SRC President candidate interview: Lara Sonnenschein

The full transcript of Honi's interview with 2018 SRC President candidate, Lara Sonnenschein

Grassroots | Political Economy III | Quiz Score: 80%
Interviewed by Janek Drevikovsky and Alison Xiao

HS: Could you tell us your name, degree and year?

LS: Yes. So my name is Lara Sonnenschein. I’m in my third year studying political economy and I’m a member of the Grassroots collective.

HS: What’s the name of the campaign you’re running with and colour?

LS: I’m running under Grassroots and we’re running on green.

HS: You mentioned you are a member of Grassroots. How long have you been Grassroots and why did you join it?

LS: I’ve been in Grassroots for probably around a year now. I joined around last year’s election. I joined Grassroots because I feel that the collective most aligns with my values, which I see to be left wing and sort of to the left of the major political parties, and then wanted to join an activist collective.

HS: Are you member of any political party?

LS: No.

HS: And in terms of how you are left wing of the three major political parties, can you give us an example of something that you support that you don’t think the major political parties do?

LS: I think there’s a few things. I mean, I think there are some things where I would sort of align with the Greens and I would vote for the Greens in the election. But I do see myself as to the left of the Greens. So I don’t know, I guess an example would be, off the top of my head, like decriminalisation of all drugs or things around free education, which the Greens support but which Labor wouldn’t. So things like that.

HS: And who’s your political hero?

LS: I don’t really have a political hero per se, I’m not someone who looks up to a particular figure. I more see myself, like see the interest in social movements, as opposed to looking up to one particular figure.

HS: What would be an example of a big social movement that you admire?

LS: I guess the movement for free education, the recent movement for marriage equality, the movement against deregulation. Those are sort of recent things that spring to mind.

HS: Why are you running for SRC president?

LS: First and foremost I’m running because I see the real importance of student unionism. I really think I represent those values of representation and activism and dissent. I think I would want to be a president that embodies those values and that really fights for students’ rights and carries on that legacy of student unionism. In my role as Education Officer this year I’ve had experience, like facilitating the largest on-campus collective, the EAG [Education Action Group], and have had a lot of campaigning experience. To that point, the fight against Ramsay is a broader fight for a better university and a university that isn’t beholden to the interests of politicians or corporations, but is one that is beholden to students. And I see the SRC as an organisation and as like the peak student union as sort of the conduit for change for facilitating that student response against uni management.

HS: Isn’t there a lot more to the SRC than just activism? There’s a whole casework service here. Would you be a president who just ignored the services side of things?

LS: No, definitely not. So I think there are three main functions of the SRC. Firstly there’s obviously the service provision side of the SRC. So that’s the free casework and legal service that the SRC offers and I think that’s crucial and that’s you know, individual—it’s personalised, it’s tailored to that particular student, and that is something that I am deeply committed to and I’ve used both of those services myself. Then I think you have the activism side of things, which is collectives and facilitating on-campus organising. And then the third role you have as president is to sort of act as that medium between the university and the general student body, and to be that representative in the boardroom with them. So no, I definitely wouldn’t reject the services side. I just see activism as important too.

HS: Do you have any policies that address how the services side of things function?

LS: Yes, I think in terms of the services side of things, Grassroots has long stood for a lawyer that is specialised in sexual assault and that is something that the legal team themselves support. So that’s something that I would like to prioritise if I was elected.

HS: What do you see as the greatest achievement of the SRC in the past five years?

LS: I think it’s hard to pin down to one thing but I think, and this isn’t just to the Sydney Uni SRC alone, I think it’s sort of to the SRC at USyd playing a crucial role and then also NUS and other student unions around the country, and I think that was the fight against fee deregulation and students mobilising against that. I see that pushback and that mobilisation of students as an unseen level in previous years as the greatest achievement of student unionism more broadly in the past few years.

HS: On the flip side what do you think the low point of the SRC has been, or what’s the biggest thing that you’d change?

LS: In terms of this year or like generally in the SRC in the past few years?

HS: Past five years.

