Culture

Student Politicians At Sydney Uni Went Freaking Berserk Last Night. Meet Your Future Leaders.

Australia's future Parliamentarians were in action last night. You would *probably* not like them.

Last night, around seventy student politicians — the 33 elected representatives of the University of Sydney’s 50,000-strong undergraduate student body, as well as roughly forty spectators — gathered for a meeting in the uni’s Professorial Board Room.

On paper, it was extremely dull: a meeting of the Sydney Uni Students Representative Council to divvy up the organisation’s various leadership positions and portfolios for the year ahead. But between the police getting called, the lights getting cut, the screaming, the crying, the actual tantrums, the TV cameras that got barred from the room, and the weapons-grade weirdness of the whole thing, it was more of a cross between a cult group-hate session, Lord of the Flies, and a cageful of enraged monkeys throwing their own shit at each other. While trending on Twitter.

A bunch of kids in their early twenties spending their free time having screamy little slapfights might not seem like anything worth bothering with. But in fifteen or twenty years, a substantial number of the people who met in that room will be running the country. They’re young members of the Labor Party, the Liberals and the Greens, as well as various smaller political movements like the Socialist Alternative. They work as staffers for state and federal MPs and Senators, hold senior positions in state and federal party executives, or otherwise wholly live in the self-contained ecosystem of the young political hack.

They are following in the footsteps of the countless student politicians who’ve gone before them, on their way to becoming some of Australia’s most powerful people. At Sydney Uni alone, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Bronwyn Bishop, Tony Burke, Anthony Albanese, and Philip Ruddock (not to mention innumerable backbenchers, staffers, party leaders, advisers and general hangers-on) started on their political careers this way. If you want to understand the way politics in Australia operates, or take note of a bunch of faces that will be all over TV in the future, it’s worth keeping an eye on meetings like this one.

These are the leaders of tomorrow. I am going to delicately suggest that, on the whole, you would probably not like them.

Get In The Bin

I am not an unbiased or impartial observer of this stuff. When I was a student at the University of Sydney I ran in a couple of student elections for the undergraduate newspaper, Honi Soit. I got to know the student politics scene pretty well at the time, and I know plenty of the people involved now. A couple are friends, some are acquaintances, and I don’t like quite a few of them. So, y’know, grain of salt and everything.

I’m not a student anymore, but I went along to that SRC meeting last night — not because I was interested in what it was ostensibly for, but because Sydney Uni student politics has a reputation for being chaotic, rampantly abusive and jaw-droppingly bizarre.

Last night didn’t disappoint, and was pretty indicative of how the people who style themselves as the country’s future leaders conduct themselves. It’s difficult to describe how far evenings like this one, and the collective mindset of most of its participants, are removed from anything resembling reality. Any and all accepted norms of social interaction and behavioural standards, bar (usually) physical violence, do not apply.

In the meeting’s six or so hours, police were called upwards of seven times, multiple people were forcibly removed from the premises by security, and enough threats of court action were exchanged to keep the nearby law school busy for the next few semesters. 

There were tears, hugs, stand-up screaming matches, standing ovations, deafening choruses of cheers and boos, endless accusatory speeches, collective walk-outs and walk-ins. At one point someone deliberately tampered with the power fuse, and the next half-hour or so was conducted in darkness.

In perhaps the most poetic moment of the night, someone stole someone else’s phone and hid it in the bin. Unfortunately, no one climbed in after it and shut the lid behind them.

And in case anyone claims last night was out of the ordinary for events like this, the woman employed by the SRC to oversee their elections brought a whistle to last night’s meeting, which she somehow restrained herself from using until about three hours in.

The Deep Weirdness Of Student ‘Leaders’

It’s the little details that ram home just how surreal and utterly impenetrable this world is to people who aren’t absorbed by it. The insults the students shriek at each other —  “scab”, “rat”, “scum”, “traitor”, “filth”, “purge”, “parasite” and, in one memorable instance, “pigfucker” — are not reflective of how most people in their early-to-mid twenties talk.

Recent graduates of elite single-sex private schools unironically sing ‘Solidarity Forever’, the old socialist anthem of the inter-war years, and refer to each other as “comrade”. Members of the rival ‘factions’ sit apart from one another in little blocs, half Parliament-in-miniature and half high school cafeteria from Mean Girls.

Honi Soit cover this stuff with more knowledge of the ins and outs than I can, and the Herald’s Michael Koziol does a good job of sketching the basics of last night in a way outsiders can understand, but the gulf between this environment and normality is so vast that explaining exactly why these people feel compelled to treat each other so appallingly is difficult, especially when the stakes seem so small.

Most students’ awareness of so-called student politics starts and ends with the swarms of brightly coloured campaign t-shirts that periodically overrun campuses, as student political groups jostle to persuade, cajole, coerce, or drag their peers into voting in elections that the vast majority of the student body neither care about nor understand. For regular students, political hacks are a vague annoyance at best and an object of active contempt at worst. The relief on a campus like Sydney when an election is over is palpable — until the next one starts.

If average students aren’t paying attention to their ‘representatives’, others certainly are. The hashtag #repselect, used to follow the proceedings of last night’s meeting, trended nationwide. Hundreds of people tuned into a Periscope livestream that ran for over five hours. A TV station tried to get a camera into the room only to be locked out by the meeting’s chair, and ABC 702 radio kept listeners updated on developments.

In a development so freakishly meta it sounds like an abandoned David Lynch subplot, NSW Upper House government whip and former Sydney Uni student politician Peter Phelps began livestreaming footage of himself watching a livestream of the meeting.

But these future political leaders are only keen on a certain kind of attention. Shortly after learning that several reporters were in attendance, the Council overwhelmingly voted to expel all outside media from the room because, in the words of one Councillor with a pretty dull sense of irony, “they could make the SRC look bad”.

The Bigger Picture

It might seem like a stretch to draw such large conclusions from one rowdy meeting — but behaviour like this from people who’ll run the country one day is the rule, not the exception. From my experience, the rancid blend of relentless negativity, staggering immaturity and total lack of self-awareness that characterises so much of Australian politics has deep roots in the kind of thing that happened last night.

You see it in Young Liberals brawling with each other over trivialities and tearing youth hostels apart; in reports of violence against women and racial abuse at student conferences. Eventually, you see variations of it play out in Question Time, in Senate estimates, in election campaigns and decisions based more on vindictiveness than good policy, or even self-interest.

This is not to say that people in student politics (or the big-kid version) aren’t good people with good intentions, or that they can’t do good and great things. They can, and frequently do. But for people looking to get involved in politics at university, there is no escape from this kind of thing. In December, last night will happen again, only on a much larger scale. The National Union of Students, supposedly the peak student representative body in Australia, will meet in Melbourne next month for its annual five-day national conference. As student newspapers exhaustively report year in year out, ‘NatCon’ makes last night look subdued.

Theories abound as to why Australian political culture is so debased, aggressive, and disconnected from peoples’ lives — the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle are commonly blamed for that. But it may simply be that many of the participants have never grown up — they’ve only gotten older, and more powerful. Caught in a perpetual state of arrested development since their twenties, trapped in a self-sustaining toxic bubble like mosquitoes in amber, they move over decades from university campuses to Parliament frontbenches internalising the poisonous environment around them. No wonder they seem so bloody sad.

Feature image by Tom Joyner.