In 1964, five words brought to life a concept that we now take for granted: “the medium is the message”. Marshall McLuhan’s then-radical, now-truistic phrase argued that the way we communicate information can determine that information’s impact.
I would like to analyse a specific medium-message analogy: how the message of Law School Society (LSS) elections is being affected by the medium through which the LSS Committee is informing and engaging students in these elections.
To begin with, a few statistics:
In 2012, 248 students voted in the General Elections.
In 2013, 358 students voted in those elections.
This year, 201 students voted.
Since 2012, the Elections voter numbers have decreased by 19%, without factoring in how many more students are now enrolled in the course – meaning that there would be an even bigger percentage of decrease in students voting.
There are problems with not just how many students are voting, but how many are running. A few more statistics:
In 2012, only 4 of the 17 positions were uncontested nominations. Of the 13 positions that were contested, 8 had more than 2 nominees running.
In 2013, 5 of the 17 positions were uncontested, and 7 of those 12 contested positions had more than 2 nominees running.
That brings us to a month ago, when the 2014 LSS Elections took place. This year, 12 of the 17 LSS Committee positions were uncontested. One of the positions – International Student Rep – had no nominations at all, and will now be co-opted rather than elected. Of the 5 contested positions, only one – Women’s Officer – had more than 2 nominees running.
So in two years, the number of uncontested Committee positions has increased from 24% to 29% to 72%. The number of positions with more than 2 nominees running has decreased from 66% to 58% to 20%.
What does a decrease in student voters and nominees mean? That the LSS Committee is being chosen from fewer of the students, and voted in by fewer of the students.
This may be the point where you ask: why should we care? Because, as stated in the LSS Constitution, every JD student is an LSS Member. The minute you enrol in the Melbourne Law School JD program, you are an LSS Member and the LSS Committee is your Committee.
And beyond that, the Committee exists to be there for you. As seen in its Constitutional aim: ‘to formulate policy and provide service and activities…that most accurately represent the diverse needs and concerns of all Members [emphasis added].’
The incoming LSS President Matt Pierri realises the significance of a society that automatically represents all JD students.
“The LSS has a huge capacity to influence every student’s time at law school, for better or for worse”, Matt says, “whether they choose to engage with it or not.
“It is therefore vital that the students have a proper say in not only who represents them, but in what the Committee does as part of that representation.”
It’s not just the constitution and the president that tell us inclusivity is important for the LSS. History says a similar story.
It was in the name of inclusivity that Melbourne University’s “Articled Law Clerks Debating Society” dropped “Debating” from its title in 1891, and changed to “Law Students’ Society” in 1892: so that non-debaters and all students, whether articled or not, became eligible for membership.
When Melbourne Law School increased its inclusivity in 1897 by admitting its first female law student, the LSS did take 20 years before permitting women to be members in the early 1920s. It thankfully advanced more quickly in being the first law society in Australia to have the position of Women’s Officer in 1990.
Now we have a different issue of inclusivity on our hands: everyone can run for and vote in elections. But the vast majority of us don’t.
These aren’t pleasant facts to face, particularly for yours truly. Two weeks ago, I was elected as the incoming LSS Secretary, which means I will be responsible for elections this year.
It may seem counter-intuitive to write an article on decreasing voter and nominee numbers when you have taken over the portfolio in charge of it, but I think it is your right as students and my responsibility as Secretary to make you aware of the problem. Because we can only fix this together.
There’s another reason why I want to share these figures: because there’s a brighter story to it too.
If we take statistics for First Year Representative Elections instead of the General Elections, they show a different level of engagement with the LSS Committee.
In 2012, 96 students voted for 8 nominees.
In 2014, 179 students voted for 13 nominees.
Not only has there been an increase in nominees, we had almost the same number of people voting in this year’s first-year-only election (179) as the all-years General Elections (201).
So, the question becomes: where are all those voters and nominees at the General Elections?
I’ve heard people putting the low numbers down to various things: more students going on exchange, less students caring, other student-run law school organisations taking up more of our time. But I think McLuhan has a lot of the answer: that our Committee’s medium of informing and engaging you with the elections can be improved.
And I’m not the only one who wants to make it better. “While the turnout for this year’s elections was less than expected”, Matt admits, “the incoming Committee is committed to ensuring the cohort is as engaged as possible in the new year”. But to ensure that commitment, we, the LSS Committee, need your help. We want to know: why did or didn’t you vote? Why did or didn’t you run?
I’ve created a survey [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MFLFQLC] to listen to how you think we can make sure that next time, you are as encouraged as possible to vote and run.
Because the minute you enter this degree, you are part of this Law Students’ Society. And inclusivity is not just about being able to have your say, it’s about being encouraged to. So please let us provide that encouragement and answer those 10 short questions that will make a difference to how the elections next year will run. And three lucky participants will even receive thank-you wine bottles!
If filling out a survey isn’t enough involvement, then absolutely have a look at the Co-opt Elections online and on Facebook [http://mulss.com/news/co_opt_elections] to join the Committee that represents us all.
To finish, I cite 1891 Treasurer Arthur Robinson, when he made that fateful decision of letting the “Articled Law Clerk Society” embrace articled and non-articled law students alike: “We must change. For without change, this Society as we know will cease to exist, and our dream of giving the students here a voice will cease with it.”
Anna Belgiorno-Nettis is a first year JD student and the incoming LSS Secretary.