At times, life at the University of Sydney (USyd) can feel like an endless cycle of fiercely contested elections. Organisations like the University of Sydney Union and the Students’ Representative Council play an important role in students’ lives. Despite that, there often seems to be an atmosphere of apathy associated with student electoral processes, reflected in shockingly low voter turnout rates which regularly hover around 10%. Whether this is down to a perception that student elections have ‘no real impact’ is debatable. That perception, however, would be radically different in the imagined world where the University of Sydney became an electoral division again.
The University of Sydney’s status as an electoral district in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales is a gem buried within the annals of history. Its electoral lifespan was brief, spanning just four years from 1876 to 1880.
The specifications of the electoral district were set out in the 1858 Electoral Act. The Act stipulated that upon enrolment figures at USyd passing 100 students, a special seat would be created. Voting rights would be extended to senate fellows, various staff members and students studying a Master of Arts, Doctors of Laws and Doctors of Medicine. The elections themselves were administered by the Provost or Vice Provost who would act as a returning officer.
The first campus election was a by-election held in 1876, in which William Charles Windeyer defeated Edmund Barton by 6 votes. At the next election Barton, who as Prime Minister oversaw the implementation of the White Australia Policy, claimed victory.
In 1880, when electoral boundaries in New South Wales were redrawn, the seat of the University of Sydney was abolished. Since then, no other special university seats have been created in any state, leaving the question of what USyd electoral divisions would look like. That question remains restricted only to our imagination.
There were certainly significant electoral benefits for students voting in the USyd electoral district in 1876. Firstly, the population of their electoral division would have been around 100 students, compared to approximately 4,000 voters in other electorates (assuming a roughly equal electoral division). This would have granted each student a significantly larger share of voting power and influence over the outcome of elections than other students nationwide. Today, the size of USyd’s electoral division would have grown to approximately 54,000 students. Although nowhere near the disproportions of the 19th century, this would still be significantly smaller than almost all electoral divisions in New South Wales today.
In light of USyd’s strong activist tradition, an electoral district may also have increased the efficacy of activist campaigns. With a clear path to Parliament, movements benefit from having a more tangible and proximate end-goal, energising student activists and galvanising greater support. Additionally, although a little idealistically, there would have been an opportunity for genuinely left-wing candidates to hold a seat in Parliament and champion the demands of grassroots campaigns.
Compulsory voting may also have had the impact of cultivating a stronger voting culture on campus with flow-on effects in other student elections. With political participation becoming more closely linked to campus culture, it is feasible that the preservation of an electoral district would have lead to higher turnouts in SRC and USU Board elections. This would have also assisted in mitigating some of the electoral impacts of voluntary student unionism.
To extend the thought experiment a little further, it’s possible that other universities would also have been granted their own electoral divisions. Such special seats, significantly smaller than other electoral divisions, would be problematic in terms of compromising equality in the value of votes. At risk of becoming elitist in its extension of a special voting status exclusive to university students who disproportionately come from class privileged backgrounds.
Ultimately though, there doesn’t seem to be any real possibility of university electoral districts being revived, and perhaps for the better.