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USU Board candidate interview: Caitlin McMenamin

The full transcript of Honi's interview with 2017 Union Board candidate, Caitlin McMenamin

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Sydney Labor Students (SLS) | Arts II | Quiz Score: 41%
Interviewed by Justine Landis-Hanley and Kishor Napier-Raman


HS: Could we start by asking you name, degree..?

CM: My name’s Caitlin McMenamin. I am a Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in archaeology and Latin. I’m currently in my second year and I’m 19 years old.

HS:  Wonderful. And are you a member of a political faction?

CM: I’m a member of Sydney Labor Students: a young Labor-left faction.

HS:  How would you describe your political views.

CM: I would describe my political views as quite left-wing. I feel like I could be a progressive voice on board.

HS: And so on progressivism, just quickly, why do you want to run for board? And you can’t say it’s because you “love the union”.

CM: In line with what I’ve just said, I want to run for board because I think it is important for students to have a strong left-wing voice on the board; somebody who is outspoken when it comes to student welfare. I also think it’s important that the board has a left-wing member that will ensure that student money is used in the best way.

HS: You say the words “left-wing” a lot. What do you mean by “left-wing” specifically? Because there are very different echelons of “left”.  

CM: Yeah sure. Specifically I mean that my primary concern is the welfare of people. And thus in this context the welfare of student. I think it is important that every student can be comfortable at University, getting the most from their experience despite their background.

HS: And obviously you’ve been involved in the SRC as Welfare Officer. And traditionally the SRC has kind of taken on things like Welfare and that has fallen under the SRC’s purview. The USU is more of a service provider, for want of a better term. Do you envision the USU taken on more of an activist kind of role, and do you think that that is something that is likely to engage well with ‘regular students’?

CM: I think the nature of the USU is fundamentally different in that no it is not the activist body at USyd. However, when it comes to clubs and societies, events being held on campus, I think it is important that the USU keep in mind the welfare of students. And thus I think it is important that the USU have a progressive candidate on the board to ensure that the USU does have those things in mind.

HS: Do you think that the organisation itself should be pursuing progressive goals?

CM: No. I think the USU is… that’s not the goal of the USU. But like I said, I think that somebody needs to be on the boatd to ensure that the way that it functions, inherently the way things happen, what it does, it has those things that the back of its mind. So for example, if it wanted to hold an events that would discriminate against a particular group, in my opinion, that we can ensure that the USU is thinking about that and actively does something about that.

HS: So you say, with those particular events, you want to make sure that the USU adheres to certain ideologies to determine whether or not it is approving that event?

CM: In a certain way, I don’t think that it should adhere to a particular ideology. So I wouldn’t say, the USU needs to be left-wing. Or that events need to be left-wing. But I would say that as soon as an event or a club borders on not just speech but hate speech, that is when there is definitely space for somebody to come in and say “hey, no”. I don’t want to make the USU left-wing, but I want to ensure that it caters for every individual student from any background.

HS: So I guess the important thing is working out where you would draw the line. So maybe we can talk about some of the very controversial and political decisions the board has had to make recently. Would you have voted to allow the ‘Red Pill’ to be shown on campus, and if not, why not, if so why?

CM: I think in that case, there is a distinction to be drawn between the event receiving funding and the event being held in itself. So I definitely agree with the USU withdrawing funding for that event, or denying funding from going through, because according to the regulations it actually did breach rules about inciting hate speech and discriminating against individuals. As to whether I would have allowed it to occur, as the current constitution of the USU and regulations are in their current form, I don’t think it is possible to prevent that event from occurring. However, personally, I would like to see that those sorts of events are consciousnesly paying attention to their nature, and that the executive of a club and those running it are ensuring that it is accessible for all sorts of people.

HS: So would you have wanted the event to go ahead and for everyone including, like, members who aren’t part of that society to attend? When you say accessibility it’s just confusing what you mean.

CM: Yeah sure. I think that it’s important for me if I want to be on board that I recognise the difference between my personal views and what I would do, and then what I would do as a Board Director. Because as a Board Director, I recognise there is not much scope for me to say that “no, that event won’t be held”. But putting that aside, personally I would not like that event to be held.

