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On waning participation in elections

Why didn’t anyone challenge these candidates? What has changed? And, most importantly, what does it mean for the future of student democracy?

The elite culture of the University of Sydney is often examined in this paper, and has been cited as a reason for its student body’s lack of engagement in student politics in recent years. From the financial burden of election campaigns and underpaid SRC roles, to the cattiness and bigotry of much internal discord, and to the sheer time suck that stupol entails, working students face numerous barriers to involvement. 

In this year’s SRC, NUS and Honi Soit elections, the positions of SRC President and Honi Soit Editors were uncontested, much like in 2020. This means that the sole candidates for both positions were provisionally elected, in the case of President, upon the closure of nominations, or following the drop-out of a second Honi ticket. 

Naturally, this dearth of competition might be put down to the burden of stupol commitment, making for a space far more accessible to highly privileged individuals. However, there is no shortage of privilege at USyd. Just 9 per cent of its students come from a low socio-economic status background, while around a third of the student population has been educated at an independent school — a figure equal to Cambridge University. Though we acknowledge that structural and interpersonal classism, misogyny, racism and ableism limit the accessibility and appeal of student politics to many, they are by no means new phenomena on campus, or in these circles. 

That is not to dismiss the pertinence of discrimination at this University, but the apparent narrowing of the already-marginal group of engaged students needs further examination.   

There must, then, be another reason for why two of the last three elections for both SRC President and the Editors of Honi Soit have been uncontested — a lack of involvement that, before 2020, had not been seen for at least 50 years. 

Why didn’t anyone challenge these candidates? What has changed? And, most importantly, what does it mean for the future of student democracy?

Contested elections are the beating heart of student democracy. Effective democracy is driven by the process of selection, requiring a diversity of candidates in order for the mechanics of competition to take effect. Regardless of how suitable candidates may be for the positions they contend, elections demand them to hone their policies in a way which is not required of them in an uncontested election. More specific platforms ensue, along with a more active engagement from the student body, who in turn consider what they would like from their President or Honi Editors. Elections make for more polished candidates who’ve had to face greater scrutiny and pressure, ultimately improving their suitability for office. So, why didn’t these elections bring the benefits of effective democracy?

Our first thought is that the proportion of students who view student politics negatively is increasing, driven by the echo chamber of online platforms. A quick scroll through the now infamous USYD Rants 2.0 may suggest this: the number of posts that criticise stupol initiatives and institutions is galling. From lamenting industrial action and justified protests, to lambasting SRC figures and even grouching about Honi’s left-wing bias (despite its role as a fundamentally radical paper), complete disdain for student politics is apparent. 

However, USYD Rants is likely an inaccurate representation of the student body. The usual suspects linked to the campus right dominate the like counts of every post, reviling the campus left. Additionally, this includes significant engagement from those outside of the University’s student population. With a measly share of seats on council relative to the Left, and an unwillingness to contribute to a paper which is antithetical to their worldview, it seems that the campus right have found a home on the platform. Honi recently posited that the page is, as of late, saturated not only by “uninformed, right-wing takes,” but also media produced by conservative institutions on campus. 

This online disdain is therefore unlikely to reflect the predominant standpoint of USyd students towards student politics. Further, if it does, it is unlikely to have any effect on contested elections. The vast majority of takes on USYD Rants, and in the comment sections of the Conservative Club and its beloved The Australian, are frivolous material: anyone with a mild amount of critical thinking, and sufficient engagement in student politics to consider contesting an election, would realise this. Beyond this, and despite their own apparent disdain, Young Liberals do frequently contest and campaign in elections: whether they openly present or attempt to conceal their conservative platforms, disdain towards student politics bears little effect on whether these elections are actually contested. 

Is there instead distaste towards the election process itself? It appears that potential candidates are wary of the arduous nature of stupol campaigns, and thereby dissuaded from contesting elections. When the 2019 SRC elections brought physical clashes, shouting matches and revelations of candidates’ reprehensible political beliefs, interested parties may have then been reluctant from contesting President and Honi Soit Editor roles in the 2020 election — especially in the midst of an entirely remote campus. 

Similarly, the 2021 elections led to tense disputes over the claims of both presidential candidates running on progressive platforms, as well as numerous complaints of regulatory offences among the running Honi tickets. Is a subsequent uncontested election the necessary consequence of a particularly tough one? Are prospective candidates deterred by such recent electoral bitterness? We would hope not, but do feel that the lingering effect of a previous year’s election may stunt the possibility of a contest. Among the numerous other causes for disdain towards elections previously mentioned, this self-preserving aversion to conflict may have a strong influence on electoral competition.

Admittedly, in the case of Honi elections, there are long-standing structural reasons for why contested elections are fundamentally less likely to come about. Though 2021 was hotly contested by two tickets comprised of competent and politically-similar candidates, it was possibly the exception. There is a consistent trend in Honi elections of a single serious ticket running against a “joke” or dysfunctional ticket, with the latter either dropping out, imploding, or losing by a landslide (see: Cream for Honi, Pictures of Spiderman for Honi, etc). This relates to the difficulty of finding ten competent and willing editor-hopefuls to take on a notoriously taxing and historically underpaid job. Additionally, the negotiations that almost always determine that ten person ticket — rife with poaching, amalgamation, and the like — often limit the possibility of a contest. These reasons are by no means novel, but nonetheless are likely to have impacted the uncontested nature of 2020’s and this year’s election.

This leads us to our final potential justification for the recent lapse in contested elections – which may well underpin all of the above concerns. That is, the University has been plagued by a general malaise of student indifference to campus life. We attend an institution drained by the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism, then by the Liberal Government’s draconian limit on maximum durations of study for those under Commonwealth Supported Places, and decimated by the in-and-out culture of university attendance brought about by remote learning. 

Students have little choice but to slot themselves into USyd’s neoliberal degree machine. Though many embody the staunch, left-wing passion for leadership that would befit the President of an activist union such as the SRC, or the love of writing and desire for radical change that would befit an Honi Editor, they are indifferent to these roles that they should be contesting. Or, even if they would like to take the role on, they can’t face the trade off of a later graduation, an overpacked schedule or a third job.

If the University’s primary function has evolved into merely providing degrees, the possibility of interested students getting involved in student politics has similarly diminished. Positions in student elections are less likely to be contested because fewer students are prompted to extend themselves beyond their degree requirements in the first place. If they do, it is unlikely they will choose to participate in a space that is so regularly criticised by unmoderated student platforms and the Australian media landscape (see: NewsCorp’s recent lambasting of Honi’s Week 7 cover), that is so associated with bitter conflict, and that, in our eyes, has been routinely misunderstood.

The key issue is that, despite the immense privilege that students at this university hold, it seems that engagement with the student union has waned. Given that our SSAF fees go to the SRC and its functions, this should be a cause for personal concern. 

When we are indifferent towards student politics, we neglect the development of a vibrant and edifying university culture. Any risk of a further depoliticised campus should thus be avoided at all costs. 

Eamonn Murphy and Andy Park are provisionally elected as the incoming editors of Honi Soit as part of Shake for Honi.