A union, a council, an Independent Media, and where I fit’n’sit

Usually when I write, I like to offer some measure of entertainment. I find the things I have written about below interesting, but if you’re not a student at the University of Melbourne, or a student politician elsewhere, you probably won’t. It’s 1,200 words of discussion on student life and its interplay with the media.

Yeah, I was supposed to be writing something else. Why do you ask?

3AW and the Herald Sun have been saying things about my Student Union that I do not like. It goes beyond the sensationalising of individual issues, which is what I expect of them. What they are doing, with the aid of the Liberal Club on campus, is ignoring the amazing work the union does every day. They are punching holes through the credibility of UMSU with small, contentious events that mean nothing, except to a few people who are now very angry. The problem is that these stories can be used by future a future Abbott government to undo the Student Service Amenities Fee, which is doing a great – if slow – job of involving students in campus life again.

When it reduces down, the jus is that I want students to be students. I want them to look back at University and not think solely of study, but the experience of being students. I think a big starting point is spending time on campus, and I think the Union is the linking thread between students and their place of study.

I have an unfashionable love of unions. Not of mismanagement, spending workers’ pay on election campaigns or theirheavy-footed Labor right lobbying. I like the idea of a body that will fight for my rights as a worker. An organisation dedicated to making sure I stay above the poverty line and have the clout to get shit done.

When Voluntary Student Unionism was introduced in 2006, I knew nothing about the entitled and fraud-ridden bodies elsewhere. In Armidale, New South Wales, the University of New England Student Union was in cohorts with the Belgrave Twin Cinema. In showing the arty flicks without much hope of making money in a small town, the union helped the whole town in keepin’ cultured.

I was keen to join the union when I arrived at the University of Melbourne in 2010. For $99 I received a t-shirt printed with my own face, some pop-corn, bags from different departments, and discounted club membership. I met friends at events organised through union departments like Queer and Wom*n’s in O-Week, and occasionally attended Queer events. I picked up the university magazine, Farrago, and usually read some bits; and often found myself on the computers in the Rowden White Library. I wasn’t at the height of involvement, but I’d say I got my money’s worth. A lot of what I did – reading the magazine, doing Queer shiz, could have been done without being a member, but it could not have been done without a Union funding those departments.

I did all of this because I spent a lot of time on campus, mostly on South Lawn. I couldn’t understand why people were so eager to go home between classes, or as soon as class ended. If you stayed around uni, you could meet friends with interests more interesting than getting trashed or shopping. Sure, my hair wasn’t cool enough to hang with the proper radicals, but on the peripheries were my people.

After engrossing myself in sobriety and study in the first semester of 2011, and finding I was lost and lonely, I started involving myself properly as the year progressed. I was a Farrago sub-editor and began actually attending launches, despite my failure to entice friends into accompanying me. I was more cluey and more confident in discussions and started feeling like I could offer something, and take plenty in return. By showing up regularly to Media Collective and the Independent Media pre-selection, I found myself asked to go on Indie Media’s ballot as a Student Councillor for the 2011 elections.

I agreed immediately. I had no idea we had a student’s council. I didn’t know what an office bearer was, though I’d heard the terms ‘Queer Officer’ and ‘Wom*n’s Officer’ bandied about since I arrived. But I am good at showing up to things… and I liked the idea of an extra line on my resume.

I damn well know what a Student’s Council is now. I spend hours every day in Union House. More than is strictly necessary. I’m writing a column for Farrago and still acting as a sub-editor, and my hair may not have improved but I’m better at defending my opinions in discussions. When motions are moved on Council, I question how it benefits Farrago, and more widely, how it promotes an independent media outside the university. Why did I vote in favour of a motion I find somewhat ridiculous to have been brought up and received a 30 minute debate – that the union sends a letter of solidarity to Chilean students protesting the huge fees they’re charged? Because if everyone in a media system here or abroad comes from one privileged strata of society, it’s harder to foster an independent media – free from the ideological biases of one class.

It’s verbiage like that that recently had me called a socialist. I’m not. My friends would laugh at the suggestion. On a personal level, I doubt that letter will make any goddamn difference, but when I’m thinking in the super-serious Student Councillor mode, those are the issues I need to consider.

But there’s a question, as a representative of Independent Media, of how much I should be weighing into the events stirred up in the media by the Liberals. I should be seen to be above the fray. Independent Media is non-partisan, and I like that. It formed after some abysmal years of Farrago led the people actually interested in writing to form their own party. This way, it isn’t Labor or Liberal running the student magazine as a mouthpiece or a joke. The people in charge are the ones most interested in advancing into careers in the media.

