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‘There are unionists in this room that do fuck all!’: April SRC Meeting Recap

Protests good, election bad.

Photography by Khanh Tran.

CW: The article feature discussions of sexual harassment, assault and Indigenous death in custody.

Have you ever looked at your life and thought: ‘right now, I want to be watching a series of adults argue — not without vitriol — about a motion nobody actually dissents to’? If you have, this month’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC) Meeting was the event for you!

Honi, fuelled by vegan fruit tingles, lounged at the back of a New Law Seminar Room while your elected representatives had it out over the Federal Election, staff strikes and education policy. Read ahead for the highlights and lowlights, moments of clarity and the most dubious takes of the night:

Resignations, reports and returning officers.

As usual, the meeting began with reports from the SRC’s Office Bearers and other administrative formalities. 

In unexpected news, Women’s Officer and Women’s Collective Convenor Maddie Clark announced that she would be resigning from the position. “Sadly I will be leaving this office, this will be my last SRC meeting as Sydney Uni Women’s Officer,” Clark said, promising to remain active within campus organising. Elections for her replacement will be held within WoCo in the next few weeks.

SRC President Lauren Lancaster’s report announced that the SRC has rehired Riki Scanlan as the Returning Officer for this year’s SRC Elections, which will take place in Semester 2. Lancaster also noted that she has been involved in drafting updates to the SRC Constitution. Her report further  drew attention to the regrettably endemic SRC mould: “there has been no response from the University about OHS concerns… now it’s either sue or occupy,” she said,  “I resent the mould.” 

We – wheeze – do too. 

Also pertinent was the announcement of potential plans to host the 2022 NUS EdCon at USyd. Vice President Mikaela Pappou described the Conference as “really good, important political debate… a really good opportunity.”

In her report, Vice President Emily Storey (Engineers) discussed the recent mishaps with the SRC and USU’s Foodhub project: “We would still really like to have a strong working relationship with the USU, however online communication with them throughout this project has proved to be quite ineffective for all parties.”

Also in administrative errors, General Secretary Grace Lagan (Unity) criticised the University for failing to pay student contractors through the late payment of Welcome Week grants.  “The Uni Welcome Week Grant program team has not been great … it’s detrimental to the University,” Lagan said. 

With these updates discussed, it was time to get to the real drama of the meeting: motions. Debate was characterised by a variety of clashes between Labor and SAlt attendees, with Grassroots and Solidarity sometimes entering the fray. The Liberals were, frankly, nowhere to be seen, much like absentee Senate Fellow Gabi Stricker-Phelps.

Labor vs SAlt vs Solidarity Part One: Activism 

The meeting’s first taste of controversy came via a series of debates about how, and when, to do activism. The first motion of the night, proposed by Environment Officer Tiger Perkins (Switchroots), pertained to the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill (2022), which is described as suppressing climate activism.

NLS speaker Gerard Buttigieg described the Bill as “completely undemocratic”, to which SAlt member Owen Marsden-Readford replied, “well your Party [the ALP] has a long history of that!” 

Solidarity Councillor Angus Dermody also fell prey to SAlt heckles as he tried to tell the Council: “Anyone who cares about the right to protest will support this bill.” SAlt’s sizable audience contingent let out a variety of semi-comprehensible complaints about the rival Trotskyist faction’s protest strategies before a frustrated Angus exclaimed, “Yeah so true, Soli’s never been to a protest at Town Hall!” 

Ex-SAlt member Maddie Clark wouldn’t let the factions’ two-year-old strategic beef die, complaining that Solidarity’s strategy in the 2020 education protests involved “split-off tiny demonstrations, so small that police could actually crack down” and harking back to SAlt’s Democracy is Essential campaign. Ahh, nostalgia. 

Owen Marsden-Readford jumped on the bandwagon, accusing Solidarity of having “a right-wing position, tailing the perspective of Labor.” 

Switchroots-adjacent SULS-notable Felix Wood also managed to attract some flak, after describing the Bill as “not only undemocratic in its content, it was undemocratic in its passing”.“

“That was… really right-wing,” a SAltie replied.

The next motion, which endorsed the Education Action Group’s (EAG) campaign for solidarity with staff strikes, drew Labor back into the fray, after SAlt taunted NLS and Unity councillors to speak. 

SAlt member and former Education Officer Tom Williams described the motion as “a test of your politics” and criticised other factions for “appealing to the VC, to Labor and to Australian capitalism. Where do you side?”

Mikaela Pappou responded that NLS supports union members “taking a stand”, in response to which SAlt observed her absence from EAG meetings. Pappou replied “I work,” accusing SAlt of being anti-worker and spending EAG meetings on fruitless arguing. 

“There are people in this room who call themselves unionists but do fuck all,” said SAlt’s Yasmine Johnson, “You don’t need a personal invite to come to EAG meetings.” 

