I have loved my first year of uni. I’ve loved the lifestyle, the new friends I’ve made and my classes, but I’ve also discovered an area of university life that I detest.
I absolutely hate student politics.
This is a strange statement, coming from someone like me. I’ve always been very politically engaged, and I was actually sad when I had to go to work instead of watch the budget coverage this year. But in my short time in tertiary education, the world of student politics has puzzled me, frustrated me and astonished me.
I can sort this into two stages of hate. The first stage made me furious because people think it matters. I watched elections and campaigns unfold, witnessing people copy their federal political idols, fight about things that are totally irrelevant, and elect people for roles with a false prestige that in the general scheme of things, have no importance.
It’s a ridiculous sceptical. It’s like little kids trying so desperately to be grown-ups, squabbling aimlessly over the inconsequential in one big game of stupid pretend. They talk about the ‘big issues’ as though they have the immediate power to change them. While open discourse is always good and people power should never be underestimated, what effect will the election of a new Young Liberal president really have on economic policy?
But then I reached my second stage of hate. The second stage made me furious because I realised it does matter. It matters because whether I like it or not, the student politicians of today are highly likely to become the actual politicians of tomorrow.
Tony Abbott, Belinda Neal, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Anthony Albanese, Tony Burke, Bronwyn Bishop and Michael Kirby were all neck-deep in student politics during their tertiary studies. That’s just to name a few, and all of the aforementioned names studied at the University of Sydney. Here, they practiced precisely what I have witnessed this year; factionalism, theatrical large-scale campaigns and a whole lot of drama and infighting.
Dominic Knight, a current ABC reporter, reflected on his time in student politics at the University of Sydney in an opinion piece in 2015. He wrote,
“The ones who went furthest worked hardest, spending their nights chalking or postering or photocopying leaflets. They stayed up late making plans and cutting deals, and the ones who were best at it got jobs as staffers before they’d even graduated.”
This is precisely the reason why I’m in self-diagnosed stage two of student politics hate. Instead of trying to change the system, toxic political landscapes are perpetuated into the next generation of party-loyal MP’s. Student politicians could be promoting the sort of politics we complain so frequently about not having – politics centred around cooperation within the party, strong leadership, and visionary social and economic policy – but the current climate is just replicated, over and over again. Cameron Caccamo makes this clear, commenting,
“Did you think the leadership of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was characterised by the highest possible levels of internal dysfunction? Perhaps you haven’t witnessed the world of student politics.”
I should not overgeneralise. Some political movements at university tackle social and political issues in a robust, inspiring and informative way. Bluestocking Week in August is an excellent example of truly moving initiatives that have broad-reaching effects in both the institutions in which we study, and society as a whole. Students organised a series of events to address the treatment of women in higher education, and I learned a lot. Some of those students were also student politicians, proving that they can develop an effective new approach.
But the rest? I see federal politics on a much smaller scale. And that’s not a compliment.
Seeing student politics makes me fear the future of broader Australian politics. While ever we just mimic the actions of others, the state of politics will never change. I’m sure that deep in the depths of the student political landscape there are some fantastic young people working hard to create real change. I just hope I see them in my next two years at uni.
This piece was published in the University of Tasmania’s student magazine, Togatus. You can find it in the Togatus Yearbook 2016.