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Oct 1, 2010

Crikey List: which MPs were involved in student politics?

The ghost of Voluntary Student Unionism returned this week with the introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee Bill. Crikey thought it was pertinent to cast an eye over the current batch of sitting politicians who got their start in the sandpit of the nation's student unions.

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The ghost of voluntary student unionism returned to haunt the halls of federal parliament this week with the introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee Bill as one of the first pieces of legislation considered by Labor.

The announcement was a shock to student activists, who are wondering whether the ALP had been leaned on by Universities Australia whose members are struggling to uphold basic services. Or perhaps the move was an indication that Labor wanted to get things done in the new parliament.

Unions — whose former student pollies occupy a strong minority of seats in Canberra — have been crippled since 2006, when the Howard government made good on Tony Abbott’s threats at the University of Sydney in the late 1970s to stop compulsory student funding of institutions that he thought were at risk of falling to Peking.

Since Howard pulled the trigger, unions — many with their budgets slashed by over half — have struggled to make ends meet, with the University of Ballarat’s Student Union collapsing and regional campuses teetering as shells of their former selves. Curiously, the radical political cabals that Abbott most wanted to remove as bulwarks to conservative control over young minds have ploughed on regardless.

The current SSAF legislation differs from the previous guise because it contains acceptable funding targets to mollify the Nationals and the country independents who want the money spent on everything except politics. Innocuous ‘sports clubs’ and welfare services are acceptable, while anything that hints at democratic expression remains black-banned.

But the Greens, led by fervent former University of Adelaide student pollie Sarah Hanson-Young, have promised to restore the representation clause with an amendment, that while it won’t get up in the current Senate, could easily pass when her comrades ascend to the red leather. The National Union of Students makes the point that unionism can hardly be called compulsory because the fee is collected by the university and rolled into a HECS-style arrangement. Membership of the union remains voluntary.

But the conservative half of the chamber is maintaining the rage, apparently preferring a new generation of activists to be cut off at the knees. At this juncture, Crikey thought it was pertinent to cast an eye over the current batch of sitting MPs that got their start in the sandpit of the nation’s student unions. Should we be bracing for a new cabal of brawling campus warriors in years to come? Stay tuned.

*Any information, corrections or clarifications send to boss@crikey.com.au and we’ll keep this list updated

House of Representatives:

