USU Board candidate interview: Prudence Wilkens-Wheat

The full transcript of Honi's interview with 2020 USU Board candidate, Prudence Wilkens-Wheat.

Note: Since this interview was conducted, Himath Siriniwasa has stepped down as a campaign manager for Prudence Wilkens-Wheat.

HS: We’ll just get started with a couple basic questions, cause we’re posting it online, maybe people don’t know you yet. So what’s your name, degree, year, campaign color and slogan?

PWW: My name’s Prudence Wilkins-Wheat, my campaign color is yellow, I study Arts/Law majoring in English and I’m in my 4th year, and my slogan is “Pru for USU”. 

HS: Cool, and who is your campaign manager/campaign managers?

PWW: I have quite a few. I have Liam, who is the SRC President; Kedar – they are the ACAR Officer; Altay: another ACAR Officer; Himath: I think the Global Solidarity Officer and Ella who’s really involved in debating.

HS: So are you in a political party/can you please describe your politics to us?

PWW: Yep, so I am not in any federally-aligned political parties. I am in Switch and Grassroots which are more activist/network-based groups on campus. So a lot of Officer Bearers and collectives get involved in Grassroots and Switch. I would describe my politics as left-wing – obviously I am anti-racism/sexism/classism/ableism/queerphobia, all that. I definitely prioritise minorities and discriminated groups, and I like to platform and empower voices specifically who have been affected. I’m obviously for decolonisation, that’s kind of broadly the principles and precepts of something like Grassroots and Switch as well.

HS: Cool, you answered my next question which was about your faction, so, why are you running for USU Board?

PWW: So this is for me a really important question, so I apologise if this goes on for a little… I’m sorry if this turns into like some weird speech, but I remember last year when I got asked that question and I think I said something about the importance of a progressive union, about representation, and also the USU affirming its values – very similar to the ones that I have about racism; sexism, and about ensuring that people who are being affected by oppression/discrimination have means of having protection within the USU and also having means of feeling like they’re being represented and taken care of, and that was something I felt I learned from the SRC and that’s why I really want to see engagement with the SRC. And a lot of that had been informed by, I think at the time I started being a student ambassador, and so part of that role was about the fact that I had to call students who are first-years and who were specifically struggling because they were in difficult degrees or because they were particularly vulnerable, maybe because they were international students, and what sort of issues were facing them and a lot of them stuff said like discrimination; a lot of them said issues from socio-economic backgrounds. So that sort of stuff really informed me, but after I obviously withdrew from the USU [elections], I had a lot of time to really think more about how that was really particularly gonna manifest in the USU – why did I want to be a board director? What was I trying to achieve? And something that I think is a problem with the USU and Board Directors specifically is that we often come into these positions on the backfoot: a lot of us don’t really know what we’re doing, a lot of us have a lot of ideas, but not really plans. So what does it mean to have a more progressive union? What does it mean to revive Manning? What do all these things mean in principle? How do they actually manifest? And something that I kind of came to the conclusion [about] was that a lot of us just don’t know a lot about the administration of the USU, so what I did in response to that was stuff like [getting] a USU job: so I worked as a Student Activities Officer for a couple days every week for about a year, and that meant that I had a lot of engagement and I learned a lot about the USU. Other stuff is like… when making my policy, I interviewed different presidents of clubs/societies and directors of revues and USU staff, and I learned a lot from that. And then even getting involved with the SRC; when I got elected as Environment Officer – which was completely distinct from the USU, everything about that – I still learned a lot about activism and how to really engage in left-wing politics and how to actually be more than a dissenting voice in the USU but actually how to use the sort of mechanisms in the USU to express progressive politics. And that came out of stuff like meetings with the facilities manager for the USU about Sustainability Week and how can we make Sustainability Week more educational, rather than what it currently had been which was more about focusing on, I guess real sustainability and sponsorships and I guess those corporate relationships. And so the way I kind of perceive a board director and… what I’ve come to the conclusion about the point of the USU is that the board director oversees student experience, but student experience inherently has two parts: student culture, which I think a lot of students focus on, and the other part is student support, which is about stuff like making sure there’s really good sexual harassment and sexual assault training for people who do go to camps, or making sure we are decolonising Wentworth, or making sure that we have a disability space – all those things are a part of the USU and a part of the responsibilities you take on when you become a Board Director. And I think that is something you’ll hear from a lot of candidates about student support and student culture, but I think what differentiates me in comparison, besides the experience and the passion, is the fact that you need to have a leader who’s willing to advocate and represent and defend students. And you can have all information in the world and you can have all the experience in the world but if you aren’t able to put yourself out there and have a really articulate argument with people in a room who defend you, whose priorities are actively against you, then you aren’t going to, I think, really live up to a lot of the promises you’re making and that’s something that I feel like I can do. Even though I hate these elections, I think they’re so stressful, I come back because I’m really passionate about the visions I have for the USU and I really believe that I’m someone that students can trust to actually deliver on a positive and effective vision for the USU.

