On the 7th of March, Bettina Arndt, one of Australia’s most high-profile sex therapists and now journalist and author, spoke at UWA. This event was opposed by both the UWA and Curtin Student Guild on the grounds that as part of a wide variety of opinions Arndt dismisses the prevalence of sexual assault on University campuses.
While it is important for Universities to maintain a safe and supportive environment, Guilds and Universities must be ever vigilant in maintaining fair and reasonable debate.
But this article isn’t about Bettina Arndt. The key question here is, why did Curtin’s Guild get involved?
The Guild’s common line for these sorts of things is that, because they represent the student body, it is their obligation to fight and oppose dangerous viewpoints that may cause harm to students.
This brings up two key issues; can the Guild truly claim it is representative of the student body? And, given that it is their obligation to stand against these viewpoints, how can they be sure they oppose all ideologies that cause students harm?
During orientation, I was asked, as a mentor, whether there were any more conservative clubs on campus—given the widespread posters in favour of socialism and Marxism—to provide alternative views.
I feel many would agree in saying that the University environment at its core is not particularly supportive of political conservatism, though there would no doubt be a significant number of students holding such views.
In response to this, Curtin Guild President, Finlay Nolan, said that the Guild’s stances might make them unpopular with conservative students, but they have made a choice to stand up for marginalised people and against violence.
“If you look at student unions around the country, we are far from the only ones taking this approach, and we’re just a small part of a long history of student unions tackling societal issues. [M]any students agree with our stances—the people who are unhappy just happen to be more vocal,” said Finlay. “While there might be 10 negative comments on a post, there’ll be 100 likes. Our political stances may not be relevant or agreeable to every student on campus, but this does not mean we neglect the day-to-day things that affect all students.”
Currently, the Curtin Student Guild is dominated by Illuminate, which has in the past provided a fairly quick route to becoming a Labor party or Labor affiliate staffer.* Last year’s Guild President Liam O’Neill has had that chance, mentioning in a leadership workshop organised for Curtin Extra two years ago, that he had been offered a job a couple of months into his two-year tenure as President.
This shows two things; that the connections you form as a senior student guild member are significant in furthering your career, and that these opportunities are given without much genuine experience to back them up.
So, the Guild functions as a springboard to get into federal politics—so what?
The problem is that these perks incentivise self-interest as opposed to actions solely concerned with benefits for all students (as opposed to long-term career goals of the individual candidate). And, as a guild officer, you wouldn’t want to do something that may jeopardise your chances of getting to Canberra. For most Guild members looking to get to Canberra, the Labor Party’s Left Faction is the way to go—such was the case of former Guild President and current Member for Perth, Patrick Gorman.
On the other hand, if you want to join the more right-aligned union movement, you need only follow in the steps of Bob Hawke, who was president of the UWA Student Representative Council and eventually the ACTU. Because of this, behaving in the hope of gaining notoriety or raising your career profile becomes desirable—Bob claims the most significant feature in allowing him to become the third longest serving Prime Minister (second at the time), was holding the world record for drinking a yard of beer while he was a Rhodes Scholar. Obviously this can be problematic, especially when your job is to represent the views and interests of a large, diverse student body.
This isn’t to say Guild membership isn’t also a route for Liberal politicians, with Tony Abbott, the president of the Student Rep Council at Sydney University, being a prime example,
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the Curtin Guild is acting exclusively out of self-interest. While I believe they are genuinely concerned about the interests of vulnerable groups, I don’t think it’s appropriate to simply ignore the wishes and opinions of other interest groups in the pursuit of their goals.
The issue of representation and consultation is double pronged. In January the Curtin Guild called on the City of Victoria Park, on behalf of all Curtin students, to shift the date of Australia Day celebrations—or ideally not hold them at all, until a more appropriate date is decided—out of respect for Indigenous Australians (a laudable goal). However, perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of students were annoyed that the Guild had, without any form of consultation with them, campaigned on their behalf. There are, arguably, more ways to show support for Indigenous Australians that aren’t as polarising.
All of this occurs on the back of an impressively poor voter turnout in student elections, with election week viewed more as a nuisance, forcing students to change their migration routes between classes rather than a chance of civil interaction and duty.
When asked whether the Guild could do a better job of consulting the student body, Finlay noted that although consultation is important, it’s not always beneficial or doable. “[Some] students have asked for us to do Facebook polls on issues when they come up to determine the stance we should take, or if we should take one at all: I don’t see a Facebook poll—that would only capture a handful of people and can easily be rigged by fake accounts or people who aren’t Curtin students voting—as being at all representative or legitimate, and there is no way that we could run town halls—which would likely have the same low turnout issue as elections—on everything we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
“Ultimately, our elections are the most realistic and legitimate way of gauging the interests of the student body, and students who are concerned about the stances the Guild is taking should ensure that they participate.”
While I accept that Facebook may not be a viable option, no thought seems to have been given to opinion polling via student emails, which was something the Guild did in opposing the Trimester plans last year. The suggestion that consultation would have to be carried on every day-to-day action of the Guild is also somewhat disingenuous, especially when the Guild inadvertently addressed this issue through their Town Hall meetings regarding the Trimester campaign, where consultation with students was open and a discourse with University staff was facilitated. It speaks to the disconnect between the student body and its representatives when the Guild will hold meetings for some issues and not others.
Voter apathy is a hard thing to combat, but I would argue that it is indicative of a Guild that students don’t feel represents them.
Building on earlier comments on consultation, Finlay noted that she, “encourage[s] anybody who does not agree with the Guild’s stances to ensure that they’re turning up to vote, and to even consider running in the elections.” However, the attempted dissolution of Left Action’s activist wing Socialist Alternative, who is the only viable opposition group (a factor I consider to be fairly significant in this issue), suggests otherwise. Add to this the fact that if a student votes they will discover that 32 out of 36 Ordinary Guild Counsellor nominees represent Illuminate, it’s pretty easy to see why students are disinterested.
A choice of one, is not much of a choice at all.
Obviously Illuminate isn’t about to start a new party to oppose them, so the voter-based representation issue isn’t about to end anytime soon, but there is nothing stopping the Guild from increasing its consultation of the student body.
These are paid positions after all, and a “representative” Guild that dictates to its student members isn’t a Guild doing a good job.
*: At present, the current AVP is the only Guild Executive that is a member of Labor party.