Soapbox - 18

‘Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong.’ - Richard Armour

Last week I found myself pulled from my nerdy life as a PhD student into the joyful arms of student politics. Two years ago myself and others worked for over a year to get a Queer rep onto the OUSA Exec. We eventually succeeded, and now that position, along with women’s rep and Pacific Island rep, have been disestablished due to the last weeks referendum, (at the time of writing this the appeals process is still open).
On Thursday 22nd July the results came out regarding the referendum for downsizing the exec and the related constitution changes…yes you weren’t just voting on a downsize, but a raft of changes. The yes vote won, although as I write the decision is provisional. We, as students, have lost at least 3 representatives with full voting rights, who were in paid positions supporting the welfare and education of students on campus. As I gathered with friends at the bar I realised I was at a funeral, one I had hoped never to attend. 
I’m left with some real concern for all students at Otago University.
Women, queer people, the Pacific Island community and to a lesser extent Maori (as Maori will have an arrangement with the exec) have all been solely relegated to the welfare committee. 
In my opinion, if there is to be a committee structure, minority reps should be on all the committees. Welfare is not the only concern for these students; there are issues for education, clubs, campaigns and policies that directly affect all the above-mentioned groups. Now queer people, women and PI students have no say, or very little say. Talk to any queer student and they will tell you about bullying and discrimination that happens on campus. Courses offered at university are often heteronormative, and queer students maybe joked about in tutorials and classes, struggle to find accommodation or even walk through campus and feel safe. Women, although in the majority in terms of student numbers, are still more likely to be victims of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and once they leave university are paid less than men. These are not just welfare issues; these are issues that affect the learning ability of students, the safety of all students on campus and the educational outcomes of Otago University.
I’m concerned about the minority groups who have had their voting position and representational duties stripped from them. Some members of the exec will argue that there is now more room for representatives at the sub-committee level, that the representatives will feed their concerns up through the welfare officer to the exec. Sounds wonderful, truly if I believed it was this easy and this transparent I would applaud the exec for such a wonderful idea. 
But here are some thoughts:
Firstly, there's no guarantee of representation -the reps are not enshrined in the constitution, therefore anyone in the future could come along and ignore policy and suddenly…no reps; if no one applies to be a rep one year, again... no rep. 
Secondly, I’m concerned that the committee will be an unsafe space for minorities and for the welfare officer. Why? The welfare group will comprise of unpaid volunteers with little or no training on effective communication and with no supervision. All these people will be trying to voice their constituent’s views. As yet it is not clear if decisions are to be made by a vote, consensus or each week a rep gets to put concerns forward. I’m getting a headache just thinking about the situation. 
Minority groups are now expected to fight among themselves to get all their concerns addressed. And the welfare officer, (who is unlikely to be trained in facilitation) has the unenviable task of trying to listen to all these voices. The end result is a mess that will see minority groups ignored, disenfranchised, and quite possibly in emotionally and physically unsafe meetings. 
On top of all this the referendum was a mess. I am irked by the disingenuous way OUSA, and some members of the exec, approached the advertising and ‘open debate’ throughout the referendum week. Due to my reservations about the exec changes I have been amazed at the accusations hurled at me from some exec members. It seems that I am against the entire working party report, scared of change, a member of ISO (no offence intended to ISO), and that I was ‘let in pre limited entry’ (see presidents column Critic 16). 
I was also surprised to find that OUSA, who apparently represent all students, was telling me to vote yes in the referendum. The president's twitter, published on the front page of the OUSA website, even stated ‘Vote vote vote vote yes vote vote vote’. 
Why couldn’t the exec have a number of questions so that students could adequately state their views? 
Why isn’t there a section in the constitution that discusses the ethics of running a referendum? 
And why is it that the minorities have lost out…again?
If anything, there needs to be a re-write of the constitution to make sure such a debacle never happens again and that all sides of the argument are heard in a safe, ethical and open manner.  
OUSA claims to be inclusive, responsible, engaging and relevant, read the beginning of the working party report. The current exec need to swallow their pride, and in some cases their arrogance, and listen to what minority students are telling them: to become strong, inclusive and engaging, to drop the bullying techniques and political spin, and to help make a university that encourages everyone to have a voice. 
I challenge the current exec and OUSA to celebrate and support diversity on campus and to show that Otago University isn’t, in the words of our current pres, an organisation resistant to change. 

Posted 2:11am Monday 9th August 2010 by Louise Pearman.