The Right Side of Campus31 October 2012
Visit any university campus during student election week and you’ll meet student politicians. Hundreds of the tired little sods working day in, day out for your vote. On face value, they present a smorgasbord of voting options for the average student. Stand Up, Unite, Sit Down, Activate, Left Action, Left Inaction, they’re all there, and they’d all really love to represent you. Probe a little deeper though, and you’ll find your choices are actually a lot more limited than the voting card implies. Placed on a political spectrum, those choices would read as: soft-left, mid-left, hard0left, absolutely-loony-left.
Student elections aren’t the only area of student life subjected to a predominantly left-wing approach. In my undergraduate degree in politics, I found tutorials peppered with such a strong sense of leftist idealism that voicing my own political beliefs turned each class into a veritable coming out session. Hi, my name is Christine, and I’m a homo-Liberal. It was only upon reaching the law faculty, a messy postgraduate conglomerate of students with different undergraduate experiences, that I noticed left idealism hadn’t been restricted to the humanities.
Figures from the 2007 Australian Election Study confirm a left bias within the Australian university population When prompted to rank themselves on a left-right matrix, most respondents self-identified as left-leaning, including 42.4 per-cent of individuals holding a bachelor’s degree, and 44.6 of postgraduate qualification holders. Voting behaviour, it seems, can be as much influenced by your level of education than by income level or age demographic.
So what does one do if, like me, you came to university with higher hopes of political diversity? How do we go about ditching Trotsky for Swarovski? The obvious answer would be to find theLiberals on campus. I mean, they’ll surely represent our interests, right?
On face value, the Melbourne University Liberal Club seems decent. their website trumpets the ‘small I’ liberal core values of a free market, small government, and individual liberty. Yet probe deeper and questions arise. Why, after years of political involvement in student elections, are theLiberal representatives failing to gain office? Why, despite there being a clear need for student group that represents economic rationalism and social responsibility, are they receiving such a small number of student votes?
And indeed they are small. The Liberal representative standing for President at the 2011 student elections received 148 student votes, as opposed to 1753 votes for the eventual winner of that position. The recent 2012 elections, while painfully close in primary votes, still saw the Liberal-affiliated student group NOW! lose all office positions on preference votes. While their passion to counter the over-represented left on campus is to be commended, you’d think they’d be getting the hang of it by now.
The problem hasn’t been limited to Melbourne University. Out in he academic hinterland, the Monash University Liberal Club has experienced a similar inertia in the polls. Their presence can be virtually ghost-like until student elections, and even then their efforts equate to little than name-calling. A brief spell on the Monash Student Council as an independent in 2010, before I realised how crazy it all was, I observed that the token Liberal General Representative did little more than vote against motion, rather than marking them on their merits.
But is the Melbourne University Liberal Club doing more than just stamping its foot? In recent months efforts have been made by its members to attack the Labor-dominated student union for its indulgent, often politically motivated use of funds. Concerted interviews with newspapers and radio hosts have shown the group still have a little bit of bite to them, albeit once of those nasty nips you get from an underfed terrier. Which is excellent news for those of us waiting patiently for representation. So why don’t I feel all warm and gooey on the inside?
Well, for a start, I don’t feel part of it. If three years studying the Australian political landscape has taught me anything, i’s that political parties do best when they actively engage with their people. Their job is one half policy creation, and one half marketing the brand. The Melbourne University Liberal Club seemingly didn’t get the memo, and fail dismally at being anything more than an insular group.
Earlier this year I jumped on Facebook and joined the Melbourne University Liberal Club group, largely because the law building is approximately 43 million light years away from civilisation, so keeping up with campus Liberal life can be a hassle. I’d put off outright joining the club, because like cars and coffee, I needed to test the product before I bought it. Within six months I’d been deleted from the group, and have since had each new request rejected. One can begin to speculate why I might have been booted.
First, I’ve got a seriously excellent case of the gay, which by mere association makes me radical and left wing. I can only claim to be the former in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sense. As for the latter, well the last time I felt vaguely like redistributing property was in 1992 when I gleefully passed chickenpox onto my prep class. The second reason may well be that I keep a rather interesting flock of friends. Some are hippies, some are right-wing. Some are socialists, some are hardcore Labor. An uncomfortable number wouldn’t be able to identify our Prime Minister within a 5-metre radius. There are many different flavours in my friendship group, and each brings a distinctive new taste to the table.
But do these reasons make me any less at home within a student Liberal club?
I contend that the problem of the campus Liberal is thus. To be successful at student politics you need to be likeable. you need a bucketful of charm and a killer sense of your audience. It shouldn’t be difficult for the Liberals to sell themselves to the politically disenchanted students on campus. Yet more time is spent on empty posturing than presenting any clear alternative to the next round of Labor hacks. More time is spent filtering out potential problems within their neatly crafted clique than selling themselves as the next truly worthwhile leaders. And not enough time is spent engaging with new recruits to help diversify and strengthen the club.
While they continue to present themselves as mere irritants to the current crop of Left and Left-moderate student politicians, they will not win serious votes. Their success in student politics will be limited to jeering bitterly from the sidelines. For university campuses to be ideologically diverse, legitimate alternatives need to be presented to students. So if you want to be a Liberal on campus, go for it. But don’t expect much from your Liberal Club, unless you intend to ignite a Liberal revolution yourself.