After a year spent stifling campus activism, last week’s University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) elections dealt the incumbent right-wing bloc, Community, a significant blow.
Through second preference votes, the biggest opposition ticket, Stand Up!, won the Education (Academic Affairs) office and the Environment office, two positions with key responsibilities relating to student activism. Stand Up! also gained the Clubs and Societies office, and retained the positions of President and Education (Public Affairs). However, Community still maintain a majority on the students’ council.
Community is an apolitical, opportunist coalition of various leaders of campus clubs and societies. In office, they’ve been the ultimate bureaucrats, characterised by a love of right-wing identity politics reminiscent of the US Democrats and an intense animosity towards left-wing protest. During the first Semester, they scheduled multiple students’ council meetings at the same time as protests to free the Park Hotel refugees locked up around the corner from Parkville campus. They spent $15,000 on lawyers to fight UMSU staff in EBA negotiations and $17,000 on reusable razors to give away in O-Week, but refused to help pay fines for Melbourne University students who had received fines at the refugee protests–saying it wouldn’t be “good governance”.
When students organised a rally against climate change, Community’s student union office bearers denounced them because marching on the road was a “non-consensual” and “unsafe” activity. Throughout the last year, they’ve argued that organising climate justice protests, demanding refugee freedom and marching on the road were acts of “white supremacy”. So Community’s inability to win a decisive reelection on this platform is a positive development for the future of campus activism.
But Stand Up! can’t be trusted to fight Community, or to decisively change the direction of the student union. They’ve refused to challenge Community’s anti-activist vitriol in student council meetings. It’s often been hard to tell that they’re a separate faction at all.
Stand Up! is a ticket associated with the student Labor Left faction, organised at the University of Melbourne through the campus Labor Left club, and connected to their National Labor Students (NLS) faction. For young Labor members, winning a position in a student union is a good way to learn how to manage bureaucracies, to get training for a future job as a trade union official, or as a step on the path to becoming the next Anthony Albanese. For many of them, running an office is not about rebuilding student activism on campus but learning to lobby (code for “network with”) politicians, lobby (code for “collaborate with”) management and put “UMSU 2022” on their resumes.
Their commitment to the Labor party means they cannot be trusted to defend progressive positions. At this year’s massive Melbourne rallies in solidarity with Palestine, the Labor left students came along after they’d spent the morning volunteering for Ged Kearney. Their club took a photo with the ALP politician, which they then uploaded to their Facebook page with the popular slogan “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free”. But as soon as the Labor Party apparatus cracked down on this, denouncing the slogan as anti-Semitic–a common argument weaponised against pro-Palestine campaigners–the mighty Labor left immediately deleted the post and “conceded that they’d been ignorant of the true meaning” of the slogan. As with their hero Ged, their left posturing proves very shallow when it jeopardises their future careers.
When it comes to student unionism, Stand Up! share far too much with Community. Stand Up! argue that the student union should be a charitable service provider for students, rather than an institution responsible for organising activist campaigns to demand that the university’s management provide vital services. Like their more openly right-wing rivals, Stand Up! also cynically weaponise identity politics to undermine activism and suck up to various Community-aligned councilors–in fact, they have a longer tradition of attacking campus activism through right-wing identity politics than the relatively new Community.
Stand Up! ran on a more right-wing basis this year than they have in the past. In a Farrago interview, Stand Up! president-elect Sophie Nguyen outlined her approach to UMSU. She argued UMSU departments needed to create “not only activist space but social space[s]”. This is hardly a good way to oppose Community’s anti-activist hostility. In the context of unprecedented attacks in higher education, Nguyen cites an “amazing” performance of pop group Lime Cordiale at a past O-Week as an example of her vision for UMSU. The interview shows Stand Up!’s approach to student unionism: apolitical service provision. This is the exact strategy that has made student unions weaker and more right-wing for decades. Instead of fighting the key enemy, university management, the union simply fills in where management falls short, or organises social events when higher education is in crisis.
Socialists running on the underdog ticket Left Action argued for a left-wing, activist student union. We won roughly 12% of the vote for the activist office positions, students’ council and National Union of Students (NUS) delegates. This vote landed us two student council positions and a delegate to NUS National Conference in December. We’re happy with that result: we won votes through campaigning and political argument, unlike the two major tickets who rely on bloc votes from university clubs and societies.
In the Presidential debate between tickets, Left Action highlighted the savage attacks on higher education funding, the latest IPCC report that warned of “hell on earth” if carbon emissions aren’t halted, the intensity of racism toward refugees, and the Liberal government and big businesses’ current push for a premature reopening that puts profits above health. Representing Left Action in this debate, I argued: “The government and the university administration have gotten away with far too many attacks. What we need is a student union led by experienced leftwing activists to organise a student fightback. What we don’t need is another year of bureaucrats like Community or wannabe Labor politicians like Stand Up… UMSU should be a fighting body that organises students to protest on our campus and in our city and takes up leftwing positions”.
During the election campaign, Left Action emphasised the activism we organised this year. Two of our members, graduate representatives in the GSA, established the Stop the Liberals – Menzies Institute off our Campus campaign, attracting national media attention. We relaunched Students for Palestine and mobilised for Melbourne’s massive Palestine solidarity rallies. Through Uni Students for Climate Justice, we organised hundreds of protesters demanding the university divest its $70 million from fossil fuel and weapons manufacturers. We put a particular focus on campaigning to free the refugees locked up in the Park Hotel, just around the corner from our university campus, while holding Community to account for their abstention from this important campaign. These campaigns were organised without us controlling any office bearer positions in UMSU, but such a position would give us media reach, institutional weight and a budget we could use for campaign promotion. An UMSU led by activists would lead the key campaigns on the campus, fight the Liberal government and attacks from university management and take up left wing positions.
Our unapologetically activist-oriented platform resonated with over 400 students who voted for Left Action for the activist positions of president, education and environment. For President, which had 3781 votes cast, Left Action won 457 primary votes (12%), while Stand Up! received 1470 (38%) and Community 1535 (40%). For Education, Left Action again won 12% of the 3781 votes, with Stand Up! at 36% and Community 41%. Out of the 2801 votes for Environment office, we won 14%, over a third of Stand Up!’s vote at 36%, while Community received 41%.
This is a good result for the socialist left in a new world of online-only student elections. It gives us the platform to build progressive student campaigns and fight for left wing positions in UMSU and NUS. We will continue to campaign against the establishment of a right wing think tank, the Robert Menzies Institute, on our campus. Uni Students for Climate Justice will keep mobilising students to demand University of Melbourne to divest from fossil fuels and we will continue to rally on Swanston Street to free the Park Hotel refugees. Our council positions will give us a platform next year to take on the right on campus and rebuild an activist culture on campus.