How reforms go wrong

The practical reality of electoral reform in the SULS constitution

Picture of Sydney Law School

In Semester 2, 2016, the winds of reform swept through the oversized glass aquarium on Eastern Avenue. The then-incumbent Sydney University Law Society (SULS) Executive circulated a public Call for Comment amongst the approximate 3,200 law students currently enrolled at Sydney Law School, all of whom are automatic members of SULS. The Call for Comment chiefly proposed alternative election models as a shift from traditional ticket-based platforms, which, akin to Honi Soit elections, require students to collectively nominate for fifteen core executive positions, including president, vice president, secretary and treasurer, on a creatively named ticket.

Amongst other things, the Call for Comment proposed a shift to the UNSW Law Society model of individual nominations, where the potential Executive self-nominate and run wholly independent and discrete campaigns. This model was ultimately rejected. Firstly, it prevented enforcement of the Affirmative Action requirements in the SULS Constitution; a problem which arose in the 2016 UNSW Law Society elections that appointed 11 male-identifying students and three female-identifying students. It also failed to address the core concern of ‘shoulder-tapping’ and popularity-type contests behind tickets formed from incumbent Executives, Law Revue Cast and Subcommittee Members,  as was the case with last year’s tickets ‘Spark’ and ‘Game’.

In 2014 and 2015, the strength of the SULS clique meant that the following year’s executive were elected unopposed.

Reforms were subsequently made to neutralise allegations of exclusivity and ensure interested candidates were not barred from an inaccessible and nepotistic ticket system which had filled every position by the campaigning period’s commencement. A ‘Prospectus Model’ was introduced into Appendix 1 of the SULS Constitution. It requires all aspiring presidential candidates to submit an expression of interest prior to nominations for other positions. Nominees would publish their general vision, specific policies and contact details, to be circulated throughout the Law School by the Electoral Officer. No person could nominate for president unless they submitted an expression. Functionally, no ticket could therefore form unless at least one member of the ticket had nominated for president. The aim of these reforms was to increase transparency to the electoral process, cultivating a two-way relationship between candidates and tickets, and enabling students outside of law school cliques to get involved by contacting prospective presidential candidates to discuss their own policy ideas in a bid to join tickets. The previously private process of ticket-forming reliant on personal connections and networks was forcibly shifted into a more public space.

With a week and a half to go before the closure of nominations, Ann Wen, currently the sole presidential candidate, reports that she has personally met 13 interested students face-to-face and communicated further via email with another 27 interested students.

The new prospectus system has certainly been a step in the right direction towards inclusivity. It enables low-SES students and those who live far away from campus to engage in SULS by nominating individually as president, or by submitting applications for other executive positions to an advertised presidential candidate. These are students who may otherwise not have the capacity to attend late-night networking events and competitions. The reforms also included a provision which ensures candidates submitting a presidential expression are not bound to run as president and can still nominate for a different position. These provisions aim to avoid deterring students passionate to get involved who, for reasons often outside their control, are less able to access the opportunities provided by SULS.

However, it appears the reforms have failed to sufficiently contemplate a situation where only one presidential nominee issues an expression of interest and is therefore instantly ‘elected’ by default. In this case, no other ticket can nominate to force an election, because in order to nominate for president, another candidate must have issued an expression of interest. The issues with this are obvious. In the last three years, two SULS presidents have been elected unopposed, owing to the structural difficulties creating tickets that the reforms were intended to resolve. Such a president has a limited democratic mandate. The vast majority of the Law School has no say in their election and there is no filter for those who are blatantly inexperienced, unfit, or not serious about the responsibility and position. Without a public face, the incoming SULS president, a position which is symbolic for its ability to set the tone and strategic direction of one of campus’ largest and most active societies, has even more limited accountability to students, having not seen themselves through a period of campaigning. It becomes possible that a sole presidential nominee can unilaterally select the next core SULS executive without any formal accountability.

Despite a prolonged campaigning period, only around 25 per cent of the total Law School voted in the 2016 SULS election. The outcome of the prospectus model begs the question of whether an automatically elected SULS executive might have an even lesser mandate. A provision mandating an extension of time for presidential expressions of interest in the event only one person nominates for president may counteract this situation. In addition, greater promotion of the ability to nominate for president without binding oneself to the position in the lead up to the opening of presidential expression may attract participants across the Law school. Elections are important democratic theatres that see a scrutinised battle of ideas, visions and interests in full view of the broader School. It’s ultimately important that they are preserved.