HS: Alright. Thanks so much. So would you say it’s mainly, you think, your experience and your ability to defend your ideas – do you think that makes you better placed than the other candidates running?

PWW: I think it’s part of it, I think it’s beneficial, just inherently in the fact that when you come into the USU, firstly you’re exhausted after doing a campaign, but also you have to learn who the personalities are, how it works, what’s the administration, how does an executive work – it doesn’t work in the same way like a club does. You have to also come up against a lot of knowledge hierarchies and you have to come up against a lot of experience hierarchies with people who are like CEOs and who really feel like they probably know better than you. And that’s a massive obstacle that I feel like, even if I’m not at the same degree of those individuals and I can’t say that I’m, you know, going to be perfect, but for this I have that sort of background experience that it’s not going to be as confronting and intimidating as I think it will be for other candidates. And just generally I think that it means that a lot of my policy is informed by on-the-ground knowledge of the USU and of clubs and societies, and also working with progressive individuals in the SRC.

HS: On the topic of other candidates, which of the candidates do you think you might most align with, and which of the candidates do you think you might have the most disagreements with, and why?

PWW: So firstly I would say that on a left-wing basis I really, obviously, am going to align with the Labor candidates who I think are probably also going to run a progressive campaign similar to mine. And also in terms of politics, I think international students are really important at the moment, especially with everything that’s happening in relation to COVID-19. I think international students specifically are extremely vulnerable. Just based on some of the conversations I’ve had on WeChat where a lot of Chinese international students specifically, who came over late because of COVID-19, then maybe had a week of tutorials and then went into quarantine again because of everything that’s happening in Australia – they’re in a really difficult situation and I think you need to have people who understand that and who have those connections and represent them in board, as well as like… I know Vikki has also, besides me, worked with the USU as a Campus Activities Co-ordinator and I respect that she has that experience, and also probably administrative knowledge. In terms of individuals I may not work well with, I think, quite obviously, the Liberal candidates – I think we’re not generally on the same wavelength. I think that how the Liberal Party kind of functions, it is in some ways anti-union or it has worked against, I think, really key principles of supporting student culture, the Ramsey centre being an example that I think worked against student culture that I know the Liberal Party really endorsed. And I also think that some Liiberal candidates have been involved in stuff like stacking scandals which I think doesn’t really speak to the principles of what the USU stands for. 

HS: So Vikki, in our interview with her when we asked her where she would cut $1 million from the USU budget, she said that she would cut it from MAD and other charitable initiatives. She also described herself as being a candidate more around the centre of politics. As a left-wing activist candidate, or someone who’s styling them as such, do you think that you’re compatible with that?

