Disclaimer: Honi Editors Lamya Rahman and Liam Donohoe are not involved in any decisions or contributions to USU Board Election coverage.
This year, eight* ambitious souls have taken the plunge. They’ve swapped human dignity for block-coloured t-shirts; socialising with friends for assailing strangers on Eastern Avenue; and their weekday mornings for hauling around A frames, sandbags and chalk. It must be USU election season.
The USU, or University of Sydney Union, is USyd’s main service provider: it owns most food outlets on campus, and runs the Clubs and Societies (C&S) programme. A 13-member board controls the organisation. Two of its directors are appointed by the University Senate. The remaining 11 are students elected by the USU’s members; they serve two year terms and receive a minimum of $4,416 in annual remuneration (more if they take on an executive role).
In this equation, the voter is you. You don’t need an ACCESS card—as long as you’re a USyd student you can hit the polls.
Stupol democracy is the tenth circle of hell: prepare for campaigners to intrude on your lunches and pester you with an unnatural hunger. Prepare for candidates to promise the bizarre, the vague and the unachievable. Prepare for a please-all-comers corporatism, and candidates definitely keen to be your friend (and definitely not someone with political views).
But five of them will end up spending your money—whether you vote or not. Even if you don’t have ACCESS, even if you never buy food at a USU outlet, the USU still takes a slice of your Student Services Amenities Fee (SSAF). Every semester, you pay $149 of SSAF (or $111.75 if you study part time); in 2017, 25 per cent of that went straight to the USU.
So never fear, Honi‘s here to keep the bastards honest. We interviewed them so you don’t have to. We trawled through their policy books, exposing ourselves to toxic levels of saccharine branding. We even quizzed them on their knowledge of the organisation they hope to run.
As we found out, this is not an equal field of candidates. Some of them have more experience than others. Some have better ideas for the USU. Some have the know-how, the people skills and the confidence to run a $28 million organisation. And some don’t. Their political alignments don’t come into it, but some of these candidates are better than others. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
So check ’em out below (in order of their quiz performance).
Voting will take place on May 15 and 16, with pre-poll opportunities on May 14.
Watch Connor’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
It’s not every day that a Board candidate says the musical Hamilton inspired their run. With a wealth of C&S and Revue experience, Wherrett told Honi that he felt he “had to be in the room where it happened”. With 63%, Wherrett scored higher than any other candidate in our quiz.
Wherrett describes his faction Unity (Labor Right) as progressive and pragmatic. He sees the Union as primarily a service provider, with a role separate from the SRC’s activism. He did concede, “I do think the USU should participate in activism where it represents the overwhelming majority of students views,” like the marriage equality Yes campaign. Unlike some of this year’s other candidates who wish to emphasis the USU’s activist role, Wherrett’s traditional approach to the Union is largely apolitical, despite his own factional leanings.
As a third-year, Wherrett is older and more experienced than the bulk of candidates running this year. His platform highlights “transparency and accountability” as important goals, and he hopes to offer more USU jobs to students, prioritising those living out of home. His UV and Foam party idea harks back to a policy pedalled by Unity alumna and 2015/16 USU President, Alisha Aitken-Radburn.
Wherrett wants to reverse the recent ban on alcohol funding for off-campus C&S events. Some of Wherrett’s policies, like “better food” and “better music”, come across as unquantifiably vague. Nonetheless, he defended these goals, saying students want more options and combo deals.
Like several of this year’s candidates, Wherrett plans to make ACCESS cheaper with a monthly payment scheme. When asked how he would achieve this reform, given similar previous attempts have failed, Wherrett could only say he would make it a “priority”. Though Wherrett is experienced, it’s unclear whether voters this year are looking for a traditional, non-political approach to the USU, or whether students are ready to support a more radical Union.
Watch Maya’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Judging by her policy platform, you might think Maya Eswaran was running for SRC president rather than Board. The Grassroots member is avowedly left wing. She sees campus as a radicalised space. She told Honi, “I think that a majority of students on campus would probably identify as progressive and left wing.”
On that basis, Eswaran does not think that a radical USU might alienate its more moderate members. Some of her policies may well prove divisive: if elected, she would give money and resources to SRC protest campaigns, would vote to support all on-campus strikes and would rename the Wentworth Building’s replacement.
At some points, Eswaran seemed wedded to her views. She said that as a director she would, in extreme cases, “risk personal financial damages” if she “felt it was essential”, implying that she might violate her fiduciary duties to the Board.
Yet, when explaining how she might practically make decisions, Eswaran offered the same corporate cruxes as several of the other candidates. For instance, when asked about the USU’s changes to funding alcohol, Eswaran said she would rely on “consultation” and the pursuit of “students’ best interests”.
If elected, it is unclear if Eswaran will be guided by her left wing values or if she will defer to a “consultative” process. Perhaps that is because she just hasn’t had time to develop a leadership style: Eswaran has served four months as an SRC councillor and member of the general executive, but her leadership experience is otherwise limited.
