Impunity, freedom and student body politics

fat_boy_slim_-_youve_come_aJust before the end of the university term last year, Peter McCaffrey and ACT On Campus gave the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association an object lesson in how democracy works. They successfully passed a resolution that VUWSA make a select committee submission in support of Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (making student association voluntary) despite various machinations employed by the VUWSA members and officeholders there. These events were well documented in text by Jenna Raeburn and in video with a ridiculously triumphal soundtrack (irony noted by felix).

The fundamental problem of non-democratic (and poor-quality democratic) political systems is that they shelter those in power from the consequences of their actions. Authoritarianism (and authoritarian communism in particular) is deleterious not so much due to the economic failings of the system (such as the economic calculation problem) as due to the fact that in such systems there exists no mechanism to force, require or even encourage the leadership to act in its peoples’ interest. I’ve written a lot about the power transfer problem of orthodox Marxist pragma, and this is an aspect of it. When the leadership is invested with the monopoly power and authority to suppress a counter-revolution, how do you ever get them to relinquish it?

The effect of impunity is similarly evident in other fields; particularly in commerce, where the customary opposition of the terms “freedom” and “regulation” are little more than straw soldiers in a propaganda battle. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite have written at length about the extent to which so-called free trade mechanisms such as TRIPS are instruments of international coercion more than they are of international trade, and how almost the entire intellectual property system of the modern world has been so thoroughly captured by existing rightsholders that it now functions as a form of privatised regulation by asserting near-impassable barriers to entry into the information marketplace. This suppresses competition, promotes the establishment and maintenance of cartels between existing participants, and all this breeds impunity, where participants have no (or few) reasons to develop their products and services to suit their users’ needs, and so they develop them to suit their own needs. The results are everywhere; for instance, in the fact that people are compelled to purchase Microsoft software with most new computers although they might hate and despise it, or simply not need it; or in the fact that those same users, having reluctantly purchased Windows since there are no easily-accessible alternatives (those having been shut out of the market years ago by patent thickets, bundling, cross-licensing, and so on) are then locked into using proprietary media formats, players, content distribution and communication systems with (in some cases well-known) surveillance functions and which are designed to restrict a users’ rights to their own hardware, content and communication, so that the system — and users’ participation in it — works in the provider’s interest, rather than the interests of its users.

That example is just one with which I’m familiar. Much more socially and economically important examples exist; particularly around medical development and crop research. But the point is that this whole system, billed as being about “freedom”, does not mean freedom for users so much as rightholders’ freedom from the need to cater to their users without fear of someone else eating their lunch.

Returning to student body politics. When a student union compels fees from its students, and when students who disagree with the union’s agenda are unable to withdraw their support, what incentive is there for the union to represent the interests of the student body? The political consequence of that system is a student body politic so complacent due to impunity in charge of millions of dollars a year in revenue that it literally cannot organise a SRC vote to save itself.

I am no great supporter of VSM; I view the threadbare rhetoric of “freedom” employed by Douglas, McCaffrey and so on with a jaundiced eye. I don’t believe people should simply be able to “opt out” of their society if they don’t like it, and I accept that the loss of revenue which will result from the (almost certain) passage of Douglas’ bill will place much of the genuinely good work student unions do in jeopardy. But the integrity of political systems is more important than discrete policy outcomes, and to be perfectly frank VUWSA, for its rank incompetence and duplicity in the face of legitimate challenge, deserves to be humiliated in this way.

I hope that the lesson about how democracy works will be well understood — that is: unless people make it work, it doesn’t. CSM as currently implemented promotes apathy and idiocy in student body politics, to a greater extent than it would exist in any case. That is bad for student body politics, and it’s bad for students. It depresses the quality of candidates and policy, and reduces the system to a comic farce which many students are justifiably ashamed of (if they care about it at all). Much better, for me, would be the the genuine politicisation of student politics, with groups organising and campaigning on their positions, winning a mandate and executing it, as in national and local body politics. If ACT on Campus want to campaign on “letting you keep more of your money”, let them do so, and good luck to them. (Of course, they have been, and it hasn’t been working out for them, so the parent party has resorted to regulation in the name of freedom. Plus ça change.)

So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it. The Douglas bill, while it will likely prove deleterious to the good work student unions do, may have a silver lining in that it will enforce greater discipline and competence upon student politicians, and require them to prove to their constituents that the work they do is actually valuable in order to win a mandate. If the work they do is genuinely valuable, as they say it is, such a mandate should be winnable. May they go forth and win it.