But the Media Office is a department of the Union, and the stories in recent weeks try to undermine UMSU as a body. If the SSAF goes, Farrago’s funding diminishes and it’s harder to advertise for people to get involved, provide launches and picnics where people can network, or create a product people want to pick up.  Additionally, the way these stories have been stirred up is the product of a biased, sensationalist media. The Herald Sun and Vex News, in their pieces on Rad Sex and Consent Week, have ignored facts; used illegal recordings, and failed to seek quotes from people not in line with their anti-union agenda. They have latched on to the Liberal Club’s train which during student elections campaigns on federal policy.

I do think UMSU needs to publicise the good things they’re doing more widely. Sending their own articles and press releases to news outlets and generally promoting themselves with more than chalk, flyers and Facebook. I never knew about so many things the union was doing until I become gruesomely ingratiated. The Union can be for everyone. As niche as a bum massage may be, as betrayed as you feel by Mark Kettle’s failure to lay an ANZAC Day wreath, stop pretending that’s the end of the story. Work out what your interests are and start a club for cider-fans or society of lolcat appreciators. You can get the grants to fund your parties! Sure, it’s a bit of bureaucracy, but you’ll start reaping the rewards of the SSAF you’ve accidentally harvested. If it keeps you on campus, I’ll be happy.

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About ducksandsunshine

Some say blogs are paradigms of self-indulgence and narcissism. I'm plenty of those things, but I mostly prefer to spend my not-actually-free hours playing Words With Friends. I like comedy, films, music, long reads and refined sugars.
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2 Responses to A union, a council, an Independent Media, and where I fit’n’sit

  1. nickkotzman says:

    An excellent blog. I agree that the past few weeks’ stories about the ANZAC Day wreath and the Rad Sex and Consent Week in the mainstream media were disappointing, and clearly sourced from those with a partisan gripe against the political make up of the Student Union officer-bearer and Student Council positions. I am, however, concerned by the Union’s behaviour when addressing issues that do not pertain to the representation of and advocacy for students’ interests.

    The Union’s ‘condemnation’ of Joe Hockey’s comments are a good example of where the Union’s ‘representation’ of students has overstepped the mark. By stating that Melbourne University student’s “support the welfare state”, it presupposes that the Union has the mandate to speak on political issues, on behalf of the student body.

    Now, to be clear, I am not familiar with the terms of the Union’s constitution. It may so happen that the Union is entirely at liberty to represent the political views of Melbourne University students, but if that is the case, there must be a greater emphasis placed on this role in the election of student representatives. Much of the Student Union election campaign material focuses on ‘policy issues’, like having lectures recorded, or running more educational events. Very little, if any of campaign material focuses on the political convictions of the ticket, or those that run behind it. Moreover, the entire Student Union electoral process betrays the notion that Student Union representatives are elected to represent the political views of their ‘constituents’: by allowing on-campus political clubs to run tickets under a pseudonym, these political clubs erect a barrier between the electorate (i.e.: the student body) and their political convictions (which they will potentially act upon once in office).

    If office-bearers and members of the Student Council feel as though it is appropriate to allegedly represent the political views of the student body, this function needs to be made clear in student elections.

    In a perfect (and attainable) world, Student Unions should operate as a bulwark between the student body and the university’s administration; providing advocacy and educational services, and leadership opportunities.

    Nevertheless, an interesting article – indeed, interesting enough to compel me to write this uncharacteristically long comment.

    • Personally? I had to stifle a laugh when I saw a motion titled “the condemnation of Joe Hockey”. However, the critique leveled in the motion is the sort of thing I would expect a union representing students to advocate – his attack on a’welfare state’ could easily translate to a scaling back of payments and support to students under a Liberal government. And, again from the perspective of an ‘independent media’, I was inclined to vote for it because if students can’t stay above the poverty line without working ridiculous hours, only those with independent wealth – more likely their parents’ – will have the capacity to contribute to the media. That is true both on a small scale, writing for a publication like Farrago, and in terms of how many internships and how much unpaid work young journalists are expected to do before having the experience needed to be paid.
      In that sense, I think Independent Media often has more capacity to speak on issues that directly affect a group of students with practical problems on vague issues that seem out of place on the whole.
      I am, however, saying this of my own accord, and it is the way I interpret indie media. I haven’t spoken to the Media Officers and can’t claim to speak as an official voice.

      However that motion; the one concerning Chilean students, and the one concerning Victorian teachers, were not raised by office bearers but members of Socialist Alternative (Solidarity, if I recall, for the purpose of elections. They don’t sit on council this year). I can’t recall any instance of an office bearer raising a motion not pertaining to their office.

      I think having the ALP, Labor and Liberal clubs on campus remove themselves from student politics is a bit of a pipe dream. Especially today, the people interested in joining clubs like that are the ones who are really engaged in issues, a lot of the time. I think the most important thing is that they are willing to dedicate a lot of time to fighting for improvements and funding for their departments, and actually engaging students in activities that make it worthwhile. The Wom*n’s Department has done an amazing job of that this year – officially on the Activate ticket, but Amy is part of the ALP Club.

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