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Judge for yourselves: USU Board candidate interviews

Honi Soit chats to the Board Director candidates vying for your vote

On May 2 2016, the same day the University of Sydney Union voted against deregistering the Evangelical Union, the Honi Soit editors interviewed the Board Director candidates vying to make equally difficult and influential decisions on behalf of the student body.

We interviewed nine candidates from across the political spectrum, representing a variety of groups on campus. We asked about policy, political stance, pragmatism and principle. Those elected as Board Directors will be empowered to make far-reaching decisions about student money, and determine what the ‘student experience’ means at the University of Sydney.

Watch on, and consider who fits your vision for a better Union.


Dom Bondar – “Is Dom. Is Good.”

Interviewed by Natalie Buckett and Sam Langford.

Dom Bondar spoke eloquently about the welcome introduction of Garlos pies across campus food outlets. This was about the only concrete knowledge Dom seemed to have about the services provided by the Union.

For a candidate who admitted voters might be concerned by his limited knowledge of the Union, Dom is seeking to implement some major changes to it. His policy statement advocates Voluntary Student Unionism as part of an overarching desire to “simplify the Union”, and introducing an ANZAC week equivalent of festivals such as Radical Sex and Consent Week.

Dom advocates “simple, common sense changes”. Few of his policies actually make much sense though. When questioned on his proposed plan to direct money towards alternative student publications such as Mon Droit, Dom’s only idea was fundraising. When reminded Mon Droit already receives financial support from the union, the policy drizzled down to simply constructing more newspaper stands around campus.

This may point to a broader issue in Dom’s understanding of Union financing. Dom performed last in the quiz by a significant margin, and claimed the revenue of the USU was one-tenth of its actual sum.

Dom, like his fellow conservative candidate Esther Shim, bases his appeal on catering to a “different” group of students. Dom passionately announced he would not have deregistered the Evangelical Union, and went as far as to say “religious freedom” on campus should be “paramount”.

The problem with Dom’s major policy proposals is that they’re fairly unachievable in the context of an otherwise progressive group of student Board Directors. Luckily, Dom doesn’t believe his pivotal opposition to the Student Services and Amenities Fee or cutting the payment of Board Directors would prevent him from working peacefully with other candidates should they be elected. This may be because he doesn’t really know who they are, as Dom struggled to discuss the merits, or policies of any current candidate aside from Esther.

Dom might cater to a conservative group less likely to be involved in the politics and activities of the Union, however this does not provide an adequate justification for his significant lack of knowledge about the Union he wishes to make such drastic cuts and changes to.

Grace Franki – “Embrace Grace”

As Grace Franki was a campaign manager on SCOOP for Honi, she was interviewed by Alexi Polden and Eden Faithfull. Her profile was solely written by Eden Faithfull.

Grace Franki is running as an independent, though her policies reveal a progressive platform. Her Honi interview demonstrates she is well read on matters of fine print often overlooked by other candidates, such as Board members’ fiduciary duties, and is enthusiastic about a student-driven USU.

When asked the tough questions, Grace remained composed and confident, taking time to consider each answer thoroughly before replying with generally precise responses.

With the promise of a long-anticipated USU app amongst her policies, Grace elaborated on her ability to cooperate with Board members to develop it, also referencing her internship at Google.

Grace believes it is important Board members establish professional relationships. When asked how her friendship with current Board member Michael Rees would affect her candidacy, she pointed to the example of Rees and Olivia Ronan, another member of Board. Both had been friends before being elected to the USU, and Grace believes this could foster nothing but a positive working relationship. Grace referred to this as a “continuity” of friendship. However, she failed to mention how this “continuity” would accommodate possible differences in ideologies among Board members.

When asked to name a policy of hers that differentiated her from the rest of the candidates, Grace’s dignified pause became pregnant, indicating that her policies constitute a run-of-the-mill platform. Though somewhat unimaginative, the policies promise attainable objectives that Grace appears to have assembled with consideration.

Grace scored a rather impressive 76 per cent in the Honi quiz, demonstrat- ing a comprehensive knowledge of cur- rent Board and C&S trivia. A notable slip-up was misidentifying the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Tyrone Carlin, as Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor himself. Grace also made an error in reporting the number of times a board member may miss meetings without being dismissed, as well as the number of international students that attend Sydney University. This may be reason for pause considering the importance of these points, though she should be commended on her impressive result.

