SULS faceoff: Flare, Vibe, Splash

Who is running and what do they stand for?

Disclaimer: Daany Saaed managed Zest for SULS in 2019. Several former members of Zest are on Flare for SULS.

Law students truly are insufferable. The only society on campus that warrants itself important enough to have a public election instead of an AGM, and the only cohort of students that thinks that this election warrants more debates than our actual federal elections. Nonetheless, the Sydney University Law Society is possibly the biggest society on campus, and it is certainly one of the most prevalent. The Society’s leaders often go on to become prominent members of society across law, politics, academia and business, and the faculty by itself lays claim to more Prime Ministers than any other university in the country. 

Naturally then, the elections are heated. Courtesy of some constitutional quirks, an election is not a regular event – it is only held if the Presidency is contested. Last year’s election was the first since 2016 and this year is the first three-way race in recent memory. If you’re not a law student, it is difficult to care, but often for those stupol nerds amongst us there can be some underlying political tension at play in the SULS election, with Liberal staffer Amer Nasr elected President last year on Pop for SULS. 

Voting this year will be conducted online from 9AM on Monday 9th November to 9PM on Tuesday 10th November. All members are eligible to vote and will receive an email containing a link to vote prior to the opening of polls. All law students up until this year are automatically SULS members; if you are a first-year student (undergraduate or postgraduate), you must register to become a member of the society in order to vote, and can register at any point up to the close of polls.

Who’s running?

Flare for SULS

Flare for SULS (or FLARE, as they like to style it) are being headed up by Wendy Hu, apparently pinching their 70s branding from the 2018 Law Revue, Austin Powers of Attorney. Flare are branding themselves as the experienced ticket – as the only ticket with students who have been on SULS Executive and Committees pre-and-post coronavirus. This is not uncharted territory for Hu, who ran unsuccessfully on Zest for SULS in 2019 on a similar brand of experience and assuredness. Hu is joined on her leadership team by her fellow Zest compatriot Sophia Semmler (Social Justice), current Women’s Officer Sinem Kirk (Education), and first-year JD student Cameron Jordan (Careers). The tensions of last year’s election seem to have softened, with current Publications Director Alison Chen (Secretary) returning alongside Zest’s aspirant Campus Director Calvin Kwong (Sport), in addition to the ticket being managed by stupol newcomer and Zest candidate for Sponsorship Dasha Moskalenko. 

When asked by Honi what the current administration could have improved, Flare pointed to the ‘lack of support SULS has provided to international students this year. From the SULS COVID-19 Student Experiences Survey, it is clear that international students are disproportionately (affected by the pandemic). SULS has an imperative to support ALL students’. In contrast to the other tickets, Flare were ‘invigorated’ by the advocacy role SULS took this year in relation to issues affecting law students such as fee hikes and course cuts, where the other two tickets were disappointed. The current Executive has been explicitly reticent to encourage student activism, and pressed on this support, Flare ‘acknowledge[d] more can be done to encourage direct action’, and added ‘Flare will commit to supporting law students organising under Law Against The Cuts’. Law Against The Cuts is a similarly named, but separate campaign to the broader and united Clubs Against the Cuts – it came about from the current Executive’s reluctance to allow advertising and encouragement of protests against the Government’s attacks on students this year. Directors were instead permitted to advertise the protests in their personal capacity, and Law Against The Cuts became a forum for this. Despite this, Flare committed to taking further steps than this year’s Executive, specifically in providing ‘salient avenues for direct action such as protest, training legal observers, and advocating against adverse changes to the law student experience’.