Labor vs SAlt Part Two: Corruption

The next motion continued the SAlt and Labor clashes, with councillor Julian Alley, who was elected on a Switch ticket but seems a devout Laborite, proposing a motion in support of a Federal ICAC.

SAlt’s Owen Marsden-Readford suggested the motion was effectively supporting the Labor Party by stealth, by endorsing one of their policies. 

“I was just as happy as everyone to see Gladys squirm in front of ICAC, but the problem in politics isn’t corruption,” he said, “It doesn’t matter who is in parliament, but who is in the streets.”

Shouting broke out between the two factions, with Labor councillors accusing SAlt of supporting pork-barrelling. 

Despite the considerable consternation the motion provoked, no one dissented. Maybe corruption is unequivocally bad after all. 

Labor vs SAlt Part Three: Electoralism

A repeated theme of the night was ~discourse~ over whether the SRC should engage with the upcoming Federal Election. Socialist Alternative, and some Grassroots speakers, suggested that activists should focus on protests rather than weigh in on political parties. 

A motion proposed by Akee Elliot on the budget argued that “Both of these parties are fundamentally committed to Australian capitalism.” “This is a question of strategy. The Labor party has nothing for us. What they’re choosing is in the class war, they’re choosing the side of the bosses,” Elliot said. 

Mikaela Pappou, ever-willing to be drawn into the debate, dissented to the motion, sloganeering: “childcare, Medicare, aged care, because Labor cares.”

SAlt’s Simon Upitis insisted: “the real struggle is not between Labor and Liberal but between activism and parliamentarism.”

If the general tone of the meeting gave you the impression that SAlt doesn’t view campaigning in elections as a viable political strategy, you would be wrong. 

Hersha ‘she doesn’t even go here’ Kadkol announced to the meeting that “I’m going to say something that might surprise some of you… I’m going to be campaigning in the Federal Election.” Kadkol revealed she would be campaigning for the Victorian Socialists, which she claimed was different from other political parties because it isn’t “just about wheeling and dealing” and isn’t just “a voice within the so-called Australian parliamentary Left.” 

Labor and SAlt vs Grassroots: Free Education

One motion, however, united Labor and SAlt. The two factions drew together to oppose a motion… in favour of abolishing student debt. Despite, perhaps, being the one issue you might expect a bunch of left-wing university students to manage to agree on, the factions accused Switchroots of implicitly promoting the Greens by endorsing their policy.

SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins was sure to disclaim that the motion was not an endorsement of the Greens as a whole, just the policy. Lauren Lancaster suggested it was a “no brainer for us to throw our support behind this policy.”

However, SAlt speaker Eddie ‘no relation’ Stephenson nonetheless opposed the Greens, saying that “whoever ends up in government, they will be the enemies of students because they will be running Australian capitalism.”

Mikaela Pappou agreed with SAlt — who didn’t seem particularly receptive to this prospective allegiance — saying “We should not be supporting a tree Tory party like the Greens.”

Unity’s Grace Hu joined in, acknowledging that “free education is good” but complaining, pitifully, that it is “a bit mean” to criticise Labor’s education policy. Hu argued that the Greens were simply trying to appeal to their base of people working in “creative advertising”, who for reasons unspecified were the chief proponents of free university. It’s a bit rich to complain about yuppie professionals as… a law student.

Deaglan Godwin emerged as a voice of reason, saying “I’m not really interested in turning this into a debate between the Greens and Labor” to feverish nods from your bored Honi editors. 

He acknowledged the motion wasn’t a carte blanche endorsement of the Greens, but criticised the Party nonetheless for “a parliamentary strategy slightly to the left of Labor.”

Grace Lagan was not willing to let the Greens vs Labor debate die, however, embarking on a lengthy speech about the choice facing students at the Federal Election: “we have a choice between a party that has done nothing for higher education… and a government that promises free tafe and funding for universities.”

In the end, Labor councillors broadly abstained from the vote, while SAlt’s lone councillor voted no, for some reason.

Things people (mostly) agreed on: 

Actions surrounding the NSSS 

Despite the rancour and disagreements that flew by, there were moments where consensus did shine through. The room rallied around devastating findings from the recently published 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) results with Lauren Lancaster condemning the University’s records on sexual harassment and assault.  

“Safer communities is fucked, they do nothing. They pander to Colleges, they pander to the Colleges’ rhetoric, they continually under-resource CAPS [Counselling and Psychological Services],”

Pointing out a lack of engagement with actions organised by WoCo by other organisers and allies, Lancaster demanded that activists must be involved in the collective’s work. 

“I’ll be fucking honest with you, not many people show up to any of these meetings. We need more people. We need more allies showing up,” she said, urging members of the campus left to participate in feminist activism. 

