Student representatives in the Monash Student Association (MSA) last month abolished the right to democratically campaign in campus elections. Now they’re trying to crush efforts to hold them to account.
Incumbent student representatives at Monash University in Melbourne have rammed through changes to election regulations that include indefinite bans on the use of printed leaflets or posters as well as any form of in-person campaigning.
Normally, MSA elections are a time when the campus is transformed into a forum for wide-ranging discussion and debate. Students then get to vote on who will represent them, based to some degree on these debates and according to the stand taken by the various candidates on a variety of issues. Access to information about the policies of candidates is an important perquisite for this process being democratic.
The new regulatory changes manipulate the process in a way that stifles debate and favours incumbents (who, coincidentally, are responsible for the changes). All the usual means of campaigning to voters by candidates or tickets about what they stand for are banned under the new changes. Face-to-face conversations between campaigners and voters are prohibited, as is the use of promotional materials such as t-shirts, posters, pamphlets and even QR codes. The use of social media is also extremely tightly regulated. Violating one or more of these rules is punishable with disqualification. Without an expiration date, these regulations are set to remain in place indefinitely.
Students wishing to contest the elections are now only able to get their message out via strictly controlled use of social media. They are able to create a page but this page cannot be promoted or even referred to anywhere else on social media. The effect of this is to favour those who already have a profile and access to established social media networks, which is much more likely for incumbents than those seeking to challenge them. Elections will be decided by whoever has the largest social media following, not by who has the best policies or campaign platform.
The overall impact of the changes is a profound reduction in the traditional avenues for ordinary students to meaningfully participate in elections, or to even be informed about the different policies of those contesting them. The MSA representatives responsible for the changes have shut down discussion of the regulations at student council meetings, and ignored an invitation from students to attend a public debate over the changes.
The MSA president, Marni O’Connell, said in an interview that the measures were “the only way to protect the health of the Monash community and ensure democratic elections will take place”. But the MSA has shown no such concern for health while it has organised parties on and off campus during the pandemic.
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis means students likely won’t be returning to campus this semester, which will have implications for student association elections. But these changes are an attempt to use this crisis to sure up the position of those who currently control the union, not adapt to the challenge of the pandemic. Indeed, many of the new rules, such as the ban on campaigning on large established Facebook groups, have no relevance to health, but are instead about supressing any sort of democratic challenge to the status quo.
In response to these attacks, the campaign Defend Democracy at Monash was founded by student activists demanding that democracy be restored. A petition was launched calling on the MSA to convene a student general meeting to call to account those responsible for the regulation changes.
Student general meetings are the highest and most democratic decision-making forum available to students. At these meetings, students can move motions and vote democratically to enact binding decisions on elected representatives, or even to remove them from their paid positions. Student general meetings therefore act as a vital lever of accountability through which regular students can exercise their democratic will against rogue representatives. Constitutionally, the MSA is obliged to hold a student general meeting if petitioned by 1 percent of the student body, approximately 500 students.
Demonstrating their contempt for ordinary students, the MSA rejected the petition despite it attracting more than 800 signatures. Incumbents provided the spurious excuse that since the MSA constitution says that student general meetings must happen on campus, no meetings can happen during lockdown. But if elections which are usually held in person can be held online, there is no legitimate reason why a student general meeting could not also be held online. That would be the most democratic way to proceed.
The rejection of the petition shows the depths the current MSA representatives are willing to sink to avoid having to justify their anti-democratic behaviour to students.
This should concern students from other universities too. In a time of compounding crises of capitalism, from the pandemic to the climate catastrophe and the accelerating erosion of education funding and students’ rights, the need for proper representation that takes a fighting stance has renewed importance. Student unions can play a small part in rebuilding resistance—the MSA, for instance, ran a successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a migrant teacher and their family in 2016. The suppression of student democracy at Monash, if successful, will undermine the potential for such action and further alienate students from their representative bodies.
Monash students have an opportunity to take a stand against this at the student general meeting on 16 September, which will be going ahead despite the opposition of the current MSA “representatives”. It will be hosted by the Defend Democracy campaign.