How does USyd vote?

We polled students to find out how they vote and why

A red and blue graphic featuring clipart of a ballot box

It’s been asked before whether the University of Sydney (USyd) is big enough to be its own country. Perhaps however, ahead of the NSW election, the more pertinent question is: what would USyd look like if it were an electorate? With an undergraduate population more than half the size of a typical state district alongside its own postcode, the University shares more than a few characteristics with the neighbouring electorates of Balmain and Newtown. The question then becomes: what would the Seat of USyd look like? What role would it play in an election?

This question is all the more relevant when considered in light of this weekend’s state election — an election which seems to have grown in importance the nearer it has drawn. The Coalition government must now reckon for the first time with a class of constituents that has particular cause to smite it. According to Honi’s polling, two thirds of USyd undergrads have not voted in a state election before. These students represent a small contingent of a new generation of young people who entered adulthood amidst the implementation of lock-out laws and the associated animosity towards live music and festivals — a policy direction which spurred nascent political party Keep Sydney Open to run no less than 63 candidates in the upcoming election.

Chart by Visualizer

The results of Honi’s polling are in many ways, fairly unsurprising. We polled over 350 students on issues including their first preference vote and policy priorities. Students’ first preference choices reflect quite closely a typical Inner-West district. Summer Hill, for example, which lies a few kilometres west of USyd, voted in an almost identical way in 2015 to the results of our polling: 43% Labor, 27% Greens, 23% Liberal, compared to USyd’s 39% Labor, 27% Greens, and 21% Liberal. These numbers remain fairly similar for the Federal electorate of Sydney. It’s also worth noting Labor’s historical pre-eminence within the University’s own student politics scene, as well as student politics more broadly. Student Labor won the SRC presidency for an historic 13 years between 2000-2013 and is hegemonic in the National Union of Students.

What is surprising however is the discrepancy between our results and the current makeup of student-run political institutions within the University. Though students’ preference for Labor reflects past student politics and local electorates, it is hardly a reflection of the current state of USyd’s stupol institutions. After long-standing dominance in the USyd political sphere, Labor’s influence has begun to wane: last year, Labor’s SRC presidential candidate came second last in a field of four, commanding only 17% of the first preference vote, while only three Labor candidates made it to council.

A likely explanation is the involvement of international students in USyd elections — Honi’s polling accounted only for students eligible to vote in the state election. It’s also worth noting the likely untapped reserve of potential Labor voters who are not engaged in student elections. Many of the students randomly polled by Honi were unfamiliar with party politics — to the extent of not knowing the political party to which the Prime Minister belongs — and confessed a lack of political engagement.  Currently, SRC elections have a turnout of about 10% of the undergraduate population. If Honi’s polling is anything to go by, Labor’s former glory days may well be there for the taking, if the average student can be persuaded to wade into the SRC booth each September.

Honi’s polling asked students to pick the three most important policy areas to them from a list of eleven areas, spanning major policy fixtures as well as issues specifically pertinent to the 2019 election. The most popular were education (despite university funding being a federal policy area), environmental policy, and health. Among the least prioritised were forced adoption laws, First Nations policy, and law enforcement. By cross referencing this data with students’ preferred party, we can gain greater insight into the policies that, for example, Greens voters prioritise, as opposed to Liberals. In most cases, voters reflect the policy platforms of their preferred party. However, some areas, including live entertainment and venue policy, students did not reflect the common wisdom of most pundits. What follows is an analysis of these policy areas.

Chart by Visualizer

Public transport

With nearly 15% of respondents indicating interest in the area, public transport was the third most popular policy area of the ones we polled. It’s also one of the most prominent policy areas in this state election: both the Coalition and Labor have committed to spending over $40 billion on public transport if elected.

Liberal voters were the most likely to express interest in public transport policy. Concern for public transport may easily be talked up to messaging: rather than shy away from the egregiously long time it has taken for the delivery of projects such as Sydney’s light rail, the NSW Liberal Party has made finality a central promise of its election campaign, promising to “get it done” if elected. Liberal voters are no doubt keen for their party to receive credit upon the completion of projects which are at risk of being finalised by a Labor government.

