UMSU Presidential Debate: A Recap

1 September 2018

With student election week almost upon us, three University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) presidential candidates went head-to-head in a debate hosted by Farrago on 29 August. If you missed the debate, you can watch it on Farrago’s Facebook page.

Wednesday’s debate participants were, in ballot order:

  • Callum Simpson from More!, who is the current environment office bearer (OB).
  • Christopher Kounelis, who is from Choice! but will appear as an independent on the ballot due to an error in the ticket’s registration forms.
  • Molly Willmott from Stand Up!, who is the current women’s OB.

Each candidate was given four minutes to present their platform. They were then asked a series of questions pre-submitted by the audience. Each candidate had the opportunity to rebut once per round and were given two minutes for closing remarks.

The key issues dominating the debate were safety on campus, UMSU’s relationship with the National Union of Students, supporting autonomous departments, the special considerations process and the perennial issue of student engagement—including international students and students studying at satellite campuses. If you need a crash course on UMSU and the elections, Alain Nguyen gives a handy election explainer here. You can also check out the candidate statements for all positions here.

So, who are these people running for president, and where do they stand on the issues most important to you?

Safety on campus
As current women’s OB, Willmott has lead the union’s Safety on Campus campaign including the August 1 rally against sexual violence. She feels more can be done by UMSU as a whole to support the women’s department in tackling an issue that has seen too many people leave University altogether. Kounelis stated that the student union has done well raising awareness of sexual violence, and supported the tightening of alcohol regulations and more money towards student services on campus. In rebuttal, Simpson argued that sexual violence was not about alcohol consumption but a cult of male entitlement. He said reporting services on campus are unsafe and inaccessible and more needs to be done by the union to make it easier for survivors to come forward. Willmott clarified that alcohol regulations were not to stop sexual assault but to stop the manipulation of alcohol to assault people, and more can be done to make campus and union events safer for everyone—she said safety on campus is an issue that affects every group, not just women.

The National Union of Students (NUS)
This was an issue where candidates’ stances differed significantly. One of Kounelis’ key policy platforms is a student referendum on the NUS, while Willmott believed it ought to be fixed from the inside. He claimed the organisation is not transparent with its finances and does not represent the interests of the majority of students. Kounelis stated that More! reduced the UMSU affiliation fee from $75,000 to $30,000 last year, but the figure has increased again this year to $36,000. In actual fact, the 2018 UMSU affiliation fee to the NUS is $50,000. Willmott said that she is not oblivious to the pitfalls of NUS governance, but that they have delivered a national survey into sexual violence, lobbied fee deregulation and blocked two bills in parliament that would have affected students. Simpson said that the NUS could be a great meeting place for students but few have engaged with or even heard of it, and that KPIs could ensure greater accountability. A power-sharing agreement in recent years also lead to queer students’ choice for OB being completely ignored.

Autonomous departments
All candidates advocated more support for autonomous departments. Kounelis’ support is conditional on them being answerable to their constituencies and their budgets. Simpson said that as president he could not be a leading voice for minorities but would empower office bearers and their constituencies to represent UMSU. More! have developed a press policy where less public responsibility falls to the president, and autonomous departments won’t have to go through the president to speak to the press. Willmott is the only panelist involved in an autonomous department and she said it’s not just about public relations but making sure there is a clear channel between the president and autonomous departments.

Student engagement
This was another major concern for all candidates. Willmott said that every student has engaged with the union at some point, from watching recorded lectures to eating a sausage at Tuesday Bands, Bevs & BBQ, but the union needs to be better at keeping them involved. She wants to change UMSU’s presence at o week to ensure that students are “seeing purple” and know about the union from day one. Willmott and Simpson both agreed that engagement with campuses south of Grattan street and beyond is important to boosting engagement. Kounelis said there needs to be a clear line of communication between students and the union in regards to finances. He also advocated for online voting as as a way of boosting low voter turnout in student elections, which he claimed is currently at seven per cent of the student body.

International students
International students being used as a commodity was a big issue for all candidates. Willmott said that there are massive issues with the “rorting” of international students from the moment they arrive in Australia and the UMSU must give greater support to UMSU International to advocate for their rights. She said UMSU International must be considered in the union’s upcoming restructure of its governance. Simpson said that international students face some of the toughest conditions on campus and the union needs to mobilise cultural clubs to advocate for better student resources. Kounelis said that international students are used as a commodity by the University, and claimed that international students were threatened with deportation by campaigners if they didn’t vote during last year’s student elections.

Special consideration and misconduct hearings
Kounelis and Willmott agreed that the special consideration process is letting down students and needs to be a far more streamlined process. Willmott advocated for more training for OBs to support students on misconducts hearings. Simpson said that his personal experience of UMSU’s advocacy service was great but students simply don’t hear about it. He suggested that UMSU Advocacy should extend to helping college students facing eviction.

So now you know where the candidates stand on key issues, what other ideas did they bring to the table? Willmott suggested better support for students on Centrelink and with housing problems, including a possible $500 bursary for students facing eviction or financial stress. Simpson said that the centralisation of student services by the University has impacted students, and UMSU needs to be clear in their demands for training and better access to services like career counselling and psychological welfare. Kounelis said that UMSU should advocate for things like night classes and better disability access at the University.

Whether you were convinced by Callum Simpson’s policies, swayed by Molly Willmott’s passion, or wooed by Chris Kounelis’ puns, it’s almost time to vote. Polling will be open Monday to Friday next week (3–7 September) at Baillieu Library, Union House, FBE, Murrup Barak, Stop 1, Burnley and Southbank.

Make sure to keep checking in on our election coverage page to stay up to date with all the election happenings.

Happy voting!

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