Hoping to gain an insight into the workings of student politics, I worked as a polling booth attendant and vote counter during the recent SRC elections. I left with a lingering feeling of frustration with the whole affair that I couldn’t seem to shake.
Reasons for voting were by and large, shallow and arbitrary. The campaign harassment that takes place five metres away from the booths is admittedly amusing, but absurd. In the farcical ‘Battle of Jane Foss Russell’, people vote not because they support a ticket’s values and ideas, but as a result of intimidation and harassment. A person’s “free choice” does not apply when that choice is made in an environment of coercion. At one point I watched a girl clearly rushing to a class ambushed by three different hacks, shoving fliers onto her folders. Influencing people to vote in this way undermines the concept of a democracy. Election results should not depend on how many campaigners you have working that day, how many t-shirts you have, or what flyer is in the voter’s hand as they make their decision. Perhaps banning campaigning 24 hours prior might allow people to make something like a rational and informed decision?
An alarming number of students seemed to think voting was compulsory – many being international students. This misconception was also evidenced by the number of donkey votes we received (we counted about five phallus drawings on ballot papers. We appreciated your efforts!). To the question “would you like to vote?” I received the (completely serious) response “Is it free?” Students need to be informed (not by campaigners) about the process and what effect their decisions have. The idea that an election is meant to reflect the undergrad student cohort is something that I can’t quite take seriously.
Frustratingly, we shuffled though many invalid votes that weren’t able to be counted properly for trivial mistakes; mostly putting ticks or crosses rather than numbers or filling out the group and individual ticket space. It was clear that a lot of people don’t know how optional preferential voting works. This needs to be explained clearly so that people are able to make a considered vote – David Pink won on preferences after all.
In all, there were just under 5,000 voting ballots issued from an undergraduate student cohort of roughly 33,000 meaning around 15 per cent of eligible students vote; a number I’ve been told is quite typical and unsurprising, but I think it reflects poorly on engagement with the wider university community.
The federal opposition’s new higher education policy threatens to completely deregulate tertiary fees as well as privatise HECS. Accessibility to education clearly isn’t one of Tony Abbott’s priorities. It is especially important to have a say on matters that will affect the quality of your education. Education cuts are happening in universities all around Australia and electing a fighting SRC that can mobilise students to win higher government funding is something everyone can contribute to.
The NUS ballot selects delegates to form the peak representative body for Australian university students. This organisation represents students’ interests on issues like income support, funding, housing and safety and security. The current campaign undertaken by the NUS, “Fair Fares”, lobbies the government to legislate for concession travel fares for international students and part-time students. If you want to see change like this around campus, support what you believe in and vote.
Bam! Adventures in democracy!