Who are you, again?

Kida Lin looks at political factions stacking USU societies.

You’re sitting there, ready for your club or societies’ annual meeting. Turnout seems high, although you don’t recognise half the people in the room. That’s ok—you’re hoping to get a grasp of what these seemingly enthusiastic individuals wish to contribute. Gradually though, you become more and more confused. “Who are these people? Why are they here? Why are they all voting for one candidate? What are they doing to my club?”

Clubs and societies receive their funding from the University of Sydney Union and are thus supported by students who buy ACCESS cards. This means they are supposed to provide an avenue for like-minded students to socialise.

On the one hand, there are political clubs such as the Liberal, Labor, ALP, Greens and Socialist Alternative Clubs. These clubs facilitate political discussions among students and often coordinate their members to run for office during the USU and SRC election periods.

On the other hand, there are clubs and societies whose primary function is to represent students from different faculties and departments. Notable examples include SASS, Sydney University Business Society and Sydney University Law Society. By definition, these societies ought to be non-political and represent students from a variety of political backgrounds.

Every year, members come together to elect a group of executives who will be responsible for running each club or society for the coming year. This is called an annual general meeting or AGM. Basically, the AGM’s outcome should represent the wishes of the club’s member base.

However, the situation Tim* found himself in during the 2016 AGM of the Sydney Arts Student Society (SASS) tells a different story. “I remember sitting in the AGM thinking, ‘wow, there’s a lot of people I don’t know here and they’re all wearing R.M. Williams and voting for each other.’” Jacob Masina, a prominent member of the Liberal Club, was eventually elected president.

Lachlan Finch, the 2018 president of SASS and also a member of the Liberal Club, assured Honi that constitutional amendments have since been passed to “ensure that individuals involved in future AGMs are genuine”.

For instance, only members who have attended at least one club event can vote and the president must come from the last year’s executive team. One might question whether these measures are enough. It’s not obvious if someone who has only attended one event over the entire year is a ‘genuine’ member of that society. In addition, restricting presidential candidates to current execs concentrates control into the hands of a limited establishment, something many already find problematic.

SASS members are not the only ones embroiled in election stacking scandals. Harry*, an exec member of a faculty-based society, recalled high-profile figures from left-leaning campus factions attempting to stack the AGM of his society last year.

“SASS is always the big example, but stupol people tend to be active in societies almost de rigueur.” Yet, he was quick to caution against drawing conclusions: “I think it’s an open question whether what stupol hacks do is part of a conscious power grab, or whether they’re just more socially active people regardless.”

This sentiment was echoed by Robert*, the president of a major society on campus. He adds that, “I can definitely see how political student bodies extending their reach would be beneficial. It would allow them to softly build up their membership bases by influencing members covertly.”

For him, election stacking is a real concern. “During an AGM for my society once, there was a rumour circulating that a political student group would try to stack it. That created some real fear, as it’s well known how large these groups can be.”

Of course, not everyone shares his concern. Emma*, the president of another small department-based society, confessed that the issue of election stacking has never come up for her. She added it is “the prerogative of the exec of any society or club to dictate how political or apolitical their society or club will be”.

David*, who has been extensively involved in SASS for two years, made a similar point: “I would agree that positions of leadership are taken by a majority of people who are also associated with the Libs. However, there are also a few prominent members of the Left or Labor on the board. I would not say there’s a huge problem.”

In a similar vein, Finch pointed out that “the past three years have seen members of Grassroots, Labor, the Liberals and Independents working together on [SASS’] executive team.”

Grassroots-affiliated individuals (Michael Sun, Gina Tran and Izabella Antoniou), and Labor members (Andrea Zephyr, Connor Wherrett and Jake Williams) have previously been elected SASS executives. Nonetheless, the last three SASS presidents have been Liberal-aligned and members of the Liberal Club frequently hold majority on the exec.

It is unclear, however, whether having a small number of individuals from different political factions is enough to facilitate diverse participation from its students. According to George*, a second year commerce student who attended a couple of SASS events, the mere fact that some societies are perceived to be controlled by one faction can “cultivate an exclusionary culture, since some students wouldn’t feel comfortable”.

In addition, the power imbalance in some societies means that students with certain political convictions are unable to reach senior positions. This may in turn disincentivise their engagement. Similarly, Tim stressed that the influence of faction-aligned individuals is often covert. “I believe that ARNA, SASS’ yearly journal, was on the chopping block because Young Liberal elements didn’t like it. [They] considered it a waste of time and society funds.”

On perhaps a more fundamental level, the disproportionate control of some political groups over department-based societies raises the question of representation. As Tim put it, “I’m sceptical of a Young Lib controlled SASS [because] most arts students aren’t Liberal voters.”

When it comes to potential solutions, the issue becomes trickier. Apart from electoral reforms such as the one passed by the SASS executive last year, it’s hard to think of regulations that might effectively deal with the problem. Conversely, it ultimately appears up to factionally-aligned individuals to make sure their political affiliations do not exclude people who would otherwise be involved in societies.

For his part, Finch offered Honi a long and formal statement, maintaining that “every executive member knows politics has no place in making a better community for Arts students, and [in ensuring SASS] is always welcoming for everyone”.

On the other hand, there is also a need for more students to engage with these societies. It is the mass participation of students that will ultimately make them more democratic and representative.

As for Tim, being able to name some candidates at next year’s AGM is all he asks for.

*Names have been changed.

Kida Lin has campaigned for Grassroots-affiliated candidates in various student elections.