  • Tony Abbott: SRC president at Sydney Uni in 1978, general terroriser of the Left, author of some stellar campaign literature and giver of ranty radio interviews. Friends with Greg Sheridan, journo from The Australian. Proposed Voluntary Student Unionism to destroy the SRC, which he loathed.
  • Anthony Albanese: Honed his taste for blood at Sydney University in the early 1980s during tussles with the Right on campus, once swapping preferences with the Liberals to wipe Belinda Neal‘s faction off the SRC. Went on to shake up the proper NSW Left through a series of edifying brawls with the Fergusons.
  • Kevin Andrews: Lived at Melbourne University’s conservative Newman College, president of its student club which maintained strong links with campus Liberals in the mid-70s
  • Adam Bandt: Briefcase-toting Marxist and Left Alliance stalwart at Murdoch University in 1993
  • David Bradbury: Former NSW Young Labor president and University of Sydney ALP Club member in the late-90s
  • Bronwyn Bishop: Conservative headkicker while studying law at Sydney University, joined the upstanding Killara Young Liberals in 1961
  • Tony Burke: Former president of Australian Young Labor while an arts-law student at Sydney Uni in the late 1980s. Shamefully lost a previous ballot to become president of Sydney Uni Labor Club to Sydney Morning Herald journalist Andrew West in 1989. West often attaches a disclaimer to his Herald pieces on internal ALP politics, recounting his involvement. Seen trading reams of A3 paper from his local ALP offices for preferences in the lead-up to the 1987 SRC poll.
  • Anna Burke: Joined the ALP in 1988 while completing an Arts degree at the windswept Monash University Clayton campus
  • Mark Butler: Heavily involved with Penny Wong’s Adelaide Uni clique in the late 80s
  • Darren Cheeseman: Ballarat Uni torch carrier for the National Organisation of Labor Students at the time of the famous 1996 split brought on by the stoush between Andy Wear and Rose Tracey for National Union of Students President preselection
  • George Christensen: Upstanding editor of The Student Advocate, the official newsletter of the Rob Borbidge-backing Conservative Students’ Alliance at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton in 1998.
  • Steven Ciobo: Former Queensland Young Liberals president, leading light at Bond Uni’s substantial Tory contingent centred on the Gold Coast Young Libs in the early 1990s.
  • Jason Clare: NSW Young Labor acolyte during stint at the University of New South Wales and right wing Cabramatta Branch President for 10 years.
  • Julie Collins: State President, Australian Young Labor Tasmania in 1996, before moving into Jim Bacon’s office as his personal assistant. Party member since the age of 17.
  • Michael Danby: President of the Melbourne University Student Union as well as President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students in the 1970s. Headed up the Social Democratic Students Association of Victoria with good mate Peter Costello.
  • Peter Dutton: Policy Vice-Chair of the Bayside Young Liberals 1989 and Chair of the Bayside Young Liberals 1990 before becoming an officer of the law.
  • Kate Ellis: Editor of Flinders University student newspaper The Empire Times and SDA-aligned Student Association general secretary who, firmly on the Don Farrell preselection train, forgot to graduate.
  • Paul Fletcher: Member of the Liberal Party since he was 16 and active in student politics at Sydney University where the party commanded three seats on the 21-member SRC under the tutelage of campus powerbroker Mark Heyward in the mid-80s. Australasian Union of Jewish Students influencer.
  • Julia Gillard: SRC president at Adelaide University in 1981-82, then AUS president while at Melbourne Uni in 1983, where she learnt to hate Lindsay Tanner. Cynics suggest Gillard moved to Melbourne to get a smoother run onto AUS.
  • Josh Frydenberg: President of the Monash Law Students Society in the early 1990s but failed to get properly involved in Young Liberal stoushes.
  • Joe Hockey: Fear-inducing President of Sydney University Students Representative Council in 1987 and the NSW Young Liberals. Closed the women’s room at the SRC, not aligned, but politically more aligned with NOLS than the Libs at that stage, took credit (totally unwarranted) for anti-fees protest/occupation of the Department of Education offices in Goulburn Street, nominated himself to represent all students to minister Susan Ryan.
  • Alex Hawke: Young Liberal warrior at Sydney University, president of both the NSW and Federal Young Libs before landing his lower house seat.
  • Bob Katter: Active at The University of Queensland where he once pelted The Beatles with eggs during their 1964 tour.
  • Laura Smyth: Labor Left warrior at Monash University ALP club in the mid-90s, founded National Organisation of Labor Students splinter group Australian Labor Students, colloquially known as the “rats”. President of the Victorian branch of the National Union of Students, before moving into corporate law.
  • Richard Marles: Right-wing President of the notorious Melbourne University Student Union in 1988. Labor Right-aligned General Secretary of NUS, 1989.
  • Tanya Plibersek: Rolled with Anthony Albanese and the NSW Hard Left as student union women’s officer at University of Technology, Sydney in the early 1990s. Efforts paid dividends with slot on Bruce Childs’ staff.
  • Amanda Rishworth: Flinders University student association president in the late 1990s and former president of Australian Young Labor.
  • Sophie Mirabella: Liberal Club president at Melbourne University, signed up Crikey founder Stephen Mayne on the student union’s concrete lawn in 1988. Former vice-president of the rabid Australian Liberal Students Federation.
  • Brendan O’Connor: Heavily involved in the National Organisation of Labor Students at Monash University
  • Kelly O’Dwyer: Anti-Voluntary Student Unionism shrieker as Young Liberal alongside future husband Jon Mant on the student council of the Melbourne University Student Union in the mid-1990s
  • Christopher Pyne: Stellar two year term as Liberal Club president at Adelaide University between 1987 and 1988 and vice-president of the student union
  • Michelle Rowland: Involved in Young Labor while studying law at the University of Sydney during the late 1990s
  • Nicola Roxon: Topped law at Melbourne Uni and preferred to focus on her studies rather than internecine ALP machinations, campus spies say
  • Wyatt Roy: President of the Sunshine Coast Young LNP branch. University of Queensland shenanigans have been suspended while he takes his place on the green leather. Ran for President of La Trobe University SRC on the Liberal ticket against Victorian minister Peter Batchelor’s son Lachlan in 2008, lost. Was cautioned by the Returning Officer for campaigning shirtless.
  • Kevin Rudd: Shunned the ALP entirely at uni and instead led a group of evangelicals called “the Navigators” to expunge all traces of vice from Burgmann College at ANU. Attended Young Labor meetings while at school in Nambour in 1974
  • Philip Ruddock: President of the Young Liberals in 1971 and 1972 while studying law at the University of Sydney
  • Bill Shorten: Notorious right-wing Monash law student who founded the Vanguard and Network ambition cliques, sheltered by Neil Pope and Gareth Evans
  • Andrew Southcott: Student union vice-president alongside Pyne at Adelaide University in the late 1980s. President of the Adelaide Medical Students Society
  • Malcolm Turnbull: Member of the Sydney University Liberal Club and SRC and “palmed” Wentworth Labor rival David Patch during a feisty debate at Sydney University in the mid-1970s. Penned an article in The Bulletin dated 7 Feb, 1978 in which he says Tony Abbott was  a master of “rather boisterous and immature rhetoric”.
  • Alan Tudge: Tracksuit pants-wearing unaligned president of Melbourne University Student Union in 1992
  • Peter Slipper: Former State President of the Queensland Young Nationals
  • Tony Smith: Member for Casey: President of the Melbourne University Liberal Club and then the Victorian Liberal Students Association
  • Bert Van Manen: Young Liberal before running for Family First in 2007
  • Andrew Wilkie: Joined the Young Liberals while training as a cadet at Duntroon in 1983



