USU Board candidate interview: Belinda Thomas

The full transcript of Honi's interview with 2020 USU Board candidate, Belinda Thomas.

HS: We just have a couple of basic questions to start with. Can you tell us your name, the year of your degree, your degree and your campaign colour and slogan?

BT: I’m Belinda Thomas. I’m a second year arts/law student majoring in music. My campaign colour is red and my slogan is “bring on Belinda.”

HS: Who is your campaign manager? 

HS: My campaign manager is Liam Thomas.

HS: Are you currently a member of a political party?

BT: I used to be a member of the Greens and I am now a member of the ALP, as of late last year.

HS: What about a faction? Can you go through your history with student politics?

BT: Late last year I also joined Student Unity at USyd.

HS: Easy. So why are you running for USU board?

BT: I’ve got a couple of reasons. First of all, the most generic one is that I’ve seen how positive and beautiful and rewarding that interactions and experiences with the USU can be. When I started out at this university, I really didn’t get involved in much at all straight off the bat. I wasn’t really in a good place. My mental health was suffering. I wasn’t having a fun time at all. Then, a couple of months in, when I did get involved, everything pretty much immediately changed. On the bus to arts camp I met one of my best friends, who is still to this day one of my really great friends. This kind of experience – that the world is your oyster and all those opportunities are there if you want them with the USU – like that friend who I met on the bus to arts camp, she had a passion and she has since helped to start a climate society of her own, which she is really passionate about. For a young woman who wants to make things happen, that’s a really great opportunity for anyone involved. Secondly—I know how this is going to sound—but last year with the wonderful help of the SRC, I was able to attend NATCON, which is the national conference of the National Union of Students. The whole time I had basically absolutely no idea what was going on. But being in that room, being in the room where it happened, with a student-led organisation who, as a blanket statement, does a lot of really good work and seeing that huge student-led organisation doing good in that room filled with passion, creativity and innovation, where change was happening and student leadership was very powerful, that was a huge moment of anagnorisis. That really opened my eyes up to something that I wanted to do. Finally, one little point that is a lot more personal is that I remember last year seeing the USU election and it was Ellie and Irene. I saw these young women, these second year women, who were running. I remember distinctly thinking: oh I could never do that in a year’s time. It’s really personally quite empowering to me that I am able to do that now.

HS: And what makes you better placed than the other candidates who are running to be on the board?

BT: Good question. I think I’m coming from quite a unique position. I believe I’m the only domestic woman of colour running currently. In recent memory, there hasn’t been a candidate from the Con that I’m aware of at all. As a Con student, that is quite important to me. It’s basically those communities that I feel need to be brought more into the spotlight of the USU that I can represent.

HS: Cool. Could you also talk a little bit about any leadership experience you’ve had or any relevant experience with the USU which puts you in a better place than the other candidates?

BT: I am currently the secretary of SASS—the arts society—and I am also on the CSA, which is the Conservatorium Students Association at the Con.

HS: A little bit of a different type of question. Which candidates out of the 10 that are currently running are your top 2 favourites and which candidate is your least favourite?

BT: Favourite is a hard word to put on it. The candidates I am most similar to, if I’m allowed to say that… obviously Ruby Lotz I am quite similar to. We are both coming from that perspective of being vibrant young women. We put out a similar kind of vibe with the vision we have for the USU. I’d probably have to say Nick Rigby coming from that SASS background.

HS: Maybe “least favourite” isn’t the best way to phrase it, but do you have any candidates that you don’t align with in terms of policies or who you disagree with? 

BT: Obviously we haven’t had a lot of interaction with each other’s policies. I do have to say politically that I don’t agree with a lot of Liberal candidates

HS: So it would be Ben Hines then, the liberal candidates? 

BT: Yes.

HS: One other question. If you had to cut a million dollars from the USU budget, where would you cut it from?

BT: The thing with finances at the moment – I’m pretty sure all candidates are in the same boat – is that we are not privy to the same information that board directors are. All the financial documents that we have access to are quite vague. It’s pretty difficult to say specifically where I’d like to cut money from. I can say specifically that I really don’t want to cut money from CNS and most student programs, but I think it really is time to reassess which organisation Incubate really serves.