PWW: I mean, on a political basis—like a left-wing political basis—I think a centrist is someone who is, I guess, complicit in the way that the structures currently work. I think where Vikki and probably other candidates are coming from, is like, she has that experience in student culture and from Campus Activities Coordinator, which I respect in, like, that sort of dimension, so with the two parts of how you can understand who I am—one side is the progressive, one side is student culture—but I would say that on the experience with Vikki, I think we’d really understand each other on that side. And I think that anyone who is a centrist is someone who’s just responsive to the best argument in terms of politics. I think that, in the ways that we would work together, if we were to come to work together, it would be in a left-wing way, and I think that she would be responsive to that. Purely by virtue of things that would, I think, benefit what she cares about, which I think is international students’ rights, from having close communication with those based on when I’ve seen her and how she behaves in WeChat groups. So I don’t necessarily think it would end up being a conflict, it would just be, I guess a navigation, or a negotiation in some ways. 

HS: And if you had to cut $1 million from the USU’s budget, where would you cut it from?

PWW: So firstly I would say it’s a rearrangement of how I would do some events, so for example, if it was still a physical campus experience – first I would try and rearrange the way we do festivals, so a lot of the way that we do festivals like PopFest, or Sustainability Festival is that you bring in a lot of outside entertainment, so for example PopFest: you might bring in cosplay, people or panelists. What I would try and replace that with is more collaboration with clubs and societies. So what the USU currently does is they give an expression of interest to clubs and societies, specifically performing arts societies if we’re kind of going off PopFest, and they don’t have a lot of time to actually prepare so they don’t get super involved, but what I would love to see is if we had to change the way we organise festivals, it would be with more inclusion of clubs and societies, instead of trying to really fund these sort of outside influences that I think just don’t generally get as much student engagement as well. I would try and cut from Incubate as well for a couple reasons. Firstly, Incubate provides start-up grants which has a benefit for students, but it’s also that is accessible from other areas, like I think FASS also gives grants, you can get grants from outside sources as well, so it’s not necessarily a unique benefit, whereas something like clubs or even revues are things that I would really want to protect and make sure they don’t get cut funding from, just because that’s something that a lot of students rely on. I also think that based on some of the criteria around Incubate, they do look at stuff about how your business has run previous to what’s it been brought forth to with Incubate, and I think that people who have more connections, more social and economic capital are obviously gonna be beneficial for that, so it might create these sort of hierarchies. I also think it’s a very specific kind of initiative that I think a lot of students aren’t accessing, but again like regular programs – that stuff is really something that a lot of students access. And I also don’t want to cut from things like food outlets because what could happen is that prices could skyrocket, and I think that it’s really important that we have affordable food options on campus. Another possibility is to also remove something like Bright Ideas for creative grants. I have so much respect for creative grants, and the Verge gallery, but I guess if this wasn’t a real big issue I would rather take from something like that than probably cut more staff, as you’ve seen happen over the past COVID-19 year. 

HS: So do you think that the staff at the USU needed to be fired recently as a result of the decrease of money?

PWW: So I was one of the staff who was stood down, and then I also resigned because of the USU election, so I understand that this is one of the really tough situations where all my friends, all my community within the USU, basically were stood down, and people who I have so much respect for, who have done so much good work, who coordinated revues and festivals and who basically run the clubs and societies office, were either made redundant or were stood down. Whether I can say that it was necessary is, I guess, out of my purview because I obviously am not privy to budgetary information that’s put out in camera but also I have heard that the USU facing issues of solvency, they’re uncertain about whether they can come back next semester – all these sort of difficult issues, and austerity measures I guess are precipitating the life of the USU and will hopefully ensure that a USU job is there when the situation allows it to become. But I also think there are ways that I think the USU could have navigated… so certain staff that were made redundant were because they organised festivals on campus and no longer can you actually hold a festival on campus so why would you keep that person around? But the way I wished that the USU, if it had the potential in terms of money to do, was to diversify the way that the stuff actually function – so instead of doing festivals on campus, how can you move a festival online, so how can you convert something like PopFest and do it in an online way. And also, for example, the C&S and how to still support and run C&S online, so I think a C&S staff group and festival group and all those sort of groups would have been really helpful with that, but whether the actual finances with it to support it is something that I don’t feel I was privy or have the right the right to comment on at the moment.