  • Eric Abetz: SRC member for five years at the University of Tasmania. President of the Australian Liberal Students Federation in 1980-81
  • Mark Arbib: Studied at University of New South Wales but more interested in flexing his muscle in NSW Young Labor generally after the Joe Tripodi and Reba Meagher takeover in 1992. Anointed President of the organisation in 1995
  • Simon Birmingham: President of the Adelaide Uni Liberal Club in 1994, backed by stacks from the campus Greek Association. Australian Liberal Students Federation activist before joining Robert Hill as a staffer after the 1996 federal election
  • Stephen Conroy: Involvement in student politics ANU was minimal, although he apparently once helped to organise a rally against student fees. Made up for lack of action with years of dutiful spear carrying for Robert Ray
  • David Feeney: Joined the Adelaide University Labor Club in Orientation Week 1988 by Senator Don Farrell. In 1991, led all right-wing aligned Labor students to split from National Organisation of Labor Students and from Student Unity. The trigger for the split was the NOLS-supported NUS Presidential candidacy of then-independent Natasha Stott Despoja. Moved to Melbourne University where he was House and Services Officer at the student union alongside Health Services Union scion Kathy Jackson in 1992. Initial enemy of Bill Shorten but kissed and made up later in the decade.
  • Mitch Fifield: Member of the Sydney University Liberal Club, affiliated to the Australian Liberal Students Federation in the late 1980s. Would later emerge as a virulent backer of Voluntary Student Unionism.
  • Sarah Hanson-Young: Environment Officer at University of Adelaide Students’ Association in 2001 and independent President in 2002
  • Gary Humphries: Member of the Young Liberals at ANU in the late 70s and general bag carrier for then Young Liberal big shots Michael Yabsley and Alistair Walton
  • Louise Pratt: National Organisation of Labor Students office bearer at the University of Western Australia. Elected as the state education and welfare officer in 1993 and 1994 and also served on the National Union of Students as an office bearer.
  • Scott Ryan: Staunch Costelloite and member of the Melbourne University Liberal Club alongside Kelly O’Dwyer during the mid-1990s. One of only a handful of Liberals ever elected to the National Executive of NUS. Went on to score plum staffer roles with Denis Napthine and Robert Doyle.
  • Penny Wong: Heavily involved in the lefty Labor Club at Adelaide University in the late 1980s and served on the National Executive of the NUS. From the same scene that spawned Natasha Stott Despoja.
  • Nick Xenophon: Elected editor of student newspaper, On Dit at Adelaide University in 1976 after the campus Liberal Club rigged the vote. Member of the Adelaide University Liberal Club before realising the error of his ways.
Andrew Crook —

