How arguing about next to nothing teaches student politicians everything

The world of student politics is usually trivial and frequently hilarious. And yet, unlike the petty deliberations of most tiny bodies composed largely of unjustifiably self-important people who seem addicted to grandstanding, what goes on is ultimately of great importance. Because student politics is, more often than not, what selects and shapes our future leaders.

Anybody who tuned into the shenanigans of the first meeting of the new Student Representative Council at the University of Sydney last Thursday night, or followed #repselect on Twitter, or read one of the media reports the following day, will have had the chance to see both the triviality and the hilarity up close.

As far as I can understand things from the media reports and from talking to some of the editors of the student newspaper Honi Soit, here’s what happened. A number of Labor factions, which are generally aligned in name only, joined forces with the Liberal and other right-wing students to craft a deal that would exclude the previously powerful far-left students from positions of power on the council.

But then (cue sinister dun-dun-dunnnn sound) at the eleventh hour, the Labor Left faction reneged on the deal and joined forces with the “Grassroots” far left group/collective/junta/etc to instead exclude the Labor Right (ironically named Unity) and those further to the right of it. In other words, Labor Left left.

Consequently, some of the “victims” may have/allegedly/reportedly tried to stop the meeting that would vote in the office-holders for the year. They did it by trying to render the meeting without a quorum by walking out, which is known as pulling quorum.

Then someone unknown took the “pulling things” idea even further, and pulled out the fuses so there was no light.

Both campus security and the NSW Police Force were called in, for reasons they were unable to understand – but in short, one group was trying to stop the meeting from electing officeholders, and the other wanted to protect it so that it could.

I found the whole thing highly amusing, given the utter desperation of the tactics and the sheer unimportance of most of the positions being decided. I know this very well because I was once a student politician, and an especially ridiculous one at that.

I was elected to the same council in 1999 as the 37th of 37 representatives. I achieved this by running under the same ticket name as my friends and I were using to run to Honi Soit newspaper editors, on the basis that it would help us elude the strict spending caps applied to each category of candidates – a practice that endured many years afterwards.

At this same “reps-elect” meeting, I was elected Intercampus Liaison Officer, a role in which not only did I achieve zero in terms of furthering relationships between the unis many locations, but I couldn’t even manage to organise any liaisons with anyone from another campus.

So it was with no little nostalgia that I sat late last Thursday night and watched the meeting on Periscope. Many of the speeches contained the usual dogma and charming lack of self-awareness, and they took forever. Just as they had in my day.

To be fair, many of my fellow student politicians were extremely dedicated, and devoted countless hours to working on policy and helping other students who had found themselves in trouble. The presidents of the Union and SRC that I knew worked really hard, and generally achieved much.

More broadly, of the campaigns that were run touched on matters of genuine importance, and made me extremely proud of our representatives.

And yet these were the minority of officeholders. Most of them, it seemed to me, were motivated purely by padding their CVs, or getting the numbers to build up credit within their own movements, or simply by the sheer joy of beating their ideological opponents. They won, and then did very little with the role they’d campaigned so hard to achieve.

Just like I did.

Student politics wasn’t a game for the faint-hearted. The year before we won, I grouped together with some friends to try to run for the newspaper, and got utterly destroyed because we didn’t have anyone political on our ticket, so we got very few endorsements. The job we’d do as editors seemed almost irrelevant – what mattered was being part of the machine.

And it’s those machine skills that get honed in student politics. The ones who went furthest worked hardest, spending their nights chalking or postering or photocopying leaflets. They stayed up late making plans and cutting deals, and the ones who were best at it got jobs as staffers before they’d even graduated. Some even ran for office in grown-up elections, flying the party’s banner in unwinnable seats to impress the elders.

When they graduated, many of these people became full-time staffers, or union reps, or think tank members, and before long got elected themselves. Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were all student leaders in their days at Sydney Uni. So were Michael Kirby, Geoffrey Robertson, Richard Walsh and Belinda Neal, to name but a few.

The people who join the student politics machines in their uni days, though, are not necessarily the best and brightest. They generally aren’t the most charismatic, or the most likely to be seen on stage at the academic awards nights. They’re the ones who’ll work their butts off, and do what they’re told. And they’re the ones who’ll pull out the fuses if it means they’ll get what they want.

Most abominably, some of them are the ones who’ll distribute so-called “shit sheets”, unauthorised, anonymous leaflets full of untraceable, unfair innuendo so close to polling day that they can’t effectively be refuted. When this kind of thing happened in the seat of Lindsay in 2007, the outgoing member Jackie Kelly called it a “Chaser-style prank”. It wasn’t a prank, and the style was undergraduate politics, not humour.

The attributes that so many have criticised in our politics – the willingness to compromise principles to win, the lack of non-political work and life experience and the tendency to get personal to win at all costs – all begin in student politics. In many, if not most seats at general elections, the only serious contenders on either side are these kinds of people.

So while we can all snigger at the pathetic infighting over incredibly slim pickings that occurred last Thursday night, that kind of behaviour constitutes the first few clips in a training montage that ends in the triumph of elected office.

We may enjoy paying out student politicians, and I certainly did myself back then. But we end up paying them to govern us.

Dom Knight is the only person ever to write an 80,000 word novel about an election for the Sydney Uni SRC.