Right wing takeover of Monash Student Association

Right wing students have taken over the Monash Student Association (MSA), a bastion of the broad left for decades. In the annual MSA elections, a conservative group won a landslide victory, gaining around 60 percent of the vote for most positions. It is a decisive shift in the politics of one of the key Australian university campuses.

For 12 years, the MSA has been controlled by the Labor Party’s left faction, which occasionally worked with, or against, others from the campus left, including socialists. For the last two years, Monash socialist students have held positions in the union and used them to organise activist campaigns and promote left wing politics.

The MSA has encouraged students to attend almost every significant progressive protest that has taken place: from the large protests against cuts to higher education in 2013, to the demonstrations throughout 2014 that helped bring down the Abbott government, to this year’s historic rally for marriage equality.

The MSA has raised funds for striking workers and sent student solidarity contingents to their pickets. It has organised campus forums on refugee rights, Aboriginal rights, domestic and international political developments and progressive social thought.

In one small but spectacular achievement, the MSA helped prevent the deportation of a lecturer whose family’s visas had been revoked due to his son’s autism. We organised a huge public campaign, culminating in maybe the largest ever campus demonstration in defence of the rights of those with disabilities.

The record of the Labor left-run MSA has been imperfect, because the Labor students often baulked at the activism of the campus socialists, sometimes taking aggressive actions to limit our organising capacity. But in a society with few institutions controlled by the activist left, the MSA was one of the most significant remaining forums for organising collective resistance and student activism in Victoria.

It was in that context that right wing students launched “a movement at Monash Clayton to take the student union back from the left”, in the words of Fergus Calwell, a right wing Labor activist and a candidate on the ticket.

That movement – dubbed “Together” – followed the pattern of Labor right-organised takeovers of other campus unions. Cultivating conservative and career-minded leaders of various campus clubs, and promising the reward of official titles that could pad out a résumé, they recruited dozens of campaigners and thousands of voters over many months.

One of the key clubs involved was the Monash branch of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, the pro-Israel student group notorious for its determination to crush the campus left. Together’s candidate for MSA president, Micky Fisher, is a former AUJS national chair. He holds the unusual distinction of being the only AUJS leader ever forced to give a written apology to Socialist Alternative, after he was caught promoting an easily disproved slander intended to smear the campus socialists at Monash.

Together did not publicly campaign on driving out the left: declarations like Fergus Calwell’s were made behind closed doors or in Facebook groups that they thought were private.

Instead, they used the typical method of promising more awesome parties, a transformed and utopian campus life organised by the student union (complete with pie-in-the-sky promises that would involve completely refurbishing the campus), friendlier relations with university management and an end to the campus TV showing news all the time. In short, a conservative student union as an extension of university management, presiding over one more depoliticised university campus.

In the face of this attack, the Monash socialists attempted to create a united broad left resistance. Our only allies were the Labor left, who campaigned alongside the socialists to prevent the right wing takeover. But the Labor left were hamstrung by their inclination to fight on Together’s terrain, promising endless services and often de-emphasising the political stakes. By accepting the logic that the MSA should primarily be a non-political service provider, many of the Labor left’s campaigners were powerless to defeat rivals who promised more, better and newer gifts.

Student unions can’t solely be service providers: if they are to retain any social relevance, they have to defend and organise students, and take part in broader social struggles. If the left chooses to engage in a fight over who can better manage a politically neutral administrative body, we only add to the right’s political momentum and authority.

Of the campus “left”, the most reprehensible conduct was that of the so-called Grassroots, the self-described “anti-authoritarian” social grouping that sometimes call themselves anarchists.

The Grassroots, formerly known as Activate and then as Switch, were once a large and influential political force at Monash. For many years, they contested the elections against the Labor left. Grassroots presented themselves as the authentic left opposition, committed to taking the student union from the hands of bureaucratic ALP hacks – although they generally refused to work with the socialists.

But the Grassroots’ commitment to winning official positions has almost always trumped their commitment to any political principle. In 2016, unable to inspire enough support to challenge the Labor left, they ran an election campaign exclusively targeting the socialists – and failed. This year, they plumbed new depths. They viewed the chance to work with the right, to hand control of the Monash Student Association to political forces obsessed with crushing the left, as an opportunity.

They dissolved themselves into the Together ticket, endorsing its candidates across the board and campaigning for it during the election week. “We had some reservations, naturally, because they’re not an explicitly left wing ticket … [but] we thought that their kind of ethos was similar to ours”, one Grassroots member told Monash student newspaper Mojo. He is correct: Grassroots and the right share the ethos of seeking office at the expense of the left.

And so, in the face of the most serious right wing assault on the MSA in decades, Grassroots gave up their purported desire to create a radical left student union: they instructed their supporters to vote for the right and celebrated its triumph as their own victory. Turning the MSA over to the right will be the one lasting political legacy of the Grassroots at Monash.

Monash socialists fought for a week against this coalition, making the case to students for the importance of an activist left union at Monash. We were defeated, and Victorian campus activism will suffer badly from the absorption of one more student union into the right – which we hope can be resisted on the ground and defeated as quickly as possible.

For organised campus socialists, and for any principled left, winning titles can’t come above politics: our project, unlike that of some of our political rivals, is about much more than official positions. Our fight to create an activist political culture on university campuses continues beyond student union elections. That is what guarantees a future for the left at Monash, in or out of the MSA.