The principal-agent problem—in political science and economics—occurs when a person or an entity (the agent) makes decisions/acts on behalf of another person or entity (the principal). A dilemma occurs when agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are the opposite of the principals (i.e. there is a conflict of interest).
A common example of this is the relationship between politicians (the agents) and voters (the principals), but could this issue exist within student government as well?
Since the Guild’s inception, numerous students within the Guild have been affiliated with political parties; but it’s not just Curtin. Whether you look at ANU, La Trobe or here on our own campus, it’s not uncommon to find a candidate’s Facebook profile plastered with pictures of them at political party events or campaigning for local members; perhaps they don the more subtle ‘I voted for *insert party here*’ Facebook frame. If you’re perusing the Young Labor/Liberal Facebook page, you might even find a few familiar faces there.
Affiliations amongst our 2019 candidates
In this year’s Guild election we have four political parties and two independent candidates.
While Left Action, Fabian Yarran (Independent) and the Luke Party have no direct political party affiliations, Illuminate have four. Out of thirty eight candidates, Dylan Botica (Accessibility Officer), Harry Brooking (Guild Councillor), Mike Farrell (Guild Councillor, NUS Delegate) and Katelyn Colson (NUS Delegate), are members of the Australian Labor Party—all except Botica are affiliated with the Labor Left.
Out of Revive’s twelve candidates, five are affiliated with political parties. While Mitchell Murray (Activities Vice President) is a member of the Liberal Party, Briana Hodgkinson and James Wilson are members of the Australian Labor Party. Revive representative and candidate, James Wilson, would not confirm the affiliations of the other two candidates. Hodgkinson also noted that in recent times, she had represented Labor at state conferences.
But so what? Should we be surprised that bright, ambitious students are engaging in local politics? Not really, no. Whether you’re a business, health or humanities student, it is expected that throughout your time at university, you will have rounded up some basic (and often unpaid) experience. It shouldn’t come as a shock to see that politically-enthusiastic individuals end up in student government, or in off-campus politics. After all, it makes sense that the students interested in politics on campus may pursue political careers after graduation.
However, can a candidate with political affiliations or ambitions be trusted to act in the best interests of the student body? And now we’re back to the principal-agent problem.
Let’s say that an individual within the Guild executive team is a member of a political party, they also campaign regularly for a particular local member and have political aspirations of their own—perhaps they want a job as a party staffer. What happens when the student body wants the Guild to advocate on an issue which directly contravenes with the views of that local member? Would the individual feel conflicted? Would you trust them to act in your best interests instead of their own?
Now I’m not suggesting anything untoward, like the Guild being a springboard for political positions or a conspiracy in which multiple political parties are trying to take over the Guild. However, I do think that students have a right to know if candidates—and current Guild staff—are linked to, or work for, a political party. If a candidate is democratically elected to a paid position, students deserve to know if there could be a conflict of interest. It also helps to have a point-of-reference for the candidates’ politics outside University when you’re making decisions on who to vote for.
So, in the interest of transparency, a word used so often in student party campaigns, candidates should have to declare any party affiliations. Give students the truth, let them be informed, while they decide what matters.
Do our student parties think political affiliations matter?
Erin Russell of Left Action thinks so, stating that students have a right to know if candidates are party members as it could affect their orientation to the Guild and lead them to support particular policies of major political parties, which might not be in the interests of students.
Illuminate’s Hana Arai, who is set to be the Guild’s president next year, says that while she agrees that information on affiliations should be made available, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a group’s bias. Instead she raises funding as a more important factor, saying that the extent of the support or funding that student party receives from an external political organisation could have a bigger bearing on conflicts of interest.
Luke Brosnan of the Luke Party agrees that candidates should be open about their political ties, especially if they have political career ambitions, but doesn’t necessarily think that having political affiliations will mean that person is influenced negatively.
“To not make it public seems slightly deceptive, as if it’s a bad thing to have those affiliations,” says Brosnan. “If the people with those ties don’t want to make it public, then it makes you question if they think it’s what’s right for the students.”
James Wilson of Revive did not specify whether he thought affiliations should be common knowledge and would not provide the details. Discussing conflicts of interest, he proposed that while being affiliated with a political party could present a conflict, the same could be said of an affiliation with any other group, union or body, or sympathy with a particular movement.
While it is unlikely that any group could present a conflict of interest, Wilson is right to point to affiliations outside of the major political parties. Membership of organisations such as the National Union of Students, could also lead to conflicts of interests. Many of our Guild candidates belong to factions within NUS, such as Student Unity (Labor Right), Socialist Alternative and the Australian Liberal Students Federation.
Although many point to the Guild as an apolitical organisation, political views are often a representation of our values, which drive our actions. While a candidate’s involvement with these organisations should not be cause for concern in and of itself, they are still political entities advocating for certain policies; policies which may not be in the interest of the student body or align with your own values.
The Guild is not apolitical, nor should it be: candidates are elected to represent and fight for the rights and needs of the student body on-and-off of campus. Politics involves making decisions that apply to members of a group, and in this case, that group is you. Who you choose to make decisions for you, on your behalf, is your choice. So when you’re thinking about who to vote for this election, try not to get bogged down by campaign slogans, fancy buzz-words and the inevitable mud-slinging contest. Vote for the candidate that you think best represents your individual needs, even if that’s 3-ply toilet paper.
Note: Briana Hodgkinson and Mitchell Murray of Revive were contacted independently for information. James Wilson was contacted on behalf of Revive and confirmed his own Labor membership, but would not confirm the membership of any other candidates, he did, however, provide the number of candidates affiliated with Australian political parties.
Erin Russell (Left Action) and Chris Hall (Illuminate) responded on behalf of their respective parties when declaring political party affiliations. Independent candidate Diana Ryan was contacted for comment but has not yet responded, this article will be updated when she does.