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Thales, Pell, and Killer Robots: February Council meeting recap

The 95th rogues gallery convenes for the first time.

CW: Honi wishes to advise its readers that this article contains discussions of Nazism, sexual abuse, and the post-colonial oppression of First Nations people.

Freed at last from the dungeon-like subfloor of New Law, the 95th Council convened for their first meeting in the Instagrammable masterpiece that is the Abercrombie Business School. With the campus Liberals in their Sunday best, and NLS councillor Jack Scanlan sporting what can only be described as ‘Katter-core’, Honi prepared to spend a lengthy evening partaking in one of the last true bastions of student democracy.

Within the first ten minutes, we became wary that this meeting may run long on account of capricious questions and procedurals. Satvik Sharma (Liberals) confirmed our worst suspicions, raising some hard-hitting questions on his swipe card access to the Wentworth office and his pending invitation to the SRC Facebook group. Sigh.

Elections and reports 

Wednesday night saw the election of the SRC’s First Nations Officer Benjamin McGrory. McGrory made it clear his platform would be fighting University management on recent changes to its Confirmation of Aboriginality policy, which will see dozens of Indigenous students and staff lose access to scholarship opportunities, job placements and academic support.

Executive and Office Bearer reports followed, with many lauding themselves for building the recent Invasion Day rally on January 26. The room was enveloped in a moment of unbridled ecstasy following the news that the SRC office may be relocated. Windows? Fresh air? Sunlight? No more black mould? We’ll believe it when we see it.

Questions put to the Executive and Office Bearers were so thorough that we were two hours in before we saw a single motion.

Climate action and burst eardrums

Simon Upitis moved a motion to commit SRC support to the March 3 Climate National Day of Action. Upitis interrogated Grassroots on their plan to build support for the movement and oppose the Labor government’s record on climate action.

Satvik Sharma, regrettably unfamiliar with the tenets of microphone etiquette, went on a rant about “cheap power” and “inefficient bureaucracy” that left Honi’s ears ringing.

SRC President Lia Perkins felt the need to remind certain councillors about the voice-amplifying properties of microphones. Our eardrums were grateful, as was Upitis whose motion was carried.

George Pell and dissenting Liberals

Factions clashed over a motion calling for a protest at the funeral of sometimes-Catholic, always-paedophile Cardinal George Pell.

“Pell’s life did not occur in a vacuum” noted Yerin Park, speaking to the discrimination experienced by staff and students at private Catholic schools.

In a bizarre contribution, campus Liberal and Interfaith Officer Thomas Thorpe asserted “there has been no one more oppressed than […] Jesus Christ.”

The motion carried, with the Liberals continuing their unorthodox approach to Council proceedings by asking that their dissent to the Pell motion be publicly noted in the minutes. Questionable move.

Stir-fry and Thales

Following a 15-minute break, in which Honi enjoyed a delicious stir-fry (though remained jealous of the Liberals’ Dominos pizza), councillors heard a motion calling for the University to cut ties with French defence juggernaut Thales.

STEM students rose to support the motion, horrified at the idea their research and coursework should be appropriated for military applications. Among these speakers were Victor Zhang (Engineers) and Emma Garrett (Interpol), who argued against the exploitation of students for the benefit of defence corporations.

Satvik said he finds it “quite disgraceful that these people hate Australia [and] do not want to invest in protecting our democracy and human rights”.

Cooper Gannon (Liberals) agreed, yet somehow his argument strayed to the point of conflating Afghani civilians with Nazi troops?

“Talking about the Afghani civilians staring down the barrel of a Thales gun, does this same principle apply to Nazi German soldiers looking down the barrel of an Australian infantry gun in WWII?” said Gannon.

The motion carried, with Sharma and Gannon again noting their dissent.

In-person learning and NLS/Liberal harmony

On behalf of Disabilities Officer and former Honi editor Khanh Tran, Grace Wallman voiced the frustrations of students with a disability in the face of USyd’s new remote learning policy, which precludes onshore students from attending online classes. 