James Gibson – “No more games, just vote James”

Interviewed by Naaman Zhou and Max Hall.

James Gibson is the idealist’s idealist: articulate in defense of abstract views, floundering and abject when pressed on detail or knowledge.

His quiz performance was pretty shocking. Not only did he place second last overall, but a series of gaffes indicated his relative youth and inexperience. He claimed, for instance, that a pide cost $8.50 and that current USU President Alisha Aitken-Radburn was one of this year’s OWeek directors.

A centrepiece of James’ platform – ever the good Labor unionist – is to increase the pay of everyone employed by the Union, from your elected Board Directors to your baristas, to a fair, living wage. James, however, seemed unaware of what a ‘living wage’ for a director was – nominating a mere $6 000. On top of the substantial wage costs, James has promised a $5 000 donation to Muslim groups and $50 000 to a charity, as well as subsidised advertising and skills training for all students.

This policy platform is undercut by a fundamental lack of knowledge about the Union, especially its financials. James misstated the USU’s revenue by half, claimed that its employees were exempt from tax (they’re not) and failed to offer a plan to pay for the significant outlay (read: potentially millions) of his proposals.

In better news, his policy for an online revamp of Orion and C&S organisation is well thought-out and sure to be popular with clubs and societies, likewise his proposal for a racism-tackling, USU-led Interfaith Council seemed well-intentioned.

James was evasive when asked about SLS’s requirement that its elected members comply with and vote for the faction’s positions, first claiming he had “full autonomy” then acknowledging he was bound by their decisions, even if he believed these to oppose the interests of students.

James was adept at couching his answers in a politically balanced, caveat-heavy register that will probably ensure he avoids too much controversy this election. When his middle-of-the-road candidacy is considered with a lack of knowledge about the Union he seeks to change financially and politically, his capacity to achieve that change is questionable at best.

Cameron Hawkins – “Captain Hawkins”

Interviewed by Mary Ward and Natalie Buckett.

Best known for his part-joke, part-anti-establishment protest ticket in last year’s SRC election, Cameron Hawkins’ bid for Union Board is no gag this time. Yet, for an individual whose C&S experience spans 12 societies, Cameron’s difficulty in answering questions about the role and activities of the Union might strike you as a little bit funny.

Whilst Cameron is quick to assure us he is taking this election more seriously than the last, he failed to produce any substantial distinction between his approach this time and last time, except that “This time I’ve got actual policies that are serious, and not things like abolishing gravity from campus.” Cameron admitted he hasn’t put much effort into his role as an SRC officer, however said his C&S “experience” should convince voters of his commit- ment to the Union.

Cameron performed surprisingly well in his quiz, which might boost voter confidence in his capacity to take the role of Board Director seriously. Coming third overall, Cameron guessed the USU’s overall revenue and the USU’s SSAF funding to the dollar. During his interview, Cameron was most impressive when discussing how the C&S program can be helped, explaining that the process of organising meetings and AGMs often trips up club executives.

But, while Cameron has a good understanding of the USU from a student perspective, he seemed to be less clear on the operation of the Board itself. He did not understand what the process of the Board taking meeting proceedings “in camera” meant, however, when the concept was explained he said he was “all for transparency” and said SSAF-paying constituents should be privy to conversations about CEO salaries and similar. It took him 55 seconds of thinking to say who he thought was the Board’s most effective member elected last year (Michael Rees, who will also receive Cameron’s vote for president), and he was unable to name a “best policy” the Board has developed over the past year.

Cameron’s experience with C&S would be an asset to the board, provided Cameron takes the role seriously enough to educate himself on the range of other activities he would have to engage with as a board director.

Koko Kong – “Can do Koko”

Interviewed by Andrew Bell and Naaman Zhou.

Koko Kong is a single-issue candidate. Every policy in the first-year international student’s campaign pitch is aimed squarely at her fellow students-from- abroad. On this point, Koko is eloquent and genuine, motivated by an injustice that few of us can quibble with – that international students represent a fifth of our University but are almost totally socially and politically marooned.

Koko’s campaign aims at increasing international student involvement – reserving a place on every Club and Society executive for an international student, and creating an International student portfolio within the board.

