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Declassified: Student Elections

Monday, 6 October, 2014

Student elections are shit. Every year threats, bullying, and deception mar the necessary democratic process of choosing our student representatives. But no elections in the University of Melbourne’s history have come close to the clusterfuck that was the elections of 2003.

The President at the time was Scott Crawford. His name had become synonymous with corruption and financial mismanagement, and he had received significant negative press, both within and outside the university. He was elected in 2002 on a ticket called Student Alliance, a coalition of the Labor Right faction and Liberals, which I will refer to as ‘The Right’. Their opponents, ‘The Left’, consisted of Labor Left, The Greens, and Socialist Alternative, as well as a series of other small left-wing groups. The Right’s negative press and active opposition made the 2003 student union elections appear unwinnable. Crawford, however, still held control of the union, and was not afraid to use his executive power in his favor.

In their first bid to clutch onto power, The Right implemented what I call the Fuck Over Everyone Three-Step Plan. Step One: disaffiliate a series of student clubs aligned with The Left that were expected to contest the elections. ALP (Labor Left), Left Focus (Socialist Alternative), and Students for Change (miscellaneous left) were all disaffiliated. Step Two: change the electoral regulations so that tickets could only be named after an affiliated club or a student’s surname. Step Three: change the electoral regulations so that only tickets belonging to an affiliated club are eligible for universal voting. Universal voting was a simple and easy way to vote, in which students could simply mark their tickets in order of preference on one ballot paper, and their votes follow on to every position being elected. The alternative was to individually number the hundreds of candidates for each position. Understandably, roughly 80 per cent of students used universal voting.

In case you missed that, The Right blocked The Left out of registering good ticket names, and then blocked them out of 80 per cent of the vote, scrapping decades-old student clubs along the way.

As the deadline for nominations loomed, a queer student club by the name of Pride approached The Left. They offered their society as a ticket name so that The Left could qualify for universal voting and feasibly contest the elections. Their only condition was that they would not run with Left Focus (Socialist Alternative). Fair enough.

As a result, the socialists were pretty much blocked out of the elections altogether. For one, they could not run under their already established name of Left Focus. In an unprecedented feat of socialist-brand craziness, one of their candidates legally changed his surname to LeftFocus. Just think about that for a moment, legally changing your surname for a student union election. What the fuck were you thinking, Sebastian LeftFocus? Despite that obscene level of commitment, a series of other regulations forced the ticket name to end up as LeftFocus/Wood. Even with their crackpot attempt at a ticket name, they were still ineligible for universal voting, leaving an election victory well out of reach.

Come election time, there were five major tickets on the ballot papers. In The Left corner we had Pride, International Alliance, and More Beer. In The Right, Student Alliance, Go, Labor, Liberals, Students Against Corruption, Free Beer, a few other club tickets, and The Greens. Yes, The Greens.

See, while The Right were busy disaffiliating a series of The Left’s student societies, they were also affiliating some of their own. A society called The Liberal Greens was founded by Liberal students, and abbreviated to The Greens to run in the elections as a front for The Right.

Free Beer was a similar story. Upon hearing that More Beer had thrown their support behind The Left, The Right affiliated a new club called ‘Students for the Appreciation of Free Beer’ to steal votes from their beer-loving, left-aligned opponents.

One of my favourite side stories of this election was the Free Beer inaugural general meeting (IGM), a compulsory meeting that would determine Free Beer’s leadership. Word spread of the time and location of the Free Beer IGM, which happened to coincide with the Prosh Week pub-crawl. The pub-crawl was rearranged to stop via the IGM, in a hope to rig the club’s leadership and prevent them from contesting in the union elections. Unfortunately for the drunk Proshers of 2003, their efforts were wasted as The Right got word of the re-arranged pub-crawl and moved the meeting elsewhere. Sorry 2003 Proshers, at least you tried.

