USU Soapbox recap 2022

Christian Holman narrates what was a soap opera filled with promises and evasions.

This year’s six USU Board candidates fielded questions submitted by the student body in the annual ‘Soapbox’ event hosted yesterday at Manning Bar. The hour-long forum featured candidates defending their activist credentials and the feasibility of frequently promised yet undelivered policies included in their campaigns. 

Honi was joined by current USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat and Director of Debates Ellie Stephenson, who queried candidates on their approach to governance and fitness for Board, and student radio station SURG, whose oddball theatrics provided a tonal foil for an otherwise adversarial campaign event. 

Shall we dive in?

Colleges, the Con and Canada?

There was significant debate around the lack of engagement with the C&S program from various pockets of campus. Nicholas Dower, Onor Nottle and Madhullikaa Singh are three candidates who’ve attended residential Colleges, Alexander Poirier studies at the Con and K is an international student from Canada.

K positioned themselves in the race as a clubs candidate, citing extensive involvement with many of the smaller clubs on campus including being President of the Dark Academia Club. Thus far, they have largely displayed an unfamiliarity with campus politics, which can be crucial in understanding Board Director duties and navigating disagreements when on Board. 

They characterise themselves as a centrist, being broadly in support of staff striking for fair compensation. However when approaching inherently political decisions on Board they stated they would “not lean in a certain direction, and it would depend on context”.

“I am new to the student politics scene, but I am running to help others, and make the most of their student experience. I acknowledge gaps in my knowledge, and am willing to work more with team members if elected,” they said.

International students have struggled with political organising throughout the pandemic, with many students locked out of the country and the newly established Australian International Students’ Association (AISA) undercut by serious financial mismanagement by Unity Office Bearers on the National Union of Students (NUS). The presence of international student factions Penta and Phoenix have collapsed on campus, neither running candidates in this year’s USU election.

K’s new faction, Interpol, attempts to fill this vacuum by focusing on international student welfare, and could potentially signal the return of a significant political force on campus. Their electoral success, however, may hinge on whether their underdeveloped and at times incoherent political vision is an impediment to gaining voter traction. 

Poirier, SRC Intercampus Office Bearer and Welcome Fest Coordinator at the Con, felt rewards benefits needed to be improved at other satellite campuses, but later stated that the USU ought to focus its initiatives where there “undergraduate study consistently”, questioning a place for the USU on campuses where specialised placements are held. 

Of particular note was his proposal to expand the current Redfern to Fisher shuttle bus line to include Seymour and Old Darlington School (ODS), establishing a permanent hourly route to ease transit between campuses and encourage cross-campus involvement and enrolment. This would be financed through a SSAF application supported by the USU. Although the Conservatorium has offered combined degrees with Bachelor of Advanced Studies since 2021, commuting remains a significant barrier with no meaningful public transport options available.

Poirier confessed to being “not entirely sure what governance means” when pressed on any governance changes he’d propose, but spoke of a wider undervaluing of the arts, wanting to promote Welcome Weeks, performing arts festivals and revues on external campuses like Camden. Though Poirier was able to identify a number of satellite campuses in Westmead and the former Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) in Rozelle, he suggested these were not priorities under his policy, possibly missing an opportunity to consider that USyd is planning for Westmead to host some 25,000 students by 2050. 

Dower, meanwhile, clarified that increased support for college events did not mean more funding but rather “greater marketing” with the aim of socially integrating students. Whether such a divide can be bridged may depend on the likelihood of non-colleges students seeing value in attending Palladian events they cannot participate in. Further, Dower’s platform does not stipulate any policies that might fundamentally change the relationship between college and non-college students, beyond the provision of cheaper food and a midnight coffee cart around exams.

In response to questions on his promises to expand happy hours, currently prohibited by regulations set by the University and not the USU, Dower committed to lobbying against the alcohol policy he saw as “a bandaid solution for addressing sexual violence on campus and that clearly hasn’t worked”.

The recent NSSS Survey revealed that 50 per cent of students did not know how to report sexual violence on campus, with a quarter of incidences occurring in club and society settings. The response of many candidates to this survey, including Dower, has been limited to policies that frame burdens of sexual assault as a bureacratic one and not a cultural one. Where sexual assault is addressed as a cultural issue, mandated society executive training and instituting events oversight have been posited as key mechanisms to combatting an endemic issue. 