Disabilities Officer Jack Scanlan highlighted the University’s favourable bias towards able-bodied students.

“The provisions for remote learning were put in place because COVID was affecting able-bodied students. Now, with the vaccine rollout, it’s primarily disabled students that are being impacted by COVID, and yet the University is cutting off their access to learning.”

Emma Garret spoke plainly, “if students are paying to go to university, they should be able to learn in the manner that suits them best.”

In a rare moment of unity, Cooper Gannon spoke in support of the motion, stating that it would have a “positive impact on campus”.

Hasta la vista, Satvik

Moving on to general business, councillors heard a motion from Jack Scanlan on the dangers of autonomous killing machines (otherwise known as killer robots). 

The motion called for the SRC’s support of the “Stop Killer Robots” campaign and a boycott of the production of killer robots.

Said Scanlan, “chemists fought against chemical weapons, biologists opposed biological warfare, and physicists stood against nuclear armament. Now, computer scientists are fighting against the proliferation of autonomous killing machines.”

Satvik Sharma rose in opposition to the motion, despite the fact he didn’t seem to understand what the motion was about. Despite his comments about “stifling innovation” and the “looming threat of Chinese aggression,” the motion carried with a minor amendment.

Indigenous activism: it’s a white thing

Councillors heard two motions concerning the impending referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Despite there being only two First Nations people in the room, one of whom being preoccupied with writing this article, councillors pressed ahead with cases for and against a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous voice.

Jack Scanlan, of NLS fame, called the Uluru Statement From the Heart “a critical platform [for the NUS]” in his motion calling for the SRC’s support of a ‘Yes’ vote.

“There needs to be something in our Constitution to ensure Indigenous voices cannot be side-stepped.”

He spoke on the importance of “[Indigenous] self-determination” and the responsibility of the SRC to support a referendum.

Satvik Sharma dissented, claiming the SRC should “focus on the root causes of Indigenous disadvantage [and] bolster the industrial relations system”.

Hersha Kadkol (SAlt) agreed, stating “the Voice is a purely advisory body which our government can ignore. Not enough is being done about the root causes of oppression”.

Benjamin McGrory, the only Indigenous person in the room unburdened by Honi-related obligations, criticised the lack of First Nations voices on the motion.

“Where are the Indigenous students?” McGrory asked, condemning faction heads for failing to invite First Nations students to speak. Despite his valid points, McGrory was repeatedly shouted over repeatedly by the Liberals and SAlt, who maintained their authority as elected councillors to bring forward motions regardless of due representation.

In a second, more confusing motion, SALt’s Deaglan Godwin simultaneously opposed the Voice to Parliament but also condemned those leading the ‘No’ campaign.

Bryson Constable asked of the Council, “why have crime rates risen in the NT?” Honi asks, “what exactly does this have to do with the motion?”

As the debate grew in intensity, Honi got the distinct impression that many councillors didn’t fundamentally understand the Uluru Statement or the functionality of a Voice to Parliament. A proposed amendment from Satvik failed, with even his fellow Liberals struggling to comprehend the substance of the debate.

Finally, following some questionable, if not plainly offensive, comments from SAlt and the Liberals, and with no clear end in sight, the debate was suspended and the motion was tabled for the next meeting.

Set us free!

Councillors heard one final motion on the cost of living crisis, by which point we were longing for fresh air and the Honi stir-fry had become a sad, cold, starchy mess destined for the bin. Once the motion did eventually carry, the meeting closed at 12:08am.

Because the meeting continued past midnight, regulations state that any remaining business must be tabled for the next meeting, snowballing next month’s agenda. Honi prays this won’t become a trend with the 95th Council, but we can’t be sure of anything.

Honi will be back with coverage of the 95th Council’s second meeting on March 1, 2023. To see our chaotic live coverage, head to the Honi Twitter and Instagram.