HS: Do you think the CEO, Heads of Department and Board Directors should have taken a pay cut during this time, or should they take a pay cut going into the future?

PWW: I think it’d be very, I guess, arrogant or privileged to say that they should have all taken a pay cut, because I don’t know the background of it, each of the individuals – I don’t know the socio-economic status of these individuals, and I would never publicly shame someone because they refuse to give up their money. But with that being said I would have taken a pay cut if I were a Board Director. I probably wouldn’t have advocated for it, but would have advocated for it on an anonymous basis, in the sense that people who did the pay cut, wouldn’t I guess – people who didn’t opt in for a pay cut wouldn’t be exposed, because I just don’t think it’s in my place to say that someone should have been willing to sacrifice their money in order to save the staff. That’s something I personally would advocate for and debate for and do, but I guess if you have a family to support or if you’re renting – that’s just something that isn’t sustainable for a lot of people. It’s a privilege for me to do that, you know what I mean?

HS: Free Access was introduced last year, and that obviously shook up the USU’s financial situation quite a bit. Do you think that’s still a viable situation, and would you advocate for it going forward, especially in the recovery from this crisis?

PWW: I would say it should go forward, and there’s a few reasons for that. So I think the universal student membership was one of the most incredible and progreessive policy points that the USU’s made since Voluntary Student Unionism became a thing, and it has made a massive impact on smaller clubs and societies, because if you have niche interests – I’m thinking specifically of CrossSoc because I spoke with the president, Sam, and he said that things like the universal membership actually had a massive impact on their membership and their engagement and so I think that it would hit hard smaller and niche interests clubs and societies, and that’s something that I don’t want to do. And I think that the clubs and societies program is something that all students really look to and appreciate and really need during this time. So I really wouldn’t want to cut or marginalise or affect students in that way, especially cause going back to the old system, which was like $75 or $90 for student memberships is just not sustainable, especially because of all the issues happening around students who are losing their jobs and who have rent to pay, or have to support their families, and so I think putting the problems of the USU onto all the members to carry the burden, I don’t necessarily think is sustainable, to repeat the same word I used before, but I think there are other ways to cut funds and to make sure we support students in that way.

HS: So what is your opinion on how successful on how the current board has been, and specifically and what is your opinion on Connor Wherrett’s presidency?

PWW: Well firstly I want to say that I think that what I appreciate about this board specifically in comparison to maybe previous boards is that they have put forth, I guess, actively political motions. For example, they came out against Ramsey Centre, they came out in support of climate strikes, and I think that’s a positive change in the way that the USU functions and the way the board functions. Other criticisms, I guess, could be that obviously, and this is a problem that’s not necessarily specific to this board, is that a lot of Board Directors come in with a lot of these promises, and don’t often deliver or don’t often communicate their failings when they try to deliver, and that’s something I would appreciate to see more of. Other things that I think they do maybe not so well is that, I was reading the board minutes, or the summary by Pulp, and I know Connor Wherrett pointed out that they didn’t want to take a stance on pass/fail in relation to students, and they wanted to refer to the SRC as a left-wing student organisation; the activist body, and I just don’t see the need to make them mutually exclusive. And I think that as a student organisation, you should be able to be informed on a lot of the issues that are surrounding students at the moment, and should at least schedule it to be discussed at a date where you are informed, and take a stance, because that’s what a lot of students are looking for. I’ve done a lot of work around the evictions from student accomodation and the Suspend Rent campaign, and it would have been really cool if someone had discussed that in more thorough detail, rather than just signing a petition. 

HS: I guess this is kind of our last broad USU question: what role do you think Pulp plays in reporting on the USU? Do you think that the current editorial team is afraid to criticise the organisation or do you think that the organisation itself has too much control? Obviously, kind of referring to their interview with Connor Wherett, where the questions seemed quite easy, and they weren’t really interrogating properly what was some like pretty easily recognisable stuff.