Meanwhile, Singh walked back comments made in her Honi interview about the effectiveness of WoCo demands to dismantle the colleges, stating that the Colleges were inherently problematic institutions but felt focus should be on supporting survivors navigating the bureaucracy “without putting them at risk”. 

This comes in the context of Singh and Onor Nottle being accused of abandoning their faction Switch’s long standing goal of dismantling the Colleges and ultimately sidelining the priorities of Collectives in their rhetoric. 

Could the real student activist please stand up?

Heating up the tenor ahead of the staff strikes next week, candidates were grilled on how their activist rhetoric stood up against a lack of involvement in activism on campus or familiarity with union demands.

Sharifi pointed to her attendance at staff cuts protests, her experience as a youth adviser on various state-run multicultural committees, and her current role as Social Justice Vice-President of SULS. Sharifi pushed back on characterisations that candidates are “not left (wing) enough if they don’t share radical ideas”, seemingly in reference to the Left’s dominance in other student organisations such as the SRC and the Collectives, where factions have historically run candidates with more radically progressive stances.

“Politics isn’t just, for me, coming up here and giving a speech, politics is entrenched in my identity, with refugee rights and young people rights, it impacts my community,” she said.

Sharifi stressed her ties to the Afghan community and stated a need for representation and consultation, proposing culturally relevant and accommodating events for students who do not drink alcohol, or who may not be able to access the night time social events by nature of living far from campus.

When pushed on the support she was receiving from prominent Liberals on campus, notably SULS President Ben Hines, Sharifi stated such support was personal in nature from her fellow SULS executive following her campaign manager contracting COVID.

“I am somewhat insulted by the fact that my politics and my policies and myself as an individual are being questioned, not necessarily on the policies that I am running (on), not necessarily on my track record that I have as a left wing progessive individual, but rather by conjecture of the people I associate with both in terms who I go out with meals with but the people that are helping me.”

In response to Honi’s question, Nottle expressed frustrations with “character assassinations” she believed were dominating coverage of the election, pointing instead to the failures of the Board to consult with Gadigal Centre or support union demands for First Nation quotas in university staffing as issues being ignored. She referenced the Law School as an example of an opportunity to create permanent Indigenous spaces, suggesting residencies should be established at Verge Art Gallery and that funding be dedicated to societies themselves running Indigenous initiatives. Much of Nottle’s policy hinges on consultation with First Nations communities citing collaboration with SRC Indigenous Office Bearer, with the SRC now having filled the position just last night. 

Additionally, Nottle felt the pandemic “had provided a mask to not deal with issues” regarding promised autonomous spaces on campus and the safety of venues on campus affected with asbestos and black mould, stating they would be made a priority if elected. Responding to a question around funding her ambitious platform of more student services, namely mandatory oversight of society events, Nottle referenced the current operating surplus of USU, believing fulfilling such policies would not be contingent on further SSAF funding when it is negotiated early next year. 

Governance, oh sweet governance

This election has so far seen few governance reforms discussed, suggesting an acceptance of the status quo or possibly being a result of a lacklustre familiarity with the USU’s internal mechanisms displayed by all candidates in their Honi quiz. This is hardly a criticism reserved for the current crop of candidates, with two separate Honi investigations revealing a failure of the USU to follow through on divestment and disability spaces despite passing motions years ago.

Singh was pressed by the current USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat on her willingness to break a fiduciary duty on Board, noting the organisation’s practice of going in camera when dealing with legally sensitive matters, stakeholder negotiations and HR complaints. Singh echoed a sentiment of cultural change around transparency, shared by both current and former candidates, and holding firm on the position taken in her Honi interview that she would risk censure and legal action in instances where such a “change in the insidious culture of secrecy” had failed.

Dower asserted a position of proactively shifting USU investments toward ESGs in his Honi interview, and proposed a questionably worthwhile policy of a canvas module for Board Directors to keep them on top of the investment portfolio of the Union. While the USU seems to be on the other side of the financial woes it experienced during the pandemic, where it controversially cut staff pay by 40%, candidates may still struggle to stick to promises concerning the Union’s finances when dealing with pressures to keep the USU financially healthy once on Board, as many successful candidates have struggled before them.

In a race that has seen three candidates drop out, five of these six candidates will be elected to serve for 2 year terms on the board of one of the University’s most well-funded organisations.

Had enough or ready for more?

Registration for voting closes this Friday at 4pm and ballots will be sent out to USU members on Monday 9 May for a week-long voting period.