QUT Glass contacted the two presidential candidates of Left Action and REACH in order to help students understand more about the candidates, their party, election promises and experiences.
The following Q&A is with Left Action Presidential Candidate, Sel Dowd.
How are Left Action planning to support international students in 2022 in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 situation?
Left Action believes in fighting for free education for all. It’s a travesty that universities in Australia get away with charging international students three times the fees, to sit in the same classes as domestic students and do the same assignments. As well, as long as QUT continues to have online classes, all students should get a fee reduction. Ultimately, there’s a lot of money in this country: tens of billions of dollars are spent every year on subsidies to fossil fuel companies, and on the defence industry to kill people overseas. We should fight to take that money and use it on social goods like providing free education for all, healthcare and housing.
How will you as president address the growing student discontent with the move to online learning content?
Unis use online content as an excuse to sack staff. Everything a staff member uploads to Blackboard is the copyright of QUT: the lesson plans, the recorded lectures, the reading lists. QUT has clearly used the online learning from last year, done during lockdowns that were necessary to stop the spread of covid, to undermine staff conditions into the future. A spokesperson for QUT even said that they were reusing the content made by a dead lecturer “with affection and pride”! We should beat back the lies that online content is more flexible and thus accessible: if this uni cared about accessibility, they’d be renovating both campuses properly, rehiring the free counsellors they sacked, and reducing fees so that more people could study. Unis that claim to be accessible by having online learning are just using woke-sounding excuses to degrade our education and cut costs.
We should continue to organise in our numbers against the QUT administration’s push to online learning, and fight for fee reductions too. The protests this year are a good start, and thanks to the effort of our grassroots campaign, students know about and hate #girlboss Margaret Sheil with her $1.2 million salary and $10 million private bathroom.
To fight recycled online content, we need to have a protest strategy. Negotiating and having a seat at the table to “work together” means nothing good for staff or students. Reach has bragged to students about how much they have achieved through lobbying. But lobbying is an exclusive and elitist strategy: by necessity, only a few students – either self-appointed or selected by the management – get invited to meetings with the top brass of QUT. In such a situation, there’s no pressure on the management to not sack staff and cut courses. Our power is in our numbers: it’s the staff that make this uni run, and the students who pay the fees. When we organise to collectively resist the management’s plans, we can expose their grubby agenda to even more people, humiliate them in the media and put real pressure on them to do what we want. Students have always had to fight to have a say over how we learn and what we learn; we had to fight to establish things like gender and race studies, sexual health clinics and information on campus, and more. Our rights won’t be handed down from the millionaires who run this uni out of the kindness of their hearts, we need to fight back.
What do you see as the key issues facing the QUT student body?
The management of QUT want to run this uni like a business. To win a quality education, students will need to confront the administration and expose their cost-cutting agenda. Just one example is the abolishing of the Dance Performance degree, the only publicly-funded contemporary dance program in Queensland. Now students will have to pay thousands of dollars upfront to study at private institutions, or move out of state. This was first revealed at the Semester One speakout that Left Action activists organised. Which degree will be next on the chopping block? We need to be aware that the management aren’t our friends, and be ready to fight back.
More generally, there are a lot of things we want to fight for, such as climate justice, against racism and for important public health measures to save lives during the pandemic. The Reach candidates campaigning this week have emphasised to students that none of this is achievable, by the Guild anyway. That’s federal policy, that’s just too big and impossible. Well not for us: we think student unions absolutely have a role to play fighting for progressive demands in broader society. One example in recent history is the case of Dr. Bisawjit Banik, his partner Sarmin Sayeed and their 12 year old son Arko. Dr Banik was employed at Monash University in 2016 when his family was told they would be deported because Arko’s autism made him “a burden on the Australian health system”. Activists in the Monash Uni Student Union, the NTEU staff union and others leapt into action, organising a 200-strong solidarity photo, an open letter signed by 300+ academics across Australia and other actions. Their campaign attracted national media attention and as a result, Dr Banik and his family were granted permanent residency. We are so often told that there’s no point protesting; no point taking a stand. This small victory shows what can happen when student unions, trade unions and left wing people throw themselves into activity.
What roles are Left Action contesting at this years’ election?
The main positions we are trying to win are NUS delegates, and our candidates are Veronica Palk and Declan Kerr. When leftwing activists get more delegates and more representation in the National Union of Students, it’s good for leftwing activism across the country.
When the Liberals attacked students in 2014, the National Union of Students mobilised a national campaign of mass demonstrations throughout the year until the Senate was forced to vote down the bill cutting uni funding and raising fees.
Last year when the Liberals wanted to double the fees of some students and cut uni funding by more than $700 million, the NUS Education Officer, Lincoln Aspinall did almost nothing. Lincoln is a member of the Grassroots Independents faction in NUS, the same faction that Reach candidate, Olivia Brumm belongs to. Over the course of the year Lincoln shared five posts on his personal Facebook page that related to protests, and many, many more about lobbying right wing crossbench politicians like Pauline Hanson. The lobbying didn’t work, the protests weren’t built as effectively and the fee hikes and funding cuts were passed.
Apart from the Grassroots Independents, the other dominant players in NUS are student factions that are officially linked to the Labor Party; Reach candidate Sarah Balmer belongs to one such group, the Labor Right faction, called Unity. National roles in NUS are generally given to Unity’s leading organisers, and they use NUS to be a passive cheerleader body for the ALP.