PWW: I definitely think that there is too much reliance on Pulp as kind of the megaphone for what the USU is doing, in the sense that like – Pulp does not exist to service the USU, Pulp exists to critique and hold the USU accountable, and even with Honi Soit, where they asked Honi Soit to do a pullout on the USU. I think the USU is relying too much on student media to give them a positive review. I would say that I have a lot of respect for the Pulp journalists, in the sense that I think that they have politics I like, what’s been happening with translations that they’ve been doing and being more inclusive of international students, which I think is really positive. But I would think my criticism is moreso with the expectations the USU is holding on Pulp, which I think is just generally unfair, and if the SRC did the same thing with Honi I think it would be pretty outrageous. So I think, just more distancing and less reliance on them, and I guess some feedback to Pulp would be to try and be more willing to be critical, but I would want to examine further why they felt like they couldn’t be more critical. I think that’s more of a compelling issue.

HS: From my experience as a Pulp editor, Pulp functions in a very different, obviously, but in some senses a similar way to the SRC, in that the USU was quite cautious when it established Pulp to create a separation of editorial control. Do you think that there’s more room for the Pulp editors to be kind of resisting the USU in that sense, and as a Board Director how would you encourage them to do so?

PWW: I’m very much in favour of the big separation; the resistance between any control between the USU and Pulp. I think that I would have conversations with people who were trying to use Pulp as this megaphone, and I want to also approach Pulp and let them know that, from my personal experience as a Board Director if I were a Board Director, you should be free to criticise anything that I do and anything that other Board Directors do, and if I saw this happening repeatedly, I would try and put forward some form of motion in the USU to reaffirm the independence of Pulp, which I think is really important. I think just creating the environment and sending reminders to Pulp that they don’t function as… a propaganda machine for the USU is important. Obviously we want to have a close relationship, because it should be used in order to platform a lot of the projects we’re doing, for example if we’re involved in something like a Sustainability Week, but they should also have the platform in order to criticise Sustainability Week, and I think that’s just conducive the progress, like I accept the criticism of any student organisation that I’m a part of, because that’s how you figure out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and the reaction to articles when they’re put out are also significant, and I think if we just have this sort of mono-centric discussion about how the USU functions, that’s just kind of when you get into a forward loop of not actually doing anything or, I guess, changing it in any significant way. And I think having an independent body who care enough about us to learn about us and criticise us that’s something that’s a benefit – it’s a privilege to have something like that.

HS: Well let’s move on to a couple more specific policy questions, or things about your policy statement. What would you say your overall policy priority, if you had to keep it around one area if possible? Because we had some candidates basically read out their entire policy statement when we asked them this question. So what would you say your overall priority is in your policy statement?

PWW: Gosh. Ok well I would say that in terms of priority, I consider priority [to be] what would I do as soon as I try and get into the USU?  What’s the first thing that I’m thinking like, “I have to do this”. And it’s gonna be non-financial, so there’s a lot of financial ideas that I have, which I won’t talk about in order to keep this succinct, but I guess a non-financial priority would be, first and foremost, setting up communication channels between clubs and societies and revues, because I think they’re in a really difficult position, and I think that it reaches the most amount of members in order to do that. And I think it’s something that the USU hasn’t been able to do as well in the past, and I think it’s more important now because of all the layoffs in the C&S office, that you actually have Board Directors stepping up, like they’ve never stepped up before, to really compensate for a lot of those gaps, so that’s something I would really love to see. 

HS: So usually the board candidates who are factionally-aligned get help from the factionally-aligned Board Directors. Are you seeking any help from Maya Eswaran? 

PWW: So Maya is obviously, as a friend, giving me advice and stuff like that. She’s not actively involved with it because I’m pretty sure candidates aren’t allowed, that’s what I’ve been told. So she more so gives me broad advice. I got a lot of advice from her last year as well because last year when she was just a board director, I don’t know if it was wrong or right, she did give me obvious help and she was, I think, part my manager and Ellie’s manager. So I’ve learned enough from her last year to not really need her fully this year. 