HS: Speaking about maybe your personal views a little bit. I guess when you are a Board Director you have a duty that is to the Board, and that may at times conflict with your personal opinions. Are there any situations where your duty to the students may conflict with your duty to the board, and would you prioritise that duty over your duty to the Board? Would you breach that duty?

CM: If you are referring to fiduciary duty or those sorts of duties regarding working in-camera, personally this is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think that I would follow every possible avenue and exhaust every option that exists, I would confer with everybody on the Board to see if there is anything else that we could do to ensure students could hear from… you know, if there were any way possible without breaching my duty, if there were any other way to ensure that students could hear that information, then I would do that. But, as an extremely last resort, if I felt that students had the right to hear that information because, you know, it related to where their money was going, or their welfare and their wellbeing and enjoyment of C&S, I would prioritise the students.

HS: Okay. You said that you have to separate yourself as an individual from yourself as a board director. SLS is typically a binding faction on a lot of decisions. Would you vote against your faction, or against the interests of your faction in your role as Board Director if it upheld the wider student interest?

CM: The answer is yes. I’ve spoken with my faction, and it is mutual understand that, if there is something I feel passionate about, my faction will support my opinion as an individual if it prioritises the students. Uh, although it is to be noted that generally I would try to do… you see the thing is, my faction and I agree, so the fact that that… so it’s not really going to be an issue because my faction and I hold the same perspectives on those sorts of issues. But… so what I’m saying is generally that won’t be an issue, but if there were a case where my faction disagreed with what I wanted to do, my faction understands that I would do what is best for the students in my own opinion.

HS: As a board director you will also be privy to a lot of information that is confidential or held in meetings that are in-camera. Would you disclose such information if it affected the Sydney Labor Students or your faction? For example, if the club, the Sydney University Labor club that SLS is quite heavily involved in, would you disclose that to SLS?

CM: Absolutely not. I don’t think that that would be my responsibility. And that would be a serious breach of my position because that is confidential information. And the club would be informed by the USU itself if such an issue were to occur.

HS: We might now turn to some of the other candidates who are running. So, I guess, other than yourself if you were a regular student running, who would be your top three candidates?

CM: Okay this is a bit of a tough one. I think I would place Adam Torres first because I know that we share a lot of values as Labor Left members.

HS: What kinds of values?

CM: Values likes prioritising students, workers on campus. Ensuring that the USU has a student to ensure that money is being used for students in the best way possible. Yep, I just think that Labor values, left of Labor values in particular… I know Adam and I share the view that refugees should not be processed in off-shore detention centres. So I know for me, if I were a voter, and I saw Adam’s policies – I mean, pretending if I didn’t exist – than I think I would probably place Adam first. Second, I think I would place Claudia for some very very very similar reasons. Disregarding the fact that I know Claudia on a personal level, I have seen her work hard for the Labor movement and I know that she cares very much for students so our values align there. Third I would probably place Zhixian, as I think she has a strong plan for international students and yeah I think it would be fantastic to see better international student involvement.

HS: And would you be willing to enter a preference deal with those candidates?

CM: Regarding preference deals I’ll be frank with you: I have not thought about it at all yet because the election is yet to start. I would never shut down any option – well, okay there are some options I would shut down.

HS: Which ones?

CM: Pause

HS: We will get to that…

CM: Just finishing this question – maybe, maybe not I think it depends on how the campaign pans out, how their policies grow and develop while my policies grow and develop, the way they behave on the campaign trail will affect me, the way that they engage with students will also affect my perspective of them as candidates.

HS: Do you prioritise political tact as opposed to political sameness in your preference deal choices?

CM: I think personally I would love to say that I would prioritise their political ideology. However, ultimately… I think you need a little bit of both, right? Like for example, Liliana is also a strong left-wing candidate and I think she will do quite well… So, I won’t shut anyone off… [Pause] [Sigh] I don’t know, I don’t think I would prioritise tact, but hopefully things will line up and those people who I agree with on an ideological level will be those who have political acumen.

HS: Sticking to the subject of ideology, who would you put last as a regular student voter?

