In the cold light of morning, no one is quite sure why police were called to a Student Representative Council meeting at Sydney University last night, least of all the police, who student pollies report were baffled by the odd affair they were called in to adjudicate.

Before police were called, the members of a jilted collection of right-wing factions pulled quorum (and perhaps tampered with the fuse box — in any case, Sydney Uni’s Professorial Board Room was plunged into darkness) in an attempt to derail a meeting where they were expected to lose out on a series of paid office-bearer positions on the SRC.

And how had it come to this? At Sydney University, the SRC president is directly elected by students. But a further 33 students are elected to a council that then gets to vote on who will be appointed to office-bearer positions, some of them paid, at the SRC. These council members are generally politically affiliated, and faction heads come up with deals among themselves to divvy up the office-bearer positions as they see fit.

This year, a deal had been struck between all the factions to the left of and including the Labor Right so everyone got a role. Then, a few weeks back, Labor Right reneged on the deal, and Unity, the main Labor Right faction, signed a new deal with the Liberal students that would have put Liberals on the SRC for the first time since 2011. This deal would have included the two main Labor Left factions and blocked out the the Grassroots Left (modelled on and loosely affiliated with the Greens), Socialists (Socialists Alternative) and independents. One of the Labor Left factions, National Labor Students, subsequently decided to do their own deal, with the Grassroots Left and the Socialist Alternative, that would have blocked out the Libs, Labor Right and the other Labor Left faction (Sydney Labor Students). At the NSW Young Labor conference over the weekend, word got out about the arrangement. And things got pretty tense.

Last night’s meeting was scheduled to start just after 6pm. The more right-wing factions did what student politicians facing a loss always do in this situation — pull quorum in the hopes of derailing the whole thing. The SRC Council needs 17 of its 33 members present to be able to conduct any business. The jilted factions calculated, correctly at first, that if they pulled their councillors out of the room this number wouldn’t be reached. And for an hour it wasn’t. But then one more left councillor turned up, taking the room to 17 people.

And then the lights went out, leaving those still in the room to count quorum in the dark. Campus security was called and checked the fuse box. It was ascertained pretty quickly that a switch had been pulled, says Cameron Caccamo, who successfully ran for an office-bearer position last  night with the support of the left grouping. “So the SRC secretary told those assembled, ‘if it happens again, we know how to fix it, so don’t waste your time’. ”

At some stage before the room had quorum, someone thought it’d be a good thing if the right-wing factions didn’t return to the room after all. There were reports of a scuffle, and police were called at 6.40pm. They didn’t enter the room but told those who went to meet them that they weren’t really sure why they were there, or what the complaint had been. Rowdy meetings, police said, weren’t really their jurisdiction. Honi Soit editor Peter Walsh told Crikey many in the room were pretty unhappy to see the cops, given the normally tense relationship between many left-wing activists and the police. The cops spent around 20 minutes there and then left.

By 8pm, the meeting finally got back on schedule. The voting commenced largely the way it had been expected to go at the start of the meeting, concluding shortly after midnight. At one point, councillors voted to kick out two members of the press — Michael Koziol from The Sydney Morning Herald (who’s already filed this report) and Alex McKinnon from Junkee — both recently graduated students who’d turned up to watch once they found out something was going down. The gesture was somewhat futile. Student rag Honi Soit had reporters there and they were broadcasting a stream from the room, which your correspondent watched from Melbourne, and regularly tweeting proceedings. While meetings such as this were once a place for aspiring politicians to learn the darker arts of political organising in relative obscurity, the rise of social media has utterly obliterated any such cover.

A legal challenge could be on the cards. When quorum is not reached at the start of the meeting, the SRC rules allow for the count to be taken again in 30 minutes. This happened twice last night. It’s not clear if this is allowed, and the right-wing factions argue it isn’t.

Student Unity and NLS are the two major groupings of Labor students at a national level, responsible for stitching up the votes at the National Union of Students conference between them. Whether they’ll work as well together now that things have so spectacularly fallen apart at Sydney Uni will be watched with interest by student hacks across the country.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey