USU Soapbox Recap 2023
Honi recaps the highs and lows of the USU’s annual political circus.
As per USU tradition, eleven Board candidates gathered at the Refectory on Wednesday for the annual Soapbox. At this event, candidates make their case directly to students (or in this case, a room filled with their own campaigners) as to why they should be elected to the USU Board. Chaired by the Director of Debates Sam Trotter, the two main student publications on campus, Honi and PULP, were joined by current USU President Cole Scott-Curwood to challenge candidates on their credentials.
Clubs, commanders, and killer robots
The Soapbox began with opening statements from the Board hopefuls. With a mere two minutes speaking time, candidates spoke broadly about their campaigns and principles. Most candidates spoke to the importance of clubs and societies (C&S) and outlined their key policies.
The age-old debate of whether the USU should engage in activism flared up once again, with Grace Porter (Unity — Labor Right), Sargun Saluja (National Labor Students — Labor Left), Grace Wallman (Switchroots) and Victor Zhang (Engineers) speaking strongly in favour of it. Cost of living, accessibility, and divestment from fossil fuels were cited by most candidates as issues that an activist union should tackle. It should be noted that (after a lengthy process and delay) the USU will fully divest from fossil fuels on June 30.
Porter spoke to the need of the USU to act as an “active countercourse against the insidious culture of sexual violence on campus,” through her policies which include implementing a standardised reporting system for SASH incidents at C&S events.
Victor Zhang used his opening remarks to argue that “the USU should do both activism and service provision,” adding “what does it say when one of the three student organisations on campus doesn’t fight and advocate for the needs of students?”
Zhang said that the USU ought to take a stand against rising militarism on campus due to the University’s ties to arms manufacturers such as Thales (joking that the USU could “invest in killer robots”). Conversely, joke candidate Ben Moore said that he’d install himself as Supreme Military Commander of the USU.
Increasing accessibility on campus was a plank that most candidates addressed and offered policy solutions to. Of these policies, a number focused on increasing disability accessibility on campus, specifically in relation to the University’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP), which is not registered on the website of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Grace Wallman (Switchroots) spoke to her experience as the inaugural Sydney University Law Society (SULS) Disability Officer, where she “experienced some of the most difficult sides of the USU,” and the need to foster higher disability inclusion and accessibility in C&S through the creation of Disabilities Officer roles and the prioritisation of a USU DIAP.
Julia Lim (Independent) was asked by Honi to name two measurable outcomes she’d want for a USU DIAP, and why. She answered that it could be as simple as ensuring that “all students find [USU buildings and outlets] accessible” and tangible measures could include “having ear plugs and quiet spaces available.”
Lim, who is the current Secretary of SULS, acknowledged that her policies were “very much built off of the work of… the previous and current [SULS] Disabilities Officers. That’s been Grace Wallman, that’s been Andrew [Shim] and Lucas [Kao].”
Accessibility for international students also featured prominently, with four international students candidates speaking: K. Philips (INTERPOL), Syed Ahmad Sabaat (Independent), Sargun Saluja and Teng Yong Khoo (Independent). (Teng Yong Khoo has since dropped out of the USU race).
Saluja said she would support international student welfare through “maintaining and expanding FoodHub” and “paying USU volunteers”. Sabaat said the USU should “be more transparent and create a more diverse USU app,” citing his experience as a software engineering student, while Khoo called for the USU to pressure the University to run a shuttle service to Central station, saying that the buses to Central “are always full”.
Philips said that they would increase accessibility by “making the election process better”. When pressed on this, they said they would have the USU “draw more attention” toward elections and “what each candidate stands for”. The USU already manages a page that features candidates and their policies, which can be found here.
Colleges and conservatives
Bryson Constable (Liberal) was questioned on whether his self-described “bold” support of the colleges would act as a hindrance to student safety at the Colleges, and why survivors of SASH at colleges should trust him to take their stories seriously. Constable rejected the claim and reiterated his support for the colleges, stating that they are treated as a “big boogeyman” compared to C&S.
Constable was also pressed as to whether he would take the role of Board Director seriously, given the disruptive behaviour of the Liberals at SRC council meetings. He said that he and the Liberals had “raised motions that are serious,” and “relate to issues students on campus are facing”. Some of these “serious” motions include calling for the SRC to support the abolition of the minimum wage and endorse Ron DeSantis for President.
The “Bens” were questioned by Honi on their conservative ties. Due to his frequent references to Constable’s campaign, Ben Moore was asked whether he was a Liberal in disguise. He rejected the claims, but when asked why he was “so obsessed” with Constable, he sheepishly remarked that the two were “lovers”. Ben Hines was asked what values he would bring to Board (specifically in relation to its corporate ties), given the perception that he is a Libdependent. For clarification, he is a former member of the Liberal Party and has previously served as Vice President of the Liberal Club. Hines said that he “disagree[d] with the premise of the question” and didn’t specify which values he would bring, except that he’s now “progressive”.
Is this democracy manifest?
It’s difficult to tell how genuinely popular candidates are at the USU soapboxes — the claps and cheers they receive come primarily from their own campaigners, rather than undecided students. If you wish to make your own voice heard, voting will take place online from Monday 8 May to Friday 12 May.
Editor’s note: Luke Mesterovic is a former member of Student Unity.