Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Student politics 2001

Little did I know it when I arrived on campus in 2001, but my six years there would be the most turbulent and fractured in campus politics for decades. From the very start, I was lukewarm in my interest in the shannagans of student politics: in my view at the time, I'd bypassed student politics and headed straight to the real thing. I was the Victorian President of the Young Australian Democrats, and later that year would be preselected as a candidate for the 2001 Federal Elections. Why bother learning to crawl when I could already walk?

When the campus elections of 2001 were approaching in early August, I was reluctant to run, knowing that there were barely a handful of fellow Democrats on campus, and the other tickets were far more experienced and slick-oiled than I could possibly be. Nonetheless after some persuading by fellow Democrat and then NUS National Environment Officer Peter Zakzrewski, I nominated. Fearing the commitment that comes with a year-long appointment, I took the easy way out, and nominated for a position as a Melbourne Uni delegate to the State and National conventions of the National Union of Students, a week-long obligation, usually carried out whilst drunk. Melbourne University elected seven delegates to the NUS Conference, and these positions were elected via proportional representation in elections held simultaneously with the election for a myriad of campus office bearer and committee positions.

I paired up with a fellow Democrat, Jane Sullivan (who I haven't heard from in five years - are you out there, Jane?) and we lodged a ticket nomination for the NUS position as Democrats on Campus, filling in the nomination form and depositing it in the modest nomination box held in Union House. To avoid last minute hitches, we put it in on a Tuesday, with nominations closing on the Friday. The lodging of the ticket would prove to be the entirety of our campaign effort. Three days later I checked the election noticeboard to check the list of nominations. To my extreme shock, there were just nine nominations in total: seven from Real Students (the brand name of the Labor Right faction) and two from the Democrats on Campus.

The exact detail of what had happened eludes me, but in effect, during the week of nominations, the Labor Left-dominated Student Council had sacked the Returning Officer, believing that this would annul the nomination process, which would need to start afresh under the new Returning Officer, and so the Labor Left (as well as Liberals, and just about everyone else) had not bothered to submit their nomination. Upon their arrival the new Returning Officer, in order to meet the election deadlines already set, decided to treat the nomination process as valid. The upshot of it was that most tickets had failed to nominate, and only the Labor Right ticket had submitted their nomination, alongside the now mighty Democrats on Campus.

Come the second week of September, amidst farce and frustration, the elections were held (incidentally that was the week of 9/11, and so anger at the election was far more subdued that would otherwise have been expected). At the end of that week, the votes were tallied, and I was elected to represent the students of the University of Melbourne at the National Union of Students. Or so I thought. Appeals were submitted to the campus electoral tribunal, but to no avail. As well as my personal success, this result gave almost absolute control of the office bearer positions and committee position to the Labor Right faction, a situation which would lead to the dizzying heights of irresponsibility that was to come.

Early in December the Victorian NUS Conference came and went at Monash University in Clayton, with only hazy memories in my head of the conference being short of quorum until a delegate from the Gippsland finally arrived several hours after the scheduled start. When the important business of the meeting arrived - electing snouts to pleasure themselves in the NUS trough for the coming twelve months - I took my guidance from NUS veteran and friend Pete and teamed up with the Labor Right faction, much to the chagrin of the Labor Left folks who resented my right to be there, let alone vote against them.

A week later was the National Conference, hosted by the University of Ballarat. I'd heard about the National Conference before, thanks to interstate Democrats who had attended in past years. My impression of it beforehand - which was vindicated by what I saw in person - was that the Conference was a sad collection of drunk and horny student politicians, conducted at odd hours, and dominated by a loopy collection of unrepentant hardcore socialists.

The thing I was most looking forward to at Conference was the tension between the Liberals and the rest. I'd heard legendary stories about the Liberals' antic and the past, and wanted to verify them myself. One story had it that the Liberals had thrown a fridge out of a second storey window. Another was that they'd vandalised their accommodation. Other years they'd been banned from campus and forced to stay elsewhere. The Liberals' were opposed in principle to the idea of student unionism, and the starters was to so sought to destroy the reputation of NUS. They were Trojan Horses, and were unashamed about it. My year at the conference, the motif of choice was the Australian flag and the national anthem, which were displayed and sung prominently and loudly, a basically inoffensive act calculated to stir the tempers of the hardcore left who are so riddled with paranoia that any display of Australian patriotism was akin to racism (anti-Muslim racism was the hot button issue at the time). Time after time the Left would take the bait, successfully banning the Australian flag from the conference floor and generally getting hot and bothered. It was a great piece of political theatre. Though there were only a handful of them there, the Liberals had the most fun by far, and whilst achieving nothing at all in the formal part of the conference, achieved plenty outside of it.

Nothing much at the conference takes place before dark, a considerable achievement given that it occurs near the summer solstice. The agenda optimistically begins after lunch, but in reality it starts after dinner. Delegates stay in dorms grouped according to political faction. The committed politicos in each faction spend their time clustering around each other, as if stratergising the invasion of New Zealand. The rest, which is most of us, hang around on the lawns with each other, sipping cheap beer and wondering what the hell is taking so long. This statis goes on for hours, until eventually there is a movement toward the main conference hall.

Inside, a jumble and tables and chairs sit haphazardly, soon grouped according to faction, with Labor Left (two of them), Broad Left, International Students, Labor Right, Independents and independents all represented. At the back on one side are the Liberals, treated like AIDS victims at a Fred Nile Rally, whilst on the other was my modest group of half a dozen or so. The Democrats on Campus. From the ceiling hung the names of each of the universities represented. I soon learnt that come voting time, we would gather under the title of our respective universities. At the front stood a modest podium, and to the side of that sat a circle of chairs with representatives of each faction elected to organise the minutiae of the conference.

It was only on the second evening of the conference that the business of the conference actually begun. After a few formalities, the first issue to be decided was whether or not the results of the Melbourne University election should stand. As soon emerged, the result at Melbourne Uni had fundamentally altered the balance of power of the conference itself, not surprising given that the Uni is the second biggest at the conference, and that the delegates were almost all from the one faction - Labor Right. Without Melbourne Uni, the Left have the numbers. With us, the Right have the numbers.

The strategy of the Left was to have the Melbourne Uni results annulled, and the previous year's delegates take our place. A straight vote of the conference - with the current Melbourne Uni delegates in place - would have resulted in a failure of the annulment motion because of the existing balance of power. So first it was necessary to put through a motion that prevented the Melbourne Uni delegates from voting on the legitimacy of their own election. Debate on each of these two motions took hours and hours. The debate, of course, was farcical, given that delegates always vote as a bloc and always vote in their own interests. Not one vote was shifted either way by the hours and hours of fiery rhetoric. The Left talked about the horrible injustice of the nomination process. The Right talked about the importance of respecting due process of campus. And it would have been exactly the opposite if it had have suited them. For me, siding with the Right and maintaining my delegates position was the only sensible thing to do.

A vote on the first motion occurred at around midnight, and sure enough we were to be stripped of our right to vote on the motion of whether or not we could remain as delegates at the conference. Debate on the second motion then stretched on for hours more. Debate is probably a generous description of what occurred: the proceedings are more of a pantomime, with speakers on both sides playing to the prejudices of their faction members, inviting a call-and-response, thumping the podium, venting their spleen, and putting down the numerous heckles of their opponents. It's Parliamentary Question Time on speed.

By three in the morning, I'd had enough of being a passive observer. Extreme in my naivete, or perhaps suffering delusions of grandeur, I reasoned that if I could put my case calmly and rationally, I might be able to persuade some of the passive rump of students on the Left to cross the floor. Almost as nervous as I'd ever been, I stood before the rowdy group of students and starting making my case. I told them how excited I was to be there. That this was my first ever conference. That I want to represent my university, just like everyone else there did. And then I was interrupted. The factional leaders had finally snapped and requested that the motion be put. I never got to finish my speech.

Sure enough, the motion was put, and despite my scintillating rhetoric, the vote went against us. The 2001 Melbourne Uni delegates were turfed out, and the 2000 delegates invited back. In doing this, power had shifted from the Right to the Left. I remember being rather nonplussed at the end of it all. I'd got there by freak chance, and now the right order of things was being restored. Most of the next day at the conference was spent by the Labor Right leaders trying to overturn the previous day's decision. By this stage, though, my heart wasn't in it and I planned my trip home.

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