Stronger Together: The Demise of Macquarie’s Student Unionism

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Words || Samuel Tulle

Students at Macquarie might be forgiven for raising their eyebrows in question at the phrase “student unionism”. For most it’s an alien term.

At other universities, student unionism, and its siblings – student democracy and activism (usually of the left-wing kind) – are part and parcel of university life. At Macquarie, this is not so.

So what gives?

The Lay of the Land

At other campuses, student elections are a vibrant, engaging, bitterly fought affair. Their factional feuds and petty squabbles can at times attract national media attention.

At Macquarie, you’d be hard pressed to know there was a student election going on at all, let alone what you were voting for.

At other universities, elected student representatives have direct control over their student organisations, which are in receipt of huge sums of money. Through their student unions, students own and operate food and beverage outlets, gyms, and childcare centres, assets totalling millions of dollars.

At Macquarie University, a corporate subsidiary of the University called ‘U@MQ’ owns and operates these businesses. Students are consumers, not co-owners. Its corporate board has just one student member in ten.

The modern Student Representative Committee has a pitiful budget of just $200,000, drawn out of the more than $6 million collected from students in the Student Services and Amenities Fee each year. This is compared to the millions doled out to the University of Sydney Union for its Student Representative Council.

This is just the way the administration of the Macquarie Uni wants it. They’d sooner have no student bodies and no pesky elections at all, were it not for the fact the law of the land says they are obliged to.

Chairman Ma

To understand the sickly state of student unionism at Macquarie University today, you have to understand Victor Ma. Not many students at Macquarie today know the name, but his ghost lingers over our student politics and experience to this day.

Ma was the undisputed king of Macquarie University from 2002-2007. He held every possible elected position on campus, serving as the President of Students at Macquarie (SAM, the student union), Chair of the Macquarie University Students Council, and Student Representative to University Council, the chief governing body of the University.

It all came to a bitter end in early 2007, when police were called in to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars of student money.

SAM was wound up by the Supreme Court, and the Students Council was liquidated.

This is where Macquarie’s uniquely hostile attitude to student unionism originates. The legacy of Victor Ma still looms large over Macquarie University today. The administration has an ongoing and reflexive hostility to any move towards a traditional brand of student unionism, as evidenced in its pursuit of the Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association (MUPRA), and its refusal to allow accreditation with the National Union of Students.

It hasn’t always been this way. Since its founding in 1964, Macquarie University has had a rich tradition of unionism and activism, which is just waiting to be reinvigorated.

Macquarie’s Radical Tradition

Meredith Burgmann’s GREEN BANS, RED UNION tells the story of Macquarie’s most famous (and successful) incidence of student activism. In June of 1973, students from the Macquarie University Student Council (MUSC) joined with the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) – the predecessor of today’s Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) – to protest the expulsion of gay campus activist, Jeremy Fisher, from a campus college.

Fisher was a resident at Robert Menzies College and was active in the leadership of the Gay Liberation Group on campus, but was expelled from the College by the Master, Dr Alan Cole, due to his “perversion”.

The BLF had risen to prominence in the Seventies for its role in the preservation of heritage and green spaces in inner Sydney through their famous “green bans” – whereby BLF members refused to conduct development work on some of Sydney’s most iconic locations such as The Rocks and Centennial Park.

The Students Council joined forces with the BLF to slap “pink bans” on almost a million dollars worth of construction projects at Macquarie. The Secretary of the BLF, legendary union activist Jack Mundey, declared no work would be conducted until “discrimination against homosexuality” ceased. The stop-work eventually brought the University Council to the table, and ultimately recommended Fisher’s reinstatement. The pink ban was lifted, but Fisher, unsurprisingly, elected to live elsewhere.

Macquarie’s early days of student radicalism sound not at all dissimilar to those familiar with a history of student politics across time and space. On multiple occasions, large numbers of students have occupied the Macquarie Vice-Chancellor’s office, often forcing policy intervention.

Youth Politics in the Age of Trump

In 2017, the horizon for political activism at Macquarie looks bleak. While sporadic protests against anti-abortionists flare up, anything resembling a class consciousness amongst students seems to have burned out long ago.

In an age where students are worried about making rent, finding a job that pays any wages, or the seeming impossibility of one day owning a home, it’s not surprising that the state of the occupied West Bank is far from their minds.

This writer has hope, however. The election of a fascist President of the United States, and the re-election of a conservative Liberal government hell bent on slashing what strained threads of our social safety net remains, has given today’s youth a sense of the very real and unavoidable nature of politics and its intrusion on our lives.

The old axiom that “you can ignore politics, but it won’t ignore you” has a tangible potency in an age where the government wishes to jail those who have received welfare, or can destroy our nightlife and culture with the stroke of a pen.

It sounds dangerously like accelerationism, but perhaps this will be the catalyst for a resurgence of political activism at Macquarie University.

It’s trite, but the future is in your hands. When you go to your student email inbox this year to vote in a fresh group of student representatives, it bears remembering that “there is power in a union”.

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