HS: Do you plan to continue as SRC Enviro-Officer if elected to the Board, and if so how are you planning on juggling a Board role, an SRC role and your studies?

PWW: Big questions, and really important questions as well. Obviously, I will never step down from the Enviro Officer position while I’m in that position. That position for me is one of the most important positions I’ve ever been elected to, in my opinion. So the value of this year is that, because I screwed up my progression, and because I knew that I was taking up this Enviro Officer position, I underloaded my degree, so I’m actually only doing one subject this semester. So I have a lot of free time to concentrate on that sort of stuff, and so studies aren’t as much a big deal. And also because in a COVID-19 world, my WAM isn’t as significant as it would normally be, and the role of the Enviro Officer isn’t, I guess, as hands-on as it would normally be, for example, in terms of organising these mass rallies that I would have normally been doing, which I had been doing until COVID-19 kind of set in. But that’s still a big part of my life. Also, ideally, if I were elected to board, I would take up the environmental officer portfolio, and so a lot of my work would hopefully compliment each other. For example, around Sustainability Week, that would be informed a lot by my involvement in the Environment Collective, as well as consultation with different Environmental C&S which I already do as an Environment Officer. And also because I had this USU job as the Student Activities Officer, I would just sub out what I was doing working for the USU with this new job working for the USU, and so that’s how I can rorate all these different positions together. 

HS: Following on from that, as someone who‘s quite heavily involved in collectives and activist movements on campus, why are you running for the USU, as opposed to the SRC? Do you think that you can do more as someone with left-wing inclinations on the Board than the SRC, and how much influence can one activist Director have on the organisation?

PWW: I think that there’s often a conversation about “why is the left-wing person choosing to run for the USU and not the SRC?” I think that the SRC has so many left-wing options, for example I can think of basically anyone in Grassroots who could just completely take up the Presidential role or take up any sort of role in the SRC and do a fantastic job – that doesn’t really need to be me. And I think the harder position is kind of doing the USU job. I think it’s a really difficult thing to go into a room with people who maybe disagree with you, maybe depoliticise the USU, and having this conversation and convincing them – that’s just a really difficult thing to do. So there’s more value, I guess, in trying to send that left-wing person out to do that. I guess it’s easier for me to be like “I’m going to be SRC President”. But I also felt like I didn’t have the same background and strength of knowledge of the SRC, whereas I had performed all this research in the USU that I really felt like, unlike previous years, that I knew how to instill left-wing politics in the actual mechanisms that exist within the USU. I think also because I have a lot of this experience, I have a lot more respect. I think a lot of the members of the USU and the staff already kind of know I’m an activist. So I don’t think they’re going to be coming on the back foot and realising that I’m not going to be bringing them to the USU, so I think there’s value in that. There’s an incorrect assumption that the USU and the SRC… they don’t have to both be left-wing. To phrase that better, the SRC is a left-wing institution, which is an activist institution, but that’s not to say that the USU therefore should not have to be a left-wing institution because the SRC is already taking up that mantle. Any student organisation, I believe, has to make a political decision about the politics that they want to represent. Even deciding that you’re not political is a political decision, especially when you’re dealing with political events like Pride Week, or when you have buildings that are named after colonisers – not [being] willing to take a stance on those issues is being complicit in the fact that is a political situation that you’re just letting exist on its own. It’s a decision about what politics you want it to have, and I want it to have left wing-politics, and that’s what I’ll advocate for. I think there is a culture change that is happening within the USU, specifically when you see motions that I mentioned before, and when you have candidates who have come from left-wing backgrounds, and I think there’s a lot us even running in this campaign, and so I do think that there is a lot of potential for change, and I just want to be assured that the people who are on this campus who definitely want this left-wing representation, who want to be supported, have that sort of avenue in me. That’s really what makes me passionate about what I’m trying to do.