CM: Erika Salmon.

HS: Why is that?

CM: My understanding is that she has quite a far-right, alternative-right perspective and political perspective. That’s been my impression from the very short time that we’ve had between the announcement of candidates and now. I don’t believe our ideologies match up. I know she is quite involved in the Conservative Club which is holding the screening of the Red Pill. I think we fundamentally disagree… we don’t have much in common on an ideological level.

HS: Can I clarify, so again keeping in theme with ideology, you talk a lot in terms of binaries, so saying that this person is “left-wing” or “right-wing”. I suppose for my own clarification, when I said “what do you mean by left-wing values?” you said it’s like acting the student interest or working or using money for the students to prioritise their interests. But what I’m curious about is there are people who are running, like Jacob Masina for example who is Secretary of the Liberal Club, his points I think he would argue they are in the student interest. So what do you mean by “in the student interest”? Can you give me specific examples of what your actual values are?

CM: For me personally?

HS: Yes.

CM: Okay, so are we casting aside the issue of preferences for the moment?

HS: Yes.

CM: Okay, so for me personally advocating for minorities on campus, advocating for different religious groups on campus, ensuring every student feels comfortable on campus whether that means women and women being able to go about their day without being harassed on campus. Basically ensuring that not just a particular group of the student body is being benefitted by the USU, but that every student has the opportunity to get involved in the USU and participate in the Clubs and Societies whatever it may be – Hermes, Incubate – whatever it may be, whoever they are, that every student can do that.

HS: You mentioned Clubs and Societies there. What do you think the most important USU program is?

CM: Hm. Let me think for a moment. I think the most important USU program is probably… wait is this not including Clubs and Societies?

HS: No it can be any USU program including Clubs and Societies.

CM: For me personally it would be Clubs and Societies because I have seen so many students find their niche, find their place in the University of Sydney and the Union through the clubs and societies because there is something for everyone, essentially. Whether you want to join a club for fun, or whether it is a serious club like economics or faculty related, it’s the best way of getting everyone involved and it caters to the most number of students, so yeah I think it is a fantastic program by the USU.

HS: So what is the extent of your involvement with the USU so far during your time at Uni?

CM: So, I guess the moment I came to Uni at O-Week I joined like 10 societies as most of us do, and I remember being just blown away that there was something for everyone and something for me. If we are going to get personal here, at school I didn’t really fit in or like, I had my friends but I didn’t quite feel like it was the place for me because personally, you know, I really care about things like the environment, and at school we only had like the environment club and it was like me and four other people. But then I came to Sydney Uni and I saw there was so many different things. And that was so exciting for me. From the outset, the most memorable club I joined was the Labor club – the Sydney University Labor Club, not the ALP Club – um, and since then I have become Women’s Officer of the club, which has been such an amazing experience for me. I’ve connected with so many people I don’t think I would have connected with otherwise, and that’s led to so many opportunities. I feel that that club in particular has helped me in terms of my personal growth and my leadership experience, giving me the confidence to actually run for Board, so that’s one thing I would definitely say is a major part of my involvement.

Another place I have been involved in is the Guy Sckacus Classics and Ancient History Society, of which I am currently Secretary. And that’s been an absolute blast and I absolutely love it because it means I’ve got this political involvement and I’ve also got something really close to my degree and I’ve been able to do so much with that, and were kind of in the process of revitalising the club at the moment, trying to engage more students with it, and that has just been an excellent experience and I think I’ve learnt a lot from that.

HS: Moving into your policies, we note that you have a lot of policies and a lot of them are quite ambitious and probably require financial resources. And considering the USU is still functioning in deficit, where do you think the biggest economic drain on the Board is currently and where do you think the USU should look to cut funding from?

CM: So before I answer this question, I would like to state that I don’t want to totally cut anything because that’s unrealistic. The main place I would seek to draw funding from would be the Capital Works Fund or Capital Sink Fund. I think that has been a huge drain of the USU resources because of course it costs millions of dollars to create Courtyard, to create Abecrombie Terrace, and in future years to redo Wentworth to redo Manning. So I think a huge amount of money goes there and whilst money is being saved and put towards those capital works, which are sources of capital and will be sources of capital in years to come, I think we can divert some of that money to things like free ACCESS for low SES students. Because, once those capital works are complete, we will have Courtyard which has been a very successful capital works, we will have things like Manning making more revenue and that sort of thing. So I think the USU will see a surplus if not this year, next year, coming years. So I think the USU is well within its capacity to divert monetary resources from that area, and whilst those works are being completed, to put them towards student programs.

