A Win For Student Activism At Sydney


The vice president of the University of Sydney Union (USU), Tom Raue, held on to his job last week following a prolonged attempt to oust him from office. It wasn’t a bottle of grange or charges of financial misconduct that threatened his undoing: Raue was pursued by fellow student board directors for leaking a sentence from an internal Union report to the university’s student newspaper, Honi Soit.

The five-month battle that followed proved to be about more than Raue’s political career. The information he supplied to Honi Soit indicated police had taken some direction from university management during the previous year’s staff industrial action, at which many in the pickets complained of serious police violence.

In considering whether to expel Raue, the board of student directors had to adjudicate on whether the political significance of his leak outweighed the fact it appeared to break the USU’s internal protocols and potentially harmed the organisation’s relationship with university management. That consideration hinged on a deeper question: should student organisations fight for political outcomes or should they simply keep close relationships with university management, organise themselves in a corporate manner and deliver services to students in the most efficient way possible?

In a post compulsory student unionism environment, the trend has been to the latter. The USU is no longer the fighting political body it once was. During the Vietnam War, the Union and other student organisations, like the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) erected makeshift barricades to shield draft resisters from officious police officers.

Comparatively, the USU was regularly mocked last year, dubbed the “Useless Scab Union” by protesters, after directors elected not to shut down its commercial operations during the strikes (though, in line with its service orientation, the board did vote to provide food and drinks to picketers on strike days).

The shift away from activism and towards service provision and event planning transcends the USU. The University of New South Wales’ student union, Arc, promotes itself as "'that' mate at uni", who specialises in parties, travel and discounts. The University of Technology Sydney’s union, ActivateUTS, similarly prides itself on its retail and service operations. Notably, in a rebranding exercise, both dropped the word "union" from their titles. While some universities' maintain democratically elected advocacy bodies, they are generally assigned less SSAF funding and in many places simply do not exist.

It is in this climate — of dwindling student control and functional transformation — that Raue’s win is significant. The campaign to save him, too, serves as a useful parable for dispirited student activists and organisers.

After a lengthy case that spanned October through to March, the NSW Supreme Court determined the board did hold the power to sack its own, paving the way for a vote to expel Raue. However, the decision appeared to be a pyrrhic victory for USU President Hannah Morris and the rest of the executive who wanted Raue gone.

During the course of the trial it was revealed that several members of the USU’s unelected staff had worked to undermine the vice president. It was also revealed that, while Raue was being pursued for leaking the information to the student newspaper, the USU’s CEO had already shared it with the University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence.

Evidence of managerial wrongdoing, released at trial, was spruiked by the student-led campaign, Stand with Raue, which began lobbying the board not to use its powers to vote Raue off. The group set up a facebook page that drew 370 likes and collected 645 members’ signatures.

So it came to pass that the special resolution to remove the vice president failed last Thursday: requiring a two-thirds majority of the 11 directors present and voting, only six voted for the motion, meaning it failed. Just weeks earlier, it had looked certain Raue would lose the vote comprehensively.

Lambasting so-called social activism, Malcolm Gladwell argued that online movements are internally crippled due to their overreliance on "weak ties". Extrapolating from the research of Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, he contends serious, transgressive and ultimately transformative social projects require deep conviction, drawn from acutely-connected individuals.

McAdam studied the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, a mass, student-led civil rights campaign waged in the American South by black students. The campaign relied on sit-ins, rallies, and military discipline. He found that participants who stayed on, in the wake of ongoing intimidation and violence from segregationists and white supremacists, held strong, personal ties with others in the movement.

But the success of the Stand with Raue campaign indicates that online social-media based organising can be a useful tool for contemporary student activists. Organiser Hannah Ryan notes their tactics “were particularly effective because the campaign was based in a small community.”

To its pleasure, the movement married a charismatic online campaign with a regular, tangible presence on campus. “The [Facebook] page posted silly meme stuff to attract attention,” Ryan said. “The page was also a chance to go into depth on a range of issues that … were complex and hard to talk about quickly in person. The page was important in building the intellectual case for opposing Tom’s dismissal.”

Fellow organiser Laura Webster lauded the movement’s online component, but noted that “speaking to people one on one and striking up a conversation [was]also an invaluable tool.” The ground campaign maintained a physical stall, and sent volunteers to speak at lecture and clubs and societies’ events.

The campaign used a mix of serious political messages and bizarre memes and images. Image: Stand With Raue

In Western Australia, a similar strategy catapulted Scott Ludlam back into the Senate with a swing of over 6 per cent. An impassioned address to an empty Senate chamber drew over half a million viewers to YouTube. What made Ludlam’s campaign effective, however, was his ability to galvanise his armchair advocates into positive action. Phone banks in Victoria operated on an almost daily basis; almost 600 calls were made each night. The phenomenon was replicated in New South Wales: a similar operation in Erskineville, NSW ran two to three times a week in the lead-up to the by-election.

“The great thing about [the Stand with Raue]campaign, and about Scott's is that it was so much about including and engaging loads of people”, said organiser Alexi Polden. “The really positive pitch and atmosphere of both campaigns made them really inclusive”.

Raue’s victory is one that blows against the wind. It’s a political triumph that comes as student unions inch towards an apolitical existence. Those involved with the campaign are optimistic about the future of student activism. “The greatest achievement of the Stand with Raue campaign is that it proved beyond any doubt that students still care about student control over student affairs,” said Webster.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.