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Racist Student Politics in Australia’s Top Universities: UNSW and USyd

By Kat Wong

UNSW and the University of Sydney are both Group of 8 universities that champion themselves as “exemplars in equity, diversity and inclusion.” But in the past nine months, both institutions have been hit with allegations of racist student council candidates.

As voting opened for UNSW’s Council Election, screenshots of one candidate’s racist and pro-colonialist comments on her social media surfaced on the university’s student-run Facebook group.

The post, which was released on the first night of the voting period, posed the question “this is who y’all voting for undergrad student rep?” and was accompanied by screenshots of comments made by undergraduate candidate, Claudia McDonnell. One photo came from McDonnell’s Twitter where she states,

One of the next compulsory courses is how colonisation is the evil of all evils. It’s important to learn about the effects of colonisation but when it’s painted with big leftist brush strokes, it’s really intolerable.”

And another is a screenshot from Snapchat, where McDonnell has captioned a selfie with, “Let’s confuse Indians: Deodorant.”

This post was met with a fire storm of outrage from UNSW students. Within just a few hours, the post had hundreds of comments accusing her of racism and questioning her intentions to win, given that she would be representing a largely multicultural student body.

As the night went on, comments continued to reveal McDonnell’s racism and transphobia. Photos of her fetishising Black men, emasculating South Asians, and comparing non-binary identifying individuals to people with mental disorders, began proliferating across social media.

Eventually students took to her campaign page in search for a response, filling the comments on her videos with questions such as, “Will you be addressing your racism?” and “this you?” accompanied by the aforementioned racist selfie.

But rather than address any of these issues, McDonnell spent two nights deleting any comment on her video that made any mention of the controversy, and purging her social media channels.

This again garnered heavy criticism from the student cohort, with many calling her a hypocrite given that her campaign ran on a policy of transparency, and prided itself on being “accessible, ethical, [and] apolitical.”

“Hope she responds and doesn’t delete all the ‘hate’ comments again [sic]. I support student transparency,” commented one student.

Every post that has shared screenshots of McDonnell’s comments has been taken off the UNSW student Facebook group. It is currently unclear whether this was done by McDonnell, or by the group’s admins, though the user who posted the original revelation was allegedly threatened into removing the post.

Since then, students have continued criticising McDonnell, and calling on UNSW for a response, which the university released on Twitter yesterday morning.

In a four-tweet reply to a thread about McDonnell’s comments, the official UNSW Twitter page stated that,

“There is absolutely no place for racism or discrimination within our community… However, we also want to make it clear that bullying, harassment & online trolling of individuals is never acceptable… We are offering our support to the affected individual as there has been a significant amount of online bullying occurring.”

This answer was met with massive outcry from the UNSW student body for what they deemed to be an ‘inadequate response’. One student stated,

“Reducing the discussion surrounding her racism and transphobia as ‘debate around council elections’ is incredibly dismissive of the fact that prejudiced people like her can end up in positions of power and ruining countless minority lives…”

Others highlighted that the university seemed to care more about McDonnell’s wellbeing than the potential harm caused by her comments,

“… it’s quite sickening that it took only one tweet for you to acknowledge the racism but three to talk about the ‘bullying’. Makes it really clear where your priorities lie.”

In the meantime, there had been nothing but radio silence from Claudia’s end. Then, after three days of comment deletion and social media privatisation, she released an apology.  In this statement, she dismisses her past actions as a “[reflection of] the immature person I was many years ago. It does not align at all with the person I have grown to become today.”

But as soon as the apology went up, criticism came pouring down on McDonnell.

Students were quick to point out that many of Claudia’s racist statements were as recent as last month, with many more clearly dating to her university experiences despite her pinning these moments to her “early teenage years.” Other students were simply unsatisfied with her apology.

“Show us why you think your posts are inappropriate. Are you truly embarrassed by the bigoted and derogatory things you said because of how disgusting they were, or are you just embarrassed by the traction they got?”

Many also pointed out that McDonnell still had not learnt her lesson as she continued to delete comments that posed genuine questions and feedback regarding her apology: “You deleting comments, attempting damage control on a half-assed apology isn’t being ‘transparent’ luv.”

While this might seem like an isolated incident, Claudia McDonnell’s situation is alarmingly similar to Josie Jakovac’s experience at the University of Sydney’s 2019 SRC elections just nine months prior.

During September of 2019, Josie Jakovac, a law student at the University of Sydney, ran for President of the USyd SRC as a part of the ‘Boost’ campaign. During Honi Soit’s pre-polling, she was slated to win with 60% of the vote.

Her presidency ran on policies aimed at improving mental health services, increasing support for those with special considerations, focusing on the issues of the ever-increasing cohort of international students, and “stamping out racism”. However, this last point became an issue as she, too, was accused of racism and discrimination.

In 2018, Jakovac and the SRC cabinet she was associated with at the time, were accused of removing historical activist material from the SRC Office Bearer room. Stickers that promoted anti-racism, queer rights, Aboriginal rights, and refugee rights, along with an artwork of an Indigenous woman appeared to have been removed from the office after Josie and her team left the area. Following Croatia’s loss in 2018’s FIFA World Cup, Jakovac posted a Facebook status wherein she referred to the French national team as “Africa” as many of the players are first and second generation immigrants from countries within Africa. When asked to comment on her statement in a September 2019 interview, she states that she was unaware of the derogatory undertones and emphasises that it was a “dumb Facebook post by a dumb kid” despite that incident having occurred only one year prior.