That said, Eswaran at least has a vision for the Union, and it’s a vision that will make some students’ lives better. Her push to raise awareness of and expand the low-SES ACCESS scheme is both commendable and achievable. Similarly, her desire for closer cooperation with SUPRA, the postgraduate student union, could improve postgrad engagement with a USU that is often fixated on undergraduate affairs.
Watch Bec’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Unlike her National Labor Students’ (NLS) forebears, such as Adam Torres and Sam Kwon, Rebeccah Miller doesn’t boast a CV stacked with extensive involvement in USU programs. In previous years, it would have been unusual for political factions to run second-year candidates, who have low exposure in the C&S programme, and low involvement with the Union.
Instead, she promises to bring passion and dedication to the USU board. This dedication is evident in her quiz rank, a respectable third on 45 per cent.
Miller’s campaign is driven by her experience “outside of the ACCESS program” in her first semester of university. Miller believes ACCESS is a key part of the university experience and wants it to be more widely available.
Her plan for getting more students involved with the USU is a staggered payment program, utilising Afterpay or Ezipay. It’s a policy that does little to benefit genuinely disadvantaged students, however Miller maintains “it has the potential to make a big difference”.
Her other policies include a sexual assault and consent campaign during OWeek including first responders. She’s also championing a policy, largely developed by the current SURG exec, to elevate SURG from a USU club into a full-blown programme.
Miller’s experience is mostly SRC based. She’s been the SRC Welfare Officer for a little under half a year now. She’s also been the Director of Student Publications—a role in which of three scheduled times, she’s showed up only once.
Despite her lack of experience, Miller’s motivations are noble. Whether she’ll be able to sell her policies to voters remains to be seen.
Watch Lachlan’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Lachlan Finch is running as a moderate’s populist—the boy-next-door with cool ideas and a steady hand. Politics “doesn’t have a place” on Board, he says, and it’s easy to see why he wants us to see it that way: Finch is a member of the Liberals, who face unforgiving electoral odds on a largely progressive campus. So he is running as an independent, and stresses he isn’t bound to the wishes of any faction.
Instead, his touchstone is “doing what’s in the best interests of the USU and in the best interests of students”. Defining the USU’s best interests was straightforward: fiduciary duties should be upheld. But he found it harder to define students’ “best interests”. At times, he suggested that what was good for the USU was necessarily good for students: “I’m going to make the best decisions for the Union. And that does mean that I’m making the best decisions for all the students because that’s the purpose of the USU.”
Particularly important to Finch is the Clubs and Societies programme. This is where he cut his teeth—notably in SASS, the Sydney Arts Students’ Society—and he stresses he has “more C&S experience than nearly all the other candidates combined”. It’s an interesting move, given Finch, as last year’s SASS secretary, was tied up in the society’s controversial 2017 AGM, which then-President Jacob Masina (a Liberal and factional ally to Finch) conducted under disallowed constitutional amendments. When asked, Finch became noticeably flustered, admitting “there could be the case that I should’ve been more responsible about it”. He also suggested the rest of the executive simply “went along with” Masina when the latter “came out and said that he wanted to take responsibility”.
Finch’s policies have broad popular appeal. They range from the generic and non-specific (“more healthy food on campus for less”) to the near-impossible (“establishing a supermarket on campus”). Some fall into that narrow band between achievable and impactful, like hosting an annual fun run to raise money for mental health support services.
Watch Mike’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
The only non-arts student running in these year’s candidates, Mike Mao is certainly a poster child for Union skeptics. As a second-year student, his inexperience in leadership positions is a given. However, this is unlikely to hurt him, given that a number of candidates don’t hold illustrious CVs. He told Honi that he could not have waited another year to build experience: “I already have built up this vision of my USU…and I think I could not wait for one or two more years to implement it.”
Although he is an international student, Mao is adamant that he does not just want to focus on issues that affect international students.He says that only one of his policies (translated mental health services) is specifically related to international students, but reiterates that “as a Board director we have to think about everything, not just one group”.
Curiously, Mao is not in favour of affirmative action—when asked if he would continue the policy he said he “would think about it if [he] got elected as a director”. Mao did not say outright that he did not support AA, which aims to ensure that non cis-men have access to positions on board, but he believes that voters can take care of institutionalised oppression: “People [will] choose the best candidate.”
With his policy of a ‘Humans of USU’ website, Mao touches on a valid point: the USU’s social media campaign is largely built to promote big events or deals in their outlets (think Pizza Perks), missing out on the opportunity to explore the stories of students. Unfortunately, Mao did not have a convincing answer to as why USU resources needed to go into a project that is really an internal USU PR strategy position.
Mao is incredibly hazy on the details of his most inventive policy—providing an interpreting and translating service to ACCESS members for mental health counselling services. If unable to achieve this, Mao’s alternative plan is to provide more training to USU staff members to pre-empt mental health issues arising, stating “prevention is always better than the cure”. It’s certainly a bold policy idea that stands out in a policy suite of vastly unoriginal and uninspiring proposals.
