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Op-ed: Why the left must participate in the USU election

The USU election is far from an apolitical act.

Politics has been, and always will be, a struggle composed of a diverse ideological marketplace of ideas. It is such struggle wherein we popularise ideas, seize genuine political power and then exercise that power for the advancement of a better world. It is fundamentally illegitimate to abstain from the work of politics on the grounds that the world is presently imperfect or challenging. This claim is merely a hopeless response in the face of powerlessness. Honi Soit recently published an op-ed arguing that left-wing people ought to abstain on principle from the USU election. We are three left wing students who oppose this perspective on the strongest possible grounds. 

The primary claim made is that the left stands to gain nothing from participating in the USU election, as the USU is a corporation. This argument conflates form with function, arguing that simply because the USU often operates against the interests of students, it must be a corporation. However the USU, like the SRC, is an unincorporated association, and definitionally cannot be a corporation. Presumably then organisational critiques made of the USU must apply, at least in principle, equally to the SRC. While the USU and SRC are obviously dissimilar in the sense that the latter invests more in activist priorities, the assertion that the USU could never function in a more activist or student-oriented manner has no material basis. In the counterfactual scenario where the SRC was persistently controlled by the right-wing and its activist priorities were eroded, would the abstentionists argue that running in SRC elections constituted corporate participation? 

Suggesting that abstention is harmless is prima facie untrue. If the left ceased contesting the USU election, the board would be filled entirely with cynical right-wing careerists who have no qualms with its present organisational culture. In this world, cutting staff wages would be done with impunity and without any left-wing opposition. In the best case, the left could win and sustain a board majority, transforming its institutional culture and employing  its $5 million budget for key amenities aligned with student interest. But even in the worst case, the participation of left-wing people frustrates, in some way, the agenda of these people. Insofar as the left has a moral duty to protect staff and students, we ought carry out this duty and prevent significant harms from being inflicted on those we claim to support. This is not “left wing cover,” it is simply left wing power. 

The final, and perhaps strongest argument, is a strategic appeal to the opportunity cost of contesting the USU election compared to organising directly for left wing causes. Firstly, the claim that participation in the USU elections detracts resources from activist campaigns is empirically untrue. As recently as this week, whilst two of us were managing multiple USU campaigns, we played significant parts in defeating the move to 12 week semesters and restoring medical science students to their building and their honours projects. But even if there was some implicit opportunity cost, the USU election is far from an apolitical act. Students, who otherwise would not be, are exposed to left-wing rhetoric, and activist causes are trumpeted in interviews and campaign materials. To the extent that those invested in USU elections are a distinct set from those invested in SRC elections, we ought to bring these messages to that distinct group. Given that the left’s primary justification for electoral ventures is access to resources, surely the prospect of controlling the USU is an important consideration. The USU is endowed with a much larger budget than the SRC, meaning that important projects such as Radical Sex and Consent Week could receive adequate funding. The USU could support the SRC in numerous concrete ways: advocating concurrently against harmful proposals, continuing to support initiatives such as the FoodHub and striking in solidarity with staff. 

The world we wish to see may not manifest in a year, a generation or even our lifetime. To suggest that these political projects and participation are intractable is to reject every left-wing thinker who, like us, believed that in the struggle for justice, the last page is never written. 

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