90s | A generation before
The SRC has historically been a left-wing stronghold. Since the Left Alliance, a former NUS faction made up of a coalition of students to the left of Labor, ascended in the early 90s, the SRC has been controlled by progressives, who also held power in the USU. That control eroded and Labor set up shop, winning every single presidential election between 2000 and 2013.
Traditionally, this University has prided itself on being indicative on the next generation of politics. On our campus, every political grouping is represented—we have three Labor factions, three Liberal, Grassroots, SAlt, Solidarity—and an independent student paper. The political ground is hotly contested, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
2006 | VSU is introduced
After the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in 2006, the campus atmosphere depoliticised. Elsewhere around the country, student unions lost their independence from their universities, but USyd agreed to fund a baseline union, and this campus was able to retain some semblance of previous Union culture.
2011 | Grassroots grows from nothing
Grassroots started with a very small SRC campaign in 2011, and boomed the following year off the back of victories for Tom Raue and Jam for Honi. Groots doesn’t just rise for no reason; it grows out of a struggle on campus that intensifies during the strikes. Jam for Honi recruited activists and pushed stupol as a whole to the left, a strong show of how a left-wing student paper could ignite discussion around campus. With the election of Tony Abbott in 2013, there was an upsurge in student consciousness and radicalism, reigning an activist culture which hadn’t existed prior. Today, Groots are still one of the major players today, having been in winning Reps Elect coalitions since 2013.
2012 | The Indies take over
The group formerly known as the Indies are long gone, dispersed to the DFATs, KPMGs, and Columbias of the world. From 2010 to 2013, it seemed the Indies had their fingers in every pie. Really, the Indies were several key personalities with a bit of a cult following, but amassed enough social clout to shake up the stupol scene. These individuals managed to use their personal brand to win Board elections but found it very difficult to win an SRC election. With a stomping ground in SASS, it was big competition to see who would be the next big thing.
The old Indies of the early 2010s, (think Tim Matthews and Astha Rajvanshi) were popular enough to bring in dozens of campaigners, but also had the political connections (usually through UN Youth or debating) to have plenty of people to run for positions and organise campaigns. When those key personalities moved on, the movements they generated fizzled. The Indies were always going to be a temporary grouping; they had no party structures, no ideological underpinnings to inspire fresh recruits, there was no forward plan and no longevity. The Indies may have been just as political as everyone else, but they traded on independence to get votes from students disgusted with factions and in-fighting.
Liam Carrigan was the last of the Indies, elected to USU Board without factional backing in 2014 before later joining Groots.
2013 | NLS splits
The split in 2013 is important because it sets in motion the collapse of Labor hegemony over the SRC. Labor Left split into NLS and SLS, denting their power on campus. Harry Stratton, David Pink (pictured) and Casey Thompson split from NLS, aiming to found a Labor Left faction focused on class issues and structural exploitation rather than identity politics. Nowadays, Unity is the biggest Labor grouping, with NLS growing smaller each year and SLS pretty much a joke. They all sometimes work with or against each other.
2016 | International students rising
To better understand the rise of international student involvement in stupol, it’s important to look to the growth of the China Development Society (CDS), a club within the USU C&S program. 2016 was a big year for international students Weihong Liang and Hengjie Sun; these operators are probably the most notable BNOCs among international students, serving respectively as SUPRA President and USU Board Director. In the quest to build their student profiles on campus, Liberal-adjacent Sun put together an executive team to run for the leadership of the Sydney University Chinese Students’ Association (SUCSA) in 2016, under the name ‘Panda for SUCSA’. Many involved at the time say that Liang was instrumental in the campaign, though Liang himself disputes these claims. Panda squared off with an establishment ticket and ran on a platform of engaging SUCSA more with domestic students. In the heated election, the USU intervened to arbitrate, scrutinising membership lists and paying closer attention than they would to a normal C&S AGM. The Panda effort failed; Liang and Sun left the society and took a group of SUCSA students with them. This group founded the CDS, and would become its core.
But the CDS would need to be approved by USU Board, and it’s widely rumoured this was the reason Sun became interested in running for Board. Members of CDS became Sun’s voter base at the 2017 USU elections, and would later that year become a real force for the SRC election, even becoming kingmakers for Repselect. The goal was always to establish more influence on campus broadly—the initial thought was to take over SUCSA, then it was to run for Board, then for SRC, and then for SUPRA. Each success snowballed into the next.