It’s something of a purposefully narrowed platform. Even when given the opportunity to expand her scope in discussing non-international student reforms, she expressed no desire to do so. Koko stuck to her guns that her proposed international portfolio could only be filled by international students, even if this meant it laid dormant in years where no appropriate candidate served on the board. She described a domestic student acting as an advocate as “pointless”.

Koko decided against taking our quiz, but based on her interview, there are genuine concerns around her knowledge of the USU. Koko was the only candidate to be completely unaware of the recent EU deregistration issue – arguably the single most prominent scandal the Board has faced in the past year. She told us outright that it was an issue she “hadn’t thought about before”.

Similarly, her C&S experience is meagre, however she cites structural barriers faced by international students as the primary reason for this. In the end many directors learn on the job, but given Koko’s notable youth and inexperience with the Union, it is sure to be a steep learning curve.

That is not to say she is not a political operator. Whilst she expressed admiration for Grace and Esther, the other independent candidates, Koko stated preferences were a matter for her campaign manager to decide; a reply worthy of the most seasoned factional hack.

Koko is clearly passionate and determined to improve the place of international students in the USU’s programs – whether that is enough to carry her over the line remains to be seen.

Sam Kwon – “Give a damn, vote Sam”

Interviewed by Alexandros Tsathas and Naaman Zhou.

Sam Kwon is personable, political and boasts enough campus experience that his following is equal parts friends and faction. However, he arrived at our interview having put less thought into the feasibility of his policies than we did – acting at times like a candidate ambushed by his own ideas.

Sam’s major policies telegraph the kind of idealism you would expect from a self-styled progressive. The question is whether this is supported by any practicality.

His ethnocultural quota is a can of worms. Sam told us it would apply to USU employees who self-identify as “marginalised by white supremacy”. But citing a belief that “you shouldn’t police anyone’s identity,” his policy has no oversight mechanism or appeals process. He ended up admitting his own plan would accept people he personally believed did not qualify, such as those of Hungarian heritage. Similarly, despite promising “more taps and bubblers”, Sam did not know how many bubblers the USU currently operates, or if it can even legally access Sydney Water.

When reminded that many of his policies, such as noodle markets and more vegetarian food, had been promised in the past without success, Sam’s answer was limp: “I can add one more to the yes vote.”

Sam was disappointing, if not terrible in his quiz performance. He was one of only two candidates to claim the USU ran at a surplus (it has a deficit of $1.9 million). Sam also stumbled over what legal fiduciary duties a director owes the USU, trying to claim that former Vice-President Tom Raue had “expressed his fiduciary duties” by leaking confidential information, when in fact, he had broken them, triggering a lengthy court battle last year.

A member of Labor Left faction NLS, Kwon is accountable to a “binding caucus”, and all but confirmed fellow NLS member Jack Whitney as his pick for President. Yet in contrast to his Labor Left stablemate James Gib- son, Sam hinted at a sense of personal principle. He said he would leave NLS if he fundamentally disagreed with his caucus and promised to withhold confidential Board information from his faction. We left with the impression that Sam’s policies – whilst undercooked – would be fought for with some political independence.

Esther Shim – “Shimmy on Board”

Interviewed by Max Hall and Sam Langford.

Esther Shim attributes her recent disassociation with the Sydney University Liberal Club to “becoming more socially progressive”. Interestingly, progressivism isn’t really reflected in a policy statement with a strong focus on keeping things the same, such as preserving free college ACCESS cards.

Where her policy statement does introduce new ideas, they are mostly vague. When asked how the impending demolition of Bosch would impact her plans to introduce a Unimart-style USU outlet, it was unclear whether she was aware of the demolition plans at all. Another policy ensuring ACCESS members can ‘access’ any event apparently refers to recent instances of individuals being barred from SULC events, though Esther acknowledged that the average punter probably wasn’t going to make that connection.

Esther’s youth and energy lends vibrancy to her ideas ,such as her suggestion to merge the Verge Festival with SURG for “some kind of music festival” supporting “young artists and musicians on campus”. However, whilst Esther’s optimism is appealing, it also points to a lack of experience in dealing with the Union. In her quiz, Esther immensely overstated the revenue of the USU was $1.6 billion (in reality falling closer to $22 million). Despite her popular “save Unibros” policy, Esther could not identify the cost of one of their pides. When passionately announcing her mentoring program seeking to overcoming the “domestic/International enclave kind of barrier”, Esther hesitated before requesting a copy of her policy statement in order to explain the policy.