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

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34 thoughts on “Crikey List: which MPs were involved in student politics?

  1. JM

    This 2005 New Matilda article describes John Howard’s early attempts at forging a brilliant legal career.

    In 1956 Howard gained As in English and Modern History, Bs in Latin, Chemistry and Economics and a fail in General Mathematics (the lowest level Maths you could do at that time for the Leaving Certificate)

    This certainly was not sufficient for the highly regarded double Arts/Law degree, especially with a failed unit (though Maths has never been compulsory for the final NSW exam, nor for Matriculation). It also was not sufficient for the award of the highly sought-after Commonwealth Scholarship.

    This article then goes on to describe Howard as having gone to the University of Sydney Law School, which at that stage was separate from the main campus. The eminent retired Federal Court judge Kevin Lindgren QC took a similar pathway via the old SAB/BAB system, but with a great deal of difference in the outcome.

    Hence Howard’s discomfort with academic success, his hostility towards universities, his resentment of so-called “elites” and his courtship of the lowest common denominator.

  2. Daryl...

    Wow… is it that there are a lot of self justifying civil servants here, or is this suggestion really so far outside the “group think” obviously in place.

    @ Acidic, nice collar. FYI I fought hard against Howard/Costello and the HR Nichols society during my time in the Robe River dispute. Where they destroyed the community I grew up in. Never heard of it? No doubt, the rest of Australia turned their backs on us.

    I also left Aussie when he came to power to make sure I didn’t have to deal with him, and returned only after he had lost. I was astonished to see what the ALP had morphed into in that time… disgraceful.

    Here is my thoughts on this. I do not believe that people whose main career has been spending the publics money should be entrusted to run the economy or large elements of it. (Such as transport, social services etcetera)

    Their only experience is in spending our cash, not working out how to earn it, nor dealing with the mess their policies create. They are ivory tower ideologues who can be driven only by ideology as they have no experience in real world events.

    So who am I talking about? Specifically civil servants, (particularly those in embassy service, terrible examples of Australians) those who working for political parties, and those working for non-profits associated with political parties. (Like the ACTU)

    I am a huge fan of Cops, of our long suffering and under served military, and of those working as doctors and nurses on the public payroll. These people are hardly developing a career spending the publics money, and are great examples of self sacrifice for the national good.

    ++To be clear++

    I think their work is of value, and that they are an essential element of our democracy. But they shouldn’t be running the country. No matter which political party they belong to.
    @Geomac – Absolute garbage. WA has never been given the funds it required to develop a third of the nation. The big resource companies paid for the infrastructure and housing that exists in the Pilbara. I know this because I was there and saw it happen.

    Have a look at this report on the state level balance of payments:


    Prety clear what is going on.

    Here are some facts for you… WA, QLD and the NT are facing crushing resource shortages. So much so that international airports are being built in remote centres to fly low wage workers directly in from Asia…

    Meanwhile there are swollen ranks of unemployed people in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and SA… why aren’t they told/ given incentive to move? Why are we paying welfare when there are real opportunities for these people to move to the states earning money instead of staying with those who are spending it?

    Aggressive protectors of the status quo here aren’t you all…

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