Every year, the undergraduate USyd community begrudgingly goes to the polls for the SRC election. It’s much like its local, state, and federal counterparts. There are political ‘parties’, campaign slogans, ridiculous policy promises, aggressive campaigners, scrutineers – the lot.
But exempt from this otherwise perfect duplication is the absence of serious media coverage and scrutiny. Honi Soit is barred by the SRC constitution from reporting on anything to do with the election after the election edition – three weeks in advance of the close of polling. This results in a media blackout on the campaign. There is no analysis of policies, no candidate interviews, and no coverage of misleading campaign tactics or violations of electoral regulations.
Student elections are regularly mocked for being a poor demonstration of democracy (at times for good reason), but at least an adversarial media keeps the bastards honest. Honi’s special election edition does ‘cover’ the candidates in the race and the policies they peddle, but it only publishes statements written by the candidates themselves – Honi isn’t allowed to scrutinise anything.
This Wednesday, 6 August, a motion will be moved in the SRC to amend the constitution and remove this restriction. If the motion is passed, Honi would be able to report on the campaign trails. The relevant clause would be replaced by a requirement that the Electoral Officer would ensure its commentary is not defamatory and does not endorse any particular candidate.
The replacement clause aims to solve some of the issues that could arise from allowing Honi to report on the election. With a general monopoly on election coverage, Honi could wield considerable influence. Herein lies the importance of the Electoral Officer, who is deemed an appropriate arbiter of other aspects of the election. Other checks on Honi’s commentary would be the same as all other times of the year; lengthy debates about stupol issues on Facebook and letters which we duly publish. Ultimately, the more voices questioning election policies, the better.
One other oddity arises from the fact that the SRC election involves the very organisation Honi is funded (and ultimately run) by. This means that our motion would allow Honi to report on our successors and prospective co-workers. Earlier this year, preference deals between Honi tickets and SRC campaigns were outlawed. No longer are editorial teams indebted to any faction they might otherwise have run with. It can’t be denied that the stupol world is small and the editors will be part of the hacksphere, but despite those failings, Honi has reported on USU Board elections for years. Ideally that coverage is appropriate and fair, but every year we see stupol enthusiasts engage with the editorial approach and criticise it when necessary. We are kept to account.
Above all, students on campus need to know more than slogans and campaign promises. Honi can inform the student body about how the campaign is progressing, the relevance of certain preference deals, and any controversies that arise. With only 14% of eligible voters casting a vote each year, comprehensive media coverage is needed to generate interest in what is an important democratic process and to keep the hacks to account.
Student elections aren’t the be all and end all, but we can only take them seriously if we treat them seriously.
Illustration by Monica Renn.