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Petition calls on USU to delay new alcohol policy

Over 80 USU clubs and societies are calling on the USU to postpone and consult further on its new alcohol regulations.

Two blue plastic containers labelled with various punch recipes, red drinking cups centred, students wearing SASS t-shirts in the background All things alcoholic have featured prominently in the social programmes of many USU clubs and societies.

Over 80 USU clubs and societies have signed a petition calling on the USU to delay the introduction of its new alcohol funding policy until further consultation takes place. Under the policy, which came into effect this week, the USU will no longer fund its clubs, societies or programs for their purchases of alcohol, unless those purchases are made at a USU licensed venue.

The petition, which was sent to USU President Courtney Thompson and Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, was signed by 85 clubs from the USU’s Clubs and Societies (C&S) program. The petition was circulated during OWeek, attracting support from clubs as diverse as Economics Society and the Disney Appreciation Society.

President of the Mechanical Undergraduates Society (MUGS) and co-author of the petition, Thomas Sultana, explained that the petition sought to “temporarily lift the ban [on off-campus alcohol funding] so societies can run events they had planned from before the ban was introduced, […] then open the floor to all societies to have their say”.

The petitioners singled out a lack of consultation as their chief grievance. For instance, Jack Andrew-Kabilafkas, the president of acapella society BarberSoc, wrote on the petition that “while we don’t mind the change, the lack of consultation is ridiculous and arrogant on behalf of the USU.” Others described the process as “unfair” and highlighted the need for “democracy”.  

Some petitioners complained about the practical effects of the change. A JazzSoc representative commented that the policy meant the society “won’t be able to run our main event”. Sydney University Women in Engineering (SUWIE) representatives wrote that the change will “make it hard to make events affordable”.

USU President Courtney Thompson was unclear on how the petition will be handled, but it appears unlikely she will accept its demands. She defended the policy, noting that “we understand that many students aren’t happy with the changes, but the decision was made with student safety in mind.” In particular, the policy seeks to address “the link between alcohol at social events and instances of sexual harassment”.

According to Thompson, the policy will encourage clubs to move events involving alcohol to the USU’s on-campus venues, “which we think it is fair to say are safer than many other venues.” In support of that claim, Thompson pointed out USU staff receive regular training on safety and sexual harassment. She also noted that the organisation holds an “unblemished liquor license” and is a founder member and current chair of the local liquor accord.

MUGS President Sultana, speaking on his society’s behalf, questioned whether safety would meaningfully improve. “The roots of the problem lie much deeper with cultural issues that you can’t fix by slightly reducing the cost of alcohol.”

Thompson also rejected the argument that the policy would disrupt clubs’ activities. “Funding is still able to be claimed for a number of other expenses, e.g. food, venue hire, photographers, decorations or performers,” she said. “Unless literally all the spending [at an event] is on alcohol this won’t make a difference to funding.”

Despite Thompson’s support of the policy, it seems the USU Board, which is composed of elected student directors, was left little choice by the C&S program and its professional staff. In an email sent to Craft Beer Appreciation Society Social Director Cian Galea, Thompson wrote that “I spoke to Holly [Hawkins], our C&S Manager, and as the directive came from the University, nothing will change unless they were to change their minds”.

The USU and the University are separate organisations, with distinct organisational structures and no formal control over one another’s policies. However, a University spokesperson confirmed that “the University has asked the USU, all other student organisations and its own student services to commit to implementing relevant recommendations of the Broderick Report.” It appears that the USU’s professional staff is intent on complying.

Initially, Thompson was willing to admit only that the University had “encouraged” the development of the new policy. However, when asked about the contents of the email to Galea, Thompson told Honi that the USU “had been open about the fact that the University has been a major driver behind the shift in approach to alcohol provision”. She then forwarded a copy of the email exchange.

In that exchange, Thompson advised Galea to “meet with the Vice-Chancellor to air your concerns with him personally” and offered to attend any such meeting herself.

Thompson’s advice may explain why the petition addresses the University as well as the USU.

Galea said he had tried to organise a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, but was told to contact Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Pip Pattison who, according to a University spokesperson, oversees “engagement between the University and student organisations such as the USU.” At the time of publication, Galea was still awaiting a response.

Whether the University will change its position on the policy, which Thompson suggested was a condition to the USU making its own changes, is unclear. It seems clear, however, that the University will not use its influence to push for more consultation: according to a University spokesperson “consultation with clubs and societies is a matter for USU to decide”.