When I started my, er, studies at the University of Melbourne, it was the halcyon pre-millenial days of 1997. The Commies had just lost the Cold War (give or take a few years), the ALP had been swept from power after 13 years by a strange little survivor with ominously Menzian eyebrows, and, almost anachronistically, the far left-wing dominated student politics in Melbourne town. It was half a lifetime ago -- it seemed like Left Focus (the furthest left of several left-wing groups at the time) would never loosen its stranglehold on the offices of the MUSU.
My interest in all this was slight. My recollections of my first election or two consist of: chalking a few bright colored slogans for "Broad Left" with Eve (who much later became President, in 2000 or 2001) and Jordy outside the Baillieu even though I didn't really understand their platform; and Peter and I engaging in a little Red-baiting with Left Focus campaigners -- you know, quizzing them on the finer points of Marxism and stuff. It was something to do, that's all; harmless enough. I don't think I even voted in those elections, so certain seemed the result. Those who did vote, and didn't want to vote left-wing, had a choice betweeen the Liberal Club and the More Beer! club.
In these dingy post-millenial days, it's an utterly different tale. I am thoroughly unqualified to tell it, because I haven't always paid attention to developments in student union politics. But bear with me: it may not be true, but it will be interesting, I promise. In 2001, a "new" group of campaigners arrived in the student elections. They called themselves Real Students. For a couple of years the Union had been calibrating closer to the "centre" on the spectrum of political persuasions. Real Students had a clever "centrist" platform, which painted the leftist groups as too caught up in politics "beyond" university life (fighting the Howard and Bush governments, WTO, environmental issues, etc), to actually listen and respond to the interests of the "majority" of University students. In the eyes of the "real students", Left Focus was too busy trying to reclaim the spirit of the 60s to notice that the constitution of uni students in this age was fundamentally different. The massive influx of international students romanced by the corporate sphere of the University, the apparent escalation of pressures on students to get into a good high-paid career and "get on with your life", and more particularly, the fact that university students were now paying for their degrees dramatically altered the dominant culture of student life. It is an entirely valid criticism of the far-left of student politics that it has ignored, and perhaps continues to ignore, these changes in the culture of universities.
What Real Students identified, and capitalised upon, was that self-interest rather than political conscience now dominated student concerns. Their flashy, omnipresent campaign in 2001, as I recall, promised students that a vote for them would result in material (in more ways than one) benefits for all students the following year. You know, things like student discounts, etc. Their brochures were expensively produced -- these campaigners were selling products where the left was selling mere theories and agitation. They won in a landslide, collecting every single Union office.
It seems to me that the "centrist" position of Real Students was either a facade from the outset, or a position that rested on a volatile bedrock of troubled earth. That is, it was untenable. The earth sundered, the right wing of student politics (who were less slow than the left to recognise the nature and power of this line) quietly took over the reigns of power. I might be wrong -- perhaps Real Students was right-wing all along. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. In 2002, intriguingly, Real Students did not appear on the ballot. Filling precisely the same role however, and incorporating many of the same actors, was a new group: Student Alliance. Left Focus also, technically, did not appear on the ballot, for other reasons. They were not affiliated with the Student Union (their affiliation had been revoked by Real Students, specifically Darren Ray, as had all other left wing groups); therefore technically they could not appear on the ballot. In their stead was a ticket theoretically organised by an individual (tickets in the name of individuals could appear on the ballot, I guess) who had renamed himself by deed poll to Sebastian Leftfocus.
Anyway, perhaps with the help of a little mass bribery, Student Alliance giddily took over the reigns of power from Real Students -- incumbent President Darren Ray passed on the sceptre to his protege Scott Crawford. Allegations of corruption and rigging were rife, at first seeming to be the mere pangs of power-loss from the dethroned Left, but increasingly and ominously growing more apparent to anyone glancing cursorily left or right as they walked through Union House.
This year is the most bizarre student election at least in my time, and perhaps in the history of the University of Melbourne. There are upwards of thirteen tickets running, but they divide fairly neatly into two camps. The two camps are very (and deliberately) confusingly aligned. In the blue corner, in defence of the incumbent regime, we have the group of tickets that can be broadly termed the "Go!" coalition. They are:
- Student Alliance
- Liberal Club
- Labour Club
- The Greens Ticket
- Students Against Corruption
- Hellenic Students Society
- Free Beer!
In the red corner, taking a militant stance against Ray-Crawford-&Co, are what we might cutely label the "Stop!" coalition:
- International Association
- More Beer!