LS: Generally it would sort of be the kind of like hack cycle and seeing the SRC as the stepping stone into party politics or into a union job, and you know therefore not prioritising the SRC as an organisation but prioritising one’s own career. We’ve sort of seen that with recent presidents, you know having two jobs working at the SRC and working at a union. And I think, you know, if I were elected I would want to work 9-5 hours, I would not be undertaking any units of study and I would be fully committed to this job. So I think it’s that treating the SRC, just as you know another job you have.

HS: Do you identify any problems in terms of the operation of the SRC at the moment?

LS: I think the SRC at the moment is functioning quite well and is this sort of a question more broadly to Imogen’s presidency?

HS: Yeah, we can get to that. What would be the greatest problems you would identify in Imogen’s presidency?

LS: Obviously it’s no secret that Imogen and I are cut from like the same broad left ideological cloth. So we obviously have a lot in common. I think she’s been a great president in the sense of leading a very activist SRC and being very involved in Grassroots campaigns, and things like that, and being a strong voice to uni management. On what I’d do differently to Imogen, I think a big problem I’ve noticed this year is a lot of councillors and office bearers being, not like left in the dark, but being a bit confused as to how to effectively run a campaign, or things like that. I think one thing I would change is the orientation process that we currently have. Currently it’s sort of like a one day 9-2 model, but you really can’t cover everything in you what is that five hours. I think having like a three day orientation process where you cover all sorts of bureaucratic skills. ‘How do you print it, how do you make a leaflet,’ and things like that. But you also go into, ‘How do you write a press release, how do you like get your campaign to have media attention.’ That’s something that I would definitely like to implement if elected next year. I also think I’d like to activate what is seen as the smaller departments of the more minor office bearers. One thing that would come to mind would be maybe the welfare department or something like that. I know at Newcastle Uni student union they had a very successful implementation last year of pill testing kits for students and it was so successful that they have like ordered a whole bunch more this year and have made them like multi-year kits as opposed to single use kits and that’s been something that has been really effective in engaging more of the broad student body, as opposed to just the typical SRC milieu of people into the union. So I think that is something that I’d want to change.

HS: As far as activating smaller department goes, it all comes down to funding, which we all know is pretty tight. There was a $250 surplus this year. Where would you get the funding for initiatives like that?

LS: Obviously funding is an issue but most of the time office bearers don’t actually use all of their funding. So that’s one thing. The second thing is is that there’s also a councillor resources pool which has about $6000 which people can dip into if need be. So obviously, more money is always better but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. And I think there is still room for great initiatives to be implemented with the money that we have now.

HS: Speaking of working with what you’ve got, if, for example, the University cut SSAF by $50,000 next year, where would you make those savings? What would you cut from current operations?

LS: Obviously that’s a situation I’d want to avoid, would commit to avoiding. But were it where to be the case, firstly you could save about $20,000 from cutting NUS travel subsidies for non-delegates, so like to the Natcon conference and to Edcom, as well as conference registrations. There’d be about $20k. And then from there on, in terms of flexible expenditure you’re really looking at cutting from collectives and NUS affiliation. I definitely wouldn’t want to be cutting from staff wages. I think we have an obligation to our staff. We are a union and I wouldn’t want to be cutting from their wages. I think that’s where the flexible expenditure is.

HS: Just quickly on cutting NUS subsidies or Natcon subsidies, would you cut the subsidy to attend Natcon?

LS: No.

HS: And with NUS, if you didn’t have to cut, if you were just president next year would you increase affiliation or decrease?

LS: Okay, I think I would probably keep it at current levels. I don’t think I would decrease affiliation unless I were in a situation where SSAF was massively decreased but if we were sort of roughly in the same position we are now, I think I would keep it at the same level.

HS: Just jumping back to the problems with the operation of the SRC, you mentioned careerists. What would you do to help the issue of quorum in Council, which is obviously a very ongoing issue of councillors not attending, councillors being disengaged. What is your plan to fix that?

LS: Quorum is a huge issue and sadly, I don’t think it’s one that I can properly alone fix. I know that Imogen went into this year thinking that she could really fix that and I know that she has done a lot of work in trying to remedy that problem. So she’s created Facebook events, messaged every councillor with a personalised message telling them to come, but at the end of the day it’s up to those councillors to come. There’s only so much you as president can do. I think one thing that could be improved, again sort of stems back to the orientation process. At the orientation process, really explaining what being a councillor means. I think sort of some people just see it is as ‘okay you run in an election and then you’re on council and that’s it’. They’re not really prepared for what is often quite a heated political debate that goes on for hours, and that’s not for everyone. Making clear those expectations.

