Parkville Station

Negotiations, week 3, 2016

Update: Since this article went to print, nominations have closed, and we’re led to understand that “the deal” did never quite work out. This is good for newspaper publishers at least, as it looks like we will have a fight on our hands. We’ll bring you the latest news as it becomes available.

It’s August and the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) election season is upon us. Don’t let me lose you there — this is interesting, I promise. Among other things, fifteen Office Bearer (OB) positions are up for grabs, and the four largest factions on campus are reportedly negotiating a deal to scoop the majority of them between them.

The deal is currently being negotiated between members of Activate, Labor Left, Labor Right and More Activities!, a current member of Labor Right told us. (Don’t worry too much about the names—just think of them as the UMSU version of political parties.)

The aim of the deal, if it’s anything like last year, will be to nominate only one* candidate from those factions for each OB position — with the other factions supporting that candidate on their How To Vote pamphlets, rather than contesting the position. While such a deal wouldn’t prevent smaller factions, or independents, from nominating to any position, it will create a formidable alliance between those that sign on to the deal.

* Actually, most OB positions can be jointly held by two people, and so when we say “only one candidate” we often mean “pair of candidates”.

This is important because these four factions are the ones who have historically had the most success in UMSU elections. When a similar deal was made between the same four factions last year, every OB nominee put forward by the group won soundly. In elections that are often determined by two or three percent of the vote, every candidate in the group won with more than 50% of first preference votes, with six out of the ten winning more than 70% of first preference votes.

It was a landslide, and one that resulted in “lower turnout and engagement and lacklustre candidates” according to James Bashford, cur- rent member of Labor Left.

While turnout last year may have been lower than 2014 – when there was a more hotly contested election – turnout for UMSU elections has always been low. To give an idea, in 2014 8.16% of eligible students voted, and in 2015 that was done to 5.65%. Susannah Gordon, communicator for Activate, commented, “low voter turn outs and its associated issues (i.e. apathy and lack of knowledge surrounding the union) are pretty significant barriers to making things democratic”.

Labor Right (which, for those new to this, are by no means automatically aligned to Labor Left) are looking to “improve the process” and make it “more transparent” and “meritocratic”. Grassroots left group Activate are aiming to “facilitat[e] a co-operative and friendly union”, and are “seeking to avoid…animosity and a hostile office environment”. They each believe that a deal between the major factions is the best way to facilitate these improvements.

There is relatively broad consensus that the deal made last year, regardless of whether it was democratic or not, was in the best interest of students. Pat Dollard, who was a communicator for Activate in 2015, said that year’s deal was “positive and led to a student election which, despite a low voter turnout, resulted in many students being informed about UMSU’s roles and the importance of a fighting and activist and inclusive Union”.

Susannah Gordon, also in Activate, commented that she believed “the deals made last year and this year have been made 100% with the students’ best interests at heart, not in any attempt to hoard union control”. “It’s about facilitating a co-operative and friendly union” and “the more friendly and co-operative a union, the more functional and equipped to address stu- dent needs it becomes.

According to one of the negotiators for More Activities! in last year’s deal, Rachel Withers, deals like these ones are a “necessary evil” and last year’s deal was in “the best interest of students over the realistic alternative” – referring to both the damage done to the “already fragile relationship between students and the union” during viciously-fought elections, and the possibility of extreme parties getting elected in the absence of such a deal.

According to Withers, the deal made in 2015 also recommended itself as the only option that “allowed a range of the most representative groups to share the union between themselves in a meritocratic fashion, rather than the side that gets 51% of the votes winning all the offices, and locking the other out of ‘their’ union.”

“We spent a great year in office [in 2015], working collaboratively in the best interests of students despite having come from opposing factions. That camaraderie and trust took time to create, and it wasn’t something we were keen to see torn down for the 2016 term…for the sake of a bitter and divided election that – let’s face it – no one other than our friends, the Socialists, the Liberals and the PIS (Political Interest Society) were even going to pay attention to”.

On the topic of democracy, Tyson Holloway-Clarke, President of UMSU, noted that “cooperation between likeminded groups of students does not undermine the democratic principles of UMSU”, and that “there will still likely be contests across the board as other groups of students who do not share the same values as the [four factions involved in the deal] will launch their campaigns for office”. He emphasises that “the choice presented to students is real and important and cooperation is necessary to delivering a more progressive and functional organisation”.

But not everyone believes these deals are a good thing. Hana Dalton, one of the negotiators for Labor Left in last year’s deal said that “while it was good to work collaboratively, unfortunately I wasn’t altogether happy with the way it came together. While at the time it seemed the best way to elect the people I believed would do a good job as student representatives, the ‘deal’ certainly wasn’t negotiated in good faith, which was disappointing”.

Bashford is on the same side, saying that “ultimately, the best meritocracy would be an open, contested election where power is given to students rather than a dozen or so people carving things up in a deal”. Dollard said that “at the time” he felt the deal was positive, but “in hindsight there are some aspects of the deal which were not ideal”.

The secretive nature of deals like this one means that information is scarce and disjointed. One minute we are being told the deal is almost finalised and the next it’s on the verge of collapse. What we do know is that it is currently being negotiated. The only externally imposed deadline is the close of nominations; this Friday. A member of Labor Right who has asked to remain nameless commented to us that there is a “reasonable chance the grand alliance won’t hold together and some positions will be contested”, but we will see how it plays out this week.

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