On both sides, we clearly have some unholy matrimonies. (These camps are based on the available information regarding the direction of preferences of each individual group.) What on earth are Liberal, Labour and the Greens doing in partnership with a centre-right collective? Well, firstly, The Greens Ticket is not endorsed by the Australian or Victorian Greens -- it's a sham ticket intended to capitalise on the nation-wide growth in Green votes, particularly amongst young semi-politically-conscious people (I might declare here that I'm a fully paid up member of the Australian Greens, but I do take it with a grain of salt. I know it's an absurdly safe, moral-high-ground position in many ways). I'm not wholly surprised that the student Labour and Liberal clubs are in alignment here -- after all, they are up in Canberra too, to all intents and purposes. But what about "Students against Corruption"? This is an extraordinary ticket. It is not doing any campaigning that I can discern. And it directs its preferences back to Go! which is the third incarnation of the present MUSU regime -- the very same regime that has been accused of corruption in the pages of mainstream media
. Like the Greens Ticket, SAC is a ticket designed to capitalise on, and subvert, the proliferation of stall wall graffiti around campus condemning Darren Ray and Scott Crawford for corrupt activities. And again, the Free Beer! ticket, which does no campaigning either to my knowledge, is intended to draw votes from a confusion with the popular and high-profile More Beer! ticket. You have to marvel at their ingenuity and flexibility in a way.
The assortment on the other side is less sinister, but no less curious. The Left-Focus/Wood ticket once again takes its name from a dedicated woman who has changed her name to Julia Left-Focus. Left-Focus and Pride are ideological bedfellows, but More Beer! and the International Association are as different from each other as they are from the other two. The key to it is that More Beer! and the International Association are union-affiliated groups, and therefore able to appear as tickets on the front page of the voting form (as opposed to Left-Focus which requires that voters fill out each of the six other forms -- it took me about ten minutes). These two groups are disturbed by the despotic trends in the current union administration, and they have therefore allied with each other and with the leftist groups in an effort combat the Go! coalition.
With the aid of expensive (and non-recyclable, as the Left-Focus campaigners will tell you) brochures, smear campaigns such as the one levelled in moderate-sounding terms but with dangerous intent against the gay and lesbian-oriented group Pride, and of course the promise of a free meal again, the Go! coalition will return the usual suspects to power for a third year. It is pretty much a foregone conclusion. And what will happen then? When will our self-interest give way to a genuine horror at the steady erosion of democracy? Will it happen too late for MUSU?
I have loitered around Uni for long enough to recall the pre-"Real Students" union, if only dimly. I would not want to overrate it; I could hardly portray it in glowing terms. I was, for instance, highly critical of the 1998 Farrago team for being rabidly left in a completely unreflective way. (I wrote an article on the subject, but they declined to print it.) But there was
a sense of something more noble than naked, careerist self-interest. There were people developing and extending a university culture that was more inclusive and eye-opening than the mere provision of a "canteen" and the occasional free beer. And there was, moreover, each September, a capacity for an individual student to vote for whomever they liked.
(For an overview of the turbulence surrounding this years election, view the documents made available by the (commercially contracted?) organisers of the election: Global Tertiary Solutions
Update and corrections
Okay, a certain level on ignorance on my part, and censorship on the part of others, means that some of the above is inaccurate. Here are a few corrections:
- I asked some Pride campaigners if they could show me the material that Darren Ray in particular has been peddling about their group. There is nothing really "moderate sounding' about the content of these pamphlets -- at the base of the sheet in large bold type, Ray brazenly asserts that a vote for Pride is a vote for homosexual sex in the basement toilets. That's not politics or anything like it; that's vilification. (During these elections almost all Pride candidates are from the (disaffiliated) ALP Club and Acti/Vate -- giving it a broader agenda during these elections than at other times, when it is a "politically unaligned" group for queer students. Ray, with his Tribunal-based muzzling and vilification of Pride campaigners, is seeking to obscure that fact.)
- The Labor Club (eligible to campaign in this election) is not associated with the Australian Labor Party -- the ALP Club (which is) has been disaffiliated by the despots on the Union's Activities Committee. I found a flyer explaining how to vote for the Labor club on the Liberal Club campaign desk.
- Real Students won the 2001 elections after a Magistrate's Court ruling determined that only they and one other ticket (the "Davo" ticket) were allowed to compete in it. It was this, rather than their campaign itself, that assured their dominance of the Union.
- The position of the commercial entity "Global Tertiary Solutions", administering the elections, is highly compromised -- it was founded by the 2000 President Ben Cass, who shares a friendship and ideology with Ray, Crawford and their cohorts. More and better information on this was available in Thursday's Farragette, which may be difficult to source -- perhaps try emailing the team at Farrago.
The Farrago team are the only left-wing office bearers this year. They won their office by one vote. I voted last year for the first time, and only voted for one position -- the Farrago officers. Every vote counts, as they say. The team should be applauded for their efforts to clarify the incredible confusion surrounding this years elections.
10 Sep 2003