In the mid-1990s Senator Scott Ryan was riding high as one of the country’s most prominent Young Liberals. As president of the Melbourne University Liberal Club — once home to a long list of blue blood luminaries like David Kemp and Alan Stockdale — the well-rounded activist could see his glorious future laid out ahead of him.
A skilful and ethical operator who surfed above the muck pedalled by more boisterous junior Tories, Ryan stood alongside Kelly O’Dwyer as the core of an ambitious clique of operators with their eyes firmly fixed on federal parliament. While never an office bearer at the Melbourne University Student Union, Ryan was among one of the only Liberals to ever serve on the rabidly left-wing National Executive of the National Union of Students.
“He was an amiable lump, a Jonah Hill character,” said one university peer who colluded briefly with Victorian MP Michael O’Brien and Sophie Mirabella (nee Panopoulos) to oust the unpopular Labor Right Melbourne Uni administration in 1991.
After graduating — but not before getting his name etched on the honour board of the Carlton Curry Cafe for ingesting the hottest of hot vindaloos — Ryan, by then a staunch Krogerite, went on to score plum adviser posts with state political heroes Denis Napthine and Robert Doyle. A stint in corporate PR was ditched after he secured the third spot on the Liberals’ Senate ticket at the ripe age of 33 in 2006.
But one issue has remained from his uni days: a virulent opposition, like most former campus Liberals, to compulsory student unionism. This week’s historic passing of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) bill in the Senate followed months of filibustering from Ryan and his Senate colleague Brett Mason — another ex-student pollie who delights in trotting out the usual user-pays arguments against common services.
Ending the long path back to financial surety for student unions has been a priority for the duo ever since Howard government first introduced voluntary student unionism in 2005 — a decision which starved campuses of tens of millions of dollars and perversely tilted activism toward radical socialists that sourced their funding externally.
The clawback process has been a torturous one. After the 2007 election, a consultation process led by Kate Ellis resulted in a 2009 version of the bill that was defeated in the Senate after National Party senators — including Barnaby Joyce — refused to cross the floor (Joyce had previously sided with the then-opposition in 2005 to protect rural sporting clubs from decimation, later securing a $100 million chop-out).
A fresh version of the legislation was finally introduced a full year ago and has languished on the notice paper ever since. Some things have changed from the pre-Howard era — the $263 annual fee will be administered by universities and spent in consultation with elected student office bearers and students who don’t want to pay cash can get the amount added to HELP. And significantly, funding for direct political activity will be banned, despite Ryan and Mason’s claims that the “health and welfare” provisions could be exploited and that money could be used to campaign against, rather than for, a particular political party.
This week in the Senate it didn’t take long for both MPs to dredge up their own uni experiences and expose their eagerness to reprosecute the battles of 20 and 30 years ago.
Mason expressed his supreme concern at the alleged channelling of ANU student money to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the early 1980s:
“… the reason we take these issues so seriously is that many of us were involved in student politics — I certainly was a long time ago back in the early 1980s — and I will never forget that as a 17-year-old my money was paid to student organisations and then used for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That is how it was used back in the early 1980s. Somehow, that was okay; that was an expression of student will! There was never any expression of student will. Only 5% of people ever voted at the ANU in the early 1980s. The Left got hold of the money and spent it on causes they believed in. The rest of the students — the 95% — would never have supported the PLO.”
Ryan was similarly aggrieved, claiming that student money ended up in the pockets of senior silks:
“While the parliamentary secretary talks about ideology, I can talk about experience, because the experience I had at the University of Melbourne student union in the early 1990s was of money being directed towards a subsidised cafeteria and then the money coming out of that till being used for political activities. In one particular case, it famously paid for legal representation for a group called the Austudy Five who allegedly stormed parliament and broke the premier’s office window.”
In an earlier speech, Ryan claimed the cafeteria lost a “quarter of a million” dollars a year in 1992 that found its way into the hands of the feral Left. But another of Ryan’s Melbourne Uni contemporaries disputes that account. The former office bearer, when alerted to Tuesday afternoon’s Senate transcript, didn’t hold back, slamming the cafeteria profit rorting scenario as wilfully untrue.
“In the early ’90s the union has in fact received a block grant to spend on anything it liked as long as it was in the interests of students,” the source said, rendering the rorting scenario null and void. A cost-cutting drive in 1990 and 1991 had left the caf in comparatively rude financial health. It was only in 1995 that a new rule prevented money being spent on student politicians’ salaries. Budding MPs were then forced to rely on other profit-making schemes, such as room rentals, to keep afloat.
It is more likely that rather any battle over cafeteria cash the continuing hostility is more a desire to purge campuses of the manky presence of the revolutionary Left. At the centre of that dispute is Socialist Alternative, the cultish campus Trotskyites who continue to provide the ballast for most of Australia’s left-wing protest activity.
Tellingly, the leader of the “Austudy Five” mentioned by Ryan was Mick Armstrong, Socialist Alternative’s titular head in Victoria (at the time Armstrong was involved in SA’s forerunner the International Socialist Organisation).
The desire of Tony Abbott to strike back against “Marxists” at Sydney University in 1979 remains to this day the same spectre that haunts Ryan and Mason.
Ryan was a hard worker, according to the campus contemporary: “His ascension to parliament struck me as a demonstration that persistence, at least amongst the Liberals, counts for more than intellect.
“His primary attributes in those days were hard work and loyalty, both above and beyond what one normally encounters. I have a memory of one year when I was in charge of setting up the Left’s campaign table every day, letting the candidates sleep in. Three days out of five he beat me in and was working away putting up posters or chalking before anyone else was around.
“What was memorable was that every day I had at least six other lefties join me before the second right-winger showed up. They simply had no one else, then or since, who matched his commitment.”
But the infrastructure was crucial. As the good senator acknowledged in his maiden speech to parliament, without the student-funded Melbourne University Liberal Club — “one of the nurseries of Liberal thought” — he probably would have ended up in Arts degree occupational purgatory.