Last week, loyal readers of the Weekly Times were confronted by this impassioned page one plea from Victorian Farmers Federation chief Simon Ramsay over the apparently dire state of the peak body’s accounts. Membership of the VFF has slumped in recent years, with Ramsay claiming the organisation was “bleeding money”. But Ramsay’s opportunistic attempts to balance the books should be viewed with the upmost skepticism, given his historic hostility to the principles of collective action.

According to Ramsay, VFF membership has fallen by 30% to 10,000 members since 2004, mirroring the declines of other peak bodies like the Australian Industry Group. In what could be interpreted as a cynical attempt to manipulate public sympathy over the bushfire crisis, Ramsay told the Weekly Times the VFF had played a key role in the collection of fodder from fire threatened farmers, despite these activities being heavily subsidised by the state government. In these days of toil and trouble, the time to pitch in was now:

“All these free loaders, who enjoy the benefits, should have a serious think about giving it some support”, Ramsay said.

Ramsay was drawing attention to the so-called “free rider” problem, identified by American economist Mancur Olson in his magisterial Logic of Collective Action, published in 1965 and epitomised by the prisoner’s dilemma.

But in 2006, Ramsay seemed less concerned about Mancur’s paean to self-sacrifice. At the Melbourne University ‘Town and Gown’ ball, Ramsay registered his opposition to compulsory unionism in strident anti-Olson terms, claiming student unions should be scrapped on the grounds of individual liberty. Ramsay has been chummy with the scorched earth arm of the Liberals for years with permanent rumours swirling over his desire for a federal seat.

As the dinner wore on, Ramsay deliberately confused the university council with the student union and claimed unions were now on their last legs following the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism just weeks before. His stance mirrored that of Australian Liberal Students Federation, who had scored a win on VSU when John Howard finally passed their longed-for laws.

VSU resulted in the crippling of student services and representation in all but the most prestigious sandstone universities, forcing the Rudd Government to introduce a bill in February to partially reverse the laws with the backing of Barnaby Joyce. With the new laws now headed for the Senate, the ALSF has predictably launched a revitalised campaign to ‘stop student taxes‘.

Ramsay’s about-face on Olson is being jointly prosecuted be an interesting collaborator. One of the most virulent pro-VSU voices to traipse a university campus in years was former young Liberal and Sophie Mirabella staffer Brendan Rowswell. Rowswell is now Ramsay’s media officer and his name and mobile number is prominently affixed to many VFF media releases.

Crikey readers may remember Rowswell as the “nuzzler” who was caught on tape spruiking an anti-Semitic tirade before moving on to bury his head in fellow young Lib’s breasts at a 2006 ALSF function addressed by John Howard.

For her part, Mirabella has slammed new laws, claiming student money would be hijacked by “campaigns against legislation and policies”. Of course, when Mirabella was at Melbourne Uni in the late 1980s, she was extremely active, prosecuting an impressive campaign against the Left and successfully signing up Crikey founder Stephen Mayne to the blue blood cause. Without compulsory fees, she probably would have never made it to parliament.

Ramsay, Rowswell and Mirabella’s selective embrace of collective principles mirrors that of other anti-union warriors in the business community whose hypocrisy in defending unions for business while smashing the labour movement is legendary.

VSU is a totemic issue among the political class in Canberra for one reason — it gives our upstanding representatives an excuse to return to the mad sandpit of student politics where their hacky careers began. But once they make it, it appears undergraduate debate inevitably makes way for the harsh realities of defending collective interests in the most contradictory terms possible.

Peter Fray

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