Esther claims, as most candidates do, to represent students presently sidelined by the board. In her case, this is potentially true – she has policies geared towards engaging college students, and describes herself as having a “personal Christian faith”, which she argues would have been helpful in preventing the recent USU v EU situation from escalating to an “us versus them” situation.

Overall, Esther seems enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but it is unclear whether she has the institutional knowledge and policy clarity necessary to effect real change on Board. To her credit, she’s upfront about this limitation: while she didn’t know the fiduciary duties of Australian board directors, she at least told us she was happy to read up on it.

Vanessa Song – “V for Vanessa”

Interviewed by Andrew Bell and Mary Ward.

Vanessa Song, as one of the more experienced candidates across the field, outperformed many of her fellow candidates when discussing the role of the Union and the reality of its politics.

However, following successive controversies surrounding her roles as the SRC’s Wom*n of Colour Officer and Publicity Officer of SHADES, the burning question is whether her track record of performing on-campus roles intermittently or poorly should inform voters’ decisions. She blamed emails sent to the wrong accounts and strict parents as reasons for her absences, adding that she would take less than three subjects if elected.

For a candidate with so much C&S experience, Vanessa’s quiz performance might indicate rumours as to her shaky executive performances are true. Vanessa claimed the controversial ’10 free event’ rule for C&S was still in place, despite recently being overturned by the Board with much student media attention. Vanessa’s understanding of the Union’s revenue was also blatantly wrong, claiming the Union made half as much revenue as it does in reality.

Vanessa was undoubtedly passionate, however her eagerness to please her fellow students often gave the impression she was searching for the “correct” answer, rather than the most realistic or accurate one. She adamantly stated that elected executive salaries should unequivocally be on the record in the interest of transparency, yet would only publicly discuss other management positions at the consent of the individual. This position effectively came at the cost of her stance on transparency

Similarly, when questioned about the recent Evangelical Union controversy, Vanessa claimed her ideal approach encompassed “consistency” as well as a “case-by-case”, individualised approach.

Vanessa’s experience became more apparent when capably answering questioning relating to her fiduciary duties, saying that she would abide by those duties even if she perceived it to be in the interests of students, since those students were electing her to a position subject to those duties.

Vanessa’s knowledge of what is expected from a board director surpasses most of her fellow candidates. Whether she will live up to those expectations, given her performance at other student representative roles, remains a relevant question for voters to consider.

Courtney Thompson – “Count on Courtney”

Interviewed by Alexandros Tsathas and Sam Langford.

Courtney Thompson is one of this year’s most experienced candidates, with a long history of involvement in the USU (C&S executives, revues, festival director) as well as other student groups on campus such as the Wom*n’s Collective. Given this experience, which saw her place second in the Honi quiz, it is surprising to see some of the tired and often unachievable policies of yesteryear recycled in her policy statement (revitalising campus nightlife, for example).

Other policies seem well-intentioned but ill thought through – Courtney was unable to explain how policies like reducing funding to “elitist, inaccessible programs” such as INCUBATE and debating would be put into practice given the entrenchment of these as some of the USU’s flagship programs. She also struggled to articulate the link between her proposed vegetarian café and greater sustainability, and acknowledged that her confidence in demand for the café vis- a-vis other dining options was based purely on anecdotal evidence.

Nonetheless, many of her policies are smaller but more achievable, such as C&S reform allowing online signups, and equipping ACCESS desks with feminist support service information. Her experience with collectives suggests an ability to follow through on collaborative campaigns and consultation. She also gave one of the most considered responses to the question of whether she would breach her fiduciary duties to the USU if it were in students’ interests, responding that she would exhaust all available options before considering it, but ultimately would.

Older students may have noticed that Courtney is the first Grassroots candidate in years to eschew the traditional green shirt and branding. She says her glitter-themed campaign is simply more true to her, and that she saw no reason to embrace the “hack mentality” of sticking with a “safer” colour. She also stresses that as a non-binding faction, her affiliation with Grassroots will not impede her ability to make decisions independently on board.

Despite struggling to defend some of her more ostentatious policies, Courtney’s policy statement also features smaller, more achievable ideas backed up by the experience of someone who knows the Union, and has already spent several years engaging with and fighting for its change and development.