UofA Student Election Debate 2021: The good, the bad, and the totally cooked

Settle in with a nice cup of tea, because it’s going to get messy

NOTE: Full debate with timestamps available here.

If you haven’t already been reminded over Messenger by that weird mate from high school who knew way too much about Napoleon, next week is, in fact, student election week.

But 2021 is no ordinary year. Tensions are high, but so are the stakes, as the Progress-Liberal coalition’s three-year reign over the Adelaide University Union has led the left to do the unthinkable — actually work together.

Unite, Activate, the newly-minted Greens ticket Grassroots, and even Socialist Alternative have put aside cringy ideological differences and formed a coalition to take out stupol juggernaut, Oscar Ong. Ong is going for a third term as SRC President, in what surely must be an all-time Adelaide Uni record.

On Wednesday night, at the Hub Mezzanine, you could practically smell the nerves. All five speakers had something to prove not only to students, but to themselves.

Ana Obradovic (Left Action) is running for SRC President again. After personal ambition tanked a Unite-Left Action deal last year, Ana wants to prove that student unions can be more than just service providers and actually organise politically.

Next up is Tom Wood (Grassroots), the chiselled face of the Greens Club in his first stupol rodeo. A coordinator for the Anti-Poverty Action Network, Wood plans to take full advantage of the SRC Social Justice Officer seat to fight for “fairness, equality, and dignity” for all students.

Matt Monti (Activate) is the Music Theatre student everyone seems to know. They filled an AUU Board casual vacancy in June after Progress undemocratically ousted Obradovic (but that’s a whole other sordid tale). After being told that, due to some sticky politics, they will not serve the usual two-year term, Monti is fighting to regain their rightfully-earned spot, and won’t go down without a fight.

Then there’s the man himself, Oscar Ong (Progress). I admit, what Ong has accomplished politically is nothing short of remarkable. Ong will almost certainly move onto bigger and better things after finishing his PhD — but for now, only one thing matters, and that’s holding onto the top job.

Finally, current AUU Board Director Billy Zimmermann (Unite) — hardworking and dedicated, like Ong in many ways, except with principles and less lust for power. Settling for a shot at SRC General Secretary , Zimmermann is biding his time, but knows how to pull the strings like any faceless Labor man worth his salt.

Where was the Connect (aka Liberal Club) representative, you may ask, on this wintry evening? Good question. Good fucking question.

The action kicked off with MC Nick Birchall dropping the C-word on everyone’s lips: cuts. With 200 UofA staff to go within the next few years, if not more, the left wants to acquire the resources, platform, and legitimacy of the AUU to fight an activist campaign against the gutting of universities.

To no one’s surprise, Ong reaffirmed his, um, diplomatic approach for dealing with uni management by arguing that staff cuts were not intrinsically bad for students. He noted the specific modelling of which jobs will disappear will only be confirmed in November after consultation with the AUU and other stakeholders.

“The best way we can move forward is to ensure that any cuts on the professional side do not affect students,” Ong said.

Birchall and Ong agreed the Council should have released a detailed plan before saying yes to the cuts.

In what became a recurring sight, the left factions ganged up on Ong like a five-car pileup.

Obradovic called Ong “dishonest” for accusing the left of not supporting his SRC motion, which opposed staff cuts that would affect students exclusively. She argued you can’t draw such a distinction; indeed, if more admin staff will still service the same number of students, you don’t need to be a rocket surgeon to see that something doesn’t add up.

“The university has decided that instead of cutting the pay packets of the executives,” said Monti, “which they can absolutely afford to take, they go after staff, who according to them, don’t actually matter to students. I absolutely think the AUU and SRC should organise against this.”

It was only a matter of time before Birchall said those two magic syllables — WoCo (short for the Women’s Collective) that threaten to send any room into fits of rage. With Progress denying WoCo affiliation to the AUU, their lack of funding has seen its name reduced to a political football.

Ong insists WoCo should be affiliated to the SRC — technically it sort of is, but the original founding members left in frustration, and Georgia Honan (Connect) founded Neo-WoCo which she de facto heads as Women’s Officer.

Yeah. It’s complicated. And cooked as hell.

“The Women’s Collective has branded itself as advocating for social issues, which I think is fantastic and should be supported, but it would be better placed to do this under the SRC… the AUU Clubs framework is more about social clubs,” said Ong.

Monti interjected: “Oscar, I just don’t get how you get to decide what’s best for the Women’s Collective against the wishes of the Collective itself.”

As with many questions that night, it went unanswered.

For the record, WoCo being affiliated with the SRC hamstrings it in many ways. Firstly, their funding is entirely controlled by the SRC and its political aims— so if those pesky women don’t tow the party line, say goodbye to the cash. It keeps WoCo’s aims firmly within the scope of grubby factional politics. Secondly, if WoCo were registered as an independent Club, their governing committee would be elected by Club members, who presumably know each other’s strengths better than some dude at a polling booth who is just flattered a woman actually spoke to him.

Despite having $2000 at her disposal, the only activity Ong could credit to Neo-WoCo is a non-specific “planned event (I need to get more details)”, which, in a 10-month term and counting, is frankly a weak effort. It goes against the founding members’ original vision, which was to advocate for the voices of women on campus.

If only Honan and Connect were there to explain themselves — but, alas.

The next talking point was the retirement of the term “union” from AUU, another Progress-Liberal intiative. Ong called the term “divisive” and “irrelevant”, which sounds like a contradiction, but I’m sure makes perfect sense to someone who sees nothing ridiculous about calling themselves an “apolitical” political candidate.

“We’ve gone through one of the biggest impacts on education ever seen through COVID-19,” said Zimmermann, “and I just think it’s ridiculous that the Union is spending a considerable amount of money on a rebranding, with a new design, new uniforms, all of that.

