SULS’ election system is broken

The Sydney University Law Society needs to rethink its opaque, inaccessible electoral model

In the past, after the SRC election season, a few ambitious law students would create tickets and flood the law school with campaigners, vying to become the executive of the Sydney University Law Society (SULS). But the last contested SULS election was in 2016. Immediately following that election, the SULS Constitution was changed; elections would run on a Presidential ‘Expression of Interest’ (EOI) model. Its purpose was to bring the process of ticket formation into the public eye.

The EOI system works like this: presidential-hopefuls submit a nomination, and a list of all candidates and their contact details are published via email. Students interested in running for SULS reach out to these candidates and ask to join a ticket; the candidates, in turn, filter applications to get the most qualified team. The point is that qualified but low profile students outside SULS cliques have a shot at running for office; where previously, so the justification went, more high-profile students were ‘shoulder-tapped’, resulting in unrepresentative elections.

But in 2017, a glaring issue was exposed. Ann Wen was the only presidential nominee and was therefore ‘elected’ by default. When this happens, there is no election, meaning the president has free rein to select the incoming executive. The broader law school still submits expressions of interest for executive roles, but the president makes their decision behind closed doors, based on the applications and a relatively informal and unstructured interview. The prospective candidates’ applications are not published, and the criteria for the president’s selection are unclear. While this allows scope for the president to consider each applicant’s circumstances and equity, the entire process lacks certainty and transparency, and ultimately, it fails to meet the purpose of the EOI reforms: the process has not secured greater participation from the broader law school.

Jeremy Chan, who served as SULS treasurer this year, was the only presidential nominee and therefore, is automatically 2019 president. Chan has conducted 61 interviews for the remaining executive positions. These numbers are substantially less than the engagement that would be possible under an election. In 2016, 792 votes were cast, around 20 per cent of the law school. Reduced student participation weakens the mandate of the 2019 executive and undermines Chan’s own vision of ensuring “all students are heard and have a voice in the future of our Law School and in SULS.”

Reform designed to improve the inclusivity of SULS has backfired, continuing the trend of dynastic leadership in which the SULS Executive has been elected unopposed in 2013, 2014, 2018 and now 2019.

Admittedly, elections are imperfect and prone to turmoil. In 2013, FETCH’s treasurer candidate doctored receipts so his ticket could breach the campaign spending cap. In 2016, both GAME and SPARK were forced to issue lengthy apologies on social media for antisocial conduct. But elections are an effective way to scrutinise the competence, responsibility and transparency of those who hope to lead one of campus’ largest and most active societies. It’s essential that students have the opportunity to read policies, campaign for candidates and vote for a vision which aligns with their own. The reason for the EOI reforms was not to do away with elections but to broaden the talent pool and inclusivity of tickets. Instead, the process now risks the possibility of backroom deals. An EOI system may favour incumbent executives who, between themselves, could effectively decide only one of them will nominate for the presidency. The remaining could then receive executive positions for not contesting the presidential nomination. There remains no safeguard against this possibility.

SULS has recently convened an electoral review committee which is making important steps towards addressing concerns arising from the EOI model. At the 2018 SULS AGM, the Committee will present a set of recommendations gathered from feedback taken through an online survey. Amongst other things, the survey contemplates the possibility of introducing non-binding expressions of interest for all executive positions as well as shortening the campaigning period from 7 days.

Whether SULS conquers its exclusive past is yet to be seen but what’s apparent is that the winds of reform are here to stay.