If my short tenure in university politics gave me anything, it is an appreciation for non-politicians. Like Barbara Ramjan and journalist Lindsay Foyle, who both had dealings with young and rabid student politicians 35 years ago, I now have some dirt on the cabinet of the future, and I know who I'm not voting for.
I coedited the student newspaper in the final year of my BA. My coeditors and I came from different political backgrounds, and were elected on a politically unaligned ticket, giving and receiving our electoral preferences to and from various left and centre-left factions.
The tenure itself was hard work; learning to make a magazine from scratch with only a 2002 iMac and the phone number for a printer, while dealing with the strange demands and personalities of the office-bearers. Our pay rate of around $3.40 per hour perhaps was a little low.
Once in the media office, we decided to remain on peaceful terms with all of the other factions in office. We reasoned that it would make for a better working environment, and a better magazine if every student felt they could contribute, regardless of their politics.
We offered a right of reply to anyone who was challenged or insulted by the contents, and invited the relevant student representatives to respond to challenges levelled against their departments within the same edition.
This policy of openness quickly found us completely alienated from every faction we refused to make exceptions for. The rift between politicians and journalists was quickly established.
Nothing terrible happened — I wish I had more battle tales to recount. But then, I am lucky to not have been made a target of some A-type android's personality disorder. In previous years, women had been sexually harassed by opponents, property stolen and sabotaged, and people of all political bents had been smeared.
While everything that happens in the student unions around Australia is completely, mind-blowingly important, campus election weeks are by far the most stressful times in the political calendar. Over the three years I campaigned in elections for myself and others, I witnessed a good many tears spill onto hyper-coloured party T-shirts. Elections are a rollercoaster of betrayals, dodged regulations, and primary-school-grade bullying.
The worst offenders are usually campaigners who sit between the centre and the hard right of politics — those who have a real future in party politics in Australia — and the targets of their bullying are usually on the fringe left — often women and queer men engaged in activism as opposed to career politics.
While there are certainly creeps and bullies on both sides of the political binary, the right, in my experience, does seem to produce the most visible offenders. And they're usually male.
To be staunchly against unionism generally, and simultaneously be involved in a student union with the express desire to disrupt it, well, that's a cry for help. It takes an aggressive kind of personality.
Ramjan's allegations against Abbott didn't surprise me. Actually, I am surprised by the mildness of the alleged harassment. In the real world, shouting and throwing a punch next to someone's head in a rage is a seriously harassing act. But in the strange, tense world of student politics, the honest brutality of the act sounds preferable to the slow and steady harassment and character attacks that sustain student politicians these days.
Abbott is right to point to inexperience and immaturity driving the 'silly' behaviour of student pollies. But we should take note that these bullies are there to cut their teeth for state or federal politics later in their careers. Where they are not held accountable for their indiscretions, their histories follow them into parliament.
Politicians of all ages should be held to higher standards than the rest of us, because the rest of us do not purport to represent collective values and act on such preposterous claims.
Student politicians continue to punch walls in front of each other, plot to smear their peers, and generally create atmospheres of humiliation and harassment for their own political gain. Yes, the smaller the gain, the dirtier the fight. And these people, they are our future. So be afraid.
Ellena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.