HS: I suppose another question about day to day operations of the SRC, one of the president’s other roles is to DSP Honi. We published a controversial article by Jay Tharappel last week which was perceived as pro-North Korean. If that article had come across your desk being president would you have approved it?

LS: Yes I would have approved it. I strongly believe, whilst I am DSP, I strongly believe in Honi’s autonomy to publish what they want, about who they want so long as it’s not defamatory. I also think Honi has quite a crucial role as part of the student union in offering those different perspectives, as a student newspaper. I don’t think it’s a perspective that I particularly agree with. But that being said, I don’t think that should hinder it from being published. So I would have published it if I were president and acting as DSP.

HS: And just in terms of your similarity to Imogen, a lot of your policies kind of build upon active or existing SRC campaigns. So if you were president next year, are we just expecting to see a repeat of Imogen’s presidency or are there kind of new initiatives or fresh ideas that you have in your policy?

LS: Something new, which I definitely would want to act on as president, is a campaign around disarming the university. This is something that stemmed from an FOI, which I wrote an Honi article about, and then from there on, it got a bit of traction in national media. I spoke to student activists around the country and then I, along with a few other people, founded a national network called Disarm Universities, which seeks to sever those ties between arms manufacturers and universities. I think that’s something, that’s a campaign that I would want to prioritise, that is like distinct from what Imogen ran on. And I think you know that would involve a combination of lobbying the university and more protest direct action kind of things of getting the university to divest on the one hand and then getting the university to cut weapons research.

HS: Is an activist focus like this going to alienate more students from the SRC?

LS: I don’t think so. I think that the services that the SRC offers are for everyone and I don’t think that my being an activist would stop people from accessing those services. On the other hand, I think that most students would generally characterise themselves as left wing or progressive. I don’t think I’m alienating voters or students in that way. You know a recent poll showed that like 58 percent of young people like socialism basically, and see capitalism as a flawed system. Recent polling shows that young people, and by natural extension students, are left wing and progressive. I don’t think I’m alienating voters and students, and then further to that, the election is like this political contest. It’s a democratic contestation of ideas. If people think I’m too left wing, they won’t vote for me and they’ll vote for someone else.

HS: The issue is that the kind of student that then engages in SRC events like an election perhaps is one who is more left wing because the most visible activity that the SRC engages in is protesting on campus. So the kind of narrative which you see more commonly in USyd based platforms like USyd Rants is that ‘protest is just a disruption, I come to uni to get my degree’ is probably one that increased protest activity feeds into. Are you going to conciliate with those students or offer something for them?

LS: I would reject the notion of ‘people more in the center or to the right of politics being disengaged’. We’ve seen that recently there’s been a real surge in liberal engagement with the SRC in the past two years. I think that dispels that myth, to a degree. And then what was the second part?

HS: Well how are you going to engage with students who currently are shut off to the SRC?

LS: And by that do you mean right wing students or?

HS: In general, given there are nearly 34,000 undergraduate students and only about 3500 vote in SRC elections, far fewer use SRC services, presumably there’s a lot more people you could reach out to. What are you going to do to achieve that?

LS: In terms of reaching out, I think reaching out via the service provision that the SRC offers is obviously a thing that is for everyone. That’s something that Imogen has done quite well this year in, terms of having frequent SRC stalls on Eastern Avenue and talking to students not on a political level but on a purely service-based level. This is the casework service. This is the legal service. You can get a $50 loan, so I think that’s one way of engaging with sort of disenfranchised students. And then I think—you know I’m just going to be honest—I don’t think there’s a way that you can ever appeal to all students. I would be lying if I said I could do that. I think any other candidate who says they can have this broad mass appeal with all students would be lying. I think students have often very distinct and formed political views. And I’m running on a mandate. If people support that mandate, that’s the mandate.

HS: Your mandate is a confessedly political one. Do you risk turning some students away from the non-political side of the SRC if those students don’t agree with your left wing activist platform?

LS: I don’t think it would dissuade students from using the free services.

