A column about VSU

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar to watch a local hero lose $836,000. Tim Brunero, the Newtown journalist, went down in the finale of Big Brother 2005 to the muscly Logan twins of Wagga. I’d been predicting his eventual defeat by the forces of blokiness for most of the series, but on that night, fuelled by the Centrebet odds, the general buzz, and some very dull interviews with Logan Greg, I’d foolishly convinced myself that the public would get behind Tim. Serves me right for believing the Sydney Morning Herald.

The room was full of people who’d been friends with Tim at uni. Through his time on the Union Board, he’d become known across the campus as a lovable, hilarious eccentric – and bizarrely, the whole nation now seemed to feel the same way. Tim’s flatmates were there to cheer on both him and another flatmate, James, who’d been given a trip to Dreamworld as compensation for having to endure a 30 second interview with Gretel.

As we watched the broadcast on a screen so big that we could actually see Tim’s new muscles, we downed a special ‘Kiss Me Kate’ cocktail (pleasant, a bit conservative, and ultimately fairly forgettable, rather like the woman herself) and Tiny Tims, which was what they were calling the enormous sausages they were giving out – “Big Deans” might have been a better label.

Manning Bar is where all the lefties on campus drown their sorrows after they’re walloped in student elections, so it seemed a fitting place to celebrate Tim’s defeat with a few themed drinks. Being a dyed-in-the-wool leftie himself, Tim spent a lot of his time on the show talking about the threat to unions, both student ones and the trade unions he’s been working with in recent years. And although Sandra Sully’s bizarre news update for Tim and Greg didn’t cover the proposed voluntary student unionism legislation, it’s certainly the big story at Sydney Uni.

The uni bar isn’t the relaxed place for avoiding afternoon lectures that it used to be. There is something of a sense of siege. The building’s festooned with signs warning of the threat VSU would pose by gutting the funding of our hosts for that evening, the University of Sydney Union. And the legislation threatens more than a sausage sizzle.

The party for Tim was a fantastic example of the kind of thing that student unions do well. It’s these events that make universities about more than just lectures, essays and exams, and build a sense of community, and student unions fund dozens of them every single week. On this quiet, chilly Monday night, hundreds of students (and some washed-up hacks like myself) came to celebrate one of their own’s almost-triumph on a national stage. And it’s exactly these kind of events that will be threatened if VSU comes in.

Last week, I came across a student protest marching down George St in an attempt to take the VSU struggle to the Liberal Party’s offices. This has happened constantly since 1996 – the students march through the city to John Howard’s offices in Phillip St, or the Liberal Party headquarters in William St, occasionally even occupying the building, and it makes no difference whatsoever. Huge increases in HECS, full-fee paying students and the changes to Austudy all arrived despite enormous student opposition. (So you have to admire their sense of optimism.) Tim may well have been marching with them, if his dizzying schedule of celebrity visits to Shooters Nightclub and the Rooty Hill RSL permitted.

The VSU legislation is aimed at stopping the use of student funds for political aims. (This is clear because of the proposal for compromise legislation that would ban only that.) But the new laws won’t kill angry protests like the one on Thursday. What it will kill are nights like the Tim party, when student unions subsidise events that build a rich, vibrant campus community. And all in the name of a totally anti-community user-pays principle. It’s as if local councils had to stop charging rates, but instead charge a fee to every resident who attended a street fair, because some ratepayers weren’t able to make it.

As we learned from Big Brother, it’s not often in life that the little guy wins, even when he’s been desperately pumping iron for three whole months. But I hope that this time, the scrawny lefties will triumph over the bulging muscles of a Coalition that now controls the Senate. Because, as I’m sure Tim would agree, the loss of the vibrant student life on our campuses would be even more painful than losing $800 grand on national television.

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