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Political nous

Francisco Hernandez

Political nous

With a long-held love of politics, new OUSA president Francisco Hernandez is looking forward to putting his politics degree into practice this year. And, with a focus on improving food, flats and facilities for students, it promises to be a busy one.

Francisco Hernandez has politics in his blood.

His father, Rossano, was a member of President Joseph Estrada's ruling party in the Philippines before a change in government in 2001 saw the family fall from favour.

“The old government fell to a people-power revolution,'' says Hernandez. “After the change, there was a gradual shift. My parents were blacklisted because of their former jobs. It was subtle economic pressure.”

Hernandez was only 12 when his parents decided to join family members in Wellington. It was a time of adjustment for everyone, he says.

“We went from being wealthy in the Philippines, where my parents were in white-collar work, to here, where mum worked in a Burger King and dad at a Fisher & Paykel store. It was a bit weird not having the luxury of wealth: having to do house chores and, I guess, living life like an ordinary person.”

“I want to implement programmes to improve quality of life – affordable food on campus, better facilities for students on campus, and warmer and better flats.”

But the strongest memories Hernandez has from this time are of the way his baby brother, Tighe, was cared for when he needed ongoing treatment for a heart defect that was discovered when he was just six days old. Although the condition eventually proved fatal, Hernandez was struck by the compassion New Zealand showed its citizens.

“The level of care that was afforded to my brother was compassionate, humane and extraordinary given our circumstances as recent immigrants to the country. We had government support while Tighe was in hospital. They provided us with accommodation etcetera ... In the Philippines they wouldn't have taken care of such a poor baby,” he says.

“New Zealand cares for its residents equally, regardless of background. That didn't happen by accident. That's why I'm interested in politics.”

Hernandez has just completed an honours degree in politics from Otago and will defer doing his Master of Entrepreneurship until after he has completed his term as OUSA president.

He describes the 2012 OUSA election as extremely hard fought.

“At the start of the election campaign I was the underdog. I asked the Critic editor and he gave me a 20 per cent chance of winning.

“I would get up at 6am and go to bed at around 1am. We did a bit of chalking on the footpaths, putting up posters and speaking to students face to face.”

But Hernandez's secret weapon was his own version of the popular Korean Gangnam Style music video, “Frangnam Style”, which saw him dancing on the Richardson Building and singing down Dundas Street.

“I saw the original Gangnam Style video, thought I looked a little bit like Psy [the singer] and decided that something like a music video would be a fantastic way to reach out to students.

“It was made 48-hour film-festival style. I just got some mates together, started shooting it and then edited the video afterwards.”

The political experience he gained as OUSA welfare officer last year and communications officer in 2011 also helped his cause, he says, particularly now that student union membership is voluntary and OUSA is contracted by the University to provide student services within the framework of a service-level agreement, which is renewed every year.

“Because of the nature of the negotiations with the University for the service-level agreement, students want politically-experienced candidates who can renegotiate to get them what they want. It helps to have someone who’s had a few years on the till and knows how to deal with the University.”

This new relationship with the University has both pros and cons, he believes.

“In a sense, its a limitation. OUSA is not free to create its own income as much as we were before; there's a reduced level of services and our independence is also reduced.

“But its liberating in that it's freed OUSA to work more closely with the University. An example is the push towards student voluntarism. The University shares this focus. And when it's supported by the University, others support it too.”

Encouraging students to become more involved, whether through volunteering or through student politics, is important to Hernandez.

“This can happen by engaging students in the process of participation from the moment they get here. We’ll harness student energy in things they’re interested in by implementing a ‘portfolio’ system. For example, students interested in housing issues can join the housing committee to fight for better flats. We will also run a serious campaign of registration for the local body election and get the student vote out.

“We want to create a culture where students emerge as active citizens – not passive consumers.”

At the very top of Hernandez's long “to-do” list is what he calls the three “Fs” – food, flats and facilities.

“I want to implement programmes to improve quality of life – affordable food on campus, better facilities for students on campus, and warmer and better flats.”

Hernandez has already had success with his $3 dinners, a programme in which University clubs prepared affordable meals for students at the Club and Societies centre three times a week, with support from OUSA. He now plans to introduce $2 coffees and $1 breakfasts as well.

“The $3 dinners had 100 to 200 people showing up every night. It made thousands of dollars. They were a popular success and evidence that I can get stuff done.''

In a move to improve student facilities, Clubs and Societies is currently undergoing a refurbishment and will be renamed the OUSA Recreation Centre.

“It will be a more multi-purpose venue. There will be a movie theatre, gaming room, recycling centre and better meeting rooms. There will also be a greater possibility for income-generating opportunities.”

Hernandez's third “F” is flats. “A lot of students live in over-priced, damp housing. I want to put a lot of focus on developing a healthy-housing index with the University. It is important for all the vulnerable in Dunedin: it's not just a student issue.”

After being involved with the OUSA for four years, Hernandez is excited to finally be president. And he is not the only one.

“My father is really pleased,” he says. “I also got an email from the Philippines Consulate to say congratulations. I felt pretty proud.”

– LAURA HEWSON