HS: Interesting. Maddy, do you have anything to follow up with?

HS: No, I think we’re good on that question. Somewhat relevant to the issue of funds: do you agree with the board’s decision to close Manning and how would you have voted on the decision if it had happened in your potential term? 

BT: My personal opinion is, I really do want Manning to be utilised to the greatest extent possible for as many students as possible that is financially reasonable. I have had it explained to me and I do agree with the USU’s current position. 

HS: So your petition to keep Manning open: is that no longer in the works?

BT: That is no longer in the works. It was a moment of passion that I was really invested in at the time but I have since had different perspectives explained to me and I have reevaluated that.

HS: Interesting. Obviously, after these elections there is a second election for the executive of the USU board coming up. Who would get your vote in the USU presidential election and why?

BT: I can’t exactly give a straight answer to that right now as I probably just have to pick the best candidate in my opinion right now. There is obviously no formal proposition of candidates right now.

HS: We heard Benny and Nick are running. Do you have a preference out of the two of those? 

BT: I obviously have campaigned for Nick in the past. But I don’t have any idea of what they would like to specifically put forward or what kind of candidate they would present themselves as. So I don’t know if I can give an answer to that right now.

HS: Sticking with the current board as well, what is your opinion on how successful the current board has been and perhaps, after that, a bit more specifically on Connor Wherret’s presidency. What do you think he’s done well and what do you think he could approve on? 

BT: I was having a look at what the board achieved in 2019. It was a little bit difficult, my investigation. I do think they could have done a little better. There were obviously some great motions. They passed stuff largely with the vision of the USU, promoting growth and accessibility and all that nice stuff. But I don’t think there were any huge, major, significant motions. As for Connor: the fact that he really knows so much about the USU itself I think is incredible. His eloquence really intimidates me. I think he has had a good presidency. Obviously it hasn’t been perfect. But I do think he has done good things for the USU. 

HS: Given that the USU is currently in a somewhat precarious financial situation, would you support or stand against a university takeover over the union? And why or why not?

BT: I don’t think the university should take over the union at all. They need to be kept as two very separate organisations… Well not very separate but I think the USU should have its autonomy. I don’t think we should be submitting the requests of the university – especially a university administration that has failed so many students over and over again. I think we can stand our own ground and that needs to be done.

HS: Moving into policy now, what would you say your overall policy priority is?

BT: I know it’s a broad term but definitely 100% student life. That’s how it has to be. That’s the bread and butter of the USU and it needs to be preserved at all costs. 

HS: Do you have any specific ideas? Obviously student life is a bit of a mainstay in terms of people running for board. It comes up in pretty much everyone’s policy every year. But you’re in a quite unique position where if you’re elected you could be serving your term during a lockdown where we don’t know when it’s going to end. Do you have any specific ideas on how you’re going to carry that out?

BT: I don’t think that this sort of rescue effort is enforced anymore. I think it is really more about recovery effort right now. Within that recovery effort has been incredible creativity and innovation from clubs and societies and I really think that needs to be encouraged when we get back to business as normal, which doesn’t have to be too far away. Yeah, we’re really not in that stage of coping anymore. We really are in that stage of recovery. 

HS: Circling back to that question, in terms of presidential candidates: last year you campaigned for Nick Forbutt. What about him made you campaign for him last year and what’s stopping you from decisively supporting him in a presidential bid this year? 

BT: I campaigned for him last year because we became friends on arts camp. Obviously I didn’t know a whole lot about all this stuff at that time but I thought, yeah, he’s a nice guy and I’ll help him out. Right now I’m in a different position with myself as a candidate so I really would need to assess what both those candidates are willing to bring to the table.

HS: Usually board candidates who are factionally-aligned like yourself get help from factionally-aligned board directors as well. Are you receiving any help from president Connor Wherrett?

BT: Not specifically. As friends, he has encouraged me, but that’s it.

HS: As a Con student, how do you feel about the way that previous candidates have included the Con in their policy statements? Because that is a big part of your overall policy statement. There are a couple of current candidates who have also included bits about the Con but we might talk about that later. I’ll let you answer the first part of the question. 