“This money could go to the services students want, like expanding the free breakfast program, and providing additional Student Care support. These are things which are more pressing than the Liberals’ union-hating agenda.”

Obradovic — who, let me remind you, is technically Zimmermann’s running mate — naturally took a Trot-ier route to arrive at the answer.

“Unionism literally means collective struggle in defence of the people you represent… What Billy talked about is service provision, which lines up with Progress and Connect’s vision for student unions… they should just provide financial advice, do a free breakfast, hand out a map of the uni, that sort of thing.

“We are living in a time of major crisis and inequality… In the past, students have used unions to oppose the Vietnam War, imperialism, to advance women’s liberation, Aboriginal rights, gay liberation… they have a massive legacy of progressive struggle and should be taken back to that.”

Obradovic is a big-picture thinker, while Zimmermann is a bit more down to earth— an odd couple for sure, but opposites do attract, and they could prove a formidable force at the SRC’s helm.

Scenes from the debate.

Discussion then turned to how the factions will support the 10% of disabled students at UofA. Wood, as a student with a disability access plan, jumped in first:

“Grassroots policy would change it so that you don’t need to go to a GP and then a psychologist to get an access plan, you just need to see a student counsellor which is a free service. Students are already struggling — many are on Centrelink, not to mention working part-time. Finding time to go to a doctor for something like this when you’re already studying full-time is a pain.”

Ong reminded everyone that Welfare Officer Oliver Douglas (Connect) was heavily involved in the new Disability Inclusion Action Plan. Why the Disability Officer — the President of the Greens Club — was not appointed to this committee is surely a mystery for the ages.

Everyone agreed with Ong that a 4-week waiting time for counsellors is not good enough. But he stopped short of committing to an activist campaign.

“Does protest really work?” he mused. “They [the left] literally protested against the mergers and the uni passed it.”

Needless to say, this didn’t go down well.

“We don’t get to have these big press conferences everyday,” said Obradovic, “but we can have protests that massively shape and influence politics… Struggle educates people, and changes peoples minds, but you have to put your argument out there and be staunch and uncompromising.

You have to say ‘fuck this system’ and we can do better.”

Birchall closed in on Ong, bringing up the 4 democratically-elected AUU Board Directors who were ousted on dubious charges, all in-camera (this power lets the AUU President remove the public from meetings).

The hit list includes two Directors who (allegedly) leaked information to On Dit last year; one who (allegedly) incurred the wrath of Ong after posting a colourful meme; and Obradovic, who (allegedly) defamed the AUU Vice-President, calling him a “sexist” for using his office to (allegedly) lobby for anti-abortion legislation.

“If people don’t see some transparency, they’ll start wondering if this organisation is corrupt, and these removals start looking like political hit-jobs”, said Zimmermann.

The panel didn’t get into the specifics — presumably because they’re all in-camera. But notwithstanding the protection of financial information, the left candidates agreed that the in-camera power should be reined in, and certainly not used for “mud-slinging”, to quote Wood.

On support for clubs, in a heartwarming moment, everyone agreed the North Terrace Clubs Lounge was in a sad state and should be situated in a more accessible location (not, you know, on the edge of the campus).

All except Ong thought there should be an extra club-elected Representative on the Clubs Committee to tip the balance of power away from student politicians. This change would presumably resolve deadlocks like the ones preventing WoCo, the Pro-Choice Club, and Endometriosis Society being affiliated. Ong said the matter should be referred to the Board, which appoints those student politicians, oblivious to the Kafkaesque absurdity of his words.

One thing I will pick on the left factions for is railing on Ong for “taking credit for things he didn’t do”, particularly lobbying for international student repatriation, easier residency pathways, and better security on public transport. Having a seat at the table is half the job of a student representative. Ong does this part very well. The other half is not bending over to uni management, and not being afraid to put the pressure on to get the best outcome for students.

Case in point — and here’s probably a good place to wrap things up — at the end, I asked the candidates a question which, frankly, sums up the huge disparity between some factions in this race and others.

With universities bleeding 17,000 jobs (and counting) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SA Greens have tabled legislation which would cap Vice-Chancellors’ salaries at the State Premier’s pay (~$400k). For reference, the VC’s pay is governed by law under the University of Adelaide Act, since the uni is a public institution.

Higher education pundits have long observed and criticised the culture of “millionaire VCs” in Australia, virtually unseen in the rest of the world. Go after their pay packets, and watch how suddenly they start appearing in the media, calling for more federal funding to the universities.

I asked the candidates if they would use their platform to support this legislation.

The left-bloc gave a resounding “yes”. Ong refused to support the proposal outright, arguing that a campaign needs to be a coordinated effort across the country; no one student union could do it alone! It’s almost as if… we need coordinated, united student unions to campaign effectively for just and equitable outcomes? Perhaps even, dare I say it, a protest every now and then?

That’s politics, my friend. Not everyone gets it.

Ultimately, when “apolitical” hacks run a student union, you’re only getting half your money’s worth. There’s a principle in politics that you don’t need to defeat your enemy to win; you just need to neutralise the threat they pose.

I fear this is what will happen to student unions until we decide that any position — no matter where our differences are— is better than having none at all under the guise of being “apolitical”. I fear that students will expect less and less from their quality of education, and instead of putting up a fight, slap “It is what it is” on every issue like a band-aid. I fear that young people will start to believe they have no say in how their society is run, believing too much power is concentrated at the top, and no one person could possibly influence it.

And however cooked student politics may be, what could possibly be more cooked than that?

Polling for the AUU Board and SRC elections opens on Monday 9am. See the full list of candidates and read their manifestoes here.

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