UniLife Referendum

By Tom Angley

Late last year, your current UniLife student reps held a meeting to discuss changes to our university’s constitution.

Nine months and fourteen redrafts later, the board unanimously passed numerous constitutional amendments, and on August 20 a list of these proposed changes were released to students.

UniLife members could choose to adopt or dismiss the new constitution by voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ respectively in a referendum held between August 27-September 3.

The result? 2,287 votes cast; 1,788 (78 per cent) yay, 499 (22 per cent) nay.

Not all students were happy with the outcome. A ‘Vote No’ campaign, run by former UniLife Director, attracted widespread media attention – and despite the referendum passing, concerns over particular amendments remain.

I sat down with a current UniLife Board member to grill him further on the changes.

Below is an edited transcript of our chat:

What does the result mean for students?
It means that representation on the board has increased, (there’s) one more position which is going to be specifically for international students. It also means that (UniLife) is in line with federal legislation. The Student Services Amenities Fee (SSAF) came out recently, and there are very specific criteria as to what a university can spend the money on.

Was there much consultation with students outside the UniLife board?
The way (UniLife) endeavoured to take on the (amendments) process was that it was each student representative’s responsibility to gauge the wants and needs of their constituency…and we did that through our meetings.

Could all 37,000 UniSA students vote in the referendum?
The old constitution was designed so that students had to opt in to becoming a UniLife member…to vote. The new constitution, which passed, allows for all students to be instant members of UniLife (and vote).

Were you surprised that only 11.02 per cent of UniLife’s then-20,745 members bothered voting?
No. Even if you take a look at Adelaide, Flinders, or (other) universities throughout the country, election results and subsequently referendum results often stagnate around that marker and they hardly move. Unfortunately…a lot of people are apathetic; a lot of people don’t care.

But I don’t think it’s a small result. If you compare us to the referendum that Adelaide just had recently, they’re very similar. Adelaide has less students than what UniSA does, but the (political) culture that Adelaide has is very different.

How can UniLife encourage more student participation? You offered voters the chance to win an iPad…
We incentivised the process for the single reason that it is online voting. You don’t have the same thing at Adelaide where people push you in and say ‘Vote for this, vote for me, I’ll offer you the world’.

When (students) log onto their email and they see assignments due tomorrow, and (our email) just says ‘UniLife referendum – please vote’, unfortunately it gets lost amongst all the other types of pressures. Without incentivisation not a lot of people would vote, and the people who would vote are your special interest groups that might dictate what happens for everyone.

But do you think incentives undermine the democratic process?
There are a lot of people who are very ideologically minded and don’t believe that democracy should be incentivised, and I agree with them 100 per cent. But unfortunately this is the environment that we have to work in and we have two options: we either stick to a 100 per cent ideological basis and just watch everything we do fail around us, or we play to the environmental factors.

What about the referendum poster’s tagline ‘Democracy kicks ass!’ Is that an “environmental factor” in appealing to the masses?
(Laughs) I think it’s just something that gives a bit of punch to it. Admittedly I saw it and had a bit of a chuckle to myself because democracy does kick ass!

There have been concerns with just how democratic the new referendum is, though. For example, Section 11.3.1 states the “number and nature of all Club Committees is determined by the General Manager or their delegate” – how will this affect students?
[L]et’s say a club is planning to do something bad. They want to, I don’t know, blow up a police building. It is then the General Manager’s (GM’s) responsibility to cease that affiliation of that club to UniLife…and UniSA.

The main reason behind (the amendment) is…so he (the GM) doesn’t have to create a special meeting of (the student representative) board just to deal with one club. If that happens, we have to bring down the Whyalla rep, we bring down the Mount Gambier rep; it’s a costly exercise.

The thing that you have to realise is that the General Manager is ultimately responsible to board; the supremacy of board cannot be taken away, and clubs are sub-committees of the board. So if he (the GM) was to go particularly crazy and start slashing and burning, which he’s not going to do because he’s not going to put his job on the line, there is an appeals process in which the club can come up to the board and ask for it to be repealed.

What’s your message to those critical of the referendum process?
If people felt particularly disenfranchised by the process and feel as if it can be improved in the future, then there’s nothing to stop them from getting in contact with an elected representative to sit down over a coffee and have a chat about it.

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