For a radical student union
It’s been 50 years since 1968, the year the student movement broke onto the stage of history as a force of progress. Barricades were erected in Paris, provoking a general strike that brought the authoritarian government to its knees. The world over, students became a major force of resistance to the Vietnam War: a mad, cruel butchery that enriched weapons manufacturers, often with links to universities. At Adelaide University thousands of students, led by groups such as the radical Students for Democratic Action, mobilised against the war and for Aboriginal rights.
What happened? Today, student apathy is encouraged as the norm. Successive governments have waged an economic war on young people, racism has intensified in the western world, and companies that profit off war crimes seem to rule the campus. Surely, student unions should be challenging this state of affairs, encouraging and organising as many students to speak out and fight for a better university and a better world. But instead, official student politics is tightly controlled by careerists, for whom it is a training ground for the adult Labor Party (or sometimes for the Liberals).
This state of affairs needs to be shaken up.
Student unions can take bold stances
In a world of injustice, students should aim to stand on the right side of history. Last year, during the marriage equality plebiscite, I introduced motions that the AUU should publicly call for a Yes vote, and show that it stands for basic civil rights for all students. To my dismay, these were voted down by the right-wing factions: Swipe Right and Progress.
Again, earlier this year, I introduced a motion suggesting that the University should cut ties with the notorious arms dealer, BAE Systems. The Labor students, now numerically in charge, blocked the motion with the same conservative arguments the Liberals had used to oppose marriage equality: we don’t want to rock the boat too much, the Union should stick to running like a business rather than demand social justice, etc.
What we direly need is a student union willing to be bold, to stand and act against the world of pain that confronts students. Take the extreme inequality that exists in Australia today. The top 1% of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70% combined. And the government’s plan: cut the corporate tax rate further! In response, student unions should be demanding that the rich be taxed to pay for education. Getting a bachelor’s degree shouldn’t shackle us with years of debt. In fact, the government could easily fund free education if corporate tax evasion were cracked down upon. University education was free until only 31 years ago, when Labor introduced a $250 fee. Governments have squeezed more and more out of students ever since. It’s time for that to stop.
With two thirds of students in poverty, proper health care can be an incredible burden. Outrageously, vital services like dentistry, optometry and physiotherapy aren’t covered by Medicare. Student unions should be demanding that the University provide free dental practice alongside the free health practice.
Further, we should fight for reinstituted and expanded penalty rates. Last year’s savage cut has made life tougher for students employed in retail, hospitality and fast food, and has failed to “create more jobs” as was promised by politicians. We should also call for a university policy that all businesses operating on campus should continue to pay penalty rates at the old level.
We need a student union that leads anti-racist initiatives. Students do not live in a bubble, and we are impacted by all forms of racism that plague the country. Brutality to refugees is a bipartisan business in Australia. July this year marked five years since the offshore hellhole camps were opened under Julia Gillard. Student unions should demand that the Manus and Nauru camps be closed, and that refugees be brought to Australia. As a protest for refugee justice, Union House should be declared a sanctuary for refugees threatened with deportation under the immigration regime of Peter Dutton.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Australia, as politicians drum up fear about, among other things, spies on university campuses. Student unions should call this out as bullshit (the NSA spies on us far more than the Chinese state) and actively promote an anti-racist culture on campus. We should show solidarity with groups of international students who are targeted by the far-right. And we should demand our University doesn’t treat international students like cash-cows — the Uni should provide them with free legal advice and assistance about their rights (work, rent, bills, etc.).
Taking on Labor
Left Action wants to energetically pursue this progressive agenda, and strives to involve as many students as possible in these causes well beyond election week. We are not student unionists who you will only see once a year to ask for your vote. We believe that the higher the numbers participating, the stronger the student movement.
This vision brings us into conflict with the machine that is the Labor Party, which has two factions on this campus (Activate and Unite). Naturally, these factions don’t want student unions taking action that might harm the electoral fortunes of Bill Shorten. This is a party responsible for the unjust imprisonment of refugees, the parlous state of higher education, and innumerable other crimes associated with ruling for the rich in Australia. It therefore prefers a student union that shuts up about racism, doesn’t resist education cuts, and builds a wall between ordinary students and the “in-the-know” student politicians.
We are far from seeing another 1968, but by taking on Labor at Adelaide Uni, we can make a start.
Jack Crawford is currently a director on the Adelaide University Union Board