Greens voters trail both Liberal and Labor in support for public transport, with only 30% indicating concern. This is perhaps anomalous given the Green’s billboard looming over Broadway advertising its public transport policy, but may also be a reflection of the fact that its two Sydney seats are both already within a kilometre of the CBD.

Environmental policy

Held barely a week after the School Strike 4 Climate, which saw 30,000 people take to the streets demanding substantive environmental policy, the 2019 election is one in which many voters will have climate-oriented policy on their mind. Environmental policy was quite clearly in the minds of students polled by Honi, almost 17% of whom indicated interest in the policy area.

The makeup of voters who vote with the environment in mind is almost conspicuously predictable. A student’s interest in climate policy is almost perfectly correlated with the policies of their party of choice.

Greens voters were, by a considerable margin, far more concerned with environmental policy than either Liberal or Labor voters, with nearly 80% expressing concern over the policy.

About half of Labor voters indicated concern for environmental policy. This comes despite the fact that the ALP is yet to oppose the Adani coal mine, and that NSW Labor has committed to only 50% renewable energy by 2030 — well short of what research from ANU has indicated is possible.

Liberal voters were, predictably, almost entirely disinterested in environmental policy in comparison with Greens and Labor voters. A mere 11% indicated interest in the area. The revelation comes as hardly a surprise after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the NSW Climate Change council has been “largely ignored” by the Berejiklian Government since the Liberal leadership change in 2017.

Live entertainment & Drugs

Live entertainment and drug policy has, since the 2015 election, been tipped as one of the areas most likely to draw the attention of young people. The majority of undergraduates at USyd have graduated high school and entered adulthood only to be met by a historically inactive city nightlife, fierce opposition to any drug reform, and a government averse enough to live music to commit to banning certain festivals.

Our polling indicates that these areas matter far less to students than many would have speculated. Live entertainment garnered a measly 5% of voters’ interest; drug policy 4%. This lack of interest is likely a contributing factor to the low amount of first preferences given to Keep Sydney Open (2.6%).

Interestingly, Liberal, Labor, and Greens voters were equally likely to preference entertainment and drug policy. Labor has committed to “saving live music” in NSW with a $35 million package, whilst the Greens remain committed to funding and facilitating the arts.

First Nations Policy

First Nations policy, alongside forced adoption laws, were both largely neglected by most voters. Greens voters were by far the most likely to prioritise First Nations policy, though it was still a minority which chose to do so. Students’ preferences in this area largely reflect the priorities of the parliamentary parties they chose to elect.

According to Honi’s polling, only 5% of students who plan to vote Liberal list First Nations policy as a decisive factor in their choice. The reason for this becomes quite clear when examined in light of the NSW Liberal Party’s approach to First Nations people: their online campaign policy platform makes no mention of First Nations Australians whatsoever. Last year, the Berejiklian government passed laws which allow for children in foster care to be adopted without the consent of their birth parents. The policy disproportionately affects First Nations children, which make up almost 40% of those in the out-of-home care system. The Government ignored pleas from activists, who warned that such a policy would risk creating “another stolen generation.”

An equal proportion of Labor-voting students are concerned by First Nations policy at 5%. NSW Labor’s campaign platform makes some mention of First Nations people, including a commitment to a treaty, as well as flying the First Nations flag over the Harbour Bridge.

Greens voters were four times more likely to prioritise First Nations policy, with 20% indicating it was an important factor in deciding their vote. The NSW Greens have by far the most extensive First Nations policy of any major parliamentary party, including the commitment to work towards federal constitutional recognition of First Nations people.

It seems likely that whichever party forms government will have to grapple with its own stance on First Nations policy before too long, however. Mark Latham of One Nation is, by many accounts, likely to win a seat as an upper house crossbencher, meaning the incumbent government will need to negotiate with him to pass policy. Latham has expressed a desire to see DNA testing introduced for First Nations people claiming welfare, despite no such test tangibly existing.

Thanks to Daany Saeed, Ranuka Tandan, and Ewan Uncles for their assistance with polling.