As a follow up, interviewers asked how she had changed in the time since she made the comment, to which she stated, “I have so many friends from that sort of background, and they know the [sic] the absolute respect I give to them.”

Later that month, USYD Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) revealed a comment Jakovac made in relation to immigrants where she referred to them as “people who come to this country illegally, do not work, commit crimes and bring their war with them.”

Additionally, Josie’s working history as an intern for US Senator Jim Inhofe was seen as a display of support for homophobia and the anti-science movement. The Republican senator for Oklahoma has “one of the most homophobic records in the Senate” according to Politico, and is an active denier of climate change. He famously wrote a book on the topic titled, ‘The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future’. Jakovac has defended her affiliation to Inhofe by stating that she was never given a choice when it came to which senator she was assigned to. But the program she attended allowed participants to preference politicians, and on top of this, her old Facebook profile photo featured herself with Inhofe.

The revelation of her conservative backgrounds and past incidents of racism drew huge criticism from the USyd student body, and Jakovac’s critics became more and more vocal.

ACAR went on to condemn Josie’s candidacy, stating, “We condemn this racist white woman and all her politics. Her casual racism, as we saw, is not distinct from deep-seated racial hatred. Her politics of violent border protection and vitriol to migrants aren’t far off either.”

This sentiment was mirrored throughout the university’s student-run social media pages. One student stated, “The consistency with which Josie is willing to disregard the simply humanity of any people other than her own is at best horrifically ignorant and bigoted, and at worst, utter racism.” And others emphasised this, “Imagine paying this person $42k a year to try and dismantle racism on campus what a fucking joke.”

Tensions between what Josie saw as, “toxic far-left” and her campaign came to a boiling point on the last day of the election. As voting drew to a close, a crowd outside the ballot area began chanting “racist, sexist, anti-queer, Josie is not welcome here” to which Jakovac’s campaign manager, Julia Kokic, yelled, “You guys are bigots! Shut up!”.

Jakovac and McDonnell’s situations are strikingly similar; and if classes were run face-to-face this term, it is possible that McDonnell’s campaign could have been met with the same vocal protests.

However, the recency of both candidates’ rise, seems to speak to a trend in student politics: racist student politicians, or at the very least, student politicians with racist histories. This issue brings multiple questions to mind.

How are students like them allowed to champion and represent some of the most diverse cohorts in the world? Should there be a vetting process involved when it comes to student candidacy? Can their apologies be accepted?

These women are young. Both were 19-20 years old during their respective elections, and undoubtably have a lot of learning to do. But should this racism and naivete bar them from running?

In Jakovac’s case, USyd didn’t need to eliminate her from the race, because she lost her election.

The 2019 USyd SRC Election saw the biggest voter turnout in recent memory with approximately 5,362 format ballots cast. But at the end of the day, Jakovac only received 45% of the vote. She lost to grass-roots leader, Liam Donohoe.

McDonnell’s story, on the other hand, ends a little differently. At 10pm on Thursday 25th June, she withdrew her candidacy, citing “increasingly aggressive and personal attacks.”

While this resignation was met with celebration from many students, others were left unsatisfied.

In the statement, McDonnell never addresses concerns from her initial apology, she refers to her past actions as “mistakes [I] made as a child” (despite the fact that many were posted within the last year), and she continues to delete critical comments. As such, McDonnell’s withdrawal was also met with a slew of criticism. “First it was ‘early teenage years’, now it’s ‘child’?” one student asked. Others continued to question McDonnell’s sincerity, “I don’t see any integrity nor real acknowledgement in your mistakes – it’s clear you don’t show any actual remorse for your harmful words against many minorities.”

As for the election, the UNSW vote will remain open until Monday 29th June, which leaves another three days for other candidates to fill McDonnell’s vacuum. However, UNSW’s political atmosphere is decidedly lacking compared to USyd. Figures for past elections have not been published, so political apathy is difficult to quantify. For most students, their only interaction with student politics is their weekly avoidance of the Socialist Alternative on the way to the library.

But perhaps this ‘drama’ has encouraged a larger proportion of students to engage with UNSW’s election. The 2018-20 Undergraduate Student Representative, Ike Schwartz, spent several hours addressing questions about his role and his power, or lack thereof, within the UNSW Council. This was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the student body and genuine engagement from those who wanted to learn more.

The remaining candidates have tried to capitalise on the situation by making memes to promote themselves and explicitly stating that they are very much the opposite of McDonnell. But again, questions about these candidates also arise. Is there a possibility that these candidates have also made offensive comments? Did some of them purge their own social media in response to McDonnell’s exposé? Who is responsible for vetting the candidates: the university, or the students?

While candidates like Jakovac and McDonnell did not win, there does seem to be a lack of accountability from the universities. Both USyd and UNSW are hesitant to interfere in student politics. In some ways, this is reasonable; they do not wish to appear favourable towards certain candidates, and any executive interference could be met with accusations of ‘censorship’ or a ‘disregard of free speech’.

Yet, these fears have provided a platform to candidates who have made racist, homophobic, and discriminatory statements over and over again, many of which have hurt the very students the candidates wish to represent. But rather than take action, the universities have shunted all responsibility onto the voters, forcing largely apathetic students into investigating each candidate’s history, and making the entire election process more inaccessible and harder to understand.

We got lucky during this election cycle. Had these revelations remained hidden, racist, homophobic students could’ve been elected to represent some of the most diverse cohorts in the world. But now, it’s all down to the students who have paid attention, the students who have spent hours scrolling through Facebook scouring for drama, the students who actually vote.