2023 President profile: Harrison Brennan

Honi’s candidate profile of Grassroots' contender, Harrison Brennan

Degree and year: Arts III 

Faction: Grassroots

Quiz score: 66%

You can read the full transcript of Brennan’s interview here.

Experienced but establishment, left-wing candidate Harrison Brennan is Grassroots’ offering for Presidency in the 2023 SRC election. After four consecutive years of Grassroots’ dominance on the campus Left, Brennan promises a “militant left-wing student union.”

Boasting experience as Welfare Officer and General Executive on the current SRC, he has been involved in campus activism since 2021, but has only held elected positions within the past year. When asked why he chose to run for SRC President, Brennan signposted “the role of President as a real way to contribute to that [the SRC’s] history, but also to make sure the SRC stays left-wing, activist, and a fighting force.”

Brennan listed three of his key policies as paying the rent, reopening International House, and employing a research officer at the SRC. When asked to explain his platform of “paying the rent” — which refers to institutions’ responsibilities to remunerate dispossessed First Nations communities — Brennan noted the University’s record surplus, saying “given their financial abilities, and given also their history of supporting colonial racist policies and ideology like the White Australia policy, [the University] is more than able to put their words into action.” When pushed on how paying the rent will play out at USyd in particular, he said that it was “subject to consultation and discussions if elected.”

Brennan emphasised the importance of providing adequate student housing below market rate. He plans to lobby the University to provide 200 additional rooms for international students as part of reopening International House. There are concerns as to how Brennan would materially achieve this, considering the University’s stagnation on providing additional rooms at the Darlington Terraces. Brennan also plans to lighten the administrative load of SRC caseworkers by employing a research officer who will also assist Office Bearers in running campaigns and making submissions to boards and committees when required.

Of the two candidates, Brennan undoubtedly has less experience on Council, having only held the Welfare Officer position this year. However, Brennan believes in assessing experience based on “not how long, but how much.”

“Whilst I have only been Welfare Officer this year, I’m also a councillor, I’m a member of the General Executive, I’ve sat on the Scam Safety Committee, and I’m also the SRC representative at the Academic Board.”

Brennan notes that he has “experience where my other candidate does not in activism and activist organising — holding rallies, building movements.” Aside from her involvement in the Yes campaign, it is true that Donnelly lacks the kind of activist organising experience that is typical for a presidential candidate, and Brennan has considerably more experience and involvement in campaigns for rent relief and housing affordability than Donnelly. 

Brennan edged out Donnelly by a comfortable margin in the Honi quiz, scoring 66% to Donnelly’s 43%. However, Brennan did struggle with some questions.

Similarly, Brennan failed to identify all Victorian universities on strike — naming UniMelb, LaTrobe and RMIT, but leaving out Monash, VU, and Swinburne. Brennan was also not up to speed on the University’s position on the Voice to Parliament, failing to identify which faculties and schools are yet to endorse the Voice — a significant point of difference between the two candidates, considering Donnelly’s involvement with the Yes23 campaign.

While Labor factions have been steadfast in their support for the Voice to Parliament, Switchroots have notably lagged behind — initially supporting a “sovereign No” or “progressive No”, which called for a radical boycott of the referendum. Though Brennan has joined current Grassroots President Lia Perkins in endorsing a Yes vote, the faction has generally been stagnant in organising around the Voice.

However, Brennan has been heavily involved in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)’s strike campaign over the past two years. He has been a consistent presence at the picket line, and has participated in Honi’s coverage during the strikes. In his interview, Brennan also spoke intelligently about the NTEU’s ongoing campaigns, such as a recent wage theft claim and the continuing campaigns against casualisation. 

A key point of difference between Brennan and Donnelly is Brennan’s involvement with the Students Against Placement Poverty (SAPP) campaign, which calls for an end to unpaid placement for students studying social work, education, and nursing (among others). Ending unpaid placements has been a focus of Grassroots’ organising and lobbying efforts, and Brennan has included it as a critical piece of his policy platform.

Brennan’s experience on University committees, such as his experience as an SRC representative on the Academic Board, lends a significant amount of credibility to his plans to lobby the University on critical issues for students. He said, ”I think what makes a good, effective President sitting on these committees is having a healthy level of really critical scepticism about what the University will do for students.” He also noted the importance of being “really oppositional” on committees. This approach has proved useful for Grassroots in the past — particularly under former President Swapnik Sanagavarapu, who opposed 12-week semesters, and current President Lia Perkins, who fought to save 5-day simple extensions.

While Brennan has a solid background in — and vision for — activism at the SRC, he did not detail his commitment to service provision within the union. His opponent Rose Donnelly is primarily focusing on student engagement and service provision. Despite this, Grassroots has reacted by emphasising the role of an activist SRC throughout history, rather than attempting to appeal to people interested in expanding the services of the SRC to more students. In the present election, Brennan presents as the activist candidate while Donnelly stands for student services.

When questioned about the SRC’s potential for collaboration with other organisations, Brennan emphasised the divergent roles of the SRC and USU. “It’s important the SRC remains an activist union,” Brennan explained, “the USU is designed to handle service provision stuff and their big initiatives and their sort of mandate. Our mandate as the SRC is to really push for structural change and to fight for wins and in any way to ensure students are protected and their learning conditions are good.”

Brennan emphasised the success of previous Grassroots Presidents in expanding activist budgets, noting the faction’s institutional knowledge about procedures within the SRC. This position aligns with the 95th Council’s decision to introduce permanent stipends for the Ethnocultural, First Nations, and Disabilities Office Bearers. In contrast, Donnelly has been openly critical of what she views as a “dwindling” engagement with the SRC under consecutive Grassroots presidencies. Donnelly appears to have little appetite for expanding activist budgets and stipends if elected.

Brennan’s policies are generally idealist, and some lack a clear pathway to implementation. When pressed on how he would reverse course cuts, Brennan’s response signposted “mass-mobilisation” and “lobbying management” as main approaches. Brennan has demonstrated a deep, and ongoing, commitment to activism, and an understanding of the bureaucratic landscape of the SRC — drafting and approving budgets, managing SRC staff, and filing paperwork for police permits for protests. 

Though Brennan certainly does not promise a fundamental change to the SRC’s status quo, his policies seek to expand the union’s engagement with activism and continue its radical legacy. 

Online campaigning will commence on Wednesday 6 September, and in-person campaigning will begin on Monday 11 September. Voting will run from 19 – 21 September with in-person ballots and the option of absentee ballots.