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The Myth of Apolitcal* Student Unions

In recent years, many once thriving and politically active student unions in Victoria have fallen to groups of students that treat them merely as vehicles with which to propel themselves up the right-wing ranks of the Australian Labor party, pad their CVs, or recruit particular, affiliated unions from the right of the ALP. Ironically, these groups often win student elections under the pretence of being an apolitical* ticket, or with a promise to de-politicise a union seen as too left-wing or radical in its activity and agenda. But what good is a student union if one of its key priorities isn’t to stand up for students rights when the government makes decisions that adversely affect us, or back queer students by taking a progressive stance when important social issues like marriage equality come to the fore of political life and public debate? After all, unionism is all about coming together and using collective power to achieve common goals, an idea that is political at the outset. And what does a student union devoid of advocacy actually look like?

You only have to look to a union like LTSU at La Trobe to see that when groups claiming to be apolitical* take over, it’s not only student activism that suffers, but also the key services and support for students that unions provide that falls to the wayside. Since an apolitical* group won the union two years ago office-bearers have been absent in their roles, not shown up to student council meetings and failed to organise events or run any campaigns that make a difference to students or their university experience. The Women’s Officers at La Trobe this year have not offered any sort of response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark report on sexual harassment and assault on campus, despite the report indicating that the situation at La Trobe is one of the worst in the country. The Education (Public Affairs) Officers have not participated in the national student education campaign for two years running, and recently spent $800 of student money commissioning a chalk mural. That’s money that ought to be spent on projects or campaigns that aim to better the educational experience of students. The job of a student representative is, ultimately, to represent the interests of students (who’d have thought), or advocate on behalf of a particular demographic of students depending on the role or office a student is elected to.

You’d hope it was a good chalk mural…

La Trobe is by no means the only example. Similar narratives have played out at other campuses across Victoria in recent years. You may be asking yourself: ‘but if these groups – who have no genuine interest in doing the work of a real student union and who have turned once strong and vital student representative bodies into shells of their former organisations – don’t really have the interests of students at heart, how do they get elected?’ What has tended to happen in recent years at various campuses is a deceitful game of negotiating and manoeuvring to secure ‘stack votes.’ These are large voting blocs of students that have been directed to vote for a certain ticket because some incentive has been given for their taking part in the election. Often a club president or a popular or well-networked individual will be offered a position with a ticket contesting the elections, or promised more funding for their club in exchange for them turning out a large vote of students.

A lot of the promises made in these negotiations will be empty or completely unfounded and impossible, but will give the apolitical* ticket the political capital and advantage of being purportedly endorsed or seen to be supported by a plethora of clubs and organisations on campus. This makes it easy to attract voters, as large academic and cultural clubs serve as networking hubs, with connections to huge numbers of students. And so very, very politically involved individuals** – sometimes tasked and paid by unions affiliated with the right-wing of the ALP to take over student unions and turn them into union recruitment agencies – end up winning student elections through a platform to de-politicise a union or under the guise of being apolitical*, with the backing of clubs that have been duped and misled into providing the necessary votes. Who wins? The politically motivated individuals that get to bolster their CVs with an executive position on their student union. Who loses? All other students who end up with a weakened student union that no longer fights for them and a less vibrant campus life and university experience.

While many students may not want to be involved in student politics (probably the wisest ones), whether we like it or not a portion of the SSAF we pay as part of our degrees will go to the student union, and what the student union does (or doesn’t do) can affect our lives in serious ways. I’m sure even the most politically apathetic of us will come to appreciate that it was strong, activist student unions around the country that stood up and defeated $100k degrees by generating public outrage at the government’s plan to deregulate the higher education sector and persuade crossbench Senators to vote the legislation down. I’m sure that victims and survivors of sexual harassment and assault on campus appreciate that determined, progressive student unions spearheaded the push for a survey into sexual harassment and assault at universities and are now working tirelessly to hold universities to account and ensure all of the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations are followed through. Good, student-focused and unashamedly political student unions have the power to genuinely improve students’ lives and university experience. We should all think about what we want our unions to look like, and be wary of anyone in student politics that claims to be apolitical. 

*[read: very politically motivated]

**let’s face it: mostly white boys

Chloe Ateljević

The author Chloe Ateljević

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