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Student General Meetings: Then and now

Examining the role of student unionism in political action.

Sydney University student and anti-apartheid protestor Meredith Burgmann dragged along the ground by police at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the 1971 South African Springboks rugby union tour of Australia. Photograph: News Ltd/Newspix.

The wind is well and truly back in the sails of the student climate movement. On 28 April, at 4pm, USyd Enviro Collective members and President Swapnik Sanagavarapu will convene the third Student General Meeting in USyd’s history and the first, as Honi reported, to focus on environmental demands.

The notion of a Student General Meeting (SGM) goes to the core of student democracy and unionism, and this year it presents a powerful opportunity to fight back against the University’s complacency in climate destruction. It marries the sometimes staid bureaucracy of student unions with the very pressing climate catastrophe. A formal motion passed at this meeting has the potential to achieve the University’s support for an unconditional student and staff strike on 21 May, for Strike 4 Climate’s Global Climate Strike. With students mobilised by the announcement of the upcoming global action, USyd’s SGM petition from the Enviro Collective has already amassed more than 1000 signatures supporting a campus-wide walk-off from classes and a staff strike. Only a few weeks ago, this triggered an SRC constitutional provision mandating the meeting of the student body to discuss the climate crisis. 

To grasp the value of this SGM, we must understand from where contemporary student unionism and activism emerged in Australia. 

The anti-Vietnam War student protests and the Freedom Rides for Indigenous rights of the late 1960s spearheaded the left radicalisation of university campuses across the country, and proved the potential for students to lead significant political campaigns against the government and in support of radical socio-political causes. 

The first SGM at USyd was called in 1971 in response to the Australian tour by the national rugby team of then-apartheid South Africa, the Springboks (from which Black South African players were explicitly excluded). The tour was heavily protested across Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne — led largely by university activists. Ahead of the Queensland leg of the Springboks tour, conservative Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced a month-long state of emergency in response to the fervour of anti-apartheid student organising. A 3000-strong SGM at the University of Queensland (UQ) voted to strike for the duration of the Queensland tour and UQ activists staged a 4500-strong sit-in in their Union building. In Victoria, 5000 protestors, many students among them, gathered on the streets of Melbourne to march on the game’s venue at Olympic Park. Then-USyd SRC Vice-President Bernard Coles wrote in Honi in 1971 that “we should show our strongest political opposition to countries whose corrupt political system injects a perverted and blatant form of racism even into their sporting activities.” The SGM condemned the Springboks and advocated for a student strike and ongoing protests at USyd in opposition to the racist regime they represented. It was a great success, with the Springboks chased out of Australia by student activists, not to return until after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. 

Student unions on the campus level (like the SRC) played a crucial role in cohering and supporting these political campaigns, and many others, throughout the latter half of the 20th century to now. This meant, of course, that they drew the ire of the governments they criticised and held to account, triggering an ongoing legislative campaign of austerity to repress student activism on Australian campuses. 

Student unions have been the target of both state and federal laws aiming to restrict their political functions, usually by choking them of funding (collected from students through mechanisms like SSAF). Prior to 2005, students were made compulsory members of their university union upon enrolment and paid small annual fees directly to the union, allowing them to flourish and bolster student life through well-funded activist collectives, leadership opportunities and publications like Honi Soit. However, the compulsory contributions lifeline was cut during the Howard Government’s ‘war against unions’ with the passage of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, which banned university unions from compelling students to pay. 

This triggered the next SGM at USyd in 2006. Now-UTS academic Paddy Gibson, known for his roles as an organiser of the Stop Indigenous Deaths in Custody and Workers for Climate Action campaigns, was involved in the USyd Education Action Group’s grassroots campaigning against voluntary student unionism (VSU) from 2003-2007 as an undergraduate arts student. Gibson and the EAG organised a public SGM that was held to pass changes to the SRC’s constitution in response to the austerity imposed by the Howard government. 

In the wake of the lost fight against the passage of the VSU bill, Gibson said that the SGM was the moment in which activists turned to “focus on how [VSU] was going to roll out on our campus.” It represented “a commitment to mobilising large numbers of students, encouraging discussion about the huge attack on student organising that had come from the Howard government” and encouraged a “sharpened focus on our own administration… [to further cohere] the movement at the University.” Gibson emphasised the principled power of the SGM across the years as “the highest decision making mechanism available to students, showing real collective power and having the practical benefit of… binding the SRC.” 

The parallels with our upcoming climate strike SGM are clear; both are a fightback against political leaders pursuing specific agendas that would have extreme material effects on the lives of students into the future, and a university latent and uninterested in supporting radical protest action. 

The Coalition continues to push their ‘gas-led recovery’, a collection of commercially unviable projects to expand gas exploration in the Hunter, North-West NSW and Queensland. These projects will desecrate the unceded lands of First Nations peoples, including that of the Gamilaraay Next Generation activists in the Pilliga, and, if allowed to continue, will emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 30 new coal-fired power stations. The University of Sydney remains complicit in environmental degradation, with continuing capital investments in coal and gas-fired power, and an unambitious Sustainability Strategy failing to prioritise a just and immediate transition to public renewable power on and off campus. 

Gibson believes the upcoming Enviro SGM is a singular opportunity to “organise large-scale walkouts from class [on 21 May]… pointing us in the right direction of mass disruptive collective action” that must be taken to force our leaders to listen. “Student activism shouldn’t be a spectator sport,” he reflected, “if we are going to win we need everyone’s brain turned on, everyone thinking about the best strategy going forward and taking responsibility for our future.” 

We should see the SGM as symbolic of the zeitgeist of student climate activism. It is an opportunity for us to come together and acknowledge that we are fast running out of time to make a tangible difference for our future. To sit and let it slide by would be not just disappointing, but irresponsible. And with that in mind, I’ll see you on Wednesday, 28 April