elected on and do my best to serve students in 2009. I also intend to appeal this expulsion from the WP.
14 May 2009