Last Tuesday’s candidates’ forum provided an apt explanation for my weary approach to VUWSA, with its nit-picking, hair-splitting and pettifogging.
Commencing 15 minutes behind schedule, the attendees were treated to the sight of Queer Rights Officer Rachael Wright straddling her likely successor Nathan Cooper and giving him what could be described as a lazy lap dance. To the relief of some (and possibly to the disappointment of others, I don’t know) the forum began shortly after.
The battles lines were drawn and a division was distinguishable between the Young Labourand Workers Party-affiliated candidates and their respective supporters.
Jordan King, one of the three candidates for the position of University Council Representative, was the first to take the microphone. Openly declaring his socialist leanings, King made note of his participation in a number of successful campaigns in the past year, as well as the positions he holds on various University boards and councils.
With neither of his competitors – Keiran Barbalich and Robert Lee Latimer – present, the sole candidate for the two positions on the Publications Committee, Conrad Reyners, followed his fellow Young Labourite. Making a pledge of “strong financial management,” an apparently altruistic Reyners voiced his desire to ensure that the money Salient received from VUWSA is used “wisely.”
Reyners was succeeded by Barbalich, who had arrived at the forum during his speech. Taking the microphone, Barbalich curtly noted that he had informed the Returning Officer Roy Siemens that he would be late, but despite his overdue attendance, Barbalich made a convincing argument of his suitability for the position of University Council Representative over King.
Barbalich’s initial assertion of King’s poor attendance record at meetings was interrupted by King, who yelled across the room, “Your facts are wrong!” This refutation prompted Barbalich to present a stack of papers containing the minutes of each meeting held by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Board (on which King is a student representative) in the past year.
King’s questionable record was quickly made apparent, with him having attended one out of seven meetings and providing apologies for just one. King responded that he had been busy taking part in a number of campaigns and protests at the time.
Barbalich went on to state that that he had attended all of his own meeting as the Postgraduate Students’ Association (PGSA) representative on the Academic Committee, was the President-elect of PGSA, and possessed an undergraduate and postgraduate degree over King.
Following Barbalich were the candidates for the five general exec positions. Each offered ambitious campaign promises, from Marika Pratley’s pledge of decreasing the cost of textbooks, to Sam Oldham’s of putting an end to private profiteering from hostels. Food on campus was an area of concern for Anthony Naylor, who expressed his contempt for $7.80 paninis ($6.50 from Mount St), in addition to StudyLink and the cost of living for students. Declaring what many consider impossible, he added that he wanted to turn VUWSA into “something students can be proud of.”
Bernard Stewart was perhaps the most entertaining of the group, treating his speech as a stand-up comedy act as he explained his three-pronged platform – one of which involved legalising all the drugs he uses. His breaking out in song was met with loud approval from the audience.
The one candidate for Queer Rights Officer, Cooper, was next. Announcing that he was “not much of a public speaker,” he explained that he had been involved with UniQ and that if elected to the position, he planned to establish a queer mentor system.
In the absence of both candidates for International Officer, following Cooper was Freya Eng, the solitary candidate for Education Vice-President. Eng outlined her contribution to the film school proposal earlier in the year, in addition to her current role at VUWSA as the Campaigns Coordinator. Eng added she wished to strengthen the class rep system and promoted the importance of advocacy – “Students need representation.”
Incumbent Alexander Neilson – and also the only candidate for the position – was absent. According to an audience member, he was “busy administering stuff.” Consequently, Welfare Vice-President hopeful Seamus Brady took the microphone, despite concerns among some about the apparent difficulties he has previously encountered with speech.
Brady, understandably with some assistance from Reyners (who was seen nodding and mouthing in Brady’s direction), pledged the increased use of Campus Angels and the safeguarding of the VUWSA food bank. When questioned about his relationship with current Welfare Vice-President Melissa Barnard, Brady responded: “Professional.” Barnard made her presence known by shouting, “I heart you Seamus!”
Three of the four presidential candidates followed, with Sean Connors being the first to speak. Dressed in a panda costume and a suit, he initially hesitated over the position he was running for, but went on to proclaim that he “represents students. I represent stupid students.”
“I am going to take all your policies and make them betterer,” Connors told the candidates, and proceeded to outline his policies, which included “killing the poor to feed the hungry” and instituting a monarchy within VUWSA. When questioned whether he would “tap dat” in reference to Lindsay Lohan, Connors responded: “Before she got all druggy… She’s too angles now.”
Jasmine Freemantle’s following speech ignited some drama amongst the audience. Freemantle began by declaring that she believed in “positive change, not negative,” and railed against the Change Proposal, which she described as a “D-grade, first-year briefing paper.”
Shortly thereafter, as Freemantle addressed questions from the audience, during which Wright leveled a number of personal accusations against Freemantle. The discussion became heated and several audience members called for an indifferent Siemens to chair the meeting. Freemantle was subsequently subjected to demands for a clarification and explanation for her defence of Cosgrove earlier in the year as he faced a sexual harassment complaint.
Sonny Thomas’ speech was similarly punctuated with outrage and controversy, which was met almost immediately when he announced that “VUWSA needs change,” and added that the Change Proposal had been co-written by Cosgrove, former VUWSA President Nick Kelly and himself.
Kelly, who was present, yelled, “You’re a liar! That’s a fucking lie!”
An undeterred Thomas continued, saying that he believed in student control of student affairs and clear processes and support for staff. However, Thomas was forced to address the “dirty politics” present in the current campaign trail, and pointed out: “Jasmine’s campaign started with attacking me.” He referred to a flyer that had been distributed containing a private email between his employer and Women’s Rights Officer Georgie Dickson, in an attempt to smear him.
The forum soon became detached and disintegrated, leaving the remaining audience relieved to escape.