SUPRA 2020: A post-political election

Dissecting this year's SUPRA election offerings.

Like about half of postgraduate students at the University of Sydney, I arrived in Australia in January and sat through seemingly endless hours of introductions: to my school, to the university and the various organisations surrounding it. One organisation in particular stood out: the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA). From what I gleaned from its slick presentation, this organisation would fight for my case, whether it be against corrupt landlords or an unfair university administration. SUPRA is an advocacy organisation run by student-elected representatives. It provides casework support, advocacy and free wine and cheese nights for postgraduates. 

But despite the importance of the organisation, the students competing to run this year’s SUPRA council displayed no vision for the organisation, no distinct political or policy platform, and no real excitement about the election itself. Though initially excited to have a say in the governance of SUPRA, scrolling through this year’s candidate list and reading platitude after platitude soon became depressing. 

Rebels Without a Cause?

April rolled in, and the candidates for the SUPRA general elections have been announced. But despite a lengthy list of 50 candidates — more than last year’s 39, but less than 2018’s high of 66 — there appears little to get excited about for potential voters. The candidates’ and tickets’ statements are vague and incredibly similar to one another, most failing to provide any description of policies, vision for the organisation or political ideology. Almost none of these candidates showed strong opinions on anything, except some vague concept of making the “university better for students”. 

The “Orange” ticket wants to “Speak for the students and serve the students, and we are willing to be the communicating and representing people of SUPRA and fight for their rights and needs (sic.).” “Bishengdui”, on the other hand wants to “try our best to enlarge our influence among the postgraduate students in The University of Sydney and collect more suggestions and advices.” Trying to extract values from the candidate statements is an uphill battle, the closest I could get from Xiner Yuan of U-Supporter, was “I am nominating myself for SUPRA council because I hope to make students voice heard and provide students the support they need. “ While Chang Wang of Bang Bang Bang says “I’m a very enthusiastic and dedicated student that wants to make a difference not only in the Supra (sic) but also in the USYD campus by having a voice and being there for all you guys university life by proposing various motions including having better study support, more social and networking events and a place that’s enjoyable for everyone. ” 

One almost wishes that a candidate would express a controversial opinion, just to be able to distinguish between the vague platitudes.

These candidates may have students’ best interests at heart, but they have utterly failed to elicit anything resembling enthusiasm for this election. The tickets have meaningless names like “Cheese”, “Bang Bang Bang” or “ORANGE” which give no indication of their stance on any issues. The ticket statements do seem marginally better than the candidate statements, in regards to concrete policy proposals. What I find however, is that a large part of these proposals are things that, to the best of my knowledge from intro events, SUPRA already does. The “SUPRA is great, and we will keep doing things” is an immensely popular platform among the candidates and tickets. The only rivalling cause is some vague promise of coronavirus support, which would be nice but probably the most inoffensive opinion to have. 

Elections as job interviews

While all policies and causes are left vague, there is one thing the candidates do not fail to elaborate on: themselves, their passion, and their oh so valuable experience. Most of the candidate statements are written exactly like cover letters. There’s a little bit of praise for the prospective employer to show you are actually interested, a nice listing of your previous work to show you are qualified, and then of course how passionate and motivated you are.

It even seems like some of the candidates see this as an opportunity to have some experience for their CV. Kai Lao of Xiaolandui, for example,  says that SUPRA is “well aligned with my personal development goals. It is a good platform for me to gain skills, make connections and broaden my knowledge. All of these will help me become a more well-rounded individual.” While I commend their honesty, this might have been a good time to practice the ancient political tradition of lying to the voters, because I am definitely not going to vote for someone, just so they can land a cozy job when their tenure is over.

A changing organisation

Perhaps it is unsurprising that postgraduate students’ elections are less politically volatile than those of undergraduate students. Postgraduate students generally participate less than undergraduates in clubs and societies, and SUPRA elections consistently see lower turnout than comparable SRC elections. In 2019 less than 1,200 people voted in SUPRA elections, about 4% of the postgraduate student body, compared to 5,362 in SRC elections — 16% of the undergraduate body. Many postgraduates are older and feel no need to involve themselves in campus life, whilst others struggle to juggle full-time professional work, thesis writing and night classes.

But it also seems that this level of vague, undifferentiated political campaigns is new. In 2018, for example, ticket “Postgrad Action for SUPRA” ran on tangible policies such as international student travel concessions, free childcare for staff and students, fighting against staff cuts and campaigning for an end to investment in fossil fuels by the University. Agree with these policies or not, these provide a clearer vision of what they want SUPRA to be like more than any platform competing this year. 

Comparing the President’s Annual Reports from even just a few years ago to this year’s also indicates key changes: whereas the 2017 report mentions action on areas as diverse as sexual assault on campus, anonymous marking schemes and staff rights, the 2019 report, to a large extent, vaguely discusses improved “communication” with students and the organisation’s budget. Of more concern however, is the fact that it seems few elected representatives take their roles seriously. Last year’s elected president — Weihong Liang — promptly resigned and left for a job after his election. It appears that despite lucrative stipends of elected office bearers — the organisation’s 2019 Financial Report states that more than $133,000 were paid to elected student office bearers — SUPRA’S representatives haven’t been as effective as their undergraduate counterparts this year. Whereas the SRC has implemented an emergency coronavirus food and support service, the big ticket items for SUPRA this semester were welcome events ($3,500) and a fitness program ($11,500). 

It’s difficult to see this, coupled with this year’s self-involved candidate statements, and not think it is indicative of a trend where those running for SUPRA council are doing it for themselves, rather than the students they represent. I strongly hope I’m wrong, but it appears that this year’s candidates have no real vision for the organisation they hope to run. If this year’s SUPRA council is anything to go by, we’ll be lucky if they even show up after their election.

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