The UWA Guild Council last month voted in support for the introduction of CCTV cameras in the university tavern. Guild Treasurer and Chair of the Catering and Tavern Committee Tom Burke initiated a motion opposing the introduction at the fifth Guild Meeting in May, from which followed a robust debate for and against the surveillance technology from a round table of student council members. The motion passed with 16 votes for and 4 against.

A use and access policy – which would dictate who has access to the footage – has yet to be developed. The motion however is written in such a way as to ensure that Guild approval of the cameras will be subject to the implementation of this policy.

The initial quote estimate for cameras to be installed in the courtyard, main floor, mezzanine and bar area sits at $6,000. Costs are yet to be factored under any budget line.

Addressing the council first, Burke argued that the presence of CCTV cameras was inimical to a comfortable, casual student atmosphere and environment. Whilst the tavern is in legal terms identical to any other liquor-licenced venue, surveillance cameras can be seen to be another extension of ‘uni-corp’ control.

Opponents also argued the introduction may serve as a precedent to other surveillance and control measures being implemented around campus. This can be perceived as a risk to the university making the slide into a self-regulatory, inhibitive, ‘freedom-from’ space. In other words, a space non-conducive and ill-aligned to the liberal principles universities typically espouse.

Also sceptical, Pride Officer Reece Gherardi made the salient point that queer students – particularly those still in the stages of ‘coming out’ – may be deterred from attending tav-hosted Pride Events if they knew they were being recorded.

Yet despite the valid points put forward by anti-CCTV members, the strongest cases arguably came from those in support of the cameras.

Of note was that put forward by PAC President Megan Lee, who effectively flipped the original defence of ‘freedom’ on its head. So-called ‘student culture’, she asserted, is too often exploited as a euphemism for students – white male students in particular – to get away with just about anything. The championing of areas like the tav as a place where students can relax and feel at ease is routinely used as a strategy by which dominant groups can assert their privilege, patrol social borders, and justify inappropriate or harmful behaviour. Gender Studies may have be abolished; but surely the ‘boys will be boys’ motto doesn’t endure? If female patrons are less likely to be groped in a corner, perhaps CCTV isn’t such a bad idea.

Even typically left-leaning Environmental Officer Dennis Venning came down on the more conservative pro-CCTV side of the debate.

“I’ve read 1984 and read Foucault. I’ve been to London and I hate looking up and seeing those lenses—it’s such an awful power relationship, being watched without knowing your watcher,” he acknowledged in a direct statement to Pelican Magazine. “But as much as loud white guys like myself might not want our pants-dropping during “Eagle Rock” to be recorded, that cultural moment ultimately isn’t as important as giving someone in a position of vulnerability the support that allows them to speak out against violence.”

Yet the standout advocate was Tavern Manager Hayden Greenham, who had been called in last-minute to present his views. Despite being unprepared for a full table of attendant listeners, he spoke eloquently, and with insight borne from years of experience.

The function of the cameras was to serve primarily as a form of protection – for patrons and for staff, he argued. Not only are they are a deterrent against acts of violence and theft, but CCTV evidence can be pivotal when and if a prosecution case is brought to court. Greenham cited an example from his own working history, in which he used minimal force to defend himself against an intoxicated patron who had swung at him with a glass in a regional bar. The next morning, Greenham found himself faced with a charge of assault. With the man’s friends colluding with his story as witnesses, it was only the footage which became incontrovertible proof of how and from whom the violence had initiated. As a direct result, Greenham was cleared of the charge, thereby avoiding a blighted record, financial penalty, and the inevitable damage to his career, livelihood and wellbeing a false conviction would have carried.

Under the Liquor Control Act 1988 which governs WA’s laws surrounding the supply and use of alcohol, the maximum penalty a licensee or manager can face for supplying alcohol to underage or intoxicated drinkers on a licensed premise is a $10,000 fine. For employees, the maximum penalty fine is $4,000.   

The cameras would be there, Greenham stated “not to see students skull a schooner, but to protect myself from prosecution”.

Yet, that the CCTV motion went ahead without a use and access policy being designed either prior or in tandem to it was concerning to several council members. These members remained largely unsatisfied with reassurances that access to the footage would be “most likely” restricted to the tavern manager. The exception to this would of course be in the event of a charge being made, whereupon select recordings would be made public before a court.

Mildly troubling. But more troubling to the majority council was the idea that – should they delay in their approval – CCTV may be at some unanticipated point made mandatory by law. In that event, it could well be UWA Security which has sole power of viewing, Guild Director Tony Goodman warned. Whilst the likelihood and timeline of such new laws is uncertain, acting now would doubtless ensure the cameras are administered on the Guild’s own terms.

In the end, the power of surveillance technology inheres in its capacity to regulate behaviour. This regulation can operate and be viewed both positively (disciplining the otherwise violent) and negatively (moderating the innocently uninhibited). With its contradictory effects, determining the usefulness of CCTV can be an equation which frustrates any certain conclusion.

But after all, did we really expect to be held separate and ‘special’ to every other licensed venue in Perth? And, as several friends have since said, mildly surprised: “What? We don’t have it already?”

Much, it is predicted, will be weighted upon how that use and access policy will be schemed out.

Words by Kate Prendergast