By Wendy Robertson and Marcus Greville
Elections pose the question of the political strategy of progressive organisations such as the National Union of Students (NUS) more sharply.
Whereas Resistance calls on the student movement to campaign independently of Labor in the interests of all students, NUS has opted for a narrow re-elect Labor campaign.
NUS has spent thousands of dollars of students' money hiring professional advertising agents to develop its campaign. These professionals developed a list of "in" and "out" words for the campaign. The words fight, equity and demand are out!
NUS's main election focus is "Students can't afford another Howard government". In a letter to education campaign activists, Rose Tracy, the National Organisation of Labor Students president of NUS, outlines NUS's position: "The re-election of the Howard government will mean the introduction of national voluntary student unionism. The student movement is facing ... the battle for its survival ... NUS is formulating a campaign entirely aimed at convincing our membership that the Liberals should not be returned to office."
This message is being pushed through postcards, leaflets, stickers and posters.
The pro-Labor nature of NUS's election strategy was clearly revealed last week at the NSW branch of NUS's "Kick out the Coalition" rally.
At a rally organising collective meeting beforehand, Resistance activists argued that the rally should demand the reversal of the Liberals' attacks: the restoration of education funding, closure of the Jabiluka uranium mine, repeal of the Workplace Relations Act.
These demands, which are in the immediate interests of students and workers, are not supported by Labor. The International Socialist Organisation (ISO), too, argued against these demands, claiming it would weaken the rally by deterring trade unions and ALP sympathisers from supporting it. That position was also supported by the Non-Aligned Left's NSW NUS president, Van Badham.
Most students are clear that Labor is the lesser evil in major party politics in Australia. But that is no reason for the student movement leadership to tail behind the campaign for Labor's re-election.
The ALP's record in education matters is almost as reprehensible as the Liberals'. Students should be encouraged to build and campaign for political alternatives to the party that abolished free education and introduced full fees for overseas students. Labor has not yet indicated that it will reverse the Coalition's education funding cuts.
Rather than trying to convince students to uncritically vote Labor, the leaders of the student movement should be helping students to understand that Liberal and Labor are in fundamental agreement that students should shoulder more of the costs of education.
NUS needs political independence of both major parties if it is to lead successful campaigns for student rights and in defence of public education. NUS's current position will confuse and paralyse any student fight back.
In this context, if the Liberals are re-elected, a weakened student movement will be far less able to stop further government attacks. And if Labor is elected, NUS's current failure to criticise Labor and demand it act in students' interests will leave students confused and unprepared to fight the attacks that will follow.
According to a recent Bulletin survey, 67% of voters in Australia are dissatisfied with the major parties. Among student voters, the percentage is likely even higher.
Until groups like NUS recognise the need for, and campaign for left alternatives to the major parties, disaffected students will continue to place their hope, energy and resources in the treacherous hands of the ALP; or they will vote for what might appear as the only alternative — the far right.
Trying to resurrect the "left" of Labor is a dead-end for students and student rights. Instead, the student movement (and all progressive movements) must commit themselves to helping to build a political alternative which will consistently serve their own interests.
In these elections, that means refusing to tie the movements to Labor by accepting its inadequate policies as the only "realistic" alternative to the Coalition. Rather, it means organising students with a perspective of building a new, independent political leadership.