Thanks to the Federal government’s dismantling of compulsory student unionism, I am no longer obliged to pay $136 a semester for the privilege of belonging to my student union. That means I now have an extra $136 to blow on eBay or phone bills or Strokes tickets.
No big deal, I hear you say. But the end of student unions marks a notable shift in Australia’s political landscape. Student unions have long been the core of campus political activity. But with falling voter turnout, a shifting university demographic and viral student apathy, the death knell has sounded for student activism.
Long gone are the days of dissenting students bringing Australian cities to a standstill as they did in 1972 to protest the apartheid-era Springbok rugby tour. The force of those demonstrations was so intense that the premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, declared a state of emergency in order for the match to be played. Included in those momentous demonstrations was Queensland’s current premier, Peter Beattie, who described the events as: “A watershed. It was a frightening watershed. It was a bit scary at the time. But out of that came an energy, an energy for change, a good energy.”
A few years prior to the Springbok rallies, George Negus started reporting for The Australian newspaper while still a part-time student at the University of Queensland. As a result, he developed close relations with many lecturers and students and became an integral part of campus life.
When asked to describe UQ’s atmosphere in the early 70s, his response is swift. “It was frantic. If you weren’t drinking or partying, you were shouting each other down in wild ideological debate or attending political rallies.”
At the same time that Negus was writing for The Australian, the conservative faction within the university was led by the infamous Bob Katter who, among other things, was president of the UQ Law Society. It all amounted to what Negus describes as a very exciting time politically. “We thought, in many ways quite rightly, that we were fighting for the future of the planet. It was a time of mass political awakening.”
This point is not lost on Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, herself a past student body president, who strongly opposed the abolition of compulsory student unions. The key for Senator Stott Despoja was that "the determined drive to turn universities into degree factories will be to the detriment of Australian society. As well as academic learning, universities are fundamental in fostering debate, critical thought, and social awareness.”
The biggest awakening most students get these days is the caffeinated one they purchase from Mr Beans coffee carts on the way to class. Students aren’t passionately discussing human rights in Darfur or mass protest in Mexico City. They’re talking about upgrading their Apple laptop, applying for internships with multinational firms or planning where they intend to travel at year’s end.
Speaking with students on campus, the general attitude of political disconnection is easy to spot. I speak to a table of students chatting at Merlo cafe in UQ’s Great Court.
Samantha is a Law and Political Science student with, by her own account, a passion for social justice. Like many others, she intends to work for an NGO when she graduates her law degree. Perfect fodder for student activism you might think? “I don’t tend to support student rallies,” she admits. “I’ve just got a million other things to do. I talk to the people with the petitions at Uni and I sign them, but I don’t really have the time to show up.”
Julia is a physiotherapy student. She wants to work in Aboriginal health when she graduates. In recent years she has marched against the Iraq War and walked across the Bridge in support of saying “Sorry.” But she too, feels a distance. “I don’t go to most rallies because I’m too busy. Between my course and my job I do full time hours and I just don’t have the energy. And, to be honest, I don’t think student rallies really have any impact anyway.”
Stuart, another law student, thinks the same way. “It’s not that it doesn’t interest me. It’s just that I don’t think it’s effective. It’s all about posturing and posing. Student politicians don’t seem to genuinely care.”
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