Previously, ‘stupol’ had very little impact on my university life. Like many, I understood it to be filled with feckless resume builders willing to feign interest in your life in order to ascend to fabled BNOC status. I’d had the half-baked idea of running a satirical campaign before, however it was my Campaign Manager, James ‘The Workhorse’ Wily’s mongrel hunger for funnies which propelled me into the Return to Decency campaign. The name was concocted after asking myself: “What would Frank Costanza call his stupol campaign?” We wanted a message strong enough to rally behind, yet vague enough to not mean anything.
Fighting the University’s steady track of corporatisation would be a Sisyphean task, so I thought: why not speed it up? The Workhorse and I began crafting my new image, manifesto in hand. Under the fluorescent lights of Fisher Library’s basement, James and I spewed forth the jargon of neoliberalism on any question sent our way. We needed a policy which would galvanise the masses into salvaging this university from a supposedly COVID-driven fiscal death spiral. As if by divine intervention I said to the Workhorse, “let’s frack the Quad.”
Naturally, I felt that the student media were out for my blood. I had to win them over. If the Murdoch Press has taught me anything, it’s that a greased palm and a kind word will get you far in politics. I labelled them The 4th Estate. I brought platters of oysters and cocktails to interviews. Some of these inadequately paid journos who’d been coerced into covering this glorified school captain election were relieved at the arrival of such sophistication. Some just didn’t get it.
My inbox was pummelled with messages which I left mostly unread to play up the mystery. A PULP journo was driven to frenzy and started messaging mutual friends on social media in the hopes of reaching me. My political allegiances also remained shadowy. I’d never been involved in any previous campaigns — as far as they knew I had not been involved in any form of activism. I labelled myself The most Independent of the Independents, a jab at the Young Liberal tradition.
I was not spared scrutiny. PULP exposed me as a lefty in disguise by revealing I’d liked the Greens and Labor Left on Facebook. They theorized that my motive for running was to acquire delicious Clout. They couldn’t have been more right. I’d also heard that campaigners from one of the more conservative candidates had attempted to leak details of my previous, quite tepid modelling career, accompanied by a cache of my measurements, as if my in-seam could bring me down. Honi Soit however, was not interested. Perhaps my bribery had paid off. More likely though, no one cared.
My interviews did well. I was Honi Soit’s darling. But this wasn’t enough. I needed to be remembered as a hero. On stage, I staged my own assassination. The lefties heckled the Liberals, the Liberals snapped back. I was shot with a foam bullet by James in a top hat. Like Teddy Roosevelt, I carried on with my speech.
After my interviews I was wined and dined by two serving directors. Expecting a political ambush, I was taken aback by their candidness when talking about campus politics. Though the two board members hailed from opposing factions, they seemed to share a sense that the whole thing was an amusing game; perhaps a hobby, or perhaps a practice run for real public life. I was given a late-night tour of the USU office. The walls were pinned with cut out Honi Soit articles about themselves, as well as angry messages they’d received. There was a full-length mirror with the headline ‘Why the Left shouldn’t run for the USU’ tacked on to it. I felt as though I’d entered a conspiratorial obsessive’s lair, decorated in quirky USU kitsch. I stared into that mirror and someone else stared back.
People began to recognise me on the streets. In an alleyway near Broadway at 2am I was approached by a guy who claimed he didn’t even go to USyd but was following my campaign avidly. Customers would salute me at the pub I work at. This pitiful modicum of recognition was quite bizarre — I wasn’t sure whether to play along in character or not. Candidates began approaching me for preference deals. Some on the left began asking me to take my popularity more seriously. The experience of being lobbied was as stressful as it was entertaining — while I didn’t want to get elected, I also didn’t want to accidently throw a bone to the right.
The pressure of following up our successes was becoming burdensome on our three-person team. I consulted Labor Left politician and student activism veteran Meredith Burgmann, who told me to “Stick it to ‘em,” by going to the polls. The campaign lost its innocence, and the funnies weren’t flowing like they used to. Shenanigans weren’t landing as well as we’d wanted, and I was beginning to feel like I was becoming what I sought to mock.
It was the first time my name had ever been on a ballot, and I didn’t even vote for myself. The election night party was a fever dream. Loud pop music rattled in my sleep deprived brain as I looked with dread at the heated dance battle between the Libs and Switch. I’d come second last, and a wave of relief came over me.
Public life in student politics felt Kafkaesque: where incriminating screenshots were currency, where your past is combed for controversy by people who might end up running the country one day, and where candidates would fight tooth and nail for a nugget of CV padding. Some did have good and true intentions, but nothing felt genuine. Playing a character was just taking this a step further. My run is a story of hubris, testament to the corruptive world of student politics.