The most audacious ticket in The Right group was Students Against Corruption. Word of Crawford’s corrupt union practices had become so widespread, that a ticket denouncing corruption was likely to catch a lot of votes. Recognising his own unpopularity, Crawford & Co created a club and ticket called Students Against Corruption to seize the votes of these disillusioned students. The irony being that the very people responsible for the corruption were those receiving the anti-corruption votes (through preference deals). Only in student politics.

The final, and most important ticket in The Right’s election strategy was Go. While Student Alliance had won Crawford the presidency—as well as most other union positions—the previous year, its name had been tarnished along with Crawford’s. In desperate need of rebranding, The Right created a new ticket, Go. Go was the major ticket in the right, with the flashiest campaign material and the most campaigners. Student Alliance continued to exist for three reasons. The first was to catch a portion of votes from loyal and followers of previous years. The second was to make Go appear to be a separate group of students to those synonymous with the corruption and scandal. Running incumbent President Scott Crawford as Student Alliance’s Presidential candidate helped secure this image. Finally, Student Alliance existed to do all the dirty campaigning on Go’s behalf. While Go remained clean campaigners, Student Alliance distributed unauthorised, negative campaign material about The Left’s tickets and candidates.

Despite the large number of preference-feeding tickets in The Right, The Left’s Pride, International Alliance and More Beer made a powerful coalition. The Left had bounced back from the Fuck Everyone Over Three-Step Plan to create a team of tickets with a real shot at winning. That was, until the night before elections started.

With zero notice, Pride was hauled up in front of the Electoral Tribunal the night before elections, having been accused of illegally using the ALP’s national logo on their campaign material. Despite the questionable notice and circumstances of the tribunal meeting, the tribunal found in favour of The Right. The result: Pride’s entire ticket was banned from campaigning for two and a half of the five days of elections.

To rub salt in the wound, Student Alliance started releasing a series of homophobic campaign flyers that were anti-Pride. These flyers offended and disheartened a series of members of Pride, dividing The Left and causing a rift between Pride and the disaffiliated clubs.

During the elections, even Farrago got caught in the crossfire. Farrago released a flyer with its election edition, describing the elections as ‘rigged’ and accusing the electoral tribunal of homophobia for allowing the homophobic material to be distributed. Crawford didn’t take to Farrago’s stance on the elections kindly, and banned the magazine from union house for the duration of the elections. The editors continued to actively distribute the magazine and flyer elsewhere on campus.

By the end of election week, Go had secured the highest primary vote of any ticket, followed closely by International Alliance. Once preferences were distributed however, Pride and More Beer’s votes pushed International Alliance over the line for the Presidency. In a final attempt to win the elections, The Right appealed to the electoral tribunal that Pride be retrospectively disqualified on the grounds that they were conducting covert campaigning during their ban. The electoral tribunal found in favour of The Right once more, and Pride was retrospectively disqualified, leaving Go’s Presidential candidate Gideon Brott with victory.

But it doesn’t end there. Gideon Brott was a strange candidate for the Presidency, being a first year with little experience. Almost immediately after voting closed, Brott withdrew from the elections, leaving all of his votes to follow on according to Go’s preference deals. Now remember Student Alliance, that old, defamed ticket that existed to distance Scott Crawford from Go? Well, being Go’s Presidential candidate, Crawford received Go’s votes once Brott had withdrawn, leaving Scott Crawford as the President elect of the 2003 elections.

Let’s go over that once more. The Right effectively disqualified all of their competitors from the elections, then created a series of deceptive tickets to catch the votes of students who specifically wanted to vote against them, then banned their competitors from campaigning, then distributed homophobic material against them, then disqualified them from the elections, then pulled some sneaky switch-the-candidates bullshit, all to get the most unpopular President of all time re-elected for a second term. And it only just worked.

It’s not all roses for The Right from there on though. The day after voting closed, the university threatened to withdraw its funding from the union. The following February Crawford was sacked as President by the Supreme Court and the student union was placed in liquidation.

There are no lessons to be learnt here. There is no take-home value to this story. This is simply the story of the sad, sad low of the lowest form of politics: student politics.