If you haven't been following the intrigue at the University of Queensland (UQ), you probably think that Fresh is the campus juice bar, and Pulse is a nineties nightclub. You'd be wrong. Fresh and Pulse are the two of the student political parties, or “tickets”, lining up to contest the University of Queensland Union elections.
Well, they were, until the rules changed. Fresh, the conservative group aligned with the young LNP, held a council pow-wow last week, and effectively changed the rules around nominating for the twenty-five available positions. The problem is with the registration of the name Pulse.
The result of this rule-change is that candidates who were running under the Pulse banner have withdrawn their candidacy, because the new regulations forbid the use of Pulse as a party name under the convoluted new rules.
This is university politics. It's young and energetic and optimistic, but it's not in the realm of hand-made cardboard posters and free Chocolate Crackles, or campaigning on a policy of longer lunch breaks and shorter skirts. Major candidates and tickets have major party affiliation, and some hope to make their careers in politics. What happens in the political sandpit can have an impact decades later, when enterprising journalists and wily oppositions unearth the dumb things you did at uni.
With no disrespect to student politicians, campus politics has a different flavour to the "senior" kind. It can afford to be more idealistic because the stakes are different and the participants aren't as cynical. True ideologues tend not to gravitate towards the warm-and-fuzzy centre where bipartisanship and compromise skip along happily, singing songs about peace and love. Student politicians are either true believers or ambitious bastards, and often both.
Some of the world’s best known politicians were heavily involved in University politics, and that group includes many of the higher profile politicians in Australia right now. Prime Minister Gillard worked with the Australian Union of Students at Melbourne University. Both Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey held the office of President of the Student Representative Council at St Johns College, Sydney Uni. Bob Hawke was Students’ Representative on the University Council at ANU. For a real treat, read David Burchell’s piece in the Australian from a couple of years ago.
Pulse is the left-leaning student group on campus, and they are affiliated with the ALP. They have been holding fundraisers under the Pulse name, and have had their campaign merchandise printed. The decision to make their party name ineligible was made so late – just days before their campaign was due to start - that they were left with only a weekend in which to regroup with a new party name, register it, and kick off their campaign. That was Option 1.
Option 2 was for the ex-Pulse candidates to run as independents. That would be easier, but also most likely to fail, as there would be no way for voters to identify the left-leaning candidates.
They chose Option 3: they have withdrawn in protest.
One other "ticket", as the parties are known, was also made ineligible, but that candidate was not a serious contender for election.
That’s only one side of the story. The other side features the Fresh team, making it well known that they planned to change the rules around naming of political parties and eligibility for registration. Colin Finke, President of the Fresh Party, told the Herald Sun
"As per normal practice, over a week's notice was given of the council meeting complained of," he said.
"The meeting was completely transparent and not secret in any way members of the Pulse team took the opportunity to speak to council regarding the regulatory changes and after hearing arguments for and against the changes, student councillors elected to pass these regulations."
Mr Finke said members of the Pulse party "can complain all they want" but had 12 months’ notice on the introduction of new regulations on the use of registered ticket names.
And now it gets messy. The Union’s own returning officer has ruled that Pulse was required to change its name and register for next week's election, according to the new requirements. They chose instead to withdraw from the election.
Is there a higher power that can intervene? The Electoral Commission Queensland seems not to be involved in the UQU fiasco, although they manage the election of office-bearers in other Union elections within Queensland. The University has expressed its concern, but has also stated that the Union is a separate entity to the University. One does not rule over the other, and while it will be guiding its students, it won’t be imposing its opinion on how the election should be run.
So it seems that the students at UQ will have no opportunity to vote for a left-leaning party this year. While there is a certain element of “so what” from people who aren’t students, we need to keep in mind with UQ Union has an operating budget in excess of $18m, and runs the campus cafes, canteen, bar, cinema and the all-important bookshop, as well as running support services for many minority and special interest groups.
Regardless of whether this is sneaky, murky politics from the Fresh team, or a huge blunder by the Pulse group is unimportant, as all of the students involved will soon learn. The actions of both sides paint student politicians at UQ in a poor light. Fresh appears to be devious and deceitful; Pulse appears to be whingers, blamers and quitters. Outside those sandstone walls, none of that matters.