Saturday, December 23, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Student Politics 2003-2006

I've decided to cluster together these last four years for two reasons: firstly, I was strictly a spectator rather than a participant, and secondly, because my departure overseas is imminent, and I want to get this thing written before I head off.

The defining event of this period was the liquidation of student union. The event meant that a generation of the Labor Right wannabe student pollies were ashamed to show their face, and the task was left to more junior students on campus. As for the left, they found themselves in the rare position of being the responsible economic managers, and were quite effective in making this point.

One of the most interesting trends to watch has been the steady growth of the Liberal presense on campus. Early on, it was virtually non-existant. Perhaps mindful of the strong anti-Liberal feeling on campus, Liberal students were reluctant to wave the Liberal banner high. For a while, they aligned themselves with the Labor Right, running joint campaigns and driving a wedge between the left and right factions of the Labor Party. In recent years, the Liberal banner has been waved loud and proud, and with a moderate amount of success. In 2004, the Liberals had a dominant position on campus, occupying a number of positions in Union House. An extra-ordinary position for the party to be in.

Perhaps the best bit of politicking seen in my time on campus was the introduction of Incentive Voting. In effect, it's the application of the principle of compulsory voting to a campus context, but with the use of lunch vouchers for voters rather than fines for non-voters. It's damn hard to argue against, and it's electoral effect is devastating. In the absense of incentive voting, it's generally hard-core lefties who come out and vote, keenly aware of their civic duty. Moderate students, however, have better things to do with their time. In this environment, left wing factions dominate. Under incentive voting, however, the moderate, apathetic and hungary all coalesce and turn up at the polling both keen to exercise their right, and the dynamic of the election changes. From memory it was used in 2002 and 2003, and its ability to both boost turnout and the centre-right vote is extraordinary.

It's instructive to see that on average, university students are far more moderate, or even conservative, than their reputation suggests. Campus elections are generally a process of self-selection and so this average is not reflected in electoral outcomes.

Another manifestation of this is the lack of militancy on campus. In my first year, I remember the excitement of seeing the occupation of the Raymond Priestly Building, the rather austere brick building in the centre of campus which houses the Vice Chancellor and the university bureaucracy. Upset at some global injustice probably beyond the reach of the VC, the protestors took over the building en masse locked themselves inside and hung banners from the side. With loudspeakers and a decent food supply, they looked set to continue the occupation for days at least. Before long there were police on horseback, journalists, and a mass of curious rather than committed students loitering at the bottom of the building.

I stood with a group of onlookers on the side. The whole thing appeared amazingly infantile and counter-productive. The protestors all looked and sounded like mad socialists, and worst of all they looked beyond reason. With a group down below, we talked to each other and found that all of has had hardened our position against the cause espoused by the protestors, and took pity on the university bureaucrats who had been endangered by the mob inside. The protest didn't last for too long, although the court proceedings afterwards did. Several students were changed with trespass and damage to property.

From that point onwards, protest became fairly mild. There were numerous occassions when hot headed and angry shouting was used. The burning of effigies became commonplace. But all of it within a respected framework that imposed limits on behaviour. In the early years left wing students would have a free ride whenever they would launch into protest. Capitalism/Imperialism/the United States would be loudly and freely decried, banners would be waved and cheers would be vocally repeated, all without an opposing point of view heard. More recently, right wing students have beome a counterveiling force, attending these protests, shouting counter-slogans and engaging much more with the left wing students. Often these counter-protests have had more numerous attendees than the pitiful rallies they were protesting against it. Whilst at the time I was reluctant to support it because of the fear of conflict, in retrospect I can see how they forced unengaged students to acknowledge both sides of an issue rather than glibly take on the perspective on the only side represented, which was commonplace beforehand.

The effect of Voluntary Student Unionism is yet to be fully felt on campus, but I suspect it will lead to a renewed left-wing dominance. The reality is that many moderate and conservative students are quite atomised and individualistic, and will be reluctant to join a student union unless they can see tangible benefits for themselves. Furthermore, even if they do sign up, they are unlikely to be engaged politically, instead buying into the "union as service-deliverer" model. Lefties, already convinced of the inherent benefits of collective action, will sign up and vote in great number. Though it might not reflect the zeitgeist of the campus, the radical left will continue to find a home in Union House.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to read about what you have been up to over the past years and to learn about your feelings for your private school education. Fishy