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Inside the student politics bughouse

  • 10 September 2010

Dominic Knight: Comrades. Random House, 2010. ISBN: 9781863256407. Online

University student unions are cesspools of toxicity, sociopathy and tedium. I should know — I'm a student politician.

Well, technically. Editing the student paper at my university counts me in attendance at Students' Council Meetings and requires my (admittedly amateurish) 'political negotiations' for preference deals around student election time.

Dominic Knight should also know, as a former editor of Sydney Uni's auspicious publication, Honi Soit. His second novel, Comrades, adds to the incredibly (and understandably) small canon of Student Union-themed literature. And although there is only so much student politics one can handle in a lifetime, reading it I couldn't help but think, He beat me to it.

And did it well. Unfortunately for former and future student paper editors who had plans to write this novel, I can't imagine the market for the genre could handle much saturation.

As you might expect from Knight, a Chaser original, satire takes centre stage in the novel. The characters, place and simple narrative are vessels by which Knight's droll one-liners are carried. Don't let this deter you — campus politics is a gold-mine (or rather, a land-mine) of hackneyed characters, and Knight's comedy works here.

Comrades traces the intensive period of student elections at a fictional 1999 Sydney Uni SRC from pre-selection to post-election, chronicling every drama in between: back-door wheelings and dealings, the trials of indeterminate electoral regulations, shit-sheets, and a guy whose election platform is playing 'Oh Yeah' by Yello.

For anyone involved in the process, student elections are utterly consuming. It's almost understandable that students do the insane things they do (think defamation, lying, backstabbing, harassment, intimidation and, occasionally, violence), thinking it will better their chances of winning an office-bearer or councillor position; the whole thing exists in a space-time vortex from which it apparently becomes impossible to remember the happenings and social graces of the real world. In his acknowledgements, Dom thanks 'the mysterious figure who dumped thousands of copies of our Honi edition that profiled the Union Board candidates in the Victoria Park pond, an act which tops even imitation as a sincere form of flattery'.

Comrades' characters are stereotypical hacks of varying denominations (if they didn't resemble real student politicians, this might have been a problem). Our hero is Eddie Gough Flanagan, the idealist Labor Left incumbent President of the SRC (who is 'hardly a member of the proletariat on whose behalf he liked to