Students have decorated our campus in hundreds of hideous shirts that no one is going to wear in two-weeks time (except ironically, or as pajamas), and are striking up side-walk conversations with strangers using sing-along slogans that make you cringe while they whinge about the state of Union affairs.
But before you declare every campaigner the anti-Christ and apply for a fortnight’s worth of special consideration on the grounds of emotional turmoil, consider hearing some of the candidates out.
Whether or not you forked out $75 for an ACCESS membership, the USU probably plays a part in your Uni experience: they run most of our food outlets, manage spaces like the Wom*n’s Room and Queer Room, and put on all our festivals and revues. It has fought Voluntary Student Unionism and has fought to make pides cheaper.
Honi likes holding people to account, and the candidates running to manage a $23 million organisation should be no exception. Each candidate this year completed a written quiz (try your luck here) and interview.
The quiz wasn’t easy — the highest score was 73 per cent, a solid credit — but aimed to test the knowledge that a candidate ought to have of the Union they hope to run.
Perhaps the most concerning result was the fact that over half the candidates didn’t know that they, as Board Directors, would be jointly and severally liable for the debts and liabilities of the USU as an unincorporated organisation. Not one of the candidates knew all of the retail outlets their Union was managing (and getting a majority of its revenue from) or could name any of the working parties that they could join once on board — not great, since being an active participant on working parties will form a bulk of their work as a Director.
Voting will take place on May 16-17, with opportunities for pre-polling on May 15.
Adam Torres | Quiz: 73%
Despite heavy factional involvement, Adam Torres (NLS – Labor left) has led a Stupol career relatively free from controversy and his interview was no different.
If NLS (which binds members to its decisions) compelled Adam to act against his platform, he said he would leave the faction. We suspect there would be a particularly high threshold for unscrupulous behaviour before a student politician would throw away the support base they had built with years in coloured shirts but it’s a nice thing to offer.
The streak of unsurprising but agreeable answers continued when Adam said that clubs and societies were the USU’s most important programs and commended current directors Michael Rees and Shannen Potter.
Adam’s inoffensive left-wing politics made it difficult for him to distinguish himself from other progressive candidates. He cited experience as one differentiating factor but this was somewhat questionable when other left-aligned candidates (Liliana Tai and Catie McMenamin) have had similar USU and SRC involvement.
Adam also suggested his concept for an “accessible” and “relevant” USU was more “cohesive”. While those words are synergistic and agile, they seem better suited to a presentation put together by a business consultant on a plane rather than a practical vision for the Union. On this shortcoming, Adam was self-aware: “I look forward to getting absolutely dragged for that in the write up”. Never let it be said that Honi doesn’t deliver what people want.
One differentiating factor for Adam ended up being his quiz score, which was higher than any other candidate. For those who think candidates should maybe know something about the multimillion dollar organisation they wish to direct, that is a noteworthy achievement.
Claudia Gulbransen-Diaz | Quiz: 64%
Claudia Gulbransen-Diaz admitted during her interview that “my biggest flaw here is inexperience”, though she outperformed most other candidates on the quiz, coming in third. She seemed unfazed by most of our questions, and demonstrated an above-average understanding of the USU. This could, however, be cynically attributed to thorough campaign preparation from her faction, Student Unity (Labor right).
Her ability to reference USU decisions from well before her time at the University does inspire confidence when compared with some of the other candidates. On the other hand, her clubs and societies experience is mostly limited to membership. She said she would make up for this on board by liaising with club executives; “on a board of 11 people where the collective C&S experience is pretty expansive … I don’t think that my inexperience is going to bring the board down.”
Most of Claudia’s policies are generic and populist — she wants better parties and food, and an expansion of the USU’s app and mental health initiatives. One policy that stands out is her desire to have college representatives on the USU’s events committee because college residents put on events that are marketed well and “attract a huge amount of non-college students as well”. This is the main thing setting her apart from the multitude of past candidates who have campaigned on improving the USU’s nightlife.
Her policy to improve mental health is also very ‘broad appeal’. When asked about the effectiveness of therapy dogs, sleeping pods, ball pits and bubble soccer, she suggested they were important because “when I get stressed the first thing I do is withdraw from other people, so if we put on fun things like that, and can get people to come and be outside” but also conceded, “I would want to put the money somewhere with more substance”.
Liliana Tai | Quiz: 58%
If one were to imagine a generic USU Board candidate, there’s a good chance they would resemble Liliana Tai. She attended North Sydney Girls High School, which has produced several board directors in recent years, is widely liked in the big societies like debating that comprise her support base and placed fourth in our quiz.
Some of her policies land in that rare spot in the Venn diagram where impact and achievability overlap. A plan for the USU to raise awareness for the University’s Study Abroad office makes sense, drawing on Liliana’s experience as an adviser with the office and collaboration between the two organisations this year around International Day. Liliana came prepared for her interview, and her answers were thoughtful and considered.