Another major distinction between Flare and the other tickets has been a response to reports of wage theft and underpayment as rampant in the legal industry (particularly at large corporate firms, which Sydney Law has a reputation for producing graduates for) that surfaced last year in the Australian Financial Review, and prompted a stern public stoush between then-USU Board President Connor Wherrett and the Executive. When asked how Flare would protect students in their capacity as Executive, Flare took a pragmatic approach, committing to ‘diversifying the sponsorship base beyond the major commercial firms’, ‘kickstarting the Investment Project to avoid reliance on corporate sponsorship’, and coordinating with the Australian Law Students Association (ALSA) to ‘avoid firms simply shifting their funding to other societies and avoiding responsibility’.

Flare for SULS have shaped up as the safe choice this election – a highly experienced executive led by a Society stalwart in Wendy Hu and running with highly polished branding, their achievable and progressive policy positions are reflective of an understanding of the capabilities of the SULS Executive. This perhaps may turn off voters looking for fresh faces in the Society or altogether more ambitious policy, but certainly Flare present an attractive option for the voter that values competency and security. 

Splash for SULS

Splash for SULS are led by Dani Stephenson, with muted branding of lavender and baby blue. Splash has focused on social justice and equity in their approach to the election, which could prove decisive in a year where activism is at the forefront of most, if not all student interactions. Splash have brought on board as vice-presidents ex-presidential candidate Max Vishney (Education), current Queer Officer Eden McSheffrey (Social Justice) and JD student Tatiana Neumann-Murphy (Careers). Stephenson’s recruiting approach seems to have been rooted in electioneering, with big names across the ticket – former USU Board Director and Honorary Treasurer Maya Eswaran has fittingly joined as the Treasurer candidate, Socials Director Alex De Araujo (Secretary) was considered a driving force behind Pop’s comprehensive victory last year, and perennial Law Revue star Genevieve Couvret (Publications) has joined on as well. Whilst the Law Revue was one of the casualties of COVID-19 this year, it seems it has served Stephenson well during election season, with many of the popular figures involved in the annual production turning out for Splash on social media. This has intersected with a very strong debating presence; Vishney, Couvret, De Araujo, Eswaran and Grace Wong (Socials) are all active members of the well-connected USU Debating Society.

In critiquing the current Executive, Splash spoke to the importance of ‘representative infrastructure’, citing it as a primary reason why the Society’s response to Government policy changes in education was ‘ad hoc and insufficient’ – this is a curious critique, given the strong representation of the current Executive on the Splash ticket. Do as we say, not as we do? Stephenson has been conspicuously absent from discussions on student activism throughout the year. Pressed on this, Splash raised the experience and policy positions of Eden McSheffrey, its Social Justice candidate, and emphasised that they have the ‘fullest faith in his ability to oversee our focus on social justice’. Nonetheless, Splash have detailed policy on social justice, and their flagship policy of a Community Legal Centre akin to that at the University of New South Wales is unique amongst any of the tickets.

In responding to issues of sponsor impropriety in terms of wage theft, Splash were reticent (as were other tickets) to consider dropping sponsors that committed wage theft altogether, but emphasised the importance of diversifying the careers programs in place in the Society, allowing students alternatives to the grind of clerkship applications at corporate firms – this uniquely manifests in an ‘internship for credit program’, prioritising paid internships and valuing public interest legal work. Other unique and equally ambitious policies brought forward by Splash include a wellbeing stipend for every law student (which despite not being costed, Splash assures us has the support of the Faculty) and a publicly available reference generator compliant with the Australian Guide to Legal Citation

Splash for SULS are the idealist’s choice – Dani Stephenson’s team have presented by some margin the most extravagant policy platform, despite the challenges presented in a post-coronavirus climate. Whilst their commitment to social justice is admirable given the ongoing attacks on law students, their electoral choices obfuscate the strength of this commitment slightly. A student familiar with campus society machinations would perhaps be skeptical of the package in lavender, but nonetheless it seems an uncontroversial prediction that Stephenson’s ticket will poll well, win or loss.

