Student politics is the worst. Can we fix it?

Subeta Vimalarajah examines the reforms to electoral regulations needed for safer and more democratic elections.

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“My back was injured to the point that I could no longer feel my arm. One of those same male… campaigners shoved me into a window,” said a female campaigner in a public Facebook status on the final day of voting for this year’s SRC elections.

With a three-way Honi Soit election, a properly contested presidential ballot, Labor factions split across brands and a deal with the Liberals, this year’s SRC elections were ripe with abuse, bullying and intimidation.

An entire Honi ticket was banned from campaigning for a period on the second voting day after a screenshot of an anti-Semitic comment sent by one of their members was reported to the Electoral Officer. Screenshots from one campaign Facebook group seen by Honi show members calling for a rival campaigner to be sent to a gulag, and a member of an Honi ticket was banned from a particular booth after an opposing ticket member ran into the electoral officer’s office crying and shaking, alleging he had repeatedly targeted her.

“It is physically and psychologically traumatising and so many people have just normalised the behaviour as ‘that’s just USyd elections for you’,” unsuccessful presidential candidate Georgia Mantle said of this year’s election.

First years might put it down to 2016 being a particularly rabid year, but long-time hacks know this is the rule, not an exception. Every year the cycle repeats itself: campaigning begins with the bitter tension that ambition and moral righteousness produces, and ends with a free-for-all of name-calling, aggressive shoving and disillusioned voters. The behaviour is called out in Facebook statuses and in the pages of this newspaper every year, and student politicians nod knowingly and seemingly sincerely, but when push comes to shove any meaningful attempt to change the system is forcibly silenced.

Soon after the particularly vindictive SRC election of 2014, three students – Georgia Kriz, Cameron Caccamo, and Riki Scanlan – proposed a suite of changes to the SRC’s electoral regulations. Many were designed to combat the ongoing concerns that student politics was a SSAF-funded Mean Girls. The new regulations would stop campaigners physically blocking the exclusion zone or campaigning in University of Sydney Union buildings, prohibit multiple campaigners descending on one voter, and would make the first week of the election campaign online.

These reforms targeted two key sources of aggression on the campaign trail. Firstly, the exclusion zone, notorious for being a five or six-way battle of elbows. Campaigners attempt to shove each other out of the way as a bewildered voter either flees crying into the exclusion zone (as one did this year), or runs off to class and plots another way to walk from Redfern next time. Secondly, ‘spoiling’ votes, where the purpose of the campaigner’s involvement is to intimidate the voter into not voting and the campaigner, particularly if they are young or otherwise vulnerable, into not campaigning.

These reforms were on the agenda of both the 2015 June 3 and July 15 SRC Council meetings, the two meetings prior to the deadline beyond which electoral regulations could no longer take effect for the year’s elections. Neither meeting took place; both were inquorate, largely due to the failure of any Labor factions to attend.

In response to allegations his faction was preventing the regulations from passing, Student Unity (Labor Right) member Michael Elliott raised two contentions in a USyd Update interview with Eden Faithfull.

The first was how the moving of the regulations was communicated. “We were not told anything about the process they went through to make these regulations,” he said. It seems entirely counter-intuitive to the very nature of the SRC Council – purportedly the forum in which any undergraduate student can voice concerns to their representatives by just turning up – that factions should have to be specifically informed and lobbied before reforms are proposed. If Elliott and his faction had questions about the process, they would have had ample opportunity to discuss them, had they attended either of the meetings.

The second was more substantive and is the most persuasive argument each time this debate resurfaces. “[We] find these new regulations to be quite undemocratic. What we’re seeing is a restriction on the ways campaigners can communicate their ideas with voters,” he said.

The legitimate mandate of student politicians rests on a high voter turnout. Voter turnout, even under a system where students are coerced away from their meat boxes in Wentworth to vote, or pleaded with on their walk home, may only be about 15 per cent, and that’s a good year. Fewer ‘average student’ voters increases the extent to which the elections become a popularity contest. When the proportion of votes needed to claim a seat on council starts to look more like what it is for SUPRA (where, I kid you not, 0 votes got someone elected this year), campaigners can get away with messaging their Facebook friends list for a ‘favour’ and need never actually articulate their policy platform.

Notwithstanding the issue of poor voter turnout, policies that only allow one campaigner to talk to a student shut out a contest of ideas and give that campaigner free reign to mischaracterise their opposition. That said, ‘undemocratic’ is not a discrete state. There’s surely some middle ground that can respect the autonomy of voters and ensure the integrity of student safety during elections, but we’re clearly not there.

Even if the regulations struck that balance, their proper enforcement is questionable. Consistently, no one applies for the the electoral officer’s role except Paulene Graham, who has occupied the position for many years despite frequent misgivings about her rulings. Graham is flooded with reports of regulation breaches from all campaigns. Not only does this mean her rulings take a number of hours – significant in the context of two heated election days – but they are ad hoc and often arbitrary.

The regulations, as they currently stand, clearly prohibit “physical or verbal intimidation (particularly abuse of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature or non-consensual physical contact of candidates [and] campaigners” and “potential voters”. These protections are sufficiently vague that even a trained legal mind might struggle to enforce them consistently. Graham is not that, and it shows.

One racist message sent from a campaigner to another in a private Facebook message to a friend led to a whole campaign being suspended for half an hour on an election day. Numerous complaints of physical and verbal intimidation by another campaigner, which mark a trend over a number of campaigns, only led to a strongly worded email threatening exclusion.

There’s limited scope to reform the regulations themselves to be more black and white, because verbal intimidation and offence is, by its nature, variable, and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Suppose the answer was multiple electoral officers: even if anyone other than Graham wanted to do this job, where would the fumbling SRC find the money to employ them?

Supposing the regulations could be reformed and the electoral officer could enforce them consistently and in a timely manner, there’s one factor that will never be accounted for: student politicians. Be it for good or bad, to wake up early every morning and blister your feet by walking kilometres’ worth of Gadigal back to back, and to suffer the torrent of abuse that comes from disinterested students, student politicians need a visceral want to win to be in the game at all. It is that brute motivation that turns Jane Foss Russell into a scene from Lord of the Flies when the campaigning comes to a close every year.

The true explanation lies not in the microcosm the SRC’s elections represent, but in a broader puzzle of which they’re a piece. Many of these campaigners will move on to contest seats as members of the Greens, Labor, and Liberals, and so forth. Whether they take their cues from their elders, or whether this is the battleground where our actual politicians learnt their tricks, we would be naïve to think a safer and sweeter campaign is a simple matter of SRC regulations and enforcement.