Yet Liliana lacks a clear reason for running. She nominated “inclusivity” as a central value of her campaign, but was one of the only board candidates in recent years to go in to bat for debating — one of the most exclusive and overfunded programs run by the USU. Liliana’s suggestion of a new USU book café to cater to introverted students seems to offer little that a library does not. Despite the declining number of books in those libraries, the University still has a few. Liliana’s formal experience on campus consists largely of two positions she held last year: social director of debating and councillor on the Students’ Representative Council.
When the two clashed, Liliana prioritised her debating role, preventing her from making it to the end of all but two SRC meetings. She assured us that in a the “smaller… less factionalised” environment on Union board, her “commitment to the USU would be very different”.
As the debaters’ candidate, Liliana would vote for current board director Grace Franki for the presidency of the USU. For those outside the debaterati, Liliana’s potential contribution to Board is less clear.
Jacob Masina | Quiz: 57%
For progressives, Jacob is the most threatening type of conservative candidate. He is approachable, invokes “common sense”, and relies on “consultation” at every opportunity. Jacob has been involved in the NSW young Liberals, campaigned for Liberal politicians, and is secretary of USyd’s Liberal Club (which is notably absent from his USU candidate CV). Despite this, he is running as an independent, a move he admits will improve his chances. He justified this by saying the USU was about fostering a healthy community and didn’t “require political interests”.
His desire to diminish factional politics is somewhat admirable. But the reality is that any organisation that prioritises some student interests over others is inherently political.
Jacob insisted he was not campaigning against affirmative action for women but said “it is something [he] would be open towards considering”. He added the caveat that it was still important to look at “whether the barriers to entry are too high for women-identifying students”.
Jacob criticised the USU’s move to stifle a screening of The Red Pill, calling that decision “reactionary” and saying he would have opted for more consultation.
He was noncommittal on whether he would agitate against university fee increases, saying he would “consult the student body” after seeing the Budget.
Jacob’s actual policies are hardly controversial; they focus on “empowering students” through clubs and societies. Initiatives include funding for on-campus room bookings and a system where points (gained for things like buying coffee or sitting on executives) could be exchanged for items. As an executive of four societies, Jacob would presumably be rolling in “I heart USU” hoodies.
Separating himself from his Liberal roots means Jacob’s campaign is likely to be successful. Will the student body remember which government is increasing their fees and lowering their wages and look down on student politicians who associate themselves with that government? We’ll see.
Alexander Shu | Quiz: 53%
Alex Shu, an international student running as an independent, bills himself as the most experienced candidate. Which depending on where you are looking, might be true. With intensive involvement in the University’s performing arts scene, the business community and student politics, Alex has positioned himself as a candidate with a vision for the USU and enough experience to identify the key issues within the organisation.
Despite this, he struggled to identify a policy that sets him apart from his fellow candidates. After some prodding from the editors, he identified his policy for an affirmative action requirement which would ensure at least one successful candidate from each USU election to be an international student; to “lead people, promote new ideas”.
Outside this, it is unclear how Alex will bring his vision of a more inclusive student body into fruition. In his interview, he failed to communicate how exactly his board aspirations would eventuate with clear, concrete policies. For example, when asked what programs he would cut in order to make room for his more expensive policies — more free access events and developing International Day into a week-long International Festival (which, already exists in Semester Two, by the way) — he blanked.
Despite this, Alex’s breadth of USU performing arts experience means he is uniquely situated to reach out to voters involved in drama, revues, and musicals who often face difficulties booking campus spaces for rehearsals and events. To do this, Alex would have the USU utilise spaces like The Refectory, and reach out to University to “promote diverse student culture” by allowing clubs and societies to utilise rooms on campus for rehearsals.
Hengjie Sun | Quiz: 47%
Hengjie Sun is a relative newcomer to student politics, becoming involved through the Panda ticket that ran unsuccessfully in the Sydney University Chinese Student Association elections last year. His policies focus, though not exclusively, on doing more to engage with international students.
Unlike other candidates whose policies revolve around the USU as a social organisation, Hengjie’s plans are mostly for greater service provisions: a language exchange, international student alumni network, and internships are on the list. Hengjie argued that most of the students he had spoken to could not access the USU’s current regime of parties and themed weeks, justifying an expansion of the institution’s role.
Some of those policies are well thought out. Internships with USU sponsors and within the union’s own IT and marketing teams seem feasible — though not particularly different from numerous student roles in the organisation currently. Similarly, encouraging international students to join the USU Alumni and Friends Association to “provide job consulting” for current students would represent a positive continuation of current President Michael Reese’s outreach efforts.
\Other policies reflected Hengjie’s lack of inexperience. He suggested revitalising the “food quality” of restaurants in Wentworth, seemingly unaware of the potential demolition of that building. In response to a question about affirmative action, he concocted a plan to give international student candidates bonus votes at USU elections to redress “lower participation” among that community. Last year the only international student candidate for Board, Yifan Kong, got the most votes by a country mile. Hengjie placed 7th, scoring less than 50 per cent, on our quiz.
