Three tickets look set to contest this year’s election for the Sydney University Law Society (SULS), headed by Wendy Hu, Casper Lu and Dani Stephenson.
If all candidates manage to form tickets, this would be the first three-way election SULS has faced since 2010.
Max Vishney, who previously submitted a Presidential Expression of Interest (EOI), has withdrawn from the race, instead joining Stephenson’s ticket as her Vice-President (Education) pick.
Additionally, ten students submitted Senior Executive EOIs, though Presidential candidates can and have looked to fill Senior Executive positions with students who did not submit an EOI.
Why is this election important?
This election comes at a time when SULS is at a critical crossroads. COVID-19 has had a profound impact on students, many of whom are experiencing financial hardship, heightened job uncertainty, and declining mental health.
Students have had to adapt to significant changes, including the transition to online learning, a shortened 12-week semester and the cancellation of Summer School. Drastic reductions in clerkship intakes have also left an overwhelming majority of students without the security of a graduate job.
Importantly, ongoing government cuts to higher education – which will see the cost of Law degrees increase by 28% – have necessitated a strong response from students.
As a result, the organisation has had to direct more attention to its role as a student representative body, rather than just a service-provider. In particular, SULS has lobbied the faculty on issues such as ProctorU, waiving of attendance requirements and use of reserve funds for COVID-19 student grants.
It has also taken stances on various government policies, and has supported protests organised by the SRC’s Education Action Group and the Autonomous Collective Against Racism. This has challenged SULS’ usual culture of non-partisanship and apoliticism.
Voters will no doubt be looking to see how candidates plan to address these issues during their term, and what they envision the role of SULS to be going forward.
In electoral terms, a likely three-way contest means that candidates will have to fight hard to capture and appeal to the small electorate of the Law School, especially as this year’s tickets seem to split the votes of cohorts and even friendship groups. Preference deals may also be crucial.
Importantly, this is also SULS’ first online election, which may prove challenging given the 2020 SRC election was marred with delays and mishaps in adjusting to a new online voting system.
It will be interesting to see how candidates adapt to this new landscape, and particularly how they will use social media and multimedia content to reach out to new voters, disengaged students or voters outside their social circles.
Who are the presidential candidates?
Hu is a fourth year Commerce/Law student, and was on the SULS Executive in 2019 as a Competitions Director. She unsuccessfully ran for Vice-President (Education) last year under Zest for SULS, and has been involved with the Financial Management Association of Australia (FMAA).
She has formed a complete ticket, comprised of Sinem Kirk, Sophia Semmler, Cameron Jordan, Alison Chen, Tiana Dumanovsky, Gretel Wilson, Caroline Xu, Felix Wood, Onor Nottle, Georgia Spilsbury Watson, Justin Lai, Calvin Kwong, Sofia Mendes, and Sissi Xi Chen.
Kirk and Chen are current Executive members as Women’s Officer and Publications Director respectively. Semmler and Kwong ran under Zest for SULS last year as candidates for Vice President (Social Justice) and Campus Director.
Hu’s vision for SULS is focused on restoring a sense of community within the law school in light of remote learning.
She told Honi that she wishes to encourage meaningful student engagement by optimising SULS’ offerings to the hybrid in-person/online model. She particularly wants to engage first year students who she believes have missed out on many “rite[s] of passage” at law school.
Additionally, Hu wishes to be a “strong independent voice” when lobbying the law faculty for a more flexible academic program. She specifically points to the need for change in the law faculty’s outdated “legacy systems of teaching.”
Hu is “staunchly against” the recently-passed university funding cuts, stating that they will worsen existing structural inequalities within the legal industry.
She commends SULS’ increased role in advocacy, believing that the organisation should continue to “shed light on social issues from an educational and legal standpoint” and look towards coordinated efforts with other law societies.
While she is open to publishing legal commentary and supporting actions such as protests and fundraisers, she believes that “a line should be drawn where SULS is commenting on or affiliating itself with political parties or sitting Members of Parliament.”
