Domestic / State

Towards More Inclusive Democracy on Campus

Ben Watson on Guild elections at UWA.

‘People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote – a very different thing.’ – Walter H Judd (Former US Congressman and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient)

The way in which Guild elections at UWA are currently conducted presents us with the very problem outlined by Walter H Judd: we are being represented by a Guild elected by the minority of students who vote, and we have made it unacceptably difficult for the majority of UWA students to participate in elections. If we are to have a  Guild, we should aim to provide as many students as possible the opportunity to be heard and to vote with ease.

At UWA, we should aim to be more inclusive in the way we conduct elections. The current locations of voting booths in UWA Guild elections are patently undemocratic, disenfranchising a majority of the student population and ensuring that certain student groups are over-represented in our voting population.

The location of the booths on Oak Lawn and the Reid Library lawn provide unequal voting opportunities to members of the Law and Arts faculties. Students who spend the majority of their time in the Business School, the Science area, Engineering or Mathematics must go significantly out of their way to vote. Our aim should be to encourage all students to have a say in who represents them, and providing equal geographic access to polling booths is essential in enfranchising as many UWA students as possible.

Would we consider having two election booths a street apart and none in the rest of the electorate in a Federal or State election democratic?  What about only having booths in suburbs that strongly favour one party? Of course not. So why do we tolerate such blatantly undemocratic behaviour in the Guild?

Roaming booths at the Medicine and Dentistry are not sufficient either. They are only available on one day and for just a few hours. Some may scoff and say these students aren’t usually interested in politics.  This is clearly unfair.  They are contributing members of our University community, and should have equal opportunity for their voice to be heard with equal ease.  By locating polling booths where we currently do, we are further entrenching the myth that only those interested in the Law and Humanities are interested in the political process.

By placing the booths near the Law and Arts faculties, are we saying to the 5000 students in the business school or the 8000 students who study Science that their vote, and hence their opinion, isn’t valued? The Guild provides services for all UWA students, and as such, all UWA students should have adequate opportunities to be heard. The current placement of booths does not achieve this. The university campus has changed and booth placement needs to change to reflect that.

There must be an immediate, serious and non-partisan review of the placement of the polling booths with changes to be made to provide the maximum opportunity for all students to have their say in student elections.  Booth placement must be based on student populations, not on historical voting patterns. A Guild that claims it wants to improve inclusiveness on campus must start by including more students in the way that the Guild itself is elected.

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One thought on “Towards More Inclusive Democracy on Campus

  1. Ben Watson identifies a significant problem with the current system of guild elections but in my opinion we should not restrict the debate to the correct placement of polling booths. Universities should be leading the way in political process innovation.

    With the advent of web 2.0, there was immense speculation about the role the internet would play in making politics more accountable, transparent and accessible for the ordinary voter. It was envisioned that these changes would reverse the trend of youth disengagement with the mainstream political process. These claims were seemingly backed up by the election campaigns of Kevin07 and Barack Obama. However, aside from the brief stir caused by Wikileaks (which was largely facilitated by the reporting of mainstream traditional media) it appears that in fact Web 2.0 has had little impact on the day-to-day running of government.

    University politics should be blazing a trail in this area. Student guilds don’t have the mainstream media presenting and scrutinising their decisions. Most if not all of the information about guild activities relied upon by the average student is controlled by the guild itself (through it’s website, posters, and the student diary). The guild should commit itself to greater online transparency, by publishing as much information as feasible up to and including the budget and minutes of guild meetings. Election campaigns should be on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter…etc. not just on campus. Once in, the guild president and other officers should inform the student body of their activities, either through blogs, youtube addresses, tweets or whatever. Students should be able to have an open forum to address their representatives, not just through email and face to face. Students’ concerns should be addressed openly too. For example, lack of student parking is a huge issue. Why doesn’t the guild organise an interview to be put on YouTube where students’ questions can be put to representatives of the university and the local council? I personally was unsatisfied with the dominance of alcohol at guild social events, enough to campaign for the guild myself, before eventually finding out (by tracking down and asking the head of Sober?) that without the larger profit margins from the sale of alcoholic drinks most social events would be unable to cover costs. That sort of question would be perfect for a panel discussion, online forum or other accountability measure.

    Where to place polling booths is such a small question. Why not ask if we even need polling booths at all. Can’t the UWA Guild work with the WA electoral commission to investigate the feasibility of online elections? I’m sure the politics department would be willing to partner in such a project as it would probably be ground breaking in the Australian context. It would enable not only greater participation of students from distant areas of campus, but of post-grads and other students who spend little or no time physically on campus, especially if they were specifically targeted by the (online) promotional material. For those few students who don’t have access to the internet at home (if any still exist) computers could be set aside on campus as e-voting booths.
    If this kind of experimentation doesn’t happen at universities where do we expect it to happen? Politics should adapt to the times and Universities should show the way.

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