This year, the Liberals attacked students by announcing a cut to university funding of almost 10%. The response from the Labor Left NUS President was a single Facebook post. Students have been left to fight on their individual campuses. Electing radical, left-wing activists to the National Union of Students would mean we could run a national campaign against attacks on students at every level, from the Federal Budget to course cuts.
What goals does Left Action have for the Student Guild in 2022 and beyond?
Student unions are crucial to effective student campaigns. They provide political authority, financial resources and can link up to a national structure of affiliated unions that can reach and influence thousands of students. Left Action would like to see the Guild stop being a body that sucks up to the QUT management, and instead work like a real union, fighting the bosses for the rights of its members.
This will be made more difficult by the fact that the Reach officers changed the Guild constitution in 2021, to set up a Board of Directors that will give nonstudents control over student affairs. They also established that one of the new aims of the Guild will be “to promote the interests of the University”. As I have outlined, I think that staff and students have counterposed interests to the university management: we want good quality education and we want our teachers to be well-paid to deliver it, and the management wants to cut costs as much as possible by sacking staff and pushing our classes online. Still, Left Action activists will keep trying to organise a fightback, with or without the Guild’s help.
How can the Guild increase student engagement at QUT, including in Guild elections?
During the campaigning week, a tiny minority of students had a chance to speak to campaigners and hear from them about what the Guild should do next year. If the elections were earlier in the semester and campaigning was allowed during the voting week, more students would be likely to find out about the elections and hear from the candidates running. More broadly, I think if the Guild was more involved in activism, more students would know of the Guild and what it does. Many students I spoke to during campaigning had either not heard of the Guild or had no idea what it was. If the Guild spent the year putting out petitions, putting on open forums about education attacks and what the Guild is doing about them, organising protests that criticise the QUT administration, plastering both campuses with posters for the next leftwing rallies that the Guild had endorsed, I think this would make the Guild more relevant to students. This is what Left Action activists have done all year, and we think we can involve even more students if we had the resources and money of the Guild to devote to activist campaigns.
Why do you believe you are a good candidate for the position of President?
I’m a committed anticapitalist activist who would use the Guild resources to do basic union things: to educate students on their rights and how we can fight for a better world, to organise students to act and to agitate for more resistance. Students face problems that are bigger than our campus, like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The Guild should use its resources to be a progressive voice in broader society, standing up for students and all the oppressed. If the Guild sent an email to all students about the next climate strike, or protest for refugee rights, or rally against staff sackings, that would make a big difference for activism in Brisbane. This is just one of the many things the Guild could do if there were radical activists using its resources.
What do you see as the key issues this election?
In this election, many people are talking about the education cuts. Reach candidates claim they are leftwing and progressive. It’s true, they came to some of the protests that we organised this year. But they did not hand out a single leaflet, or put up a single poster. We did the hard work of getting the word out about these protests and talking to students about why they should be involved. This meant getting up early to hand out leaflets at bus stops as students came to class, this meant using our own money for this printing, this meant putting up posters wherever we could off-campus after QUT security threatened us for postering on campus. When Kate Green, our Education Officer candidate, first approached the Reach officers in the Guild to back the staff petition protest in Semester Two, we got told “we don’t do that kind of thing”. In the few days beforehand, the Guild FB page finally made one post about it. I’m proud of the work we did in the anti-cuts campaign, but I want to build a movement that can defeat the management’s agenda and win. We need more resources and more people in this fight. The real difference between Reach and Left Action is that we take the initiative fighting for student and staff rights, and we’re not afraid to stand in a minority. We know the QUT management are our enemy, they’re the ones who have been sacking staff and increasing our fees! We want to fight the executives, not collaborate with them. We know we have big and powerful enemies, and that we will need mass, collective fightbacks to win. But we’re determined to take a stand and try and fight anyway. When you don’t fight, you lose.
Do you believe QUT is currently a safe space for women and LGBTQI+ students? And if not, what will you do as president to address this?
A Left Action Guild will be a voice to fight for the rights of all groups oppressed in our society. That means the Guild actively taking a stand on those issues that affect women and queer students, like the religious discrimination bill. Drafted by the LNP, it will be the biggest attack on women’s and LGBTI rights in years. Right now teachers and students can be sacked and expelled from religious schools for being LGBT; Scomo wants to expand these rights to even more bosses and institutions. It would enshrine the right for bosses to be bigots and to refuse service to those whose “lifestyles” they disagree with. It would give the most powerful people in our society a right to discriminate with impunity. Under previous versions of the bill, employers could criticise their employees for being unmarried, divorced or single mothers, and charities could refuse help to vulnerable people because of their sexuality. If this bill was passed, bigots all over Australia would be emboldened and given more confidence to spread their filth. Scomo and his cronies are happy that they are not receiving much scrutiny for this bill, but we need to turn this situation around. Left Action will be promoting and postering for an upcoming rally against this bill, on November 27: https://www.facebook.com/events/936108627252612
Left Action aren’t contesting every position in the SRC. If elected president, how will you deal with a divided student Guild? Are you excited by the prospect of a more diverse Student Guild?
It’s unfortunate that the current Guild regulations are largely based on first past the post voting, which excludes smaller student groups from winning representation. Voting Left Action is a vote to hold Reach accountable, when last year nobody but Reach was in the Guild and their 14 officers voted to change the constitution of the student body that represents 50,000 students.