Watch Daniel’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Daniel Lee is not ready to be a Board director. It’s commendable that he has joined the race, and it shows a real passion for student welfare. But, at this stage, Lee doesn’t have the necessary knowledge or experience.
Lee’s quiz score was the third worst, and his Honi interview revealed a lack of understanding of the USU. He was unaware of the Board’s affirmative action policy, which requires that at least two directors elected in an even year and three in an odd year have a gender identity other than cis male. One of his policies is for the refurbishment of Wentworth; when asked, Lee seemed unaware Wentworth is in fact slated for demolition.
On ideology, Lee claims a kind of political ambidexterity: “I’m a left hander and I throw a ball with my right hand.” But, when it came to specific issues, it was never clear what his guiding principles were. He said, if elected, he would vote to close the USU in solidarity with any on-campus strikes. Yet, on same-sex marriage, he was firm that he would not have directed USU support to the ‘yes’ campaign.He said he would “rather not get involved in the politics [of same-sex marriage] because there would be so much argument”.
Some of Lee’s policies have merit: overhauling the ACCESS app, through bug-fixes and the introduction of a spending tracker, could make students’ lives easier. But at the same time, Lee is set on reintroducing physical ACCESS card, claiming to do so would maximise students’ choice. This is typical of Lee’s platform, even after learning that Wentworth would be demolished, Lee persisted with his renovation proposal, suggesting renovated facilities could be stripped out and recapitalised before the wrecking ball swings in.
Lee’s experience is limited to recent Academic Board, Science Faculty Board and Student Appeals Panel appointments. Before 2018, his leadership involvement was negligible. Instead, Lee puts faith in his “dedication” and “willingness to learn”. We are not so confident.
Watch Zimeng’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Zimeng Ye’s politically-neutral platform is simple—she wishes to cater to international students like her, by implementing an international students’ careers fair and more on-campus international activities: “I want to do some things for students and especially for international students…I want to continue to voice for them.”
Scoring second-lowest in the group in the Honi quiz, Ye’s knowledge of the USU is severely lacking. When asked for her opinion on the USU Alcohol Funding Policy, she said “I don’t know too much about that”. Ye had “no idea” about the controversy over the NTEU strikes, and she had little knowledge of how the USU’s Executive elections work.
Zimeng lists no experience on her candidate page of the USU website; in her interview, she said she used to be a member of the USYD China Development Society.
Ye’s primary policy is to develop a “shared uni” with communal calculators (which the SRC already provides for free), laptop chargers and umbrellas. Running a shared community could be difficult because the Union owns limited buildings on campus, and none are teaching spaces. To these lines of questioning, she said: “I’ll have communication with the University, I’ll tell them it’s a good thing and we want to do that.” Ye’s desire to “provide convenience to students” and “encourage sharing” is a noble one, which she hopes to extend to all students, not just ACCESS card holders. Given the USU has been known to sell umbrellas for upwards of $40, free rental umbrellas would be a radical achievement indeed.
Ye admits that her policies are not fully developed: “I just have this kind of idea. For later, I’ll think more about how to practice and logistics.” Her proposal of an international students careers fair is well-meaning, but concerning because it seems bent on combating a wider political issue, where international students are locked out from jobs due to visa requirements.
These policies are likely to appeal to an international student voter base, and those looking for more convenience on campus.
Watch Decheng’s full candidate interview here, with a complete transcript.
Decheng Sun is passionate about fighting for equality, especially for international students—and especially when coopting feminist iconography like Rosie the Riveter.
Sun highlights big problems with the USU, but his proposed solutions often don’t make sense. In his Honi interview, he railed against hiring practices that discriminate against international students. His solution is to end all commercial partnerships between the USU and companies who don’t hire international students. When asked whether large, successful sponsors would really change their hiring practices based on USU pressure, Sun’s response was vague: “We will do this intelligently,” he said.
Ideologically, Sun describes himself as “cosmopolitan and left wing”; but there are contradictions in his ideas. Sun supports unpaid internships and hopes to “change Board director positions to voluntary jobs, in order to save money”. And yet, another of his policies bemoans wage theft, and would commit the USU to ensuring that students are paid fair wages. Again, though, his action plan is underdeveloped: he would simply “keep an eye on” USU food outlets and their suppliers.
Of all the candidates, Sun comes to the USU with the least insider experience. Beyond a few club and society memberships, Sun seems to have shown little interest in the USU before the Board race. This was borne out in his quiz score, which, at just 10 per cent, was the worst. In his interview, however, Sun spoke at length about youth volunteering in China, where he established a pre-school in an impoverished rural community, as an example of his leadership experience.
Ultimately, this isn’t about the USU for Sun. His slogan, “a fairer university for all”, is telling: he wants to fix the big issues on campus, and the USU is just a tool for doing that. It remains to be seen whether his focus is too broad for what the USU can achieve, or what its voters will tolerate.
*There were previously nine candidates running in this year’s election. At the time of publishing, Chuchu (Janet) Yin has withdrawn from the campaign.
An earlier version of this article stated that Maya Eswaran scored 45% in the Honi quiz.