Also in 2016, Koko Kong changed the game, proving that international students could run independently, and would no longer be relegated to a token role on domestic students’ campaigns. In the past couple of years, the USU and SRC have allowed campaigning in other languages; now, several international students are serving on the USU Board and SRC executive. In 2018’s election, two students backed by international blocs will contest the SRC president ballot alongside two more traditional faction-backed candidates.
International students have not shaped up to be a homogenous voting bloc. As it stands, there are two groups: the ‘orange’ group and Panda. Orange, an as yet unnamed faction, is a left-leaning set of Chinese, African, Samoan, and Malaysian students. This year, they are supporting presidential candidate Alex Yang and the Advance campaign, managed by Board Director Decheng Sun, Steven Wu and Winston Ma. Last year, Wu and Ma ran on the ticket International Students for Panda, but have ditched Panda for a fresh look. The other Panda ticket last SRC election, Panda Warriors, was led by heavyweight Hengjie Sun. It has ties to pro-Chinese Communist Party groups and the CDS, and will be running Jacky He for president.
Back in 2010, hard-right Liberals had put in a strong showing in SRC elections. That was the last time a Liberal held an SRC executive role, with gen sec going to Chad Sidler. Conventional wisdom in the early 10’s was that Sidler and the right only succeeded because they went to international students, spoke to them in Mandarin, and threatened them with deportation if they did not vote. Myth or not (possibly propagated by a Left reluctant to admit the Liberals had actually done well), the story was believed widely enough for campaigning in languages other than English to be banned.
International students dropped off the radar, locked out of the political process but still targeted by campaigners looking for a confused voter. A lot of exhaustion and mistrust existed because these students were so mistreated during the electoral process—bullied, hectored and herded into the polling booth. The rise of international student politicians grew out of local students’ apathy, misunderstanding and neglect: people want representatives who understand their reality—that’s an unsurprising fact of democracy.
So what does the future hold? In terms of their performance once in office it’s not unfair to say that frustrations have been building over international student politicians’ willingness to pull their weight. Are international students achieving what they say they will? It seems that this isn’t a priority for their voter base—for many apolitical international students at least, they are happy to simply have representation. They can see some improvements, they read articles on WeChat and don’t necessarily know about their candidates’ non-attendance at meetings and working groups. Most of all, they trust their representatives, believing them when they take credit for work and achievements. The truth is, the subject of international students’ performance once elected is a sensitive one, and is difficult to broach without racist undertones. There are a huge amount of barriers that international students face at university; international students simply don’t trust local students to represent them, and so they shouldn’t.
2017 | Surge of the Modlibs
The moderate Liberals have adopted the winning formula used by the Indies in the early 10s, building up personalities instead of ideologies. They have several high-profile BNOCs as candidates, focused less on policy and more on accountability. They’ve also taken over the Indies’ traditional recruiting areas, like SASS. The Modlibs gained added legitimacy in 2016 when Labor trained the Liberals, led by Jacob Masina, on how to run a SRC campaign. For a newcomer on the scene, the Modlibs have been remarkably successful, losing the SRC presidency by only 80 or so votes in 2017.
2019 | What next?
Over the four years since Kyol Blakeney broke the non-Labor drought, Groots and NLS would each hold two SRC presidencies apiece. This September, students will cast their vote for four candidates, with a smorgasbord of campaigns vying for control of the council. What we are witnessing today is a power struggle—whether a hegemonic faction can again control SRC for years in a row, as Labor did in the ‘00s, is uncertain.
Disclaimer | Take this all with a grain of salt
If I started University in 2018, and sat in the Honi Soit office writing this article in 2022, my observations on the state of stupol history would be very different. Everyone looks up to senior figures of their own University experience, thinking their generation was the best and brightest. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. If you’ve gotten to the end of this four-page stupol bonanza, well done. If you want the campus culture to be better, get involved. It starts with you.
Additional Recommended Readings
- 2015 was the year Repselect really got wild. Phones were chucked in bins, fuse boxes were tampered with to short out the lights, and even the police were called. NLS betrayed SLS/Unity to join Groots at the eleventh hour after the Labor bloc signed a deal with the Libs.
- The USU and their VP Tom Raue battled it out in the Supreme Court after Raue leaked information indicating police and university officials had been coordinating to quash industrial action. The case went on for two years and the USU pursued legal costs against Raue.