HS: Your policy speaks to a lot of structural environmental changes, but it also kind of outlines a lot of sustainability measures such as subsidised keep cups and dixie cups. The USU tends to favour the latter measure, and as far as I can tell it tends to favour the latter measure in order to conceal the fact that the environmental structural kind of changes aren’t happening. Why do you think that promoting such individual action is compatible with your vision of being an activist board director?

PWW: So firstly I would acknowledge that the previous Environment Officer positions were taken up by people who had very little interest in supporting the environment. I even think that Lachlan Finch, who was a member of the Liberal Party, took up the Environment Officer position and has little regard – I perceive as being little regard for both dimensions: sustainability and the actual activist side. But the reason why I guess I’m putting in the sustainability measures because it is a big part of the USU and the USU has that responsibility because of its involvement in outlets, and ignoring that side is just a bit of a waste. If you can have that influence, why not just try and actually have that influence and actually do it to the point where it’s at the level which you think is successful. Obviously I don’t advocate or believe that individual change is the most significant. I believe in structural and systematic change to achieve not having massive climatic effects on the world. And I think of that because, when you think about something like a 10-year gap we have in order to really affect the environment,  you have to think about what’s the most efficient way of going about it, and that for me is systematic change rather than individual change, and I think that, in some ways, USU is the system, and I think that involving it in change is really positive because it has a multiplier effect where it influences the practices and the way that people orientate themselves on campus. I don’t think that my ideas that are on a systemic level are impossible and I really think that they have a history. So for example, before Voluntary Student Unionism, the USU really did get involved around big systemic issues, like around mining and fracking, and I have old zines in the SRC from the USU that I thought were from the SRC – they were talking about logging, and all this sort of stuff. And those conversations have changed, but that doesn’t mean to say they can’t go back to that, because when you have things like thousands of students walking off the campus and USU actually taking an engaged look at that, I think that is a platform that is being created out of that. And I think it’s becoming more and more mainstream to discuss, it’s just of the time. And to be willing to change your systemic basis, and I guess lobby the USU, and so the university in forms of ethical investment… even the sustainability strategy that is happening this year which has been in consultation with the Sydney Environmental Institute and been in consultation with the USU is a form of systemic change of the USU that the university’s trying to prioritise. Like, they were discussing about the investment, and this year was supposed to be this really influential year about it. And so I would say that, now more than ever, we have to be having these conversations about systemic climate change and even individual climate change – environmental change in all forms, and I think that’s kind of the way we have to go ahead in all student organisations and organisations broadly.

HS: In your policy statement, you’ve included: “Lobby to change the name of the Wentworth Building to something decolonial”. Do you not think that the renaming process should be given as much weight as the denaming? It seems to me quite curious that you haven’t suggested potential name changes, rather referring it to something like “decolonial”, which to me seems quite broad.

PWW: I know, that was very broad. I adopted this policy based on the ACAR Honi that I read, I think maybe last year, and it was an article that I read by Himath and Georgia, and they were talking about the renaming of Wentworth and the significance of that, and they brought up the idea of naming it after an Indigenous warrior, which I would completely be in support of; that’s what I would want. But I don’t feel like it’s the USU’s place to just be like “We’re gonna name it after this Inidgenous person”. I think it has to be a consultation with communities, with groups like the Autonomous Collective Against Racism, and have those really big consultations, because obviously I bring in a lot of white privilege, and I don’t think it’s my place to rename a building named after a coloniser with whatever idea I have. It has to come from someone else, and it has to come from people who were genuinely affected by it. And I guess the one reason that I didn’t actively just say “an Indigenous warrior” is that I didn’t want to seem tokenistic, I didn’t wanna just be too broad in what I was trying to say. But that’s something that I think has to be in greater consultation than I think what I want to say.

HS: Do you not think that just referring to it as “something decolonial”, though, in itself is quite tokenistic and broad?

