As SRC elections conclude and council positions for 2015 are being finalised, it pays to reflect on the campaign season.
My career as a ‘student politician’ began on the 8th of September and ended two and a half weeks later at 9:30 in the morning on the second day of polling, in the New Law bathrooms, having the world’s most unnecessary meltdown.
Student campaigner tactics are troublingly manipulative in ways that larger scale campaigns cannot be. Due to limited space and time, as well as a smaller constituency, it is generally accepted that tactics such as approaching people in cafes, making announcements in literally every lecture ever, and the ‘walk and talk’—particularly prevalent on polling days due to the importance placed on ‘walking voters over the line’—are the only way to engage otherwise largely disinterested students.
The problem is not whether or not these campaign tactics work—we know they ‘work’, and that a bulk of votes are gained in this way. The problem is that they shouldn’t work, and what quasi-political advantage is achieved through them is not worth the overall psychological impact on both voters and campaigners.
A selection of advice I was given whilst campaigning:
“Make sure you shake their hand at the beginning of the conversation, so they feel obliged to keep talking to you.” “Ask them about themself so they feel like you really care about them.” “Talk to international students, they won’t have any idea what’s going on.” “Don’t worry about how people react, most people just want someone to chat to while they walk into uni.”
Voters are not seen as people, but numbers—numbers whose reactions to being emotionally fucked with for two and a half weeks are unimportant when a  in a little black box is on the line. I should not need to say that acting in a way that makes someone feel guilty if they don’t want to do something is emotionally manipulative.
My reasons for not being okay with manipulative campaign tactics are due to my experience in an emotionally-abusive relationship. It’s the same reason I was concerned about the aggression I was told to expect during campaigning on the polling days. It’s the same reason I said I wasn’t going to do it.
“It’s okay if you’re shy, you just have to get more used to approaching people,” was the most common response to these repeat vocalisations of discomfort—this dismissal reached the point where it was simpler to just do what I was asked despite my concerns.
The way these campaigns are framed—this high stakes race wherein everything is worth it to “change student life forever”—makes dissent impossible. To argue against tactics used is to suggest that whatever left wing ideal at stake is not worth the trouble, and as such people tend to stay silent about their discomfort. This, too, is highly manipulative—as is the implication that, as ‘walk and talks’ are The Only Way to get votes, campaigners who don’t or can’t do them have little use.
I should not need to say that acting in a way that makes someone feel guilty if they don’t want to do something is emotionally manipulative.
This is in no way a faction-specific problem, nor is it exclusively a USyd problem. It points to an ideological standpoint that plagues student politics—that any group gain to be made is more important than individual comfort or safety. The generally accepted approach appears to be: “Fuck your integrity! This is politics!” Attempts to make campaigners feel safe—grievance officers, embryonic safe space policies—feel hollow when not underpinned by a serious discussion about the way campaigns are run, about the violence and aggression they inspire, and about the toxic emotional manipulation of voters brought on by the supposed urgency of student politics. Rather than say “people are going to scream insults in your face, but we’re ‘here for you’”, why not implement rules to stop people screaming?
An article such as this feels futile without a concrete model for future campaigns, but it is a conversation that absolutely must be had within universities and factions. Better use can be made of online campaigning, debates, and forums, to encourage students to participate in the conversation, as opposed to being a (frequently unwilling) listener to it. The answer to not enough students caring about the issues raised in student elections is not: “terrify them into walking over the line and ticking a box, and give them a token Leave Me Alone sticker”.