- ‘Male Liberal staffer ‘pretended to be a woman’’, the SMH headline read, after Alex Fitton vowed he was not a cisgender male to meet affirmative action requirements for an SRC gen sec role. Groots and NLS/SLS did a deal right before the second repselect that year (as the first didn’t finish) to annul the results of the first and reelect every position. Unity and the Libs didn’t show, meaning the left took everything.
- In August 2013, Honi went to print with a cover featuring photographs of 18 vulvae. The newspaper was pulled from stands within hours, making national headlines.
- For 3 weeks, Kyol Blakeney campaigned on the platform of being the first Indigenous president in SRC history. On the day after election night, Honi issued a correction. It read: “Kyol Blakeney is not the first Indigenous president… An Indigenous woman named Heidi Norman held the office of president in 1994.”
- At Repselect 2017, the Liberals seemed poised to clinch a majority right up until the last minute: Groots got Panda to flip to them to give them a super-majority, locking the Liberals out … again
- During USU executive elections, Director Atia Rahim voted incorrectly “by mistake”, which meant VP had to be drawn out of the now infamous hat. Liam Carrigan lost to Liv Ronan.
An uncontested Honi
In 2014, Heist was the only serious ticket to throw their hat in the ring, after Swag dropped out. Chris Pyne for Honi and PRAVDA, two joke tickets, remained on the ballot. Heist was elected, in essence, uncontested. Before 2014, an uncontested election for Honi was unheard of. That year, new regulations kicked in: previously you could campaign for both Honi and SRC president or council. After preferences on the how-to-votes of SEX for Honi contributed to Jennifer Light being elected in a tight race for SRC President in 2013, the SRC passed a motion prohibiting cross-promotion on campaigning material between Honi tickets and SRC/NUS/Presidential tickets.
This year, one serious ticket will compete against two joke tickets. It seems, people used to care a lot more about this old rag, reflected in consistently contested elections. From Sex onwards in 2014, Honi became prone to clique-ishness, where each editorial team ostensibly passed down the torch to a team they had advised or mentored in various ways. In 2015 and 2017, the Honi elections saw clear frontrunners. The decline in electoral relevance may well make the paper less dynamic.
The highly contested three-way race in 2016 between Time, Sin and Wet was exciting, but it was also an aberration. In the past, helping to set up Honi tickets was a necessity for factions campaigning for SRC, with involvement from Indies and all sides of politics.
The debate over whether the student newspaper should be apolitical depends on whether or not you believe an editorial team should be elected. As a student newspaper, voters and readers wanted the editors themselves to be colourful and have personality, starting conversations. A more boring Honi means a more boring stupol scene, and a more boring campus.
Where did all the BNOCs go?
If you paid any attention to this year’s USU elections, you may have wondered where the dynamic personalities have gone. In USU elections recently, many of the candidates have CVs that would pale in comparison to candidates of years past. Gone are the days when elections were entirely the domain of third or fourth year students, who’d earnt their stripes in club executives or debating for several years before thinking they knew how to run the organisation, or being deemed ‘worthy’ by switched-on hacks.
Where were our next Alisha Aitken-Radburns and Bebe D’Souzas? Having a stupol culture based on a mix of charismas and egos could and often did spiral out of control, focusing more on relationships rather than actually representing students. The calmer candidates of present can be a reflection of many things—growing cynicism and apathy, less engagement with Federal Politics, a weaker Honi, or a more politically correct campus.
Another way stupol has shifted is that campaigners have seemingly become less violent. In past years, campaigners had a knack for always being a bit rougher than they were meant to be with fellow campaigners. There were stories of people getting pushed down stairs and crushed against walls, and almost everyone had the experience of being physically blocked from talking to a voter with four or more campaigners crowding round. Thankfully, these all seem to be things of the past, at least for the moment.
It’s not anyone’s fault if stupol has gotten less vibrant, and certainly not necessarily a bad thing. The intense campus activity of the last decade broke out as a reaction to wider issues: fee deregulation, the University ‘Town Hall’ of 2014, the Q&A protest—all in a time when there was a great deal of reflection about what it meant to be a uni student. Creating a culture of stupol takes a perfect storm.
The print version of this article incorrectly identified Weihong Liang as being associated with the Liberals. Liang also claims that he had no involvement with ‘Panda for SUCSA’. A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the USU took their VP Tom Raue to court.
This article has also been edited for length and clarity.