Overall, Hengjie seems well-intentioned but his challenge is to differentiate his candidacy from the international students running on similar platforms.
Caitlin McMenamin | Quiz: 41%
When asked why she wants to run, Caitlin didn’t hesitate: “it’s very important that students have a strong left-wing voice on the board, somebody who is outspoken when it comes to welfare.”
Caitlin’s tendency to use dichotomic terms like “left-wing” and “progressive” is not surprising given her stupol affiliations: she’s a member of the Sydney Labor Students (SLS), one of two Labor-left factions on campus.
However Caitlin, was reasonably compromising when asked how her personal values and factional allegiances would influence her decision-making on board. She didn’t hesitate to assure us she wouldn’t use a Board Directorship to benefit SLS nor be coerced into voting according to factional opinion. She doesn’t think it’s the USU’s job to pursue ideological goals, but wants to ensure that “progressivism is in the back of its mind” when it comes to decision-making and responding to issues. “It’s important for me to recognise the difference between my personal views, what I would do, and then what I would do as a board director”, she explained.
Caitlin’s weakness may be her ambitiousness: her extensive policy list ranges from free ACCESS for low-SES students to an open-tender program for all new USU outlets. Some of these border on the unachievable. Her plan to provide free pill-testing kits at Hermann’s seems unlikely given that this is something major music festivals have struggled to achieve — she admitted she was “unaware” of any legal barriers that would have to be overcome.
Caitlin’s candidacy represents the second straight year that SLS has run a second-year student for board. Caitlin’s inexperience was reflected in a poor showing in the quiz: she placed 8th out of the ten candidates.
Nonetheless, Caitlin has a genuine passion for students and their well-being, emphasising the USU’s role in ensuring everyone on campus feels comfortable and included in “whatever their thing is”. Whether this passion will translate into tangible outcomes remains to be seen.
Erika Salmon | Quiz: 32%
A member of the Liberal Party, Erika Salmon is running as an independent since she received no official support from them. Despite sporting a ‘Make USyd Great Again’ hat in her campaign photo, and a wildly implausible list of policies, Erika assured us that she is not a ‘joke candidate’.
Erika rebuffed suggestions that her association with the Trump brand might alienate students unsettled by the President’s perceived racist, sexist rhetoric, telling Honi that “if you look at Trump’s employment records, most of the time, he’ll actually employ a woman.
She conceded that her proposed protest-free zone around Fisher Library was beyond the scope of the USU, although oddly didn’t think it incongruous with her libertarian ideology. While she would genuinely like a Maccas on campus, she admits that it “was a bit of a last minute policy. I really just wanted to put ‘corporatist capitalist’ in my statement because it would enrage a few people.”
Her policy of free helicopter rides for Socialist Alternative members is also a jocular allusion to the murder of socialists in Pinochet’s Chile, which Erika has no problem with because “yes these human rights abuses were awful, but the fact is that currently in our modern times […] things are taken out in an ironic way.” Also, she has a Chilean friend.
Her plan to extend campus bar opening hours is noble, but when informed of the $3000 plus cost involved, Erika was shocked: “That’s just ridiculous. That’s just over-regulation.” Erika’s claim that she did research her policies “a little bit” is rather dubious, since this information took 15 seconds to find.
Nonetheless, Erika did use her time with us to brainstorm other ideas she might pursue. These included greater transparency about Union expenditure, and a language exchange program for international students.
Sally Yang | Quiz: 14%
Sally Yang told us that she has no political leanings (incredible for a Law student), and does not belong to a party or faction.
She says her position as a Chinese-born domestic student gives her a dual perspective on what it’s like to be both an international and local student, giving her the advantage of understanding and representing both demographics.
That being said, four of her five policies pertain exclusively to international students. Additionally, many of her proposals appear to overlap with the duties of the SRC, particularly surrounding activism.
When this issue was raised, Sally acknowledged that “obviously like … The USU is the USU and the SRC is the SRC”, and that “the SRC is obviously the main source of the thing,” but that the USU could perhaps better direct students to the SRC because their communication outreach sometimes fails. When asked if it would simply be better to improve those aspects of the SRC, Sally concurred.
Another one of Sally’s key policies is to advocate for concession Opal cards for international students. However, this is ultimately contingent on state government legislation. “Obviously it’s not like we can make the government change anything,” says Sally. “But maybe just more campaigning and raising more awareness.” How would she go about this? Sally took a very, very long pause before answering this question. “Maybe just … By doing petitions or something. I’m not sure.”
Her one policy not specifically focused on international students is to have a greater variety of food outlets on campus, even though she named the food on campus as the USU’s best program. Despite this, she could not name a single USU outlet on campus in the Honi quiz, in which she scored only 14 per cent. According to Sally, students like to binge on junk food, “but it’s not actually good for the brain. So it would be good if there were more, like, smoothies provided or more options of smoothies provided.”