University students are an opinionated bunch. It’s a trait we celebrate and defend vehemently. The question of whether UWA’s Student Guild should be politically impartial, however, is as gnarly as the trees on Oak Lawn.
The Guild’s main role is to represent the whole student population and make university life as good as it can possibly be – actually, their website banner literally says they “work to ensure each one of your experiences at The University of Western Australia is the best it can be.” It doesn’t mention anything about achieving political aims or acting on political viewpoints. And the Guild is, usually, as non-politically motivated as a student-run body can be. It provides university news updates, gives advice and study help, organises events, aids textbook exchange, and provides services and facilities around university like free Microsoft Office. They do occasionally involves themselves in politics, for example promoting protests for the National Day of Action in response to fee deregulation. But this was a response to political events that directly threaten the quality of student life. Indeed all of their actions centre around improving UWA life, usually through fun, food and discounts.
There is one big exception: the annual, dreaded, Guild elections. In all other contexts, I celebrate a blatant display of democracy, but in this case, the word ‘democracy’ is the very problem. Guild is not a political body. Although campaigns are based on ‘what we [Guild] will do for you [students]’ and steer clear of any blatant political agenda, it is all too easy to affiliate the aims of each party with a right- or left- wing stance (and often a specific political party), and subsequently vote for the party that best fits our political beliefs. It’s how voting always works in Australia, so it’s inevitable that we vote in the Guild elections in the same way we would at a federal or state level. What is also inevitable is that the students who make up the Guild’s parties also have their own political stance, that all party members will likely hold similar beliefs, and that they will act in accordance with these views.
We cannot forget our own influence in all this – most Guild voters are of voting age and so must necessarily have some form of political opinion. By being voted in on policies that inevitably relate to a certain political stance, the reigning Guild party supposedly represents the broad political view of the majority of UWA students. Obviously, it is impossible for Guild to represent everyone constantly – “I can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but I cannot please all the people all of the time” (Abraham Lincoln) – but theoretically voting is the best way to satisfy the most students.
This does not mean that Guild should become overtly political. Its job is to help students, not to get involved in external politics. Even the Guild involving itself with external politics that relate to university can be controversial – not everyone agrees that university fees should or shouldn’t be deregulated, and it is perhaps not the Guild’s place to say who is correct. In these cases, the Guild must decide whether to help both sides equally, or follow the majority opinion of the university cohort, if they act at all. The Guild represents all students at university, and there are over 20,000 Guild members. That means we have an extremely diverse range of views and political standpoints represented. If the Guild did openly adopt one political stance, it would ostracise anyone not in support of that stance, thus undermining the whole point of Guild – to represent all students.
The flip side is that the Guild is made up of thinking and feeling students on the same level as those they represent, all of whom have as much of a political opinion as we do. It would be unfair to disallow them their opinions, or abilities to influence action on areas they regard as important – things like food prices, university fees, or facilities. Even if Guild representatives all share a broad standpoint, political history shows that diversity is always superior to a majority opinion when arriving at decisions representative of all voters. To this end, I see nothing wrong in allowing party members to have a political opinion, so long as it does not interfere with their job of representing all students fairly. While this might seem impossible, consider a panel of judges in a courtroom – impartiality can rule.
Everything is based on political ideology, even something as simple as how much we should pay for food at the Ref. External politics will influence the Guild, but that doesn’t mean party members shouldn’t hold their own opinions and be educated on these opinions, or that the Guild should not be elected by students in terms of who appeals to their values more. If there has to be a political element to Guild (and if only for the benefit of the voting process, there does), then it makes sense for that political element to represent the majority view of UWA students, so long as they do not discount the wellbeing of everyone else in the process. The Guild must remember that it is not a political party running a government. It is a student body aimed at making the life of all students better.
Words by Kate Oatley