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Campaign Promises: on a shuttle bus to nowhere

What have you-SU done for me lately?

Art by Olivia Allanson.

USU Board elections are a lot like Christmas: they happen but once a year and a lot of promises are made. But instead of promising the student body a new bike and a rabbit named Flopsy, candidates promise the absolute world. Every year it’s the same refrain:

“I’m gonna fix revues, I’m gonna fix clubs, there’ll be Coke in the bubblers and Wentworth WILL be renovated!”

But these, like most electoral promises, don’t always come true. Me and my crack team have combed through all 199 USU election promises from the 2019 and 2020 board campaigns, and the findings will shock you!

After consulting with a number of board directors, verifying fulfillment with an independent group, and using our own institutional knowledge, the results are in. Of the 199 promises made between 2019 and 2020 — 32% were fulfilled and 68% were not.

As figures go, they’re not the best, but they include both ongoing and outgoing board directors. Considering only outgoing directors (who, theoretically, have had the most time to fulfil their campaign promises), the rate of fulfilment jumps up notably to 38%. Isolate the data to ongoing directors, and, understandably, the rate of fulfilment dips to 30%. This makes perfect sense! And proves that I crunched the numbers correctly (yay me!). What this adds up to is an average fulfilment rate of approximately 34% between ongoing and outgoing board directors. While a poor rate of return, it’s important to place these figures within the context of the past two years. Both ongoing and outgoing directors had half their two-year terms mired by COVID-19. With campus shutdown, plummeting revenues and the mental health of individual board directors presumably suffering as much as any other student (if not more), it’s understandable that the Board hasn’t been quite as productive as it might have been at a different time. Nevertheless, the student body can, and must, expect better from our USU Board. Receiving more than double the SSAF contributions than the SRC, the USU is the best funded student-run organisation on campus. What’s more, it’s important that the value of an electoral promise is not forgotten. If only 32% of all the promises made between 2019 and now have been fulfilled, then what is the value of a promise? Not a whole lot. But the diagnosis for this problem can’t be boiled down to lazy, spiteful, or malicious board directors. There’s a whole range of issues that inform this electoral malaise, and that’s what I’m here to find out!

What are they promising?

Using the magic of pie charts, I’ve outlined the major categories of promises. Sitting at the top, naturally, is Clubs & Societies. Following them are the environment, food, culture, international students, revues, and a whole raft of other policy areas. But not all promises are made equally. Throughout my analysis, I noted that the specific language of a promise was just as important as the promise itself. A common pledge between candidates was to revise club funding. This was a promise that all of them managed to fulfil, because while many would say that funding was revised for the worse, it was certainly revised. A similar situation existed with transparency, while many candidates promised to conduct a “transparency review,” many didn’t promise to actually implement the findings of that review. Then there are some perennially impossible promises that are trotted out every year. Without fail, the idea of a campus shuttle bus makes an appearance in many of the candidate’s policy rosters, as it has done for many years. Be that from one end of the campus to the other, or from campus to campus, you best believe that a shuttle bus has played a starring role in the past decade of USU electoral politics. But that’s an example of something both specific AND genuinely never happening. Candidates go broad AND impossible as well. Whether it be ‘fixing’ revues or ‘fixing’ clubs or ‘fixing’ the environment. Either way, candidates promise the moon and deliver…not quite the stars, but maybe the clouds?


USU Campaign promises by category (2019-2020)

Vagaries

A common theme throughout this analysis was the use of passive language to communicate policy promises. If a candidate says they will “advocate”, “campaign”, “promote”, or “support” a certain policy goal rather than using active verbs, candidates can hedge their bets. Instead of saying that they’ll “Reduce the cost of food on campus”, candidates can say that they’ll “Push for the USU to investigate reducing the cost of food on campus.”

In many ways, these linguistic gymnastics are understandable. Especially for ambitious or progressive policy platforms, that might be all a candidate could possibly ever do. What’s more, the policy itself might not even be within the purview of the USU.

The purview of the USU

Many promises made, and broken by, candidates weren’t even possible to begin with. Throughout my discussions with board directors, there’s been a consistent theme: many of the pledges aren’t even within the domain of the USU. PNR doesn’t really have anything to do with the USU, yet everyone loves to promise to do something about it.

What’s next?

The upcoming election is unique. With such a small pool of factional left candidates, the board could look very different in Semester 2. With that in mind, there are a number of policy promises outstanding that would do a lot to improve the USU.

1. Transparency: Transparency is one of the USU’s greatest flaws, with perceptions of the student union as being mired by opacity and corporate quibbling. A transparency review was commissioned in August last year, the results of which have yet to be fully approved. Candidates should make actionable promises regarding the transparency of the USU and follow them through. Some simple things that would make the USU more transparent are the regular uploading of board meeting minutes (we’re still on December right now), the uploading of executive reports and motions to the website, the scheduling of a second round of questions before the board moves in camera, and a committed reduction to in-camera time.

2. Material and actionable promises: One of Honi’s favourite promises was Ruby Lotz’s infamous $6 garlic and cheese pizza. Not because we especially love garlic and cheese pizza, but because it’s highly achievable, actionable from the perspective of a board director, and something people will notice. That’s not to say board candidates with big picture promises shouldn’t be applauded, but it’s important to promise something that you know can happen for sure.

3. Language: If you’re gonna promise something, promise it using active language! If you can’t do that, then it’s probably not in the purview of the board or a board director. So ditch the waffle and promise something which you can “do”, “make”, or “increase”.

And finally, can someone please get us a shuttle bus!

Disclaimer: the author of this article knows absolutely nothing about being a candidate.

Editor’s note: this article originally stated that Wentworth Building was not a USU property. The author of this article would like to apologise to Wentworth and assure it that he had meant to take it out earlier.