On Saturday, Paul Sheehan penned this piece in The Sydney Morning Herald highlighting the desperate plight of that apparently rare university species — the young conservative.

But if the results of one recent student election are any indication, Sheehan’s “Loneliness of the University Liberal” could be short-lived. Instead, it seems young libs could be ruling campus bully-pulpits for decades to come with the backing of a reliable political partner — the right wing of the ALP.

Last week at the University of Melbourne, nearly all major elected positions were won by a Labor Right-Liberal tie-up, a coalition of the type pioneered by Peter Costello at Monash University in the late 70s.

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While the result at Melbourne was close (the right won President by just 112 votes out of 4000), and some other positions were decided by under 30 votes, the signs are looking ominous for the junior leftists at the country’s leading sandstone institution. As the wheeling and dealing continued this morning, the separately-elected Student Council also seemed poised to fall to the right.

Now, the cross-party love fest is set to be repeated elsewhere. Crikey understands that combined Liberal-Labor tickets are in the works at Monash University and RMIT. Liberal partners Labor Unity already control posts at the University of South Australia, Monash University’s Berwick campus, the University of Canberra and Victoria University. At the University of Queensland, the Liberals stormed to power last year, marking a violent break from that institution’s red-tinged past.

Student pollies on the ground say the revival of Costello’s cross-party brainchild is a direct response to the Left’s rampant fragmentation, especially the “with us or against us” bloody-mindedness of resident Trotskyites Socialist Alternative. Critics say that the group, a remnant of the collapsed Communist Party, do little in the way of on-the-ground electioneering, preferring to push their considered views on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

At Melbourne University, the left is conducting a thorough post-mortem, with sources blaming a split which saw the International Association and the activities ticket withdraw its support, instead preferencing the Labor right. The Labor Right-Liberal machine, with the glorious title of “Synergy”, was able to present a united front against the hodge-podge of left-leaning groups. The independent media ticket, perhaps the broad left’s only real success story, held on, albeit with little in the way of competition. The grass-roots left (think identity politics and the greens) also did OK, snaring four positions.

But for the right, this was a triumph. Now, as in Costello’s era, its main motivation is the crushing of crypto-Maoist activism on campus, critics say. Representatives of the national student left reckon Young Liberal elements in the new alliance are keen to bankrupt the union in the style pioneered by Republican Party operatives Jack Abramoff and Oliver North in the early 80s with copies of Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew believed to be strewn around fundraisers for inspiration. The right’s victory over VSU formed part of the plan — the incoming slate of candidates now want to finish the job.

The complete collapse of the left at student level also reflects that faction’s diminishing status in the federal ALP. If the past is any guide, many of the newly-elected crew will move on to the green leather in Canberra. In fact, it’s hard to see an alternative career path beyond federal politics, union hackdom or journalism for the main players. As Stephen Luntz has repeatedly pointed out, some early editions of Crikey contained content sourced exclusively from the Melbourne Uni student union. Names like Menzies, Tanner, Evans, Danby, Mayne, Thornley, Marles and Mirabella all cut their teeth in the Parkville bearpit.

Watch for a new swathe of powerbrokers to emerge on Capital Hill in 10 years’ time, that while they may bicker on the detail, are all set to impose a cosy bi-partisan consensus on the affairs of the nation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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