BT: I don’t know what the other candidates have said about the Con so far, but I’m very passionate about the Con. I’ve been attending classes there since I was 5. I had to fact check with my Mum actually. But in the past those policies are always like “oh, we want to give the Con a cafe.” That sort of thing. But what all the candidates with those really, really tokenistic policies tend to forget is that at the Con we are our own campus. We have our own existing culture already. As musicians, composers, creators, we have our own priorities in check. It is a bit intrusive when that existing campus culture is permeated. Instead of another food outlet, we already have a cafe that we love, that we go to. The guy working there knows our coffee orders and knows our names. We don’t want that to be overhauled. We know what we want. The CSA has done a fantastic job in helping out our students and we really know what our students want. When we are perceived as this little bargaining chip, it’s not very fun to be perceived that way. I’d really like to turn that around. That bargaining chip attitude is really why the Con isn’t a huge fan of all of this. It kind of exaggerates that distance we already have from the main campus. 

HS: Ok, so getting a little more specific then about the Con, Ben Hines, a candidate we have talked about a little bit before, says in his policy statement that he backs the engagement for the Con and colleges – so he has kind of bundled them together. He says he will provide campus shuttle buses from USyd to the Con and he will source art space, industry experience and projects for the Con and the colleges as well. What are the specific things that you want to implement that you think go above and beyond that or are different from, for example, what Hines has proposed?

BT: First of all, with the bus, I think the Con-Camperdown or Con-Darlington bus is an excellent idea but it’s probably not something that the USU itself can provide. It’s something the university itself will have to provide. We just can’t do that at the USU. We will have to lobby the university for that. There are so many specifics that will go into that service to make it fine tuned to the courses between Darlington and the Con. I know when those courses are happening. I am enrolled in those courses. What was the second part of the question?

HS: What are the specifics then? You’ve talked a lot about wanting to engage the Con. We have Hines here who has got sourcing industry projects. What specific material policies are you going to bring to the table to bring the Con to life in terms of engagement with the USU?

BT: Yeah, we really do need those exciting performance opportunities for music students. You always see those casual performances at Courtyard and Hermanns throughout the day. That really does need to be a more formalised process. There needs to be a user-friendly booking system that is really highly promoted and connected especially with the CSA to make that happen with both the Con as a campus and across those USU venues on main campus. Also, Con Revue is something that is not funded by the USU at all. It was a huge surprise when I was talking to my CSA team that some of the other revues are funded by the university. We were absolutely shocked by that. It’s not very fun. Back to those performance opportunities – there are a number of sections of degrees at the Con. You have the classical course, the contemporary course and the jazz course. The classical course is of course much more implemented at the Conservatorium itself but especially the jazz and contemporary courses which have classes a lot of the time at the Darlington campus. We would be so keen to come over and have our performances heard by a wider range of students at main campus.

HS: On the note of Ben Hines, we discussed him earlier potentially being the candidate who you have the least in common with, whereas Nick Rigby is someone you’ve identified as someone you would have a lot of stuff in common with. I’m interested in how you are differentiating them given that they are both members of the Young Liberals? Obviously Nick Rigby is in the moderate Liberals and Ben Hines is in a different faction. What is it about them that differentiates them from Liberal and not as Liberal? 

BT: They’re both really nice people so I don’t want to be mean in any regard. I think it’s just the time I’ve had working alongside Nick Rigby. Aside from that whole political thing, we worked on SASS together and we made things happen for our members.

HS: So you’re saying it’s more a bond of friendship rather than politics in this election?

BT: Yes. It’s the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that we had together already.

HS: This next question is coming from a different direction. We noticed in your policy statement that you directly addressed the issue of COVID and how that is affecting the USU’s operations. The way that the USU has handled that situation has attracted a little bit of criticism for the things they have done. On that note, do you think that staff at the USU needed to be stood down and fired recently as a result of decreased money coming in or do you think that could have been handled a little differently?

BT: I’m not sure exactly sure if this happened before all the government JobKeeper plans were rolled out. 

HS: I’m not too sure on the timing myself. I believe it happened a little bit beforehand. But with JobKeeper – that was something that was up in the air for weeks. There were discussions about it. 

