In this year’s Official Salient Presidential Debate, Salient Feature Writer and Political Reporter Rob Addison talks with Victoria presidential candidates Geoff Hayward, Lukas Schroeter and Joel Cosgrove on Voluntary Student Membership, the A-Team’s proposal to cut the student levy and reduce student funding and what Victoria University may become if they were president.
LAST Wednesday afternoon I sat down with the three candidates for the VUWSA presidential election, to adjudicate the official Salient presidential debate. Armed with only a voice recorder to defend me from the ensuing war of words, it soon became clear that this year’s presidential election was going to be quite different from all the prior elections.
This year’s candidates have set this election alight. Joel, a devoted campaigner for student issues, claims to be the most experienced candidate. As a member of the far left Workers’ Party, Joel makes no secret of his political ties, saying that his party backs his candidacy with pride. On the other hand, Geoff, the current VUWSA President, takes a more moderate standpoint. As a member of Young Labour, he has worked hard to improve the relationship between VUWSA and the students. While Geoff is a popular President, he is no position to rest on his laurels yet. Finally, there’s newcomer Lukas. As leader of the now-notorious A-Team, Lukas’s brand of politics is typically associated with the far right – although this is a link that he denies. Having led a professional and smart on-campus campaign, Lukas and the A-Team have managed to inject a sense of spirit and importance to this election that has been dearly missed from student politics. Quite frankly, if there were ever a student election in which to vote, it would be this one.
Salient: Geoff, what have been your achievements this year as President?
Geoff: I can honestly say we can back a balanced budget. But also re-engaging with our key groups again and rep groups are certainly an important part of that. But also, working with the larger associations as well – working with our fellow associations across the country as part of NZUSA.
Salient: Lukas, what have you thought of Geoff’s presidency?
Lukas: I think it can be summed up in a few words: slack leadership this year.
Salient: Joel, same to you – how has Geoff been as President?
Joel: I think really what you’re seeing is the fruits of Nick Kelly’s presidency from last year. And you look at that in terms of the achievements, and I played a key role in that. And the finances: that was something myself, Nick [Kelly] and Alexander Neilson really played a key role in. The groundwork was really set last year.
Salient: Lukas, what are the major issues that students will be facing next year on campus?
Lukas: I think the big issue facing students will be educational quality. Students have to borrow a huge amount to study at Vic and they have to know that when they leave, they’ll have a degree that is in demand because they come from a top-class university. Now, jumping around the country, urinating on pavements, defacing the Students’ Association, nobody ever holding anyone – diminishes the reputation of Victoria and the quality of our degrees, and we see that when the antics of this year’s Executive have been planted all over this country’s newspapers and radio stations repeatedly, and it’s embarrassing. One policy we have in particular is to make sure that lecture evaluations are published for all years, not just first year students. We need vibrant clubs, and we’re going to support them to do that. Clubs won’t have to affiliate anymore and go through all the bureaucracy attached to that, but every student will get a $25 refund and we will focusing on obtaining more sponsorship income from outside of university, and that means that clubs won’t be affected but we’ll have a more vibrant environment and an association that students can be proud of. We’ll do a survey next year of all students and we’ll pledge to achieve the three top issues that the students bring up. The bus is another issue, and our Environment Officer will be fighting to get students better access for less money to buses.
Salient: On the subject of the $25 refund – what are the details of that?
Lukas: If you look at our budget you’ll see exactly where we’re going to make savings to be able to afford that, and we’ll give every full time student a $25 refund on their levy. It’s completely do-able, enough money is there, and there are no legal issues. There’s been some rumours that it’s legally not possible but those are rubbish. What the incorporated society prohibits is profits from businesses that are run by incorporated societies being paid out to its members at dividends.
Joel: There are constitutional requirements on where that money goes. The building levy is not VUWSA money, it is students’ money that goes into the VUWSA Trust for the building fund. The idea being put forward is the $50 million Campus Hub Programme – that’s $280,000 that they can’t legally touch because it’s not VUWSA money, [and they then need to give] $80,000 to NZUSA but they need to give a year to pull out. If we pulled out this year, we’d still have to pay next year’s levies. They know about it but they’re still putting it forward.
Lukas: I guess Joel hasn’t read our budget because we’re not pulling out of the NZUSA and we haven’t affected their money at all.
Salient: So is the A-Team planning on pulling out of NZUSA next year?
Lukas: We’ve not budgeted to pull out of NZUSA next year; we’re going to review the relationship.
Salient: Is the A-Team planning on cutting any funding at all?
Lukas: Yes, that’s how we’re affording the refund. In regard to the VUWSA Trust payment, we’re going to change the constitution to make it possible for us not to pay that. We don’t think it’s fair that we have a trust which has over $5 million with no concrete building projects to spend that money on. We’re going to reduce clubs’ funding and rep group funding to zero. We don’t think it’s fair that all students have to pay for clubs and rep groups when most students choose not to be members of clubs and when most students can’t even be members of a rep group because membership is exclusive to fitting a certain criteria.
