Otago students association leading the way for student democracy

Otago University Graduation ceremony, Dunedin, 13 December, 2014. Photo by Michael Thomas

By Carwyn Walsh

Imagine going through a family album, flicking through page after page of happy memories and occasions. Now imagine that in many of those photos your Grandad’s ballbag is inadvertently hanging out the side of his slacks. Christmas lunch in 2014 is never going to be remembered for Auntie Pamela’s famous potato salad. Your takeaway memory from your cousin Jason’s 21st? You guessed right. Grandad’s wrinkled – surprisingly large – ballbag, sitting, without a care in the world, right there next to his digestive biscuit. Pretty soon your entire family cannot be thought of without a flash of your Grandad’s testicle going through your mind.

And so it goes with reporting on student politics. Just replace Grandad’s sack with the ever-present takeaway I had from covering New Zealand’s student politics for the best part of two years: apathy. Apathy or a lack of engagement from students with their own associations was impossible not to notice. Whether in pizzas outnumbering students at association AGMs or appallingly low turnout at elections, apathy could be found inhabiting nooks and crannies across the student body politic.

No scene from my time covering student politics better exemplified this apathy than one I walked in on in late 2015. While covering Massey Palmerston North’s student association (MUSA) election, I was invited to interview the candidates standing. Four smiling students sat in the room, all of whom I surmised were running for president. To my embarrassment, I soon discovered that these four students were the only four that had come forward to stand for the five positions on the MUSA executive. Four individuals had put their names down to stand for five paying positions on an executive representing over 6000 students!

Voter turnout at these elections illuminates the lack of regard the majority of students have for the very organisations tasked with representing their needs. Only 318 Massey Palmerston North students –a touch under five per cent of eligible voters – cast a favourable vote in deciding who would be their student president last year. Believe it not, this was actually an improvement from recent years – in 2015, 163 Palmerston North students voted for their president, up from just 98 the previous year.

Voter apathy is not just an issue MUSA face alone. In the Massey at Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA) election of 2014, just 102 voters took part in electing their student president. Last year was the first in many in which MAWSA had a candidate standing in every position on their executive. Covering engagement with Massey University’s four student association elections was not difficult. It was just a simple matter of knowing the ins and outs of copy and paste.

A lack of engagement is an issue that everyone I came across in student politics is both well aware of and concerned over. A whole host of external factors – acceptable positions – are usually trundled out to excuse away lack of engagement. Voluntary Student Membership – a Bill that passed in 2012 – and students’ lifestyle demands are the two stock standards. I’ve even heard the economic reforms introduced by Labour in the early 1980s used as the fall guy for lack of voter turnout in student elections well into the 21st century! Everyone who is anyone in student politics has their own answers to overcome the insouciance of their own student voters. The two major reforms that I suggest students’ associations should introduce would be:

  1. Introducing greater democracy into the running of your association
  2. Having a good, hard and long fucking look in the mirror

Having more elections might seem like a strange solution to voter apathy, especially when you consider the lack of general interest most students have in the annual students’ association elections. However, when you examine the annual elections held at Massey University, there isn’t much for students to get excited about. For the most part, the electoral candidates run unopposed, do not advertise in a meaningful way what they stand for (if they even bother advertising in the first place), and generally stand on rather tame postures about loving their fellow students and wanting to be a strong voice for them.

The Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) is a shining example of giving their students something meaningful to vote for. OUSA recently gave its students the opportunity to vote in a multi-point referendum that covered a whole range of positions their own association should take, ranging from its day-to-day functions to much broader questions, such as:

“Should OUSA support a change of government at the 2017 general election?”

OUSA’s dance with democracy is nothing new, having run similar referendums – according to its website – as far back as 2015. Otago students’ participation in, not just these referendums but executive elections, dwarfs by some distance the paltry turnout seen in the annual executive elections held by Massey University’s four student associations. Furthermore, all the trends in OUSA’s democratic experiment point to something not too often seen in student politics across the entire country: a tangible surge in student engagement. In 2015, the greatest turnout of Otago students in a single referendum question was 958. By 2017, this number had risen drastically to 3840 students – roughly a quarter of eligible Otago University students.

In New Zealand’s student politics scene these are not numbers to be sniffed at. Any Massey University student president would bite the nipples off of any idea that would see a quarter of the students they represent engaging with them on any single issue. It stands to reason that they should actually go about creating the kind of election wherein their students get to vote on a multitude of issues other than who their leaders are.

Greater democracy will also benefit these very leaders by giving them a clearer gauge on where their own students stand on issues, both internal problems on their own campuses and wider issues that affect students nationwide. It will also provide them with something they sorely lack: an actual mandate to take to the university on issues. ‘98 per cent of surveyed students on this campus think they are paying too much to use car parks’ sounds a lot better than ‘Cletus and Drover have approached us with concerns about what they have to pay to park their Hilux outside Agriculture 101’.

Another plus of having a consistent understanding of where your students stand is helping in the transitions student executives face on a near annual basis. Few student leaders hang around for more than one, let alone two annual terms, meaning those that come into leadership roles can be pretty green. Without knowing where the general student population stand on issues – other than the small minority that voted for them ‘to be a strong voice for students’ – leads many to either lean on the national body – The New Zealand Union of Students’ Association (more on these jokers later) – for training or just wing it entirely and take it upon themselves to decide what is in the best interest of the student body they represent.

There is no doubt that trying to represent all students’ views is near impossible. Having a basic understanding of what positions the majority would like to see their association take would surely be a good starting point for any new student leader grappling with their new found responsibilities. Surely there’s no training needed when newly-elected student leaders know from day one what issues are going to be popular ones to pursue?

Opening the floor to students once a year on what they care about at AGMs they physically have to attend, especially in our modern world in which students should be able to vote online at their leisure, is below piss poor. When it comes to offering online referendums, students’ associations cannot plead economic suffering either. How hard is to tack on, say, ten extra questions every year when you hold your elections? It’s hardly going to break the bank. Incidentally, OUSA’s AGMs are still suffering from having more pizza boxes than students, but crucially, their student leaders have at least gone to the effort to engage their students online – and know exactly where thousands of them stand.

Looking outwards at where students on their campuses stand on issues lends itself well to the next task I would suggest students’ associations take on: inwardly taking a good, hard, long fucking look in the mirror. There is a perception many students have about their students’ associations: that they are little more than elite clubs for looney lefties waiting for the day that they can trade in their roman sandals for an opportunity to jostle for a place on the Labour Party list. Having mingled with the glitterati of Massey University student politics for two years, I can say that this perception is pretty unfair. The vast majority of student leaders I met were some of the nicest people I’ve ever come across, and although a lot probably lean to the left of the political spectrum – some harder than others – there is only one that I can actually remember having any interest in pursuing politics as a career after university.

Having said that, perceptions are important. Elitism is something that associations were called out for by former MAWSA President Tom Pringle in an open letter he penned to New Zealand students in 2016. Pringle argued that students’ associations had missed an opportunity after the passing of VSM to become truly representative of the general student population, and instead had become even more of an echo chamber for a select few leftist opinions. He blamed this culture squarely on the NZUSA, an organisation MAWSA has a proud history (take note, current executive) of resisting that predated Pringle’s time as president. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to suggest Massey University’s associations are wholly stocked by elitist leftists, but the charge made by Pringle against the NZUSA holds a lot of water.


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