The Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) website states that “online referenda are one of the many ways you can have your say through OUSA … on university policy or a wider issue, you can change OUSA’s stance.”
This explanation, on top of the fact that direct democracy of this type provides clear insight into the stances and actions that voters believe the association should hold or pursue, provides little wiggle room to dodge action when results show clear preference one way or another.
As they chose to in the most recent referendum (held almost two months ago now), the OUSA Executive, through their Constitution, is allowed to “at any time call for a non-binding Referendum ... in order to gauge student opinion.”
The reasons for the most recent referendum being a non-binding one, according to Admin VP William Guy, is that, firstly, they “believed the Executive would still be accountable to the student body irregardless of the outcome [and] secondly, we anticipated a close result (which was evidenced by a number of the results) and on these issues it was best to look at the bigger picture and make decisions at an executive level.”
Several of the most important questions were very close indeed, and showed no clear mandate to pursue one over another, and where that has happened President Hugh Baird has spoken of the need to present the concerns of each side of each argument to the relevant body, organisation or council.
For example, for the question about whether OUSA should lobby the university to cease development of a new animal research facility, 3713 votes returned a ‘yes’ vote of 50.69 and a ‘no’ vote of 49.31 percent. Because of this, OUSA has arranged meetings with the head of the Otago Animal Legal Defence Fund and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise Professor Richard Blakie to discuss how best “student input and consultation surrounding the Animal Testing Facility” can occur.
Likewise, the approve/oppose question in relation to the rollout of the university’s CCTV cameras to cover North Dunedin had a 51-49 percent split, and as a result the association is “currently working with the University through a period of consultation to take submissions from students on their concerns surrounding the CCTV cameras in the residential area.”
However, on questions where following through on the results would show a clearly favourable ideological path, the action seems far from immediate or robust.
For example, 71 percent want to see OUSA directly ask the Tertiary Education Minister to, “Commit to wipe all student loan debt by 2025 and make University attendance free within five years”. It is far-fetched to think that this would be successful in eliminating the burden of student loan debt, but we were told that it’s “best to look at the bigger picture and make decisions at an Executive level” for close results, and 70 percent is far from close?
Another question, whether the association should support a change of government at the upcoming September election, received a 55-45 percent vote in favour of the move.
What’s more is that although the Executive pledged in their 13 March 2017 meeting not to support any particular political party in the election, they have said on many separate occasions that they will pledge support for particular policies of any party that are beneficial to the students they are representing.
I would argue there is an obligation on the elected Executive members to promote such policies regardless of the referendum result, but with the Brexit vote being accepted with a smaller percentage margin, it provides another push in that direction.
The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations does and will continue to provide public backing and promotion of the policies that best pursue the student interest, and until OUSA does the same you’ll have to make do.
Throughout my time at the University of Otago, OUSA has transitioned from an association that wore its political heart on its sleeve (I’m thinking Francisco Hernandez’s political nous, or Logan Edgar locking himself in a cage on the Union Lawn to protest the introduction of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM)) to a mute shell of its former self. Whether we’re pre-VSM or post-VSM, we’re being short-changed if the same association that once provided political advocacy in the student interest on a national scale is now just providing us with a few parties and free breakfasts and then twiddling its thumbs as student-debt sky-rockets, student living-costs fail to keep up with inflation, and the property ladder becomes increasingly inaccessible. It’s too late for OUSA to meaningfully affect (or even attempt to affect) my current post-university days, but it’s not too late for you.