Liberal-backed right-wing factions dominated this year’s student elections at the University of Sydney. The left-wing fightback has to start now.
Jacky He has become the Student Representative Council (SRC) President with the backing of international student based faction “Panda” and campus Liberals. Panda also won 11 of the 33 SRC council seats. The Liberals have six. This likely means a right-wing coalition of Panda and the Liberals will control the council in 2019.
Over the past two years Panda has become a major player in SRC elections. They campaigned on a series of apolitical promises such as installing more phone charging stations and subsidising Mobikes. But despite posing as “non-political” they worked closely with the “moderate” Liberals.
The last time the Liberals controlled council, in 2011, they cut the budget of the Anti-Racism Collective to $15 and refused the collective a stall at orientation day.
Any similar attacks from Panda and the Liberals will have to be fought just as hard. The SRC has a proud history of backing struggles for social justice: from the freedom rides for Aboriginal rights in the 1960s to the movement against the Vietnam War. We will need to campaign for a fighting SRC—through petitioning, protests at SRC council meetings, and up to struggles to remove offending figures from their SRC positions through Student General Meetings.
The left must also learn from its defeat and abandon back-room deals over SRC positions. We need to build an outward looking and effective fight against the Liberals—both on campus and in the government.
The few remaining weeks of semester should be seized on to ramp up the fight against the Ramsay Centre and the job cuts in Sydney Uni support services. And there must be all-out mobilisation for the union rally against the Morrison government on 23 October and the protest to bring all refugees here from Nauru and Manus on 27 October. The anti-Liberal fightback must start now.
Chinese international student support helped deliver victory to Jacky He and is an increasingly significant factor in elections. At Sydney Uni international student numbers have roughly doubled in the last decade to almost 20,000. The majority are from China—making up 25 per cent of the total enrolled students at Sydney Uni.
But an open campaign exposing He as a Liberal flunky would have made a difference. Hundreds of international students who voted for Jacky would have been horrified to find that they were supporting a ticket backed by Liberals who want to toughen the citizenship test, restrict permanent visas, allow international student exploitation at work and re-institute White Australia-style immigration policies. These are the same Liberals who want the racist Ramsay Centre course at Sydney Uni to promote the superiority of “Western civilisation”.
Panda’s mobilisation of international students isn’t enough to explain the election result.
Firstly a more left-wing grouping of mainly Chinese International students, “Advance Revolution”, also stood in elections this year. They preferenced the left-wing ticket Grassroots and their platform included no fee increases and anti-racist demands. A significant section of vote for president—13 per cent—went to their candidate Alex Yang.
Secondly, the Panda electoral win has to be seen in the context of the left’s weakness. Despite an increase in international student participation in SRC elections over the last couple of years, the overall voter turnout this year was actually lower than, for example, 2012.
The fact is that the left is inspiring fewer students to vote. In 2014 Labor and Grassroots got a combined vote of 3850 in the Presidential race. In 2017 that had almost halved to 2087, and this year it slumped to 1737.
The result of the Sydney Uni SRC elections is completely at odds with the widespread anti-Liberal feeling in Federal politics and requires serious critical reflection.
The Left’s decline has taken place despite its control of the SRC this year, with Imogen Grant of Grassroots as the SRC President. It is not automatic that left-wing control of the SRC means strong movements or a strong campus left.
Successful campaigns are the only way the student left can win concrete victories and advance. The high Grassroots vote in 2014 only came after two years of student activism. In 2012, 1500 staff and students and staff marched against 340 job cuts, saving half the academic jobs, and in 2013 hundreds of students mobilised to support staff strikes.
A critical assessment of key campaigns this year is also important to explaining the SRC results. The campaign against the proposed Ramsay Centre course on “Western Civilisation” is a case in point. Around 80 students and staff attended the largest protest. But a more outward-looking campaign could have boosted numbers at protests and given the left a far wider mandate.
There is no reason thousands of student signatures couldn’t have been gathered against the Ramsay Centre proposal. But despite 30 student activists turning up to the first organising meeting and the SRC’s two student Education Officers supporting the campaign, this basic mass building hasn’t happened.
Likewise, the campaign material produced was not aimed beyond the existing far left. Posters indicted “Western Civilisation” in large, bold type with images of Vietnamese being burned by napalm in the Vietnam War and other Western atrocities. But they didn’t mention the Ramsay Centre or racism prominently, or make the link to well-known Liberal and racist Tony Abbott who sits on the board.
A more outward looking orientation would have strengthened the campaign and won support for a left SRC come election time.
The corrosive effects of wheeling and dealing for SRC positions helped deliver the left’s defeat this year. The left—including left-wing Labor students—need to unite on a principled basis in elections. The current tendency is to engage in horse-trading to secure Office Bearer (OB), Executive and NUS positions. This year, the backroom deals that resulted in the Labor Left dropping their support for the Grassroots Presidential candidate, Lara Sonnenschein, to back the Labor Right candidate were a complete disaster. The Left needs to unite on the basis that votes should be cast on principle in all elections for SRC positions.
The Labor Right campaign actually helped Jacky He and the Liberals secure victory. They ran an explicitly anti-activist campaign made even worse by their presidential candidate shamefully pledging to “offer assistance to the college community” in the case of further sexual assault scandals; effectively a promise to defend college rape culture from scrutiny and protest.
The Left should have done more to wage a clear anti-Liberal campaign against Jacky He. The main criticism of the Labor Right is their unwillingness to fight the Liberals. The federal Liberal government’s agenda of cuts and racism is profoundly unpopular and is directly at odds with the interests of most international students. Yet there was no anti-Liberal material exposing Jacky, and only the Socialist Left How to Votes (initiated by Solidarity) actually called to put Jacky last in the Presidential race on an anti-Liberal basis.
The Left can come out of this defeat and strengthen itself in the weeks and months ahead, but only if it learns the right lessons.
The kind of wheeling and dealing that divided the left and helped deliver Jacky He victory must be ditched—starting with the “Reps-elect” SRC council meeting that elects SRC Office bearers and the Executive. Rather than a forum for backroom deals, this meeting should be the target of a united left protest against the Liberals.
But the anti-Liberal campaign has to go well beyond the SRC. In October there are major union and refugee rights mobilisations the left can throw its weight behind. We also need to draw the link between the Liberals’ hated Federal agenda of cuts and racism and the immediate attacks staff and students face on campus—both in terms of the Ramsay Centre and the job cuts to support service staff. The Liberals’ racism and their underfunding of universities—and the cuts and complicity on offer from Vice Chancellor Michael Spence—are two sides of the same coin.