Vibe for SULS

A conversation with Casper Lu makes clear very quickly that his first love was not met at Law Camp, but was the Society itself. Lu is practically part of the furniture in the Law Faculty, and his ticket, Vibe for SULS, aims to bring a range of new faces to a Society historically criticised for its narrow engagement. Vibe have led with party-esque branding characterised by garish neons and highly processed election profile pictures, in a campaign managed by recent campus politics upstart Riley Vaughan. Vibe’s ticket lacks the star power or the established experience of its rivals, but they look to make up for it with an innovative policy platform that should intrigue a new range of voters and law students who may not otherwise engage with the society. 

On the issue of advocacy, Vibe keeps to the straight and narrow, joining the other two tickets in opposing the fee hikes and course cuts that have been so controversial in federal politics. In keeping with Lu’s structured approach to most political issues, Vibe articulated a two-pronged criterion regarding broader advocacy in the community – ‘whether the issue affects a not-insignificant group of law students’, and ‘whether on balance a proposed action is beneficial to the Society’. On the issue of sponsor relations, Vibe departs from the activist position of Flare and the laissez-faire approach of Splash, emphasising the importance of education on work rights. Their proposed approach is however curious – ‘this would involve firms that have been accused of underpayments coming in to assuage potential graduates of changing work practices’. Giving advertising to bosses with a history of worker exploitation in return for sponsor dollars may be lucrative in a tough economy, but it may not necessarily have the educative effect Vibe desires.

Despite their fresh faces, the question of ‘cliques’ was raised in assessing the makeup of the Vibe ticket. There are more graduates from The King’s School alone than there are women in their senior leadership team (President and Vice-President), and all of their vice-presidents are white domestic students. Pressed on this, Vibe contended ‘the SULS clique is hard to define, and it seems to depend on their involvement in SULS. Our ticket will help detract from that perception (that SULS is reserved for the clique). This is because our candidates aren’t drawn from past SULS executives’. Vibe further stressed the multidimensionality of privilege, and that members of the ticket that had attended elite schools on scholarship were equipped with a ‘point of insight for what it may be like for students entering Sydney Law without a great deal of educational or high-SES privilege’, allowing ‘engagement with those of disadvantaged backgrounds [as] a priority in our policies’. Vibe further stressed the wide-ranging diversity of the ticket; ‘we bring a wealth of backgrounds, experiences, cultures and perspectives to the fore’. The legal profession is notoriously straight, white, and male – it is gratifying to see sincere commitments to diversity across the board and across all tickets, regardless of the level of previous involvement with SULS. 

Membership and guidance is at the forefront of the Vibe policy platform – with mental health becoming such a prominent and salient issue for the cohort during the pandemic, Vibe’s commitment to ongoing mentorship programs that extend significantly upon the rudimentary programs already in place is welcome. – this is an area that has been criticised in the past for structurally excluding students from diverse backgrounds that weren’t immediately comfortable in the strange and pretentious surrounds of the Law School.

Vibe for SULS presents as an intriguing choice for a student perhaps disillusioned with the cliques of years gone by, one that has spent time on the outer of the SULS machine or is new to the faculty this year and sees value in starting afresh. Vibe has more first year representation than other campaigns, and this may be where their electoral path to victory may lie. Whether their commitment to a non-establishment team is a winner, as Pop for SULS was last year, is yet to be seen, but certainly it will be interesting to see how Vibe polls in contrast to the heavyweight campaigns they’re competing with.

Read the full policy candidate list and policy responses here.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated the following: “Splash’s commitment to social justice in light of this also reads as inconsistent given the selection of Eden McSheffrey for the Social Justice candidacy. On Executive this year, McSheffrey voted against a call to action encouraging law students to volunteer as legal observers for campus protests, which saw students brutalised by police.” Minutes of the meeting show that McSheffrey voted in favour of an alternative motion supporting the protests but without encouraging law students to attend as legal observers but is not listed as abstaining, voting in favour or voting against the call to action motion. McSheffrey and other members of Splash say this is because he was not on the meeting call when the first vote occurred.

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