WITH the public support from the Tasmanian University Union (TUU) for the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act came the admission that it cares little for thoughts of university students, and even less for the general public.
Last week, the TUU announced that students the section 18C changes, with state president Clark Cooley saying: “Freedom of speech should be a fundamental right of all Australians, but under the current laws we’ve seen this right limited, and attacked. These measures work towards the right balance between the protection of racial discrimination and the right to free speech.”
In response, University of Tasmania student Holly Ewin created a change.org petition for students against changes to s18C, which has garnered more than 500 signatures.
The furore points to a much larger problem with the TUU beyond the Racial Discrimination Act debate. Irrespective of which stance they chose to take on any particular issue, those stances are increasingly made without consultation and seemingly without regard for what students believe.
Considering section four of the TUU Constitution talks specifically about advocating for students, these latest developments are a far departure from the stated purpose of the organisation.
But this trend of unrepresentativeness is not a new phenomenon. It’s not limited to any one state president, or to any one student representative council; in fact, the TUU sits with many other unions across the country as its true purpose is hijacked by vested political interests. Clark Cooley is the first president in the union’s 118-year history to be from the Liberal Party. It’s difficult to believe the TUU’s latest statements aren’t immediate reflections of his widely known political agenda, especially as they follow the Government’s line.
But the same could be said about state presidents preceding him from Labor and Greens backgrounds.
There has been no more consultation in the past than there is now, and parts of the student population have felt misrepresented for decades, no matter which side of the political fence they sit on.
That’s because the TUU is not a student advocate, and it hasn’t been for some time. The TUU exists almost solely as a training ground for aspiring politicians, as some may argue is the case with most unions. This is only exacerbated by ridiculous levels of student political disengagement. Most students don’t know what the TUU is or what it does, let alone the fact they fund its existence.
It is a chicken or egg debate, is the TUU a political plaything because students don’t care, or do students not care because it’s a political plaything?
I argue the latter, as if you bother to find out anything at all about the union, you will find a messily bureaucratic structure, high levels of dysfunction and seriously problematic policies. One of such policies is their media policies, especially during election time.
Elections for the TUU occur annually. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that every single student at the University of Tasmania wanted to vote in the election. They have access to two sources of information on each voting ticket’s policy platforms: promotional pamphlets and the candidates themselves. Let’s assume you’re in Launceston or Burnie, or that you’re a distance student — that deprives you of access to the state president, who is based almost exclusively in Sandy Bay. That means that your only source of information are obviously biased pamphlets.
Normally, the media would fill this gap. But due to the TUU’s media policy, candidates cannot talk directly to the media, student or otherwise.
I attempted to cover the 2016 elections for the student media Togatus, but the sort of policy analysis I wanted to provide was essentially impossible. And just to add to the media control, the state president sits on the selection panel for Togatus editors-in-chief. But why does all of this matter in a broader social context? Though it’s easy to view student politics in isolation, the tragic fact is that the executives in the TUU now are, in all likelihood, the political leaders of tomorrow. At the very least, they’re trying very hard to be. That’s a tragedy, because successive union councils are already failing their constituents, which sets a dangerous precedent.
For a people that lament so much about the toxic state of politics nationwide, the young leaders coming through are actively doing nothing to change it. So not only is the TUU letting down the students it’s tasked to represent, it’s letting you down too. By advocating without consultation, by using personal political agendas as collective thought, and by repeatedly misrepresenting their electorate to the public, they perpetuate a form of politics that disenchants so many, which leaves our political future looking dim.
Erin Cooper is a journalism student at the University of Tasmania and a winner of the UTAS Global Leaders Scholarship.
Image Credit: Togatus
This piece was published in The Mercury Newspaper’s opinion section, Talking Point, on Friday 31/3/17. It was intended for a Tasmanian audience.