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Graham Young

Ambit Gambit
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Do student politicians ever learn?

09, September 2003

ABC Perspectives

Good evening.

When I was at University Young Liberals were disdainful of what we saw as the playpen politicians of student politics.  We had standing in every forum in our party, including two seats on the elite State Executive, and two on the even more elite Federal one. 

They could stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning fighting the Trots, but in our world Trots made little difference.  We found it more exciting to be fighting a foe that might actually win government.

Not every young politician thought the same way.  Prominent members of my generation like Tony Abbot, Peter Costello, and ABC Director Michael Kroger all rose through student union ranks rather than Young Liberals.  In fact, the right wing in the Liberal Party is based around former student politicians.

I recently received an email that made allegations about Natasha Stott Depoja’s time as President of the Adelaide University Student’s Association.

They were allegations I won’t repeat but it set me thinking.  Some politicians have made a mark on student politics, but what mark has student politics made on them.

I am glad I was never active in student politics – it teaches very bad habits.  It is a battle where the strategic territories to be won are of no consequence to most students - generally control of the refectory and doling out funds to clubs and societies. Most students don’t vote and most students that run for office are regarded as rat-bags. 

Their election tactics are often quite unethical, reflecting a short-term, “whatever it takes” mentality. There is a multitude of tickets cooked up for the event, often with names designed to confuse their ideological alignment. 

In 1996 some student politicians turned Young Liberals attempted to stack a Queensland Federal Electoral Council.  They used supporters with fraudulent membership receipts who were bussed in for the event. 

And what did the supporters get for their trouble?  A six pack of beer and a chocolate bar. When we investigated we were told that this was how you got out the college voters in union elections.

Student Union politics encourages short-termism and greed.  While the fight might be about very little, it still usually involves some full and part-time jobs for the victors. 

As it is managerial rather than political, motivations are also more about power than ideology.  Personalities rather than policies become the greatest driver of electoral success.

A career in student politics also usually lasts no more than two or three years – less time than it takes to get the average degree.  Student politicians don’t think too hard about tomorrow, because for them it doesn’t exist, and allies can be treated roughly because they may graduate before they get the opportunity to retaliate.

I think someone reared on student politics is more likely to see leadership in terms of personality and strength and not understand that pushing someone around can have long-term consequences, particularly if that person holds office independently of one’s grace and favour.  You might think I am talking about Stott Despoja here.  I could be, but I could just as easily be talking about the Queensland Liberal Party where student politician types have just last weekend been foiled by a handful of votes in their attempt to dismantle the remnants of the State Parliamentary Party. 

Or the Tasmanian division of the Liberal Party, where the disendorsement of state candidate Greg Barns engineered by ex student pollie, Eric Abetz almost certainly cost the Liberal Party one seat in the last state election.

Yet bad habits can be unlearned.  Last year I attended a function with a young lady whose name is still notorious in Queensland.  More than a decade ago, as president of a right of centre student administration she had taken a commercial view of a student radio station’s failure to pay rent for union owned premises - she evicted them.  The accusation that she was a “fascist” still hangs in the air.  One of her accusers is also a friend of mine and was at the same table that night. They ended up chatting the night away.

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