HS: So to be clear, you would divert funds away from perhaps the refurbishment of existing USU venues, which I guess form a part of the kind of student life you want more people to engage with through a subsidised or free ACCESS scheme, in order to pay for more welfare oriented programs. Is that a priority that you think would be a fair characterisation?

CM: Not so much. I think… I mean, I think we should step away from the idea of ‘welfare program’ for a second, and I know I have talked a lot about my “left-wing views”. But I the free ACCESS card notion for SES students doesn’t have to be an ideological point. So I don’t think we should say that I am going to cut funding from all these fantastic resources for that. However, I think that in the meantime, whilst we are saving money, millions of dollars for those resources, that some of that money can be put towards things like that so that people who can’t even get involved because they can’t afford an ACCESS card can get involved and have that opportunity. Because at the end of the day, those resources, those buildings, everything that is held within those buildings are for students, so what use are they if there are students who can’t even get involved because paying $75 per year is too much for them.

HS: With respect to the V-Team, you mentioned expanding international student involvement. Do you think that the free labour of international students in the V-Team is ethical?

CM: I think this is a really interesting issue and it’s something I’ve thought about a bit. I think that with the V-Team, it’s not like, say, unpaid internships. I think unpaid internships are unethical because there is something that University leavers, school leavers, need to get ahead, that they need to get into the workforce, that they need to be competitive, right? But with V-Team, I think that many students will do extremely well without having to put the V-Team on their resume, so I think in that case because it is not a necessity, it’s something they can get involved in, any students, purely because they want to and want to learn vital skills from it, I don’t think it is unethical that that is unpaid. Do you understand that distinction?

HS: Uh, I guess it’s somewhat unclear. If the V-Team isn’t remunerated  and you don’t foresee it as something that people put towards their CV for career development to that extent, why is it distinct?

CM: Sorry. I think I was a bit unclear. I think that it is a useful thing in that students can, and have the opportunity to, say ‘Volunteer for 2015-2016’ on their resume, that is fantastic and something that I would like to talk about with respect to my International Student policy. However, the difference is that they don’t need to participate in the V-Team, in that there are so many other great ways for students, for anybody, to learn those skills. It’s not like a graduate who has no opportunity but to participate in an internship, because that isn’t a choice for them, that is something they feel they have to do because they won’t get a paid job straight up. Or they are at University and they feel they need to do that to have any success in the future.

HS: So, one of your other policies was that you want to have pill testing at Hermann’s and Manning.

CM: Yes

HS: How do you think that’s feasible given that there are other major music festivals where it is not legal for them to have that testing?

CM: I will admit I was not aware of that, and that that policy is not a priority on my policy list. As you would have seen it was at the bottom of the policy list I gave you.

HS: It’s a long list, yes.

CM: So I will admit I wasn’t aware of that. But thank you for informing me because I would like to see how we could work to incorporate that into the University.

HS: Another thing you mentioned is having an open-tender process for USU outlets, which you say is to get students kind of involved and because students deserve a say. Can you explain how you envision that working? Would students, I mean… I guess, be in the process of tendering to run or control USU outlets? How would that work?

CM: No, so to elaborate on this, my vision is that businesses who want to work with the USU whether that’s on a sponsorship level or because they want to have a presence on campus, I suspect they would go to the University of Sydney Union, the Union would follow their usual protocol with respect to those approaches, and then the University Board has actually looked at those, they are uploaded in a public forum for regular students to look at them. So say, for example… this is a random example, that Westpac wanted to establish a branch at University of Sydney. And say University students were unhappy with Westpac about the Adani Coalmine. Students would see on this portal that Westpac had approached the Uni of Sydney Union to establish a branch here. Well, I don’t feel very comfortable with that for ethical issues and whatever. Well, students would be able to look at that and recognise the issues, and then they would be able to approach the University of Sydney Union with the ethical issues of that proposal. So whether that would mean they could actually be able to formally get in touch with that with the University of Sydney Union and submit an agenda item, or whether they would be able to submit some kind of grievance that could be discussed by the Board, just something that isn’t available right now, which is that students get to have a say in what gets to be on campus.

