If Tony Abbott was asked this year to make a list of roadblocks in his path to the Lodge, it’s safe to say the name Barbara Ramjan wouldn’t have been among them.
But the Opposition Leader should never underestimate the ability of student politics’ acid reflux to keep repeating well after the flush of youth subsides.
The trigger? David Marr finally got Ramjan on the record in his Quarterly Essay to allege a peeved Abbott had twice punched a wall inches from her head in frustration at his 1977 Sydney Uni SRC election loss. This week, 1976 president David Patch also weighed in to add that a “shaken, scared and angry” Ramjan had regaled him with the details shortly afterwards.
And overnight, another unnamed witness attested to the biffage, slamming Abbott’s DLP “goon squad” for their roughhouse tactics. Abbott admits only one allegation — that he had referred to Ramjan, the SRC’s first woman president, as “chairthing” rather than her preferred “chairperson”.
But for those versed in the wild machinations of campus brawling, Abbott’s adolescent rampage is par for the course each September and October when the reluctant general student population shuffles to the ballot box.
Patch — who would later run against Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth in 2004 — has also recalled an incident in which his earlier bete noire, then aligned with fringe Australia Party Club, “palmed” him during that year’s feisty election debate.
One of Abbott’s biggest beefs was the amount of student money being channelled to the Australian Union of Students (AUS) to run proxy campaigns on behalf of the PLO and against capitalism — issues that Tony reckoned was outside the acceptable orbit of student concern. Five years later, Julia Gillard was elected national education vice-president of the then-AUS (now NUS) from Adelaide Uni but moved to Melbourne Uni to better smooth a path to the ultimate prize — that body’s president, a position to which she was duly elected.
Then, as now, the main game for Tory apparatchiks was to “starve the beast” by bankrupting the union in the style pioneered by Republican operatives Jack Abramoff and Oliver North in the early 1980s. After Paris ‘68, French theorist Alain Touraine had identified students as the new working class and Abbott and co took the threat seriously indeed. John Howard’s Voluntary Student Unionism Bill — passed 28 years later in 2005 and rescinded with conditions last year by Labor — was the culmination of that effort.
(Universities continue to pay $5.30 per full-time student to the NUS but most end up stumping up much less — about $100,000 in the case of Melbourne Uni this year against an invoiced amount of $190,000).
There is some evidence the vibrancy of yesteryear is receding from view. The presence of Trotskyite fringe group Socialist Alternative had dimmed at most campuses (despite the recent blow up at La Trobe University featuring — amazingly — one “student” who was, 10 years ago, aged 25). The passing of last year’s Student Services and Amenities Bill — despite providing a funds injection to unions (via the university) of $263 per student — specifically prohibits spending on “political activities”.
Still, around election time, controversy continues to fester.
The recent flagrant abuses at the University of Queensland — for years the country’s sole outpost of full-spectrum Liberal control — effectively stopped the broad Left from getting on the ballot paper. Crikey understands that spat has some way to run and is likely to end up in the courts, especially if a mysterious batch of T-shirt invoices can be located.
The deregistration rule changes are a classic tactic. At Melbourne University Student Union in 2002, left-wing activists changed their names by deed poll to stay on the ballot after Labor Right forces altered the regs to state that only groups affiliated to the student union could run in elections. The clubs had been secretly disaffiliated.
Crikey recalls a severe arm injury meted out to one Labor Left activist the following year as the struggle for control ratcheted up — with the aftermath recorded in the still-popular State of the Union DVD.
At 2010 at Monash University, campus Liberals alleged the Left secretly registered party names such as, er, “Liberal” to stymie democracy.
Some of those loopholes are starting to be closed. At Melbourne Uni, the ability of a ruling junta to alter rules to suit their own ends has been mitigated by the requirement that changes to the constitution be ticked off by an independent election tribunal controlled by eminences grise from the university and the law faculty. Crucially, the tribunal appoints an independent returning officer, preventing partisan operators from upholding dubious election-week grievances.
And the messy groupings are starting to re-arrange themselves along more disciplined factional lines. In Victoria, Young Labor — that includes a substantial overlap with campuses — is a direct mirror of the broader party serving the same state and federal MP deities, making the task of hiring advisers and electorate office staffers much easier. The Labor Left is the default ballot box choice for most vaguely progressive students, especially when preferences can be harvested from the grassroots left, the remnants of the Trots, and international students.
But the underhanded tactics haven’t prevented the student politics sandpit acting as a crucial talent funnel for all major factions associated with the major parties. As Crikey’s list of former student politicians in federal Parliament shows, a substantial minority of former campus brawlers end up ensconced on Capital Hill.
Across the country, Tony’s antagonists remain, albeit in a much tighter straitjacket.