Political careers start at university
The past few weeks have given us a mediocre campaign at best and left the electorate cynical. Can there be any other outcome when all both sides can come up with is an exchange of slogans, attention grabbing stunts and petty bickering.
Making sure they say what they believe to be safe and popular while avoiding the risks associated with delving deep into the important issues. Yes, student elections at ANU are all about shallow populism.
Wait… did you think I was talking about another election?
It’s not surprising that a description of the petty and bitter discourse of university politics shares in common so many of the criticisms levelled against the federal election campaign. Many of today’s political figures have backgrounds in student politics.
Tony Abbott cut his political teeth while at university, as did Julia Gillard who ascended to the highest echelons of student politics serving with the National Union of Students.
It begs the question then why anyone would be surprised at how this election has played out? Though the issues may be larger, it’s the same petty tricks.
Julia Gillard’s announcement of funding for a rail link to Western Sydney was a textbook example. Days before on the ANU campus, supporters of the various tickets in the Union elections were growing increasingly desperate as the time to vote ran out. A sign of this desperation… a supporter dressed as a banana in Union Court on the last day of polling, handing out free condoms to students who would vote for her ticket. It was a smart move.
There is no better way to attract the attention and adulation of horny undergraduates than with the vision of fresh fruit and free prophylactics. Watching Julia Gillard announce a $2.6billion rail link in Western Sydney later that week seemed little different to me. Pick an audience, find something they want then attach some dollar signs and the slogan “moving forward” to it.
If only she had remembered the banana costume, she may have appeased some of the voters soured over Kevin Rudd’s demise.
A day later, Tony Abbott announced a $1.2million CT scanner for the Blue Mountains Hospital. A worthy cause to be sure. When asked about funding extra staff, a question relating to long-term outcomes where there is a risk of breaking a promise, he quickly shifted the buck to the state. Student candidates promise new food stores on campus, being careful not to promise the food would be any good. It seems the same rules apply even at the top. “Buying votes” in key electorates is nothing new and it’s not hard to see where it starts.
The problem is these cheap tricks only work for so long. In a poll on the website of a major Sydney newspaper, 80% of respondents indicated their doubt the project would ever see the light of day. Quick splashes of cash still have an impact, but not a positive one. It merely fuels the cynicism of the electorate.
People whom I talked to about the free condoms on campus campaign referred to it with derision. It was style over substance, it confirmed their cynicism about student politics and was the antidote to any candidate wanting to be taken seriously.
This past week has seen the bitterness of student politics at ANU boil over, with even the mainstream news outlets reporting on it. The editors of the student newspaper quit while the head of the student association was censured. Such is the turmoil, the infighting and even public leaks that the student newspaper Woroni is unlikely to hit the presses again until a new student association board is elected.
It’s easy to dismiss this as the petty bickering and infighting of student politicians. The 1% on campus who have a strong action plan for the future… which largely involves extra bullet points on the resume. Harder to ignore is the detailed similarities between their tactics and those used at the highest levels of state and federal politics.
In an interview on ABC News 24, Greg Rudd, a corporate advisor, former staffer to Bob Hawke and brother of Kevin Rudd, suggested that it was the bright lights of parliament that led politicians to adopt many of the negative traits we now deride. In the chamber they change, yelling abuse at one another while over coffee before question time, they chat like friends. The truth is that the worst offenders likely learnt these traits long before they walked the corridors of power. Parliament merely regulates when we see these traits and concentrates it. Parliament didn’t create it.
Academic and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of student politics that it has taken on a petty and bitter character because the stakes involved are so small. Why then are we seeing the standard of discourse one would expect from student politics reflected in national campaigns where the stakes are infinitely larger? Some may say because it works… because handing out cash for railways attracts votes and slogans build political brands.
The truth is it doesn’t. The situation we find ourselves in now, with a hung parliament, growing political division and increasing votes for parties prepared to adopt a more serious approach demonstrate that.
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