Student Politics in the Age of Apathy

31 October 2012

There was a moment during the recent University of Melbourne Student Union election week that will probably stay with me for life. Rounding a corner near Old Arts I stumbled across a senior candidate from one of the major tickets, who had trapped a harried-looking international student next to a wall. Flapping campaign paraphernalia in his face, the candidate pleaded “Pleeease vote, it’ll only take five minutes, please, come on, it’ll be AMAZING!”

A lecturer warned a group of aspiring media students recently that there is a fine line between persistence and stalking. During the elections, there seemed a fine line between commitment and desperation.

It must be a tiring experience for people who’ve been here for years: startled first-years being frog-marched to the doors of the Baillieu; campaigners lurking at a prescribed distance outside Union House like banished smokers at the pub; the deft mastering of the sentence “Oaawwhh, I’ve already voted” to ward off suspicious campaigners; candidates sprinting to the Returning Officer because they saw an opposition poster on a too-jaunty angle.

What drives these students? Plodding about in their plastic ponchos on a rainy day, combatting what must be terrible nerves to address packed lecture theatres? Are they in it for themselves–another title for the CV, something to brag about at their next party branch meeting? Or is there genuine commitment to making life on campus fairer, more enjoyable or more efficient?

does anyone actually give a brass razoo?

Dusting off ancient editions of Farrago is a window into a time when student politics was dominated by federal issues and was fought mercilessly. Everyone seemed to give a lot of brass razoos. There are allegations of current federal Labor MP Michael Danby passing on information to the Commonwealth Police and getting a Palestinian activist barred from entering the country, pages of letters to the editor about underperformance, misconduct or political muck-raking.

At Monash University in 1976 Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had to shelter in a basement after his security detail deemed him threatened by a raging mob of students. How jolly. I saw Julia Gillard on campus a few weeks ago–no banners, no chants, no protests. I felt like I should throw an egg or something merely to try and regain the university some street cred.

Lindsay Tanner, once Finance Minister under Kevin Rudd and now part-time media critic, was a student here during the ’70s and early ’80s. He says politics was more influential back then for a few reasons.

“The University and the people in it are dramatically different today,” he said. Because students mainly came from well-heeled families and were basically guaranteed employment as graduates “we had a comfort zone of being able to play round and do wild things, not concentrate on our studies.”

“There was a core of very active people,” he says, “with a wide variety of people involved.” hey were mainly exercised by the combustible issues of the time: the Whitlam dismissal, East Timor and apartheid. He also said that 25% of students had to vote in the election for the Union to receive funding.

If that were the case now, the Union would be fucked.

In 2011, the undergraduate population of the University including VCA was 24,002. The total number of votes cast n that year was 2,917, making voter turnout a paltry 12.1%. Voter turnout at VCA was 2.5%. This year, the total number of votes cast rose to 3,372, but that may reflect a rise in the total student population so the turnout percentage may or may not have risen (the University only releases student numbers annually).

The victor of the presidential race, Stand Up’s Kara Hadgraft, thinks the days when such a threshold would work are long gone.

“Unfortunately I don’t think it would work because the reality of university life has consistently changed: university is not free anymore, people are working a lot more, partly because the people who are getting into university are a lot more diverse” she said. “I do agree we need some way of reconnecting with students, but I don’t know what that is, because there are so many factors. Students aren’t engaged on campus anymore, or they aren’t even on campus. But I do agree we need to find some way of encouraging more engagement.”

She conceded the Union is often not seen as important to the students for whom it exists. “Having just come out of an election week where I would have talked to maybe a thousand students, a lot of students don’t know what the Union does. One of my visions for the start of next year, is from Academic Advice Day and going through to O-Week and the first couple of weeks, I hope to run a  big kind of communications drive, along the lines of ‘what is your Union, and what can your Union do for you?'”

Comments from ‘regular’ students seem to indicate that Ms Hadgraft’s strategy would be a sage one.

“I see it as ‘in it for themselves’. They are in it to get something on their CV,” mused Serman Uluca, a second year student, when Farrago interrupted his lunch in Union House.

“Don’t know enough about it,” shrugged one student.

“I haven’t really followed the election,” admits another.

“After a while it just gets to ‘how many people can you talk to?'” chips in a third year, although adding “they were all very nice”.

Most students spoken to believe that many involved in student politics are genuinely passionate: “I understand the need for [the elections]. I’m sure that students up for election are into it, but some are just having fun,” explains Leon Koumouris.

Some were pissed off by negative campaigning. Niclona Triantafillou said “Activate just came in and said ‘vote for anyone except Now!”

Eric Gardiner from Activate was adamant about the need for negative campaigning. “I don’t want the SSAF wasted on political beliefs. Political affiliations are counter-productive in student unions.”

Good luck exorcising politics out of student unionism. University is widely known as a time in peoples’ lives when they are most certain about the Truth of their political beliefs. In addition, student unionism is a stomping ground for those who aspire to real-world politicking.

Dr. Narelle Miragliotta from Monash University researches the demographic make-up of politics. She told Farrago: “many future politicians cut their teeth in student politics. It is in this arena that they are presented with opportunities to develop a skills set that is transferrable to the party and legislative spheres. A great many past and present MPs, Peter Costello, Kelly O’Dwyer, Adam Bandt, David Feeney were introduced to the dark arts of electioneering, networking and political strategising through student politics. And because the parties take an interest in the activities of their student/university branches, many students are mentored and groomed for a career in politics.” You can add Penny Wong, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and many others to the list.

There is a risk to campaigning along political or federal lines. Lindsay Tanner points out politics are becoming more “issues-based”. “The edge has come off a lot of domestic politics.”

In other words, political affiliations are diminishing. Membership of the ALP dipped below 40,000 in 2009-10, with the Liberals believed to be about the same (the parties generally keep membership numbers under wraps, probably out of shame). What that might tell student politicians is that the students who elect them and partly fund them will judge them on what they do, not what they believe in.

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