Joel: Like being disabled. Can-Do is a rep group for disabled students, we provide them with funds to advocate and we provide them with support. And I’m quite happy to put a few extra bucks into that to make sure that disabled students don’t have a hard time at university. Queer students are four times more likely to commit suicide because of all the stress of coming out and we’ve got to be up there to back them up. I’m happy to provide a group to support queer students and lessen the chance of suicide. One of the things that VUWSA does is make sure that clubs are on a level playing field; that their accounts make sense and are accurate, and that students who are putting money into these clubs are getting a good deal out of it and aren’t losing money, which is where Lukas wants to go back to.
Salient: So Lukas, do you realise that these organisations may very well just disappear?
Lukas: It’s certainly not our objective that they disappear. As we’ve said, we’re giving students a refund, they can give it to their rep group or their club and we’re going to be encouraging them to do that.
Geoff: I believe quite firmly that we’ve got to support minorities and I also believe that clubs are in the same boat as well. We, as a group, can fund those groups where clubs and rep groups can not fund those groups elsewhere. And what the A-Team is proposing is to strangle them fiscally so they’ll never be able to survive. The solution isn’t about less money; it’s about more money. My presidency is about trying to focus that money on clubs and also to the rep groups.
Lukas: so you’ll be raising the levy again by $5 per student next year, Geoff?
Geoff: That’s the real costs of students. It’s negligible compared with the $40 fine that you’re going to give students when they receive their $25 cheque. So when they receive their $25 cheque, they’re going to have to fork out over that and the $15 back to the government. They won’t actually receive that rebate – that’ll just go straight to their student loans.
Salient: Now, moving on slightly… Lukas, will redundancies be downstairs if you are made President?
Lukas: We haven’t touched anything that has come to staff.
Salient: Don’t you think you should have?
Lukas: Of course not.
Salient: It seems fairly likely that, under an A-Team Executive, there would be redundancies, doesn’t it?
Lukas: None of our cuts to funds affect any staff salaries. In the VUWSA budget, there’s a section on staff salaries. We’ve stayed well clear of that; we’re not affecting staff salaries or staff incomes.
Geoff: So you’re going to have someone sitting there for 40 hours per week doing nothing. And without the subsidies and the support that VUWSA gives in so many different ways, there will be no Victoria Team [to enter the University Games]. I’m sure the A-Team’s principle is that you shouldn’t be subsidising anything in principle, and perhaps that means we should be going back to $90 tickets for O-Week.
Salient: Lukas, how much funding is the A-Team expecting to cut?
Lukas: It’s going to be about $512,000.
Salient: Okay, I now want to go on to Geoff. What are your policies for 2008?
Geoff: My policies are quite simple. When it comes to clubs and rep groups, less money’s not the solution, more money is. And I’d like to see a focus on clubs and rep groups. I’m not asking for an extended increase above what is already constitutionally set in terms of the levy. I think we can look at being modest in our approach with sponsors in terms of helping out these groups. The other part is that it doesn’t matter if you elect me in or somebody else in. You can elect one bunch of muppets or another bunch of muppets. The thing is it’s a cultural shift that needs to be required at VUWSA and part of that is to fix the constitution.
Salient: Lukas, I want to talk about the code of conduct that the A-Team has proposed.
Lukas: It’s the basic principles of being accountable on the exec – how you spend money, financial policy, those kinds of things.
Salient: Can you give me any more detail than that?
Lukas: I don’t think it needs to be much more complicated than that.
Salient: Do you have a draft code of conduct, or have you just proposed the idea of setting one up?
Lukas: We have the draft meetings of a code of conduct; we don’t have one that’s ready yet.
Salient: So you don’t have a code, you’ve just been talking about it.
Lukas: We have a draft code of conduct. But if one of the members of our Exec misbehaves like the ones this year, they will be accountable. We’ll call a Special General Meeting, we’ll go to students and we’ll say, ‘sack the person, or sack us’.
Geoff: The thing is though, you can already do that. The second part is that you should be very careful to empower the president with the power of firing students. But when the president is asked by the media to defend the actions of the executive, there’s an expectation on the president themselves to go and discipline the executive.
Salient: Shouldn’t there be an expectation to do that?
Geoff: The constitution has deferred that responsibility to either the students themselves or to the university.
Salient: So Geoff, you as president, take no responsibility for the psychic hotline incident or the defacing of the Student Union by members of the Executive earlier this year?
Geoff: I’m President of the Association, not President of the Executive.
Lukas: This is why I’ll be a real president for the students next year. You don’t defend, justify and defend actions like what happened this year.
Salient: So how can we reverse the perception that student politicians abuse their positions?
Joel: That’s up to the people elected themselves – no one else can control that.
Salient: But the fact of the matter is that those incidents earlier in the year should not have happened. But you seem to be excusing it.
Joel: We got the money back – $6000, but everything else has been the personal decisions of people. That’s their call essentially.
Geoff: I think every person should be personally responsible.
Salient: Lukas, how do you think we can change the perception that Executive members abuse their positions?
Lukas: The biggest way is with the people you elect.
Joel: I’ve had law students state that Lukas Schroeter has questioned that illiterate shouldn’t be affected under the Contracts Act. There have been allegations that [A-Team Environment Officer candidate] Cameron Cotter has been racist with his question that Pacific Islanders are let into the country to support the Labour Party.
Geoff: There is this considerable fear of hidden agendas. The A-Team has got a proven track record of wanting to deconstruct VUWSA as quickly as possible.
Lukas: There is no A-Team hidden agenda. We’ve been very open about our personal and political views and we’ve put all our information on our website from day one.
Salient: Joel, what is the future of compulsory student membership under your presidency?
Joel: Voluntary student membership would cost students more. The university will charge an extra $60 on top of the student levy, VUWSA will continue to do what it’s done, it’ll just be heavily constrained in what it can provide.
Geoff: I have commitments to CSM.
Lukas: It’s not an issue for us next year.
Geoff: I charge all of my contenders right now if they can say that as long as they’re members of the Executive, and as long as they’re a VUWSA president, that they will never support or endorse anything other than CSM.
Salient: Joel, I’ll put that to you first.
Joel: Hell yeah!
Lukas: Completely depends. I’m not going to pledge that I’m not going to give students a choice in the future. It’s not on the agenda for next year.
Salient: But is it something you’ve considered?
Lukas: It’s not on the agenda for next year.
Salient: So it’s something that the A-Team has considered.
Lukas: We’ve made a pledge that we’re going to be committed to CSM for next year.
Salient: Would the A-Team organise a referendum on CSM next year?
Lukas: There will not be a referendum next year.
Salient: But you wouldn’t rule out the possibility for following years.
Lukas: I can’t look 100 years into the future.
Salient: How about in two years?
Lukas: The A-Team is standing for next year and there will not be a referendum next year.
Geoff: If we’re going to get unclear language on where the A-Team stands on VSM beyond 2008, I think students should be very worried about that.
Joel: Lukas has got together a team of vandals and racists. Good statements, that’s all their campaign is based on.
Geoff: I’ve made comment comparing the A-Team to the Exclusive Brethren. The questionable budget is basically a half a million dollar bribe.
Salient: Lukas, is the ACT Party involved in your campaign?
Lukas: [Laughs], no.
Salient: Is any party?
Salient: How are you financing your campaign?
Lukas: We’re paying for it by ourselves with overdrafts. My grandma sent me $100, which I’m very grateful for. I’m sure she’ll get a nice Christmas card from me this year.
Salient: Seeing that next year’s president is going to be a man (or at least someone who identifies as one, thank you Joel), how then will you represent women?
Joel: I’ve had close involvement with the women’s group; I’m a gender and women studies student. My policies are free internet and free photocopying – those are broad general policies that will affect everyone. If you look at women, Pacific Island and māori who have less of a disposable incomes, moving away from a direct, overpriced user- pay system will affect them in a large way.
Salient: Lukas, how will your policies represent the interests of women?
Lukas: Our policies are going to represent the interests of students. It means they represent everyone’s interests.
Salient: Lukas, are you opposed to the concept of minority representation?
Lukas: Not at all.
Salient: Can you appreciate that some minorities require distinct representation?
Lukas: Of course.
Salient: So how do you plan to cater for those distinct interests in your campaign?
Lukas: Quite simply – by selecting high quality candidates.
Salient: High quality candidates that can do what for minorities?
Lukas: High quality candidates that get in touch with their constituencies and will work their butts off, if I can use that term.
Joel: Oh, you’re pushing the language barrier.
Salient: Geoff, how are you going to represent minorities?
Geoff: From my personal opinion, I am male. [Lukas laughs hysterically, but Geoff is not amused] And as such, I will never understand the inequities that face women nor the plight that they face everyday. And as such I think I would be arrogant to think that I could lead that charge, and that’s why we have a women’s rights officer and a women’s group.
Salient: How do you plan to represent māori on campus, Geoff?
Geoff: I think it’s the same way as I answered the last question. As far as I can tell, there are organisations that do that job. Let’s not denigrate them; let’s give them the support they need.
Salient: Joel, how will you represent māori on campus?
Joel: There has been a quantum leap in the relationship between māori and VUWSA. And Nick Kelly and I built on that and we signed a two- year document last year and that was on the backs of me and Nick.
Salient: And finally, why should people vote for each of you? Geoff, I’ll start with you.
Geoff: It’s a consistency issue. I think a cultural shift has to happen and if we keep changing around during the process it’s only going to lead to a system that’s disjointed and we’ll only go in circles.
Joel: Ultimately, it’s about student life getting harder and harder every year and I want to make a difference with that. Ultimately, students will vote for me because they see the unfair costs students pay for internet and the unfair way the government sets its student allowances.
Lukas: They should vote for the A-Team because they’ll get a united team which will be able to deliver on the promises we’re making and because they’ll end up with a Students’ Association that they can be proud of.