To the untrained (non-ticketed) eye, the Monash Student Association (MSA) represents a maternity ward that fosters and prepares for the birth of student politicians; outgoing presidents, office bearers and loose supporters fall into simultaneous Labor (get it!?) around week 9 of semester-two each year, and without fail, a fresh-faced new president pops right on out. Through the sea of primary coloured t-shirts that persuaded, argued and battled with you to cast a vote – a new president, Ben Knight, was elected.
It is difficult to fathom at first glance that Knight is in fact old enough to be in University, let alone president of one of Australia’s largest Student Unions. Go!, primarily a Labor Left ticket, has held power in the MSA for the past 8 years and Knight, 21, has quickly climbed the ranks from Education (Academic Affairs) Officer to President within a year. First impressions of Knight are soon diminished as we settle into bean-bags and drink coffee at Wholefoods. His tone of voice is much more calm and controlled than mine and I joke about my joining the MSA paying his salary, he is quick to correct me in between sips of his latte, “as President I will work about 50 hours a week and receive a very modest stipend, for the enormous amount of work I will be doing,” he says. Despite Knight’s baby-faced mien his professionalism and credible intellect shines through within the first five minutes of the interview.
As the incoming MSA president at a time where the tertiary education sector is facing the largest cuts to funding and casualisation of staff in over a decade, Knight is all too aware he has his work cut out for him. The MSA’s relationship with University management and outgoing Pro Vice-Chancellor Ed Byrne has been testy at best and Knight seems vague, if not slightly weary to confirm his strategy to strengthen relationships with management and the new Pro Vice-Chancellor for 2014.
“We have to make sure that we retain our integrity, our collaborations and conversations with the University, while making sure it doesn’t override the fact that we do represent students. I have told the university in discussions that we are looking to work with them in a manner that brings benefits to students. And that means there may be protests on campus and we will be speaking out not in their favour a lot of the time,” he says.
Go! and its office bearers have been criticised in the past, particularly after the NTEU picket at the beginning of semester two, for a lack of solidarity and unity endorsing a ‘whole-union’ approach to stop the cuts and supporting university staff with industrial action outside of their education portfolios. Ben, a member of the Monash Education Action Group was quick to retort such assumptions and assured me, “I’ve already sat down with incoming OB’s. It’s something you have to prioritise over politics; we have to critise the ALP, criticise the LNP and all independents attacking unions and education because if we don’t, we can’t build for a movement we’re expecting from a very regressive government. Working together collaboratively is key,” he says.
Knight stresses collaboration and maintaining integrity are paramount in Go!’s direction for 2014, “we come through with ethical values,” he says as I prod him for answers about Go!’s pragmatic stance on running non-Go! members for the Environmental and Social Justice (ESJ) portfolio.
The ESJ office-bearers oversee and raise awareness for environmental and social justice issues within and outside Monash University. Preference deals were made for the ESJ position between Go! and Left Hook, a ticket comprised mostly of Socialist Alternative members. Left Hook members have taken a hard-headed, grass-roots approach to the cuts campaign and many others, in contrast to Go!’s more bureaucratic, lobby-style techniques.
If history between the two tickets is anything to go by, the marriage could be somewhat dysfunctional. Under the direction of Knight, Go! must ensure that they are working together in placing priority on the cuts campaign and various others next year. He shakes off my suggestion of dysfunction with a smile as we rearrange ourselves on the floor.
Knight’s approach to interview questions is remarkably measured and sincere. He tells me he is from a financially disadvantaged background in Tasmania and unionism has run in his family for generations– compelling him to run as President for 2014. One of the running platforms of his election was the introduction of ‘Household Goods Services’ to provide free rental of lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners and whipper snippers for students who couldn’t afford to invest in these items long term. I told Ben that those items were too practical and that he should lobby for either a massage parlour or monkey helpers to carry our books from lecture to lecture. Chuckling he replied, “I really would love to implement monkey helpers within the MSA but I’m afraid it’s not very ethical and could create an internal coup and could compromise the values of the organisation generally.”
Ben’s passion for equity in education and student services is admirable. The necessity for strong, ethical leadership from an MSA president has never been so imperative at Monash University, as we enter a term under a national Liberal Government set to attack higher education and its resources. Ben Knight is locked in for a hard and hopefully rewarding term as President. And it wouldn’t be kosher unless I posed the question: Will Ben and his team transform into ‘Knights’ (*cringe*) in shining armour quick enough to defend Monash from extreme cuts to our much-valued resources and staff?