The 2015 presidency of the Sydney University Students’ Representative Council (SRC) marks an historic turn for the organisation.
Kyol Blakeney will be the first Indigenous president in 20 years and the first non-Labor president in 14, having won 61 per cent of the vote.
If student politics operates as a mirror to campus, students provide the blueprint for change. This election and his victory seem to suggest there is a desire, at least within the 2,349 undergraduate students who voted for Blakeney, to shake the existing structures of student leadership and representation from the ground up.
And yet, a day after Blakeney was crowned 87th President of the SRC, among the insular bubble of student politicians there was an unprecedented level of distrust and suspicion cast on whether he had, in fact, won on fair grounds.
Throughout the gruelling three-week election, Blakeney’s campaign suggested that he would become the first Indigenous SRC president. Contrary to this assertion however, exactly 20 years ago Indigenous woman Dr Heidi Norman had already conquered this feat by winning the 1994 SRC election.
Blakeney, a third-year Education and Social Work student, currently resides in St. Andrews College and served as the SRC’s Indigenous Officer this year. Originally from Werris Creek in northern NSW, he attended Scots College on a program set up by Aboriginal educator Waverley Stanley that sends indigenous kids from remote and regional areas to private boarding schools, before coming to Sydney University.
His presidential campaign was part of the ‘broad coalition’ of Grassroots and Switch, an assemblage of left-wing activist and independent students. A Grassroots win represents an end to the Labor stronghold that has dominated the SRC, which not only places a considerable amount of pressure to carry on the torch that burns through Labor, but also a disbelief suggesting that this is a one-off – and that next year, Labor will come back with full force to reclaim the throne.
“Obviously, I feel a fair bit of pressure right now,” concurs Blakeney, rather matter-of-factly. “I would like to think that it wouldn’t go back to ‘normal’ by the end of my term, I would like the movement to keep going.”
“Grassroots is about empowering people and we want to bring that to the SRC. One of the things that I would aim to do to ensure that it doesn’t go back to your standard status-quo is to really promote what the SRC does so that students can actually come down and use the SRC’s services.”
“Vote for Kyol, he’ll be the first Indigenous president!” – this sentiment echoed the persistent pleas of many Grassroots and Switch campaigners during the election. The symbolic importance was highly evident: to have Indigenous student representation was rare and precious, but to also be a part of the inaugural campaign was what inspired many to get involved.
And yet, to define Blakeney’s candidacy by the colour of his skin presented certain problems and complexities, and not just to those who were on opposing campaigns, who simply couldn’t deny the importance of Indigenous student leadership on campus.
Without a doubt, Kyol’s Indigeneity mattered to his stature as a presidential candidate. Without it, he may not have been able to appeal so strongly to the emotions of hundreds of students who were either conscious of the racial inequality that still persists in areas of university, or are subject to it. At the same time, there were qualms – about racial polarization, about defining his candidacy on his ethnicity, and about creating the impression that not voting for the Indigenous candidate would suggest ignorance or racism.
“To an extent I believe that [race] had some influence over the campaign, but if you have heard me speak at previous campaigns, or read some of the articles I’ve written, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of symbolism or tokenism, and I don’t see it as a central part of the campaign,” says Blakeney.
But ‘symbolism’, ‘tokenism’, or ‘racial-redemption’ are all ideas used to deflect from the fact that within student politics, a veil of political correctness will often see sweeping, and often racist, generalisations or assumptions sneak past scrutiny.
It’s what allowed campaigners to tell voters that Blakeney “was a lazy man who just sits around smoking ciggies all day”, and for allegations that his campaign was built on ‘a lie’ that played the ‘race card’ to surface and spread like a plague .
“If I said I didn’t find it frustrating or that I was hurt I’d be lying,” says Blakeney. “For the people that did go out and call the campaign a lie and a sham, I’d ask them to reflect on themselves quite heavily about the types of things that they stand for. It’s not my job to educate them.”
Kyol’s campaign manager Bebe D’Souza has confirmed that none of the campaigners were aware of Dr Norman’s previous presidency during the election. “Of course, we would never want to take away from the achievements of Dr Norman … that’s an awful thing. But to call this a campaign tool is absolutely disgusting,” she says.
At some point, one wonders if Blakeney’s win actually matters for being the first, or second, or even third Indigenous presidency. To most, the fact that since 1929, and indeed the inception of the SRC, there have only been two Indigenous SRC presidents comes as rude shock at best and something to be expected at worst. It does, however, beg the questions: why do these inequalities still persist? Why are people of colour looked at with suspicion, doubt, or the suggestion that their victories are somehow inferior because they played ‘the race card’, or because of the skin colour they embody? At university, one would expect a higher bar to be set for inquiring minds to be more tolerant and open-minded.
“The idea that people would call the campaign ‘a lie’ or ‘a sham’ is actually quite insulting … for the reason that those people were basing this entire campaign on ‘oh you’re Aboriginal and that’s why you’re going get elected’,” he says. “I don’t want to be sitting in a room or on a board because I’m Aboriginal, I want be sitting in a room or a board and making suggestions because I have the skills and the knowledge to actually do that and make a change.”
For some, the overwhelming success and skills of Blakeney, an Aboriginal man, or D’Souza, as a woman of colour, is a reality that is a bit hard to swallow.
“Indigenous representation is always going to be an issue in society. If you want to talk about race or women’s issues coming into the campaign … they come into the campaign because they come into everyday life,” says D’Souza.
Similarly, Blakeney recalls his experience on the campaign trail: “At multiple points, I had gotten into debates about being Aboriginal in the sense of ‘you get all these bonuses’, and at the point you turn around and say ‘Mate, have you ever heard of the Gap? Do you know why we’re there? That’s what I’m trying to fix. So if you want to fix that and you want to see equality and you want to see Aboriginal people stop trying to take your bonuses that you think that we’re taking, vote for somebody that will actually make it happen, don’t vote for someone on the basis of tokenism.’”
For now, Blakeney’s name is added to the honour roll of presidents past – including High Court judge Michael Kirby, leading journalist Richard Walsh, international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, and of course, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
As for Blakeney, his priorities as SRC President for next year extend to three broad issues: opposing fee deregulation and fighting the reforms to higher education; ensuring that the university’s new student housing project will be affordable and accessible; and allowing as many students a voice in student issues as possible, whether through attending stakeholder meetings or using the SRC’s services.
While racial reconciliation is something that will go beyond just Blakeney’s campaign and his presidency, it suggests far from a stalemate situation. Indeed, to be the first or the second Indigenous president is irrelevant. What matters, is that minorities – Indigenous or other – are speaking out and being heard.
If there weren’t a vote to be cast in playing ‘the race card’, it would not be needed. The great shame about the world of student politics is that this is the prejudiced reality in which we win or lose.