PWW: True. I mean, I take that criticism on, and I think that that’s something that I will probably change when I make the policy public, and I’ll probably adopt the idea of an Indigenous warrior, or at least have that that name has to be in consultation with communities who have a lot more… have the lived experience or have knowledge of what they would want it to be turned into. You can read it as being that, then.

HS: One last question just cause I’m quite conscious of time: With staff fired, and more layoffs likely, how can you reconcile being a unionist and a Board Director, which is effective making you a boss, and overseeing significant job cuts?

PWW: I mean that’s one of the most complicated issues at the moment. I think… it’s one of the most conflicting issues that you’re in where you have to rely on the continuity of the union, and that came with massive job cuts, and cuts to basically every area. But I think at that time it was necessary, and I guess, making sure that I’m not part of the problem of further cuts but part of the solution bringing those workers back on is what I want to see. Instead of trying to continue the problem, but trying to figure out how to better support workers – and this is through stuff like supporting the May 1 Movement for Workers, and hoping that the USU also takes a stance on that. I’ll be part of things like car convoys around that, and I have been historically. And I think also making sure that workers… example: a lot of workers were really confused about JobKeeper and whether they came under that, and so better communication support for workers who are trying to do that; I guess taking stances against the government when they are making those decisions about JobKeeper. I know that the SRC was doing really big campaigns around that, which I would have liked to see the USU being more involved in. So I guess those are kind of examples of… [Zoom glitch]… if there are small ways of trying to support workers rather than being part of the problem, which I think is just abandoned by the fact that we’re in a really exceptional situation in terms of COVID-19.

HS: It does seem like a tiny bit of a contradiction to me though to say that you support the previous job cuts within the same sense that you’ll be supporting the May 1 Workers’ Movement. Given that you’re going to be in a position where you’re directly affecting workers, why do you support those job cuts?

PWW: So I wouldn’t say… so when we’re in, for example, the previous workers’ convoys that I’ve been involved in, they aren’t always about “We want our jobs back”. A lot of them are about benefits they want to see from the… better benefits they’re getting from old work and also from the government. That’s what those movements are about rather than “We need our jobs back” because I think people are aware that, in this current situation, a lot of people just aren’t able to financially support bringing all the staff back – whether that is, I guess… other solutions could be, I guess we said that the pay cuts or bringing in job workers… I can’t say that… it’s just if we care about the USU and we care about making sure student unionism is a thing which I do believe it should be, and if I look at the fact that if I were brought into the USU to have a fiduciary duty, in order to make sure that the USU is supported and continues on, you have to be able to make those decisions. I think all around things have been hard, even as a staff member I’ve been cut. I think the whole behaviour on part of the USU was the lack of consultation which shouldn’t have happened. I think in terms of being involved in the staff movement and these different movements, they’re not necessarily… I think it’s a misrepresentation to say that staff aren’t aware that they couldn’t be kept on for various reasons. It was just about the conditions they were given, the communication they were given about the rights they were receiving afterwards; about the insurances they’re gonna get if they were to come back, and making sure as soon as we can we bring them back and we prioritise bringing them back is something that I think is more in the conversation, and more how I reconcile those two prioritise in my mind. 

HS: So as a Board Director. your priority would be less about maintaining the staff jobs and preventing… or rather your priority’s more about the long-term success of the union rather than the staff cuts?

PWW: I don’t necessarily think it’s something that you have to argue either way. In order to get staff their jobs back, you kind of just need to have a union there for them. And if you were to bring all staff back and you couldn’t support them for long enough and the USU just crumbled, then no one would have a job at the end of the day. I guess it’s looking in long-term of that – how to actually bring those people back and have a job waiting for them, and in the meantime, trying to make the conditions as durable as possible for the workers who are being affected. And advocating and using your platform to really make sure the government is trying to support them, and all workers outside of the USU as well, which is really important.

HS: I don’t think we have any more time for any more questions… Do you have anything that you wanted to add?

PWW: No, I think that the USU’s a really important election and I really hope that it goes well.

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