BT: I’m pretty sure most of the USU’s employees were not fired. They were just put on stand by for the time being. So all JobKeeper should still be applicable as far as I’m concerned. Most of the USU’s main sources of funding have not been wiped out but have been substantially reduced, and some of them literally have been wiped out. There is a bit of a “you gotta do what you gotta do” attitude. There isn’t much of a way around it without making cuts that absolutely should not be made.

HS: Do you think though, that the USU, which is in some senses a student union, could have taken a different approach to this crisis? Or do you think this is the kind of thing you have to do, as you said? 

BT: 60% of the USU’s employees are students. So that’s really important to take into consideration. But in terms of a way around it – the whole situation is pretty grim. I’m not sure if there is any spectacular option that could have been taken otherwise.

HS: On that note, do you think the CEO, heads of department and board directors should take a pay cut during the COVID 19 crisis? If you’re elected, is this something you will look at?

BT: Yes. That’s an excellent idea. 

HS: A little bit more on COVID – do you think the USU should be taking a stance on how the university should be supporting students during this time? Should they come out with a statement and what do you think that stance should be? 

BT: I have seen the SRC doing some absolutely wonderful work and I would like to make a comment on that. I do think there are quite distinct lines between the role of the USU and the role of university administration but because this is a situation where the world is upside down, I really would like to see a statement that the USU could make supporting its members as university students rather than attacking what the university has to do with it. 

HS: On that specific point—attacking what the university has been doing—do you think there should be room for the USU to criticise, especially with the way the university has handled its staff? Do you not think there is a position for the USU to take there? There has been quite a lot of criticism of some of the measures the university has taken – Proctoru, the pass/fail system, those kinds of things. Do you think there is room for the USU to be criticising those kinds of actions?

BT: Criticism yes. I do agree with that, whereas I do believe the SRC does have a much greater role in that sort of position. In the position of a board director laying out a little bit of criticism on this.

HS: Ok. I guess this is somewhat pertinent to this because it’s obviously happening in the first few months of her being CEO. What do you think of Alexis Roitman’s leadership as a CEO thus far?

BT: I don’t have any complaints. My interaction with her has been a tiny bit in that candidate ethics training session and from that what she’s had to say about her background has been very good. I’m very proud that this organisation is run by a female CEO after a long stint without a female CEO. I think she’d done a great job in the short time she has been CEO.

HS: Building on that, I noticed in your statement as well that you talk a bit about listening to more nuanced stories and taking in different experiences from minority and identity groups who are under-represented voices. How do you think you will utilise those particular voices and stories from within? How do you plan to build a program that implements those voices and what form will that take in the USU?

BT: The USU already has a lot of excellent programs like that which already exist but they’re just completely not promoted at all. Even looking them up, I had no idea about them. It really is that whole thing based around connection. Especially after this whole period of desolation, it’s connecting those stories with people who want to hear them—it should be everyone—whether that’s in a format of the creative arts or some kind of special week or forum or promotion within clubs and societies. In my personal experience, I am a young Chinese woman and my identity means a lot to me, so I do not want to have that story muted at all.

HS: Ok. Was there anything that you wanted to add Belinda?

BT: I really want to drive in that whole thing about moving from the rescue plan to the recovery plan and also in this new strategic plan for the USU there is a section in 2017-2020 strategic plan that says we need to be adapted to any changes in the physical and academic environment of the university and I think that’s more important now than ever and there is also something in the Australian health sector emergency response to novel coronavirus which says we need to continue to engage and empower and build confidence in the community. I think that’s a really important sentiment that should outline not only my campaign but the vision of the USU in not just this year but the next coming years.

HS: Great. Thank you. Is that everything Chuyi?

HS: I think that’s most things. As a fun bonus question: clearly because this campaign is now completely online, will you be taking any interesting approaches to online campaigning? We’ve been theorising here at Honi about all the amazing Tik Toks we’re going to see. Do you have any plans for tackling specifically online as opposed to in person?

BT: I spend about five hours a day on Tik Tok, which is a bit ridiculous, so it’ll probably be that path taken. As for other online strategies, there’s nothing hugely out of the blue, but there could be some interesting things in the works.

HS: Exciting. Thanks so much for coming today. 

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