“If you call yourself a left-wing person and interested in the liberation of the working class or people from systems of oppression, you will engage with radical feminist organising.”

In a similar vein, Clark argued that “we have to step away from” from solutions surrounding disciplinary codes of conduct or the police and instead focuses on “striking [for] the best conditions in pay”.

“We have to see the issue of sexual assault on our campuses as linked to women’s oppression and capitalism,” said Clark, arguing that mass organising should form the crux of post-NSSS actions. 

On the other hand, Bella Anderssen (Engineers) highlighted a culture of sexual harassment in Engineering and favoured a combination of strategies targeted at consent education as key to addressing student safety. 

“As a woman in STEM, this is one of the reasons I got into the SRC because sexual harassment is rampant in engineering. It is time for more training, awareness and talking,” she said.

Anderssen went further, reminding Council that discussions of sexual assault often gloss over the role of academics who hold positions of power over students and other staff. 

“It is time that we call out these old white men. As a student leader, a lot of this often falls on us,” said Anderssen, “The responsibility should not lie on victims to tell their stories.” 

Abolishing the USSC

Bipartisanship also presided over the Council’s reaction to the appointment of Michael Green as the United States Studies Centre’s CEO last week, even if Lancaster’s motion attracted criticism from Global Solidarity Officer Jasmine Al-Rawi (SAlt) over what is now an oft-repeated theme of the night: not being focused on mass struggle. 

Taking issue with Lancaster’s motion, which proposed that “the SRC President raises concerns with University Management as to Green’s appointment”, Al-Rawi raised Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott’s background in the NSW Liberal Party and criticised that Lancaster’s proposed solutions risked “appealing to the enemy”. 

“You actually have to address the entire[ly] objectionable existence of the USSC. Which I know is put in the motion but it is not reflected in the action points,” she said, perceiving the motion as giving space for negotiations with university management.

Characterising the USSC as an “imperialist, right-wing” institution, Al-Rawi moved an amendment to replace the second action point of Lancaster’s motion with: “The SRC will oppose the imperialist agenda of the USSC as a whole”. 

What ensued was a flurry of confusion as Mikaela Pappou attempted to move a foreshadow motion at the same time as Al-Rawi was standing at the podium. Pappou’s counter-amendment proved in vain following a procedural clarification from Secretary to Council Julia Robbins.

Al-Rawi’s amendment soon passed with broad support from all Councillors. 

Supporting Student welfare

No controversy arose from Welfare Officers Grace Wallman and Eamonn Murphy’s worthy motions about improving Discontinue Not to Count as Fail (DNCF) processes and making attendance requirements more responsive to COVID-19. 

Discussing the struggles of many students navigating the DNCF process, Wallman implored the Council to support activism and lobbying USyd to implement student-friendly administrative processes. 

“This is disabled students, students who rely on paid work” she said, expanding on the burdens that the current DNCF system places upon working class and disadvantaged students. 

“The University claims that they care about supporting students but the failure of the system just on every level is ridiculous.” 

Backing Wallman’s assessment of university administration, Murphy spoke on a motion to ask the SRC to voice concerns surrounding class attendance given consistently high COVID-19 cases in NSW in the past weeks. 

“Everyone at the moment has COVID. COVID-related absences [are] being counted towards total absences over the semesters leading to students unable to meet their attendance requirements,” he said. “It [USyd] is failing to provide this system, increasing the risk of students failing subjects.”

Perkins agrees, labelling USyd’s response to COVID-19 as “disgusting” amid other speakers’ call for implementations of fairer measures to prevent “staff being forced to teach from their hospital beds”.

Both motions secured overwhelming confidence from the room. 

Justice for Kumanjayi Walker

One of the last discussions of the night honed on the Northern Territory Supreme Court’s acquittal of Constable Zachary Wolfe for the death of Kumanjayi Walker, a Warlpiri man, during an arrest in 2019. The decision attracted community outrage over revelations of Wolfe’s “violent” policing history. 

“If you cannot look to the courts, what can we look to?” Brendan Tate (SAlt) said as they spoke of the need to mobilise students in protest movements against the decision. SULS Campus Director Onor Nottle (Switch) concurred, labelling the NTSC’s decision as “an indictment on our legal system”. 

Similarly, Ella Haid (SAlt) deemed the outcome in Walker’s death as a “perfect example of how there is no neutrality [in] this state … under capitalism” and criticised the suppression orders made on Wolfe’s policing records.

“If there cannot be a neutral state, then we cannot look to the courts.” said Haid as she encouraged the Council to emulate mass protests seen during 2020’s Black Lives Movement across Australia and in the United States. 

With that, the first in-person SRC Council Meeting drew to a finale with bleary-eyed Honi editors, Office Bearers and activists departing the New Law Building until next month.

The next meeting of the SRC will be held on Wednesday 4 May.