Conservative Club controversy with rival Liberal factions continues

The controversy surrounding the creation of the Conservative Club at UNSW has continued, with new details emerging of an alleged failed attempt at club stacking, after members of the soft right Liberal-aligned Freedom Club failed to sign up as members at the Conservative Club’s Inaugural General Meeting (IGM) in order to obtain voting rights.

The inter-factional war has seen members of the soft right Liberals in the Freedom Club, and their Sydney University Liberal Club (SULC) counterparts, attempt to prevent the Conservative Club from forming on campus due to a perceived connection with the hard right, religious faction of the Liberal Party.

Anneliese Oldcastle, candidate for Vice-President of the Conservative Club, said the club “is not aligned to any political party”. The club constitution cites “encouraging, fostering and promoting the beliefs of Burkean Conservatism” among its aims.

UNSW Freedom Club President, Taylor Gramoski, had previously alleged to Tharunka that the organisers of the Conservative Club “exhibited blatant disregard for democratic processes” at the meeting, further claiming that the club “is being created as a blatant duplication of an existing Liberal club – the Freedom Club”.

Tharunka also understands that multiple complaints by Freedom Club members have been made to the Arc Student Development Committee (SDC) in an attempt to prevent the Conservative Club being affiliated by Arc.

This follows a similar attempt by the Freedom Club to prevent the formation of the now-affiliated, non-partisan Students for Liberty UNSW club in 2013, wherein Gramoski “strongly urged” the SDC to decline the club’s affiliation for reasons of potential duplication with the Freedom Club.

Vice-President of the Freedom Club, Natarsha Terreiro, previously told Tharunka that any claims to being apolitical by the Conservative Club are “laughable”, claiming that “the people proposing to create the Conservative Club are a fringe group of extreme far right Young Liberals”.

“Similar clubs have been created in other campuses, namely the University of Sydney, with the intention of stacking existing Liberal clubs, all assisted by the same far right Young Liberal operators,” Terreiro said.

Among these clubs is the Sydney University Conservative Club, which was implicated in a controversial attempt to take over the soft right-aligned SULC in 2011 by encouraging 60 international students to become financial members of SULC, with the intention of stacking the club’s 2011 AGM. The Sydney University Conservative Club is affiliated with the Australian Council of Conservative Students (ACCS), an organisation which the UNSW Conservative Club also passed a motion to affiliate with at its IGM.

Tharunka understands that Oldcastle and other organisers of the Conservative Club were approached by the ACCS executive to start a Conservative Club at UNSW.

Gemma Whiting, President of the ACCS and current Vice-President of the University of Western Australia Conservative Club, said, “The ACCS is a non-partisan body promoting conservative interests across Australia and representing these views on campus. It’s an ideological movement entirely removed from any party or factional politics.”

According to the Conservative Club membership list obtained by Tharunka, among its 14 members are four international students, while many other members are aligned with the hard right Liberal faction.

Audrey So, a final year international student who proxy voted at the IGM, told Tharunka her involvement in the Conservative Club is strictly non-partisan.

“When I heard the first meeting was disrupted by Liberal Party staffers and Young Liberals from other universities, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay involved. I have no interest in party politics, [and] as an international student I’m not even eligible to join a political party here,” she said.

James Foster, a member of the hard right Liberals in his first year at UNSW, said he was concerned by the behaviour of non-Conservative Club members at the meeting.

“What I saw at the IGM was a group of people who had not signed up for the club deliberately making a scene to attract security and staff,” Foster said. “I found this a little confronting, but also quite concerning that Young Liberals and the Freedom Club would sabotage a new club meeting simply because we were ideologically different.”

Oldcastle agreed. “The meeting was bombarded by multiple Liberal Party staffers and Young Liberals intent on disrupting a democratic meeting,” she said.

Tharunka has obtained an attendance list of the IGM showing that alongside Gramoski, Terreiro and several other members of the Freedom Club, two members of the left-aligned Liberalism Society were present, including club president Mrith Shanker.

Shanker told Tharunka that while the decision is ultimately Arc’s, she would not support the affiliation of the Conservative Club due to the connection of some members to the controversial failed AGMs of the UNSW Liberal Club in 2012.

“Taylor [Gramoski] did call me up earlier in the day to ask if I wanted to come along to the meeting, but I was just there as an observer,” Shanker said.

Gramoski is a staffer for Liberal MP in the seat of Robertson, Lucy Wicks, and currently a casual employee for Minister Pru Goward, as per the Parliamentary Database. In earlier correspondence with Tharunka regarding the Conservative Club, Gramoski asserted at times that he has never been an employee of Minister Goward, and later that he is a former staffer for Goward.

Goward faced similar controversy in 2011 when staffer and hard right-aligned SULC President, Adrian Pryke, was fired for his involvement in an attempted stacking of the SULC AGM.

Also in attendance at the Conservative Club IGM was Freedom Club member Sam Diamant, a staffer for factional leader of the NSW soft right Liberals, Mitchell MP Alex Hawke. Fellow Hawke staffer and Macquarie University student, Vincent So, was also present.

Tharunka understands that among the Sydney University members in attendance at the meeting was NSW Young Liberals’ Country Vice-President and perennial SULC President, Alex Dore. SULC members Josh Crawford, William Dawes, and Dean Shachar also attended.

In relation to the allegations of undemocratic processes made by non-members present, Oldcastle told Tharunka that membership of the Conservative Club was open to all students, but the Freedom Club members led by Gramoski simply failed to ask for membership forms.

“As per the club Constitution and the Arc Clubs and Societies Handbook, students must complete a membership form in order to be granted voting rights. This is not a privilege automatically conferred on attendees of the IGM,” Oldcastle said.

The membership clause in the Conservative Club constitution stipulates that “full membership of the club shall be open to all UNSW students… and they shall be required to complete a membership form”. All full members are granted voting rights. This clause is identical to the Arc model constitution supplied to clubs and societies, and consistent with the Arc Clubs Procedures guidelines.

Oldcastle said all attendees at the meeting had access to the constitution. “The Freedom Club and Sydney University Liberals arrived at the IGM around ten minutes before it opened.  They asked to see a copy of the Club Constitution, and were provided this without question.  Several attendees, including Sam Diamant, read the document.  Furthermore, the attendance sheet was placed clearly in the middle of the table.  It was passed around and signed by most people present.”

According to Conservative Club President, Sun-Yong Kim, the non-members present attempted to disrupt the meeting by shouting at the chair, Chris Rath.

“During a motion to accept the Constitution, Sam [Diamant] forgot to vote against the motion so began loudly shouting to try and shut down the meeting. He didn’t seem to realise that as a non-member, he wasn’t entitled to vote. Dean Shachar and Sam Diamant were yelling at the chair, who was trying to move onto the next agenda item,” Kim said.

Tharunka has obtained video footage of this juncture of the meeting, in which Shachar can be seen repeatedly saying, “It’s been shut down”, while Diamant shouts, “No one has been elected. Did we vote for anyone? What vote? What election? What election?” until being told to stop speaking by security.

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Henry Innis, former treasurer of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation and former Vice-President of SULC, who this week reached out to all NSW Young Liberals in an email advocating for democratic internal party reform, told Tharunka that destructive behaviour is currently endemic to university Liberal clubs.

“University clubs have a long history of being the factional recruiting grounds of the Liberal Party,” Innis said. “That’s the reality, and that’s why they’re so tightly contested. Our current system makes individuals have to go to extreme means to control the university campuses, which is a great shame for many of the fantastic people involved.”

The Conservative Club’s affiliation to Arc is due to be considered in March, and as yet it is unclear what the outcome of the application will be.

“Arc is currently aware of the situation and the SDC will examine the relevant affiliation documents as we do with all affiliation documents,” SDC Convenor, Andrew Shim, said.

Taylor Gramoski, Natarsha Terreiro, Sam Diamant, and Alex Dore did not respond to multiple requests for comment by Tharunka.

Ammy Singh