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“A political choice”

The vote to remove Vice-President Tom Raue may have been the most publicised decision that the USU Board has made in recent memory, but it was not the most important. This is not to trivialise the fight for transparency; it’s just to say that the choice of how to spend $22 million of student money…

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The vote to remove Vice-President Tom Raue may have been the most publicised decision that the USU Board has made in recent memory, but it was not the most important. This is not to trivialise the fight for transparency; it’s just to say that the choice of how to spend $22 million of student money is more significant.  And that it should be equally ideologically fraught.

The Commission of Audit – and the horrified response to it – should indicate how uncontroversial this is. It takes a uniquely blinkered Thatcherite to deny that ideology underpinned the Commission’s proposals.

(If you’re suffering under the delusion that this was non-partisan cost-cutting, observe that the Commission identified the rising costs of asylum seeker detention to be a problem. They noted that it costs $400,000 per annum to keep an asylum locked up offshore and $50,000 to put an asylum seeker on a bridging visa for a year. The Commission’s solution: reduce services for asylum seekers in offshore detention centres.)

Budgets are political.

Yet, how the USU uses its $22 million goes unquestioned, absent from the political debates on campus. The USU’s usual critics find it easier, understandably, to moralise on the principles that animate democracy than to grandstand about counting coins.

* * *

In 2011, three of the six Directors we elected to USU Board voted Liberal. Of the 11 Directors elected since, none do.

There have been some noticeable shifts in outlook: the current Board values transparency more than past Directors have, it would be unlikely to approve LifeChoice, it is more sensitive to identity politics. But the budget has faced very few significant changes.

When we elect Directors, we are electing a vision for the Union. The constitution bestows upon them the power to direct the USU in line with that vision. But when it comes to the most significant, vision-based decision – the allocation of the budget– the Board sign their names to a document written by unelected staff. It’s as if civil servants were to prepare the Federal budget.

That is what explains the startling similarities in Union budgets even while the Board undergoes a major ideological shift. It is, in part, our fault for a lack of scrutiny and a paucity of debate. But much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Directors who are content, with minor exceptions, to allow the staff of the Union to steer the organisation.

And so budgets are signed off without seriously questioning the worth of their allocations. Almost half the budget – just over $10 million – goes towards the wages of staff every year. Does the Union need a marketing team so large? Couldn’t the student executives of Clubs and Societies take on many of the duties of the people who fill the Events and Programs team?

Because they haven’t been budget hawks about unnecessary items, the USU is left unable to act on the more ambitious projects it could undertake. Subsidised student housing. Improved counselling services. Free ACCESS. Paying C&S leaders.

* * *

By the time you pick up this paper, the Board campaign will have begun. In the blur of slogans and logos and factions and preferences, don’t forget that this is an election to decide the people who ultimately will get to control $22 million of your money.

And don’t let anyone tell you that is not a political choice. In a finite budget, choices about spending are always so. Are you willing to reduce C&S funding to spend more on being environmentally sustainable? Would you accept BULL solely appearing in an online format if it meant the USU could employ a lawyer to take on students’ cases?

At the core of most of these item-by-item questions is a valued-based one: Should the budget aim for maximum benefit to the maximum number, or should it seek to assist those who need it most and commit to progressive projects?

A Director who wants to change the budget in any meaningful way needs an answer to that. And they need to be able to defend it with intelligence and force and self-assurance, because they will run into a wall of resistance from staff protecting their positions and their interests, and from fellow Directors too conservative or unambitious to consider that the organisation they have wedded their university life to is imperfect in any way.

These are questions that deserve serious and public debate by this year’s candidates. How they want to spend that $22 million is a question about what they consider the very purpose of the Union to be.

Disclaimer: Due to her role as the Immediate Past President of the USU, Astha Rajvanshi has no part in any coverage of the USU. Michael Rees and Georgia Kriz are conflicted off coverage of the USU election as they are campaigning for Liv Ronan.