HS: Sure. Would you think that they could lead to greater inefficiency in terms of redevelopments on campus, considering there is already, I guess, criticism and concern amongst several Board candidates in the past about what kind of outlets get on campus and the issue of getting affordable food on campus. Could this potentially further stunt that process?

CM: I don’t think it would stunt the process so much as, like, affect it in a positive way so that students, say like a café wanted to set themselves up as a chain, students would be able to see how much everything costs however and know whether it was cost effective to them and say “I feel this is a very expensive restaurant that I wouldn’t actually be able to afford, so I would actually look for something cheaper”, you know what I mean? So in that sense I think it might actually be a benefit to students.

If you are referring to kind of the practical… I feel like you were touching on how that would pass through the Union and whether that would slow down preferences. I think that that is a potential risk, which is why, if that thing was implemented at all, it would take a lot of scrutineering from a lot of people so that it could be implemented in the most efficient way.

HS: So, just touching on some stuff, you seem like you want to have more openness with how the Union works. Do you think the Board should be allowed to use, and have certain meetings, in-camera?

CM: So I think there are issues that are sensitive, and might be for legal reasons. So I think that those sorts of issues need to be discussed in-camera if, say, particular information were publicly released about the University financials and if the USU were in a particular deficit and that would affects its relationships with particular sponsors or businesses on campus in particular. Those sorts of things I think would be detrimental and there is the whole legal consideration – I am not a law student, so I am not going to pretend I know how that works – but I think it could leave the University of Sydney Union open to a number of potential threats. Although I believe the University of Sydney Union should be transparent, I want it to exist, I want it to function, I don’t want to open it up to, um, whether that be corporate threats, legal threats. I want it to function as it is, which is a fantastic Union.

HS: Who do you think has been the most effective Board Candidate over the past few years?

CM: Yep. I think that Shannen Potter has been the most effective candidate over the past two years. My reason for that is that I have seen her day-in, day-out, working as hard as she can as Honorary Secretary. I know that she has worked very hard to ensure that the C&S program functions smoothly. I know that she’s taken a stand against particular, what I would consider, hateful or discriminative events on campus. I know that she has worked hard with Courtney Thompson to ensure the USU, you know, remains thinking and considering the issues that may arise when it comes to the welfare of students. And that is a legacy I would want to continue on Board.

HS: Sure. And outside your faction who, I guess, stood out for you?

CM: I would definitely say Courtney Thompson then. Ah, I had an excellent time getting to know her last year when I was campaigning for James. I saw that she had an extremely progressive platform and that I think she has done an extremely impressive job on Board.

HS: Does that mean you would be supporting her for President?

CM: Oh look, I totally have no idea who I would support in the Executive election. As I have kind of made clear in this interview, I would probably support people on an ideological basis and then place their sort of acumen second. But that is totally something that is out of this world at the moment for me, and I would definitely consider those things at the time of discussion in consultation with everybody else.

HS: As a final question: which policy of yours do you think sets you apart most from the other candidates?

CM: Okay. Do you mind if I think for a sec?

HS: No worries, of course.

CM: I would have to say free ACCESS for low-SES students.

HS: Sure. Do you want to speak a bit to that about why that is an important policy you want to emphasise?

CM: On a personal level I was really upset when I found out that one of my friends didn’t have ACCESS and couldn’t join my Ancient History club because they wouldn’t afford it because they come from a rural background. Because they have a hard enough time to afford to live and eat and go to the University itself. It is my favourite policy because it will connect with those students in particular who didn’t feel that they could get involved much previously, um, and I don’t think any other candidate has a similar policy idea that has been made public yet.

Note: this is a full transcript a Honi Soit candidate interview. Some words have been edited for clarity.