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Alice in Cumberland

The unlikely story of how the Faculty of Health Sciences became the kingmakers of student politics. John Gooding reports.

For some stupid reason, the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences is not located at Camperdown campus. Rather, prospective practitioners of health science (who make up around ten per cent of the University’s student body) must instead transport themselves to Lidcombe to complete their studies at the Cumberland campus.

In terms of student politics, the campus is a perfect analogue to Western Sydney, in addition to actually being in Western Sydney. Every electoral season, campaigners and candidates make the trek out to convince the people of Cumberland they have their best interests at heart, before returning to Camperdown, often never to be seen or heard from again.

This year Switchroots blitzed the campus with the Indies/Grassroots #CumboRepresent ticket, which had specific branding and supported Grassroots candidate for SRC President, Kyol Blakeney. On the first day of voting, Blakeney outpolled Stand Up! candidate Amy Knox 188 to 27 at Cumberland, and 104 to 2 on the second. The ticket accrued so many votes and preferences on the SRC ballot that three people from #CumboRepresent were elected to SRC, more than any other ticket in the election.

“Campaigning at Cumbo was rather easy, I’ll admit,” said Fiona Lieu, a candidate with #CumboRepresent and SRC councilor-elect. “Cumbo is a small campus so everyone knows each other, or has a two-degree separation. You pull in a friend, and they’ll pull in theirs. You really notice how tight our campus is – it’s cute.”

“We heard that campaigning on main campus was quite aggressive and we wanted to avoid that at all costs … we wanted to promote an authentic group of students for Cumbo, from Cumbo. That’s what won us the votes.”

The outpost was not always an electoral bastion for the Indies; in 2011 and 2012 Labor ran a campus-specific ticket, ‘Stand Up! for Cumberland’. “[The Indies] didn’t pose any competition in 2011,” said Isabelle King, a Cumberland native who was a candidate at the top of the ticket both years. “They had more of a presence in 2012, but it didn’t really matter because Cumbo people are loyal.”

This year’s three Cumberland SRC councillors is a bit of a bonanza for the Indies, and points to a broader trend. If you run a Cumberland local against generic campaigners, past trends dictate you get at least one councillor and a bevy of presidential votes.

So how could Labor forget what they once reaped? According to Knox, it wasn’t a memory lapse but a matter of principle. “I don’t think that we have ever underestimated Cumberland as a campus,” said Knox. “Stand Up! believes in running candidates who are passionate about student issues, and do not run candidates for the sake of winning campaigns. It’s a shame we didn’t have a Cumberland student in Stand Up! this year who had this particular interest.”

Christians, Engineering students, college kids and the conservative “silent majority” have all been touted as massive untapped voter bases, just waiting for a student politician to ride their clamouring support to victory. To write these groups off completely would be unfair; some in these blocs do rock up and vote (just look at ‘Up the Colleges’ nabbing a councillor spot this year). But amid the hype, the good people of Cumberland stand alone as the guaranteed Real Deal.

However, students would be advised to get in quickly or forever hold their political aspirations, as electorate boundaries may soon be redrawn. The University is considering moving the faculty to the main campus, where Health Sciences students would be so sufficiently diffused among the local populace that campaigning directly to them would be fruitless. The proposal has not yet been finalised, but it’s looking likely that Cumberland will cease to be the political promised land of yore.