An election like none other

A weird year, a weird election

With a historic year, comes a historic SRC election. This year’s election is the first time that a presidential candidate and Honi Soit editorial team have been elected uncontested, and the first time either election has been held online. What does that mean for the state of stupol?

Online elections

It’s difficult to assess how online elections will shape this year’s outcome. In opposing them, Socialist Alternative pointed to strong returns for right-wing candidates in Wollongong elections they transitioned to online voting. That seems based on an understanding that progressive candidates fare better in in-person elections because they are more motivated for gruelling days of walk-and-talks than CV-stacking independents or Liberals. Moreover, Honi has previously reported campaigners using stand-over tactics in the online Senate elections, pressuring students to vote as they watched. 

The SRC’s election system might avoid stand-over scenarios: unlike in Senate elections, students must enrol prior to the open of voting. And though online elections would intuitively favour more popular candidates with large social media reach (as opposed to ones with small groups of dedicated campaigners), it’s not clear that that would always disadvantage progressive campaigners. Drew Pavlou at the University Queensland won the online Senate elections in a landslide; Switchroots candidate Prudence Wilkins-Wheat topped the polls in this year’s online USU elections. 

Uncontested elections

The fact that Honi Soit elections are uncontested is no great break from previous years. The last genuinely competitive election for the editorship was a three-way battle in 2016. Previous years have either seen serious tickets face off against jokes (in 2018 Spice for Honi bested “Pictures of Spiderman” and “Honey Soy”) or have seen tickets marketing themselves as representing a number of political persuasions fell apart after their Christian members were cancelled for saying horrible things (in 2017 Mint disbanded after a member endorsed a homophobic Facebook comment; last year’s Cream did the same after JP Baladi expressed support for George Pell). That is in part due to the difficulties in putting together a group of 10 people that are (a) electorally viable, (b) sane, and (c) competent to edit the paper. As documented in this year’s gossip columns, the 10-person ticket lends itself to a strategy of poaching people from other tickets, destroying the ticket’s chances before they even form.

So it is far more surprising that at USyd, which frequently sees the most competitive student elections in Australia and has spawned more federal front-benches than we care to count, only one person cared to contest the presidential election. This is the first time it has occurred since at least 1970 (Honi does not consistently report on election outcomes prior to this). 

In his interview, president-elect Swapnik Sanagavarapu attributed this to the general withdrawal of students from campus life during pandemic isolation. There are, for example, less tickets contesting this year’s election than last year (68 compared to 93 last year), and many international students have not returned at all this year.

Another factor, though, is a shifting electoral strategy from progressive grouping Switchroots to form large factional coalitions who are promised paid positions in exchange for their support of their candidate. Though a number of candidates had been rumoured to be eyeing the presidency — General Secretary Abbey Shi from the now-defunct international grouping Advance, Vice President Felix Faber from NLS, and SRC Councillor James Ardouin from the Liberals — all evidently thought it unlikely they’d win, or their factions saw it less risky to back Grassroots. The creation of a stipend for Vice Presidents in 2019 now means there are six paid non-autonomous Office Bearer positions within the SRC to be dealt away to different factions. This makes large factional coalitions, like the five backing Sanagavarapu this year, viable. Last year, Switchroots Liam Donohoe was supported by five additional factions, four of which were delivered paid OB positions at RepsElect. 

It is also possible the uncontested election is the outcome of a general decline in stupol involvement. “Where did all the BNOCs go?” Honi asked in 2018, arguing that the vibrant stupol culture that had formed in opposition to Abbott’s 2014 proposed deregulation of university fees had faded away over time. Elections themselves are competitive, but less involved than in the past. Reforms passed in 2017 limited the in-person campaigning period to one week prior to elections, making unlikely previous election stunts like bringing a double bed as a prop to Eastern Avenue, or caf-bashing every lunch for two weeks. Other factors, like the increase on penalties for late assignments in Arts passed in the same year, no doubt undermined a culture of fucking off classes to pester passers-by for a semester. 

Taking a much longer view, USyd’s obsession with elections has declined over time. Through the 90s, upwards of five candidates would regularly contest presidential elections. The 1997 documentary Uni, which captures that year’s SRC elections cycle, shows campaigners using drag queens, cars with speakers attached and elaborate lecture bash skits in their campaigns. 

Though many victims of a walk-and-talk might celebrate that change, more than coloured shirts on Eastern Avenue are lost as student politics shrink. Almost a thousand fewer students voted in SRC elections after the election period was shortened. This year, Bloom and Sanagavarapu will come to office with most students not knowing, and not having a real chance, to know they exist. 

Nina Dillon Britton is a former member of Sydney Grassroots.

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