The Student Union that Swinburne students know today is one that has been through hellfire and back again. See, when you run a union, life isn’t just all BBQs and free printing, and when Swinburne politics student James Murphy took a deeper look into the history of our favourite group of volunteers and activists, he found a tale doused in blood, betrayal, and a complete perversion of human nature…
Well, not really, although that would be cool. The history of the SSU is not quite ‘a day in the life of Kings Landing’, but as Murphy puts it, “a dearth of student solidarity, brought about by powerful forces of social fragmentation” led to the union’s grizzly end in 2006.
So grab some popcorn, because it’s about to get political, university style. We hope you enjoy reading The Life and Tragic Death of the Swinburne Student Union – Part One.
To appreciate the forces that brought on the Union’s implosion in 2006, a word must be spared on its infancy and how it developed as an organisation.
Swinburne’s early history is punctuated by bursts of organisation and civic zeal, but nothing lasting emerged until the late 1960s. Swinburne, then a mid-sized College and Trades School of about 6,500 students, could not resist the counter-cultural current sweeping up students across the country and indeed the world.
At first the student body merely fed off the radical energy being generated at other institutions around the country – Monash and La Trobe were particularly charged campuses – but by the early seventies the College had become a hard-left stronghold in its own right.
Dominating the sleepy Hawthorn campus was Students for Australian Independence, youth spin off of the Australian Independence Movement, itself a front for the Communist Party of Australia. Swinburne, like Monash, La Trobe, Flinders and elsewhere, was a hard-line Maoist campus.
The Maoists had what they felt was a very shrewd strategy for building a radical base at Swinburne: step one was to create a militant rank-and-file through campaigns on bread-and-butter student issues; access and equity, student facilities, academic policy, and so on. Step two was to nudge militant unionists into political radicalism – apparently a more straight-forward form of alchemy than upfront recruiting.
It’s tricky to ascertain how much success they had with step two, but step one was, from all reports, a smashing success. The Student Union managed to win significant concessions from the College on academic policy and student amenities, get positions for students on major College boards and committees, help found a bookshop cooperative, run one, then several cafeterias, and operate the student radio station and a printing press.
Such success was only possible with long-term discipline and planning, which, given the brevity of a student’s tenure, relied on the work of external groups.
Organisers and recruiters from a galaxy of political and social groups infiltrated the student body, recruiting, teaching, strategizing, and indoctrinating. Their role in building the massive, sophisticated student organisation we recognise at the end of the 20th century cannot be overstated – they were politicisors, talent scouts, stewards of the organisational memory, role models, strategists, pastoral carers and diplomats. They gave the Union a coherence and a professionalism that appears to be beyond most – but not all – unguided students, as we shall see later.
Of course, the Union staff played a similar role, and often belonged to the external groups themselves – the long-time Executive Officer of the Union, Balrama Krishnan, had been a Maoist activist and delegate at the Australian Union of Students before managing the organization. It wasn’t an uncommon career path.
Words by James Murphy – Editing and introduction by Nicholas Kennedy
Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of this series, coming in May 2016.