Not many things make for a better headline than a student union, perpetually the bastion of the battling Left (a training ground for fights to come), falling to the Right.
And it’s entirely understandable. How could hordes of bright-eyed youths with their liberal arts educations and asymmetrical haircuts, drumming away on MacBook Pros and smoking between sandstone arches, willingly sign their representation away to conservatives?
As a student politician, I find this alarming. But the truth is: they didn’t. Well, not really.
The recent elections for the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) saw the unification of Labor Unity and the Liberal Party under the most atrocious name (beating out such worthy contenders as Yes! and Energize) in recent student election history: Synergy.
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Divergent political allegiances aside, it was a significant move because it not only led to a large-scale, student services focused campaign for the usually separate tickets, but the subsequent election of Synergy to the positions of president and secretary, as well as the offices of education (public), education (academic) and welfare.
There. I’ve called it significant. Which is a big concession from an indignant leftie such as me.
But it’s not comprehensive, and I take issue with the way Andrew Crook referred to the result as “ominous for the junior leftists” on campus because Synergy’s success, while being the most immediate and obvious, is only one part of a story that ends in a complex tangle of a union next year.
Without wanting to sound like Antony Green’s student politics spin-off, it is important to understand the structure of UMSU and closely interrogate the results to really assess the impact of the unified Right.
The Students’ Council, with 18 members, is the peak decision-making body. It sits over the offices (portfolios), and these are further scrutinised by their own committee. All of these positions are elected at the same time, and in the same booklet of ballot papers: had the Synergy experiment concluded with a decisive win at the expense of the Left, you would expect they would take control at each level.
But they haven’t. In terms of Students’ Council, Synergy were elected to four positions (exactly the same as the previous year — three Liberals and one Labor Unity) and will require iUnion, the newly established ticket run by international students, to pursue any of their agendas. The rest of the spots are taken up by the Left, Independent Media and the More Activities! ticket.
It is a similar case with the offices, where Crook points to an overwhelming dominance that just isn’t there. His assertion that “nearly all major elected positions” went to Synergy seems to indicate that the education and welfare offices are somehow paramount to those of arts, environment, women’s and queer. The latter four departments are central to activism and the inclusive, broad representational nature of UMSU. They were all contested by the Right and retained by Activate, the grass-roots ticket that I am part of, in a resounding demonstration of support for non-affiliated leftist politics.
Similarly problematic for the Right is that they control only two of the six committees, which dictate to the offices on how, and when, they can spend their money. Thus, if it is Synergy’s desire to bankrupt and destroy the union from within, as the terrified Trots and Labor Left hacks are yelping, they’re going to have a particularly tough time finding the resources with which to do it. Instead, the Left, encompassing Activate, StandUp! (Labor Left) and the Left Student Unionists (Socialist Alternative) are liberally smattered in spots across the board, and can use their numbers to influence and keep the Right in check.
And while I can concede that president, and to a lesser extent secretary, are important as the public faces of the union (doing the bulk of PR and university liaison work), I’d argue that they are also the least proactive in bringing about action and change to the day-to-day lives of students. The election of Synergy to these offices may alter, and soften,the presence of UMSU in the media next year, perhaps giving the impression and scoring the headlines of a union gone Right. But it’s a symbolic victory; it won’t change the progressive, behind-the-scenes work on campus.
And maybe, just maybe, this mixed mess of politics and factions could lead to some form of co-operation?
Scrap that — next year is an election year.
While it is impossible to ignore the fact that students this year lost interest in Labor Left and the Socialists, Crook should note: that too is just one story. Rather than the results foreboding the death of leftism on campus, maybe it’s a sign of the resilience, and testament to the relevance, of grass-roots politics in the Rudd era? Maybe the real story is the increased voter turnout, from 3000 to 4000, showing an unprecedented level of political engagement with the student community, particularly with international students? Or maybe that just illustrates what can be achieved when you tell students you aren’t professional campus politicians and campaign on a platform of beers, bands and BBQs?
There are many stories that you can pull from the UMSU election; half of them true and the other half probably not worth telling. The results will be debated and championed and exaggerated — that’s the fanciful nature of student politics and — heck — “real” politics, too.
But the absolute power of the Right is one story best left to the pages of fiction.