Democracy, secrecy and the RMIT student union
Democracy, secrecy and the RMIT student union)

The right to attend meetings, to speak in them, and to read the minutes. They’re hardly the most radical demands. But they are causing a student politics skirmish at RMIT university, where left-wing students are campaigning to democratise the Labor Right-dominated student union, RUSU.

Student Voice is the name of a campaign that is intended to drive democratic changes to the student union, as well as to create a new Social Justice department that could spearhead campaigns around questions such as racism and climate change. The campaign is focusing on an upcoming Special General Meeting, at which ordinary RMIT students can vote on changes to the student union’s constitution. At that meeting, set for September 7th, motions will be considered that, if they’re passed, would enshrine democratic rights that could go some way to holding the incumbent Labor Right faction to account. And, unsurprisingly, the Labor Right are fighting back.

RMIT’s student union has long been Victoria’s bastion of the student wing of Labor’s Right faction, known as Student Unity. Distinguished by their refusal to print posters that call for anything “radical”—free education, for example—and by their hostility to student protest or any form of activism that would inconvenience university management, Student Unity presides over a multi-million dollar student union, which they run as a factional fiefdom. To attend meetings of their elected representatives on the student union’s council, students have to email the general secretary to gain permission. If they are lucky enough to be granted that, they have no constitutional right to speak, even to ask questions of their representatives. Prior to being challenged by Student Voice members, the general secretary was implementing their own extra made-up, unconstitutional rule, requiring students to email 10 days prior to the meeting to even be considered for attendance rights. And before the development of the Student Voice campaign, there was little information about students council meetings on the union website: just a record of who attended and when. No information about what they did, how they voted, what they argued, or when they would next meet. So good luck finding out when the meetings are, what they’re about, whether you can attend, and what the student union is doing.

At a recent RUSU annual general meeting, Student Voice submitted a motion affirming the union’s commitment to democracy and student participation in the union. This motion passed, with the president of the union even speaking for the motion. But that support rings hollow. Akshay Jose, the president of RUSU, is the star of a new YouTube video instructing students on how to vote for motions at the upcoming special meeting. When he got to motion 3—the motion put by Student Voice enshrining students’ right to attend and participate—Akshay instructs students to vote “no”. After saying the motion isn’t supported by the student union, a big vote no graphic flashes on the screen. There is no explanation of what the motions are, or that two members of the students council, members of Socialist Alternative, in fact do support the motions. This video was posted to the official RUSU YouTube account, and the RUSU Facebook page. Alongside the video, members of Student Unity have also launched an anti-democracy Facebook page that has posted graphics likening a new Social Justice office to a dark puppet master that will control students at RMIT.

It's sad, but not surprising, that this is the response of the Labor Right to a campaign that is merely calling for the right to attend and speak in meetings, and for minutes of the meetings to be posted on to the website, and for an activist office dedicated to taking up important issues. This group of “student representatives” aren’t concerned with democracy. They prefer tightly controlled student unions they can use to build their careers, to network, and to use as a source of paid positions and titles to dole out to their faction members.

The Student Voice campaign will go to the upcoming meeting and make arguments for an open and activist student union. Any student at RMIT is able to attend the SGM and we implore all RMIT students to come along (register here) and support the motions for democracy and a social justice department at RMIT.

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