Postscript: Go and submit!
Select committee submissions on the bill close on 31 March 2010. Whatever your views, make them known. As I’ve said, I think it’s likely to pass (bloc support from ACT, National and UF), but that shouldn’t prevent you from making your views known. Incidentally, I approve of the relatively impartial editorial line taken by Salient, the VUWSA magazine. Especially given that this august [sic] organ depends on CSM for much of its funding, this is a bold and principled decision. Well done Sarah Robson.

13 thoughts on “Impunity, freedom and student body politics

  1. So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it.

    This is a mistake, Lew. I am pretty familiar with the VSM movement at Waikato, which ended with a student union that might as well have been abolished. Voluntary unionism doesn’t really work, and it didn’t work at Waikato. As I recall, it made life very difficult for the various non-political student clubs on campus. Student politics was a joke, but it was really a sideshow compared to the more important civic functions the union facilitated on campus.

    Eventually, the students voted to more or less return it to compulsory membership (dissenters can have the fee donated to charity IIRC). The experiment ended up costing a fortune, and among other things the union lost its radio station. More to the point, the pro VSM movement was lavishly funded by outsiders.

    The VSM folks didn’t want to make student politics right wing. They knew that they couldn’t, so they wanted to destroy it. That might not have been a bad thing, except for the collateral damage, which they didn’t give a hoot about.

  2. Ag, I recognise the harm it’ll do to the services and activities student union dues fund, many of which are much more important than clubs and suchlike. I also agree with your analysis of the politics — that ACT, realising they can’t win on the hustings, are trying to win by legislative fiat. I don’t support that, but I do support the exposure and humiliation of VUWSA for their sins (bearing in mind that Douglas’ bill is probably passing with or without VUWSA’s select committee submission in support).

    But my argument is that if student politics wasn’t such a sideshow, and wasn’t run by self-promoters who thrive on the fact that they get to dispose of millions in guaranteed revenue each year with few or no genuine checks on their behaviour, it might not be the subject of such scorn. If student body politics was done right, Roger Douglas wouldn’t be able to pass his VSM law, because he’d fail to get support from mainstream parties who can’t afford to alienate those at university who do benefit from union services — and those who recall their days at university, or with kids there.


  3. I don’t think that to “expose and humiliate VUWSA for their sins” should be done by legislative fiat. Some student associations are open, accountable and frugal. They don’t have a sense of entitlement, but feel the need to prove the value of their work not only to those who pay for it, but the wider public as well. You may feel that VUWSA needs to be humiliated, but why should other associations and students also bear the brunt?

  4. That wasn’t done by legislative fiat, Dave. It was done by ACT On Campus schooling them in how to pass a resolution at a meeting. The Douglas bill had already been drawn and passed its first reading by that time.


  5. Well Lew, Roger Douglas first brought up VUWSA discretions when we last spoke and he said his legislation would fix these indiscretions and expose them for what the are. That legislation was the legislative fiat I was referring to, not the Act on Campus exposure.

  6. Right, I’ve already said I don’t support the VSM bill, and I’ve been critical of Douglas (and ACT’s) decision to legislate because they can’t compete at student politics. So we agree on that.


  7. I think apathy is the cause of the institutional rot in student politics, not the result. If there were a level of engagement with student politics, student politicians wouldn’t be able to get away with the things they do.

    The solution is not to trash the institutions, but rather to get students to care. And I think that’s a far, far bigger issue than any amount of student leadership on its own can manage.

    As it is, most students won’t notice a thing until services like food banks and free bread provided by students’ associations disappear, and then it will be too late because there will no longer be any organisations able to advocate for them.

    Student culture has suffered a lot since the 1980s. At Victoria University, for example, there was once a thriving drama club that staged all sorts of productions, and many of its members have gone on to big things in the NZ theatre scene. All that’s gone now, of course, and what remains will disappear with the passage of this bill.

    The influence of students’ associations on the cultural and intellectual life of universities, as well as the services they provide to students, are generally greatly underestimated, I think. The apathy that has created the corruption and incompetence of the students’ associations is exactly what ACT and its campus cohorts is using to destroy them.

  8. re-reading my post it’s not particularly clear what I mean when I say student leadership itself isn’t enough to fix the problem. What I think is that there is such a level of apathy that the most heroic leadership risks not being noticed.

    Over the last 20-30 years there’s been a real levelling off of student engagement not only through students’ associations but in general. There’s nothing like the culture of activism and engagement of the 1960s or 1970s.

    I can’t point with any sort of rigour at any likely causes of this change, but I do have my pet theories and prejudices, which tell me that it might just be a symptom of a much wider political disengagement since around 1980, coincident or not coincident with the stranglehold of the New Right on public discourse since that time.

    The students’ associations are rotten to the core, corrupt, venal, and petty, often a cringeworthy spectacle of nauseating ego, and yet they still do good work. Something must be done, but it’s not clear to me at all that the destruction of what remains of student life in New Zealand is that something.

  9. Michael, thanks for a thoughtful comment.

    Don’t you think there’s a feedback loop in play, though? I see apathy as both a cause and a consequence of student politicians who use the institutions as their own personal piss-taking and self-promotion platform — the clowning and unaccountability undermines the institution, students don’t take it seriously, and the pool of competent people to run the institution gets shallower. This leads to the sort of egregious idiocy on display in Peter McCaffrey’s SRC video, and ultimately results in stronger public tolerance for the idea of simply scrapping them altogether, expressed in Douglas’ bill being supported by a National party which until now has been careful not to scare too many of the horses.


  10. hmm – Micheals comment about student activism in the 60s and 70s being more engaged than today made me do a quick history/society recheck.

    Some people (well normally the 60s and 70s generation particularly represented by the public address commentators) make the same comment. I wonder was the 60s and 70s really the high point or has the number of activists remanined the same but the pool of students has grown significantly larger (and more diverse) therefore student activism as sought by the 60s and 70s crowd no longer having the same influence.

    In essence todays student activists are actually our modern social conservatives (by harking to a mythic golden age of 60s an 70s NZ) rather than the liberal/activists they label themselves as. They are are just another group who have missed the mesofact ( changes that have gone in the wider world.

    I suspect this is correct because if we look at wider NZ society in the 60s and 70s you will see that the influence of student activists was out of proportion to the wider voter base (largely conservative NZ society – robs mob and all that).

    Sorry this is a bit disjointed – its a quick comment, but one from which I think can be linked to many broader issues/threads of debate at present. This being that for significant parts of the commentariat (whichever tribe you support) are basing there views/thinking from a specific point in time and have then held the facts they knew then as constant, rather than that some of those facts have changed over time and so should the debate.

    You could say this goes to the heart of current labour party problems (largely a 70s/80s economic/social policy mindset with some sections e.g. unions harking back to the 50s). Parts of national, act and the greens again having the same problem.

    A reason why John Key was more successful than the other lot was that he represented more of where present day society is at, whereas Ms Clark and co (an so so many other MPs of all types) did not.

  11. Sorry about the much-delayed reply, Lew!

    Anyway, I’ll accept that there is a feedback loop now, but I think if you’re looking for an ultimate cause it’s got to be declining interest. The corruption and incompetence is a symptom of a wider problem. Twenty or thirty years ago or more students’ associations were respected institutions, and becoming president was generally a sign that you’d go far in public life. Something’s changed in the meantime, and I don’t think you can put the blame for a shift in the culture on, well, the shift in the culture itself.

    Just as an aside, I think the kinds of changes we’d see with the passage of VSM *are* actually going to be very unpopular with students, and I’ve got some evidence for that. A couple of years ago, the very same lot of ACT On Campus people who put through the VSM motion at VUWSA put up a slate of candidates for the VUWSA elections. It was a very slick, well-publicised and well-put together campaign, and their policies would more or less have destroyed VUWSA as it is at the moment.

    They succeeded in generating an enormous amount of interest. The vote doubled from the previous year, and they were comprehensively defeated. Not one of their candidates even came close to being elected. It was the first time that a lot of people, and I include myself, even took an interest in student politics.

    If they’d kept trying, they might even have started to get student politicians to clean up their act. I don’t think they’d ever have actually won, but it does go to show that a credible – or at least vocal – opposition is essential to reproduce democratic institutions.

    But even having said all that, the general malaise in contemporary student life runs so deep that it’d be difficult even to match, let alone sustain, the level of engagement and activism there was in the 60s and 70s. I think that’s a genuinely sad thing, and that it is the real problem; everything else is just a symptom.

  12. My impression is both that students are from a wider pool (percentage of students in population 40 years ago vs now?), plus workloads are a lot bigger these days. I did the last 2 years of a 3-yr philosophy degree while working fulltime: I don’t think I was particularly bright or hard-working. Interesting to discuss whether the engagement with politics is a cyclical thing or just something that came out of demographic changes after WW2.

  13. Actually Owen I’d say there are notably less mature students now than there were 10 years ago. When admissions were relaxed in the 90s to make it easier for mature people to go to University there was something of a flood. I would regularly be in tutorials where nearly one third of the class were mature students. Now it’s unusual to have more than one or two per tute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *