Ballot Box: Student Politics at RMIT

By Patrick Hooton and Liam Straughan
Illustration by John Barrett | @johnsdooodles

Welcome back to the Ballot Box, where students from opposite sides of the political spectrum provide their stance on a topical issue.

This month, we’ve posed the question: if you could improve anything about student politics at RMIT, what would it be and why?

Patrick Hooton / Left Wing

The rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, and One Nation has shown how volatile the international political landscape has become. Too often, our differences descend into rhetoric and name-calling, which can be alienating for those becoming involved in student politics. Such alienation and disenfranchisement can lead to students involving themselves with political groups who promote intolerance. We have seen it at other universities—the spreading of hateful pamphlets and racist flyers, with more extreme ‘alt-right’ groups crawling out into the university landscape.

So far, RMIT seems to have escaped this worrying trend. But that does not mean our reputation as a progressive university will stop it from happening. This is made clearer still with the spawning of student political groups such as ‘The Monash Right’. Their sentiments seems to match stride with President Trump, posting about a desire to “Make Monash Great Again” in apparent inane anti-immigration meme posting on their Facebook. It’s the kind of stuff that would leave the great human Cheeto of a president smitten.

I believe that if our student political groups spend too long heckling one another at university open days, we’d be playing into the hands of such groups. How? By creating students who are fed up with our trading of barbs across politics, and as such, finding themselves more aligned with these ranks. Being the opinionated person I am, I relish a thorough and passionate political argument, but we cannot let it descend into pettiness and name calling or we risk chasing away students. This is something I would like to see change in RMIT student politics, before it gets any worse.

At this semester’s mid-year Open Day event, the RMIT Greens set up a stall to welcome new students who wanted to involve themselves with politics at RMIT. In what should have been a welcoming and friendly day for new and returning students, the mood was somewhat dampened by heckling from another party’s club. I watched students who might have otherwise walked up to a political stall and spoken to us take a wide berth, avoiding the stalls entirely. This highlighted how the sometimes toxic nature of politics can alienate students, and young people generally, from engaging.

Noticing how the trading of barbs was disaffecting new students, I went over to the opposite stall and exchanged a few harsh words with them. Shortly after this, the two of us found ourselves discussing the creation of the new super ministry, an issue we had different opinions on. However, when we actually spoke to one another instead of yelling across the divide, we managed to have a friendly political argument—each exposing the other to counter arguments and polarising viewpoints. While we may have disagreed, it is these political discussions which are so important in allowing people to shape an opinion and challenge their personal views.

Liam Straughan / Right Wing

In short, a tremendous amount needs to change. I would simply argue that the current system is about as useful as electing a local council. It should serve a simple purpose, and not overstep its bounds or be too ambitious. Otherwise, it shouldn’t exist. I’m talking to you, Yarra City Council.  

I do not have a very high opinion at all of student politics; if I’m going to be honest, I think it is a training ground for individuals with enough of an interest to go about gaining experience to try and have a go at politics in the real world, only with more of the open hostility against opponents, less discussion on issues which affect people eligible to vote, and of course, posturing and attempts to pander to voters. All of this, as opposed to discussing issues more and getting to the substance of why anyone should vote one way or the other.

From my observations, I have two simple changes I would make to try and address actual issues that affect students come the time of elections and perhaps make this less of an unattractive issue.

Firstly, I would have it that all candidates run as independents, as opposed to members of a hastily put together ‘party’. This would allow their own original ideas to become the focus of the choices, we, as students make. I believe there would also be a greater emphasis on what unique individual qualities each person would bring to their chosen position, and us students who choose to vote will have to ask critical questions as to what we truly want from our elected student ‘government’.  

Lastly, I would put it out there to every person or organisation wanting to run for student government to simply calm down and not get in over your heads about it. I’m not sure a Student Union can take on the might of Israel’s military and political power regarding the issue of Palestine. Likewise, simply passing a motion in support of same sex marriage across the country, while symbolic, ultimately isn’t going to get it done any faster in the grand scheme of things. That’s what we are spending $122 million for on this plebiscite. Your ambition is something to be admired, but it is ultimately misplaced. Please stick to serving the student body first and foremost.  

That being said, I urge every citizen of a democratic society, no matter what size or scope, to never stop asking questions and demanding accountability from those we seek to elect into office. This is not only our right, but our duty.  

The opinions expressed here belong to the writers. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Catalyst as a whole.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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