HS: Just to clarify, in terms of Imogen being more front-facing on Eastern Avenue, can you identify what events she’s run on Eastern Avenue other than Rad Ed Week and Welfare Week?

LS: Aside from those two weeks, there’s just been stalls on Eastern Avenue, which is just an SRC stall with no event necessarily taking place, where it’s just literally just talking to students about services that the SRC provides. That’s not an event, that’s just going up to random students talking to them, handing them a leaflet and telling them about what the SRC does.

HS: In terms of your policies, a lot of them or all of them are pretty much based on activism or protest. Do you think there’s any other way to achieve positive change without those avenues?

LS: I think a combination of direct action and lobbying is how we have seen change being made at the university. So those are the two avenues that I see.

HS: Do you have any policies to do with lobbying or like mediation?

LS: Yes. I think one example of lobbying the university would be around disarming the university. That’s one that comes to mind. Another one would be about divesting from fossil fuels.

HS: Are you willing to pursue non activist pathways?

LS: Yeah definitely. I mean, I’m not someone who wants to hobnob with university management because that’s not how I see effective change being made. But I am obviously willing to sit down with them and to lobby the university.

HS: Do you think you, personally, will be well-placed to actually sit down with the university, given that you’ve been very critical not just of its current stance but of actual individuals, like for instance Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, within the administration. Do you think that you’ll be able to cultivate good relations with the kinds of boards you have to sit on as president?

LS: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, firstly I have to cultivate those good relationships. I think I am a fairly personable person, and I think despite those severe political differences, I will be able to communicate my points across in such a fashion to try and get them on side, at least to some degree.

HS: In terms of your views of other operators in the political space, what kind of role do you see as the SRC as having as far as international students go? Are there particular issues that you would turn the SRC’s resources towards that might improve international students’ experience on campus?

LS: Yes. I think a really positive thing we’ve seen recently is international student engagement with student politics, which really sort of started I guess with Koko in 2016 and was pretty much not there beforehand. It’s really good that we have about, I think it’s about 25 per cent, of councillors on the SRC are international students. And that’s pretty reflective of the demographic. This year the SRC has been quite good in terms of engaging with the international student community. Both in the sense that you know they have representation on the council and in office bearer positions, so it’s led to a collaboration on things like the Opal card campaign. It’s led to the first translation of Counter Course which me, Lily, Nina and Yuxuan put together in Chinese. I think things like that are improvements to helping international students engage with the SRC.

HS: What do you want to do next year?

LS: Next year? I would just build off those existing relationships and consult with international student communities more. I’m obviously not an international student myself but there are sort of a few issues which I see as crucial to international students, which I would obviously want their voice on. Those are things like wage theft in their workplaces, things around housing, and I guess sexual assault at universities, international students are overrepresented in those statistics. Those are things that I see as crucial.

HS: You mentioned consultation. One of your main non-activist focused policies is setting consultation hours for the president, at least as far as your policy statement went. How would that policy work?

LS: Well, I think it’s basically as simple as setting aside two hours a week or whenever it is, whatever I can fit sort of timetable-wise, publicising that on the SRC Facebook page, on the SRC website itself and being like, from 2-4 on Thursday, you can drop into my office with any queries, questions, concerns you have.

HS: In terms of your policy statement that was submitted there aren’t really any policies about the SRC’s services like casework, legal service and visa support. But you mentioned that you wanted to have an additional role in the legal service. Can you talk us through some of the policies you have that aren’t activism or protest focused?

LS: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, a sexual assault solicitor is a big one. Yeah I think, it’s basically just about publicising the SRC’s services to that broad mass of people. I don’t think there’s a huge amount of money that we can actually fundamentally change how the organisation works. I think it runs fairly well at the moment.

HS: In terms of publicising it more, can you give us some more examples other than having a stall on Eastern Avenue?

LS: Well I think, something could be like, more articles in Honi about the SRC, combined with SRC stalls, combined with utilising the Facebook page. Imogen’s used that quite well. But those are just things that I can think of off the top of my head that would give that more mass appeal.

HS: That’s all we had. Thanks very much for your time.

This is a full transcript of an Honi Soit candidate interview. Some sentences have been edited for clarity.