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August 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Online Only |
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Potato elections and why student democracy is dying

The annual VUWSA elections are well and truly upon us. Wherever you look there are posters, banners and chalk advertisements blaring candidates’ names and often what position they hope to win our vote for. On Thursday the 14th there was a candidate’s forum which gave us a chance to meet all these people who aspired to represent our interests and aid in improving the tertiary experience. To be honest I expected to hear plenty of speeches that started with awkward personal introductions followed by optimistic promises and hammy rhetoric. (Which there was plenty of) However I like to think of this as the gold wrapping on a Ferrero Rocher. A little lacking in substance but it gets your attention. When it’s finally unwrapped though you get to take a big bite and taste the rewarding, crunchy and occasionally nutty flavour of a deliciously democratic election.

This year when I unwrapped the gold though, I realised there was no Ferrero Rocher. Just an underdeveloped potato. It’s safe to say I was disappointed. To find that there were only 17 candidates competing for the 12 positions available. Even more frustrating was to find that 7 of those candidates will be running uncontested, guaranteeing that regardless of their merits, they will hold positions in 2015 that could affect your university experience. Including the editor of Salient in fact, Cam.

I have nothing against any of the candidates, I think it’s excellent that there are still a select few enthusiastic enough to embrace the student leadership opportunities available. Yet this poor potato of a ‘democratic’ election feels desperately in need of a roasting. We should not have to meekly stomach this failure of the system.

Yet can we denounce VUWSA for putting on this undemocratic farce, giving us little choice other than to reaffirm the political position of the small but enthusiastic VUWSA elite? After all isn’t it the student bodies fault for not nominating more people in the election? We had till late on Tuesday the 12th of August to put up our hands and volunteer. Therefore is the emaciated state of the competition at these elections our fault?

What does turn chocolate into potato? We may never know, but there are a number of answers to a more pressing question: Why is student democracy seemingly dying off?

Many probably feel quite hesitant putting their hands up for these roles. It doesn’t seem wise to spend 10-40 hours a week on student unionism that could be dedicated to study instead.

Furthermore apathy is a serious problem. Students wonder why they should care. It would be reasonable for a person to assume that by the end of an average three year degree they probably won’t have seen a huge deal of change caused by their actions.

This apathy is further caused by VUWSA’s seeming vulnerability. In 2011 compulsory membership of the organisation was removed, leading to some in the university questioning whether VUWSA truly represents students and undermining their reputation to an extent. It also weakened the organisations financial position, which has been unable to make a profit for the past few years. The proposed shrinking of university councils by the government will make student representatives on the university council no longer compulsory. This could potentially further undermine VUWSA’s role in protecting student interests.

Another issue is that students are unorganized when it comes to university politics. Once universities were the front line of left wing dissidence, but ‘our summer of discontent’ has long since faded into the mists of history. In the previous Salient Grant Robertson was asked what differences he saw between the university of his time and the university today, a key thing he mentioned was that ‘the politicisation is much much lower… there were a lot of protests going on [in 1989]. For the first few years people thought they could stop it [the introduction of university fees]’ Today there are big changes to VUWSA and universities occurring, but students do not seem able to sustain large scale collective action, like a potato that’s lost form and ended up a sloppy mush.

I had hoped that the Reclaim Vic movement would have seen the opportunity to use the election as a soapbox and the chance advance their cause’s agenda. Yet only one candidate made any mention of the anti-corporate principles the group stood for. This is significantly weaker than the efforts of the ‘A-Team’ back in 2007. A right wing group who ran a coordinated VUWSA election campaign, running a candidate for every position. I’m unaware of any organised VUWSA leadership challenges since.

Are these problems insurmountable? Are we just too busy, too apathetic and too disorganised for democracy to be anything more than a shadow? Like a slender man with a potato for a face!? I don’t think so. It may be too late to save this election but we can save the next one from a similar fate. We need to participate, be loud and proud, and debate the issues that matter to us. Ask ourselves what we want our university to be like, and fight for it! The more we put into our student leadership the more we shall get out of it.

Sometimes it can be daunting getting involved in student politics but it can also be hugely rewarding. There are some really important things which VUWSA does that make a huge impact each and every year. For example things like O week, stress free study week and more would be nothing without their efforts. Salient Magazine would be thinner for sure and might not even be able to survive without the funding it receives from VUWSA. The Student Union has faced challenges but it is also constantly adapting and improving itself. VUWSA President Sonya Clark mentioned in last week’s Salient that 2015 will bring with it a comprehensive rethink of how the organisation operates. Exciting changes are in the works. Let’s give 2015 a Ferrero Rocher election: an eclectic mix of nutty fun and great taste. It will give us a chance to debate the effect of these changes and a leadership which represents the wishes of us, the students.

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