This distinction is unclear, given that several issues SULS may take stances on, including the higher education bill, are necessarily a result of the incumbent Coalition government.
Lu is also a fourth year Commerce/Law student. While he has not previously been on the Executive, he has had extensive involvement in SULS, particularly through judging competitions and editing publications.
He has considerable exposure to the world of student politics as the Returning Officer for the 2019 SRC election, and the Deputy Returning Officer for this year’s SASS election, though less so as a candidate himself.
Lu has refused to disclose details of his ticket before nominations are due, but sources have told Honi that he is likely to form a ticket or has already formed.
His vision involves increasing student engagement by offering less time-consuming ways to get involved. He notes that “sufficient free time as a law student is a privilege.”
Lu also plans to address the impact of COVID-19 through increased flexibility in education by encouraging online lectures and submissions. He says that “discussions need to be had with faculty to understand their position and to propose alternatives.”
He also wants to further advertise job opportunities and financial support, mentioning how COVID-19 led to students losing their jobs or failing to secure clerkships.
Lu told Honi that he hopes to address “issues that predate COVID-19,” such as promoting “awareness” of non-corporate career paths, working rights and support services. However, it is unclear what measures his Executive might take to address these issues beyond simply awareness-raising.
In regards to the education cuts, Lu says that “prospective students should not be barred from pursuing a degree merely because of the cost.” However, he believes that “the default position for SULS should be apolitical” and to “remain representative of its students.”
He would assess issues on a case-by-case basis, if they affect a subset of law students, and “whether the detriments of any proposed action outweighs the benefits of doing so.”
Stephenson is a third year Economics/Law student. She is a current Executive member as Campus Director, winning last year’s election under Pop for SULS, and has been involved in the Sydney Law Revue.
She has also formed a complete ticket, comprised of Max Vishney, Eden McSheffrey, Tatiana Neumann-Murphy, Alex De Araujo, Maya Eswaran, Thrishank Chintamaneni, Carol Lin, Kathy Zhang, Mikey Glover, Sophie Driver, Grace Wong, Genevieve Couvret, William Pyke and Anne Peng.
Vishney, McSheffrey and De Araujo are on this year’s Executive as Equity Officer, Queer Officer and Socials Director respectively. Eswaran is a former University of Sydney Union Board Director and Honorary Treasurer.
Stephenson’s vision, as she told Honi, is predominantly focused on issues of equity and accessibility. She promises to work towards reducing disparities within the law school and advocate for students “whose voices are not typically heard.”
In particular, she plans on leveraging SULS’ relationship with the law faculty to better support students.
Her platform, which is about bringing “wellbeing” and “social justice” to the forefront of the organisation, is a noticeable difference from SULS’ perceived corporate culture. However, details are unclear as to how this would reflect in or beyond SULS’ usual offerings.
When asked about the current state of higher education, she said that she will oppose the higher education bill “at every turn,” given its “obvious and debilitating effect on student wellbeing and the student learning experience.”
Stephenson has adopted a more cautious interpretation of political advocacy. She says that she “does not consider the cuts to higher education to be a political issue,” but rather “one that directly impacts every SULS member.”
Emphasising the organisation’s “commitment as both a body corporate and a charity,” she envisions a SULS that “looks beyond surface level questions of factionalism and party influence and instead, identifies the core issue of what the material needs of SULS members are and how we can satisfy them.”
What comes next?
A Presidential debate has been scheduled for Tuesday 27 October, for students who are “interested in joining a ticket” to speak to candidates. However, with almost all positions filled due to the competitive nature of this year’s race, it is unclear how useful this debate will be for students not currently on a ticket.
Hu, Lu and Stephenson have until Wednesday 28 October to submit nominations. Polling begins on Monday 9 November and ends on Tuesday 10 November.
Deaundre Espejo is the current Vice-President (Social Justice) of SULS. Jeffrey Khoo managed Pop for SULS’ campaign last year.