The Ghost Campaign

A group of student politicians, a national campaign, $200,000 of student money, and no record of where it all went. Tom Joyner reports.

Illustration by Aimy Nguyen

More than $200,000 from student organisations in Victoria has been handed over to a PR company to run a national campaign with no record of how it’s been spent and little to show for it, an Honi Soit investigation has found.

A former and current president of the National Union of Students among other student representatives solicited the funds from four Victorian student organisations under the pretext of starting a national campaign against the deregulation of university fees in 2014.

Labelled ‘Australia Needs a Brighter Future’ – or Brighter Futures – the campaign claimed to bring together “students, parents, university staff and the broader community to oppose unfair attacks on higher education”, according to its website.

But over the last two years, the campaign’s key organisers – all aligned with the National Labor Students faction – have routinely failed to deliver any reports back to students on how that money has been spent. The campaign itself has very little to show for itself beyond a handful of social media accounts and a website.

A rival councillor at the Monash Students Association in 2015 when it gave $50,000 to Brighter Futures, David Power, said the amount of money and rush in which the money was handed over was unprecedented. “We had very little time to go over [the proposal],” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been done at the MSA before. Nothing is ever conducted like that.”

“To be honest it felt like this was a campaign that was swooping in to take money away from student services and putting it up in the air for some nebulous campaign that wasn’t being run by students but by an advertising agency.”

Tax invoices seen by Honi suggest the donated funds were transferred directly into the bank account of a PR firm, Essential Media Communications, which has historically strong ties to the Australian Labor Party through several current and former key staff, as well as former major campaigns for the NDIS and against WorkChoices.

Funding for Brighter Futures came from four Victorian student associations between mid 2014 and 2015, whose presidents were all members of or aligned with the National Labor Students faction, a powerful student wing of the Labor Left. The Brighter Futures website lists those benefactors as the Graduate Student Association of Melbourne University, La Trobe University Student Union, Monash Student Association and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.

The National Union of Students is also listed but it is understood it did not make any financial contribution.

Since Brighter Futures’ inception, Essential Media Communications have been in control of the campaign’s funds. Other students within the contributing organisations described a feeling of being kept deliberately in the dark as their repeated requests for updates on the campaign were ignored or rebuffed for months.

“We never received any regular statement where the $50,000 was going or what the campaign had concretely done,” said Mr Power. “There was no transparency.”

When asked, 2014 Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations president Harry Rolf told Honi the $200,000 had all been paid “months ago” to Essential Media Communications for marketing services.

"We never received any regular statement where the $50,000 was going or what the campaign had concretely done," said Mr Power. “There was no transparency.”

“Essential Media Communications were originally engaged because they’re a media company, they were contracted to provide a range of services,” he said. “No more money has been set aside for the campaign.”

But the true purpose of Brighter Futures, as well as the role of Essential Media Communications in running it, has been murky from the beginning. There is no clear timeline for the campaign, no formal constitution or governance structure, and there was no tender process in contracting Essential Media Communications’ services in the first place.

From the outset, the campaign has defined itself by its online presence. “Digital engagement will be the backbone of the campaign,” one internal document reads. “The online component of campaigns which support on-ground activities from events to petitions to getting messages to politicians, which ultimately, instill public policy change.”

But since 2014, there has been not one example of any “on-ground” campaigning to engage students – the rallies, protests, mass actions or marches that would normally characterise a student-led national campaign have been absent from Brighter Futures.

While there is no publicly available information on Brighter Futures expenditure, Honi has seen a campaign prospectus that lists a $35,000 website , an ongoing monthly retainer of $17,000 and “research and strategy” costs of $53,000 as primary campaign costs. Another internal report seen by Honi – this time from Essential Media Communications dated 23rd March last year – suggests the campaign spent $500 per month since January that year on Facebook advertising alone.

Further questions have been raised about the way in which the money was raised. In an unprecedented step, an employee of Essential Media Communications, Carla Drakeford, who now works for the Victorian Premier’s office and who was president of the University of Melbourne Student Union in 2009 and National Union of Students in 2010, attended several of the student associations’ council meetings to lobby for contributions to Brighter Futures in 2014.

"[An Essential Media Communications representative] told us it was time for everyone to unite together and make it one big strong campaign. Later nothing was mentioned, nothing was spoken about it again," said Eshan Arya, who was postgraduate officer on the La Trobe Student Union council at the time a motion to contribute $20,000 was passed.

Ms Drakeford was even present at a meeting of her old student union council in late 2014 when she attempted to directly lobby for a $50,000 contribution from them, but the motion to hand over the money failed.

At the centre of the Brighter Futures campaign is the Graduate Students Association, a relatively unknown organisation representing postgraduates at the University of Melbourne. The GSA founded Brighter Futures two years ago, handing over $135,000 to the campaign over 2014 and 2015 – the largest total contribution of any student organisation.

Then president of the organisation, Jim Smith, said in an email the GSA was "satisfied with the commercial value of services performed by Essential Media Communications for [the Brighter Futures campaign], including creation and maintenance of a website and digital media platforms."

The GSA's general manager is former Labor candidate Simon Napthine, who lost against Environment Minister Greg Hunt in the 2004 federal election in the south-east Melbourne seat of Flinders and is the brother of former Liberal Victorian premier Denis Napthine.

Brighter Futures spokespeople also approached the university staff union, the NTEU, in late 2014 for funding and endorsement, but the bid was dismissed by national president Jeannie Rea.

Ms Rea, who has spent much of her career organising education campaigns with staff and students, described the campaign’s pitch as “absolutely outrageous”, lacking in substance, and demonstrative of an “appalling ignorance of the [higher education] sector”.

At the time of publication, the Brighter Futures website was still live, and it is understood key figures intend to maintain it right up until the 2016 federal election and beyond, although the details of the campaign remain murky.

A spokeswoman for Brighter Futures and former National Union of Students president, Rose Steele, current president Sinead Colee, as well as a spokeswoman for Essential Media Communications all did not reply Honi’s questions for this story.

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