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Written by Luisa Mitchell
Tony Tilenni c. 2018.
When you were at Curtin, formerly known as WAIT, and what did you study there?
I was there from ‘75 to about ‘78 and I did a Bachelor of Business, majoring in Accounting.
What did you love most about your time at WAIT?
It was actually quite exciting. I mean, we were the boring bunch, the people before us at the Guild were quite radical; there were the Trotskyists, the anarchists, and heaven knows what else, but we were more of the classic ones: still socially aware, but we weren’t as radical as the people before us.
I certainly enjoyed the interaction and the policy issues, so to one side of my course, it was quite eye-opening in terms of the social issues and the operations of the Guild.
Was your time at the Guild preparing you to enter politics?
I suppose it could have and I certainly had some very good connections who wanted me to go down that track, but frankly I hated the politics of it all, in terms of the backstabbing 24/7.
But I learnt a lot and it certainly focussed my views of the world. The various issues before us back then—there was the apartheid, the sports boycott of South Africa, the ANC [African National Congress] and Nelson Mandela, there were a multitude of issues… Aboriginal land rights, women’s rights, ‘equal pay, equal work’, discrimination issues.
How much were you involved in protesting those issues?
I did go to some protests and one year I stood as Guild President, I think it was ‘78… I won the vote on both campuses, apart from on Muresk [Institute].
You were the Student Guild Treasurer in 1975 until 1978, and President of the Guild Social Club Bar for one year. What did those roles involve?
I was Treasurer for three years and one of those years I was President of the Bar. The Treasurer was dealing with all the bodies that receive funding through the Guild, as well as the Guild itself; so, all the operations, all the ins and all the outs, I learnt a lot…
I suppose I had support from the account at the time in the Student Guild, he was a guy called Frank Lee, he was fantastic—I learnt a lot then in terms of budgeting and people skills. Everyone wants more money and the bottom line is that I ended up deciding that I wouldn’t balance the budget, I’d just put it in raw, and say let the Council determine, with my guidance, where the cuts would come, so that was kind of funny.
Everything was political, including the Bar back then. But it was losing money and it needed a new President and I became the President, and the year I became the President it made a profit, so how’s that [laughs]! That’s my claim to fame. The year I was president I seem to remember it made a profit, before that I don’t think it had ever made a profit. In those days, we had the funding from student union fees so the Guild could do a lot more.
Why do you think student unionism was, and continues to be, important?
There were many major issues at the time and some that are ongoing, and I think it’s wrong to isolate yourself just in your course; it’s not just about being one-eyed. I think you’ve got to have a balance and a range of issues that you should be dealing with, not just finishing your degree and getting a job—I think that’s pretty naïve from an education perspective.
What are you most proud of achieving at the Guild?
We had good financial management of the Guild whilst I was Treasurer, and we had good progressive policies. And the policies were just as important as the dollars; if you don’t have the dollars you can’t implement the policies. So, economic power is political power; isn’t there someone who said that?
Tell me more about the mid-to-late ‘70s; what are your strongest memories of that era?
We were coming out of a very radical period in terms of student politics; I remember going along to an Australian Union of Students (AUS) council meeting in Melbourne and there was an election there back then. In those days at the AUS they would call out the votes in alphabetical order and WAIT happened to be last, and so people would tally the votes as we would go through.
I remember Peter Noonan was standing for President, and I think at the time he was thought of as an extreme left-wing guy, and the middle-of-the-road guy was called Sanderson. At the time, Peter Costello was supporting Sanderson, ‘cause I think back then Sanderson wasn’t seen as a Liberal person, he was seen as sort of Labor-ish.
But that was quite interesting, and the last vote that came from WAIT we actually tilted it to Noonan by one or two votes—so that was hilarious, it pissed off a lot of people.
Sounds like you enjoyed it far too much!
[Laughs] I did, I did… and actually, back then, as a result of that, I ended up getting elected to the board of the Friendly Societies which were run by the AUS, and I was on that for one or two years. AUS used to own a chain of pharmacies known as the Friendly Societies.
How involved was the AUS within the uni campuses?
Significantly involved, but the campuses were quite independent and the student guilds on each campus were quite independent. The AUS didn’t have a good reputation and we were certainly more conservative than the people that had come before us. But they had some excellent people and we ended up voting for the best candidates. We weren’t that heavily aligned one way or another politically, we just voted who we saw as being the best candidate.
What are you up to now?
I now have a tax financial business in East Perth, and I’ve moved away from tax and accounting to do tax-based financial planning. We’re actually part of a group called Count Financial, which has about 250 firms, and we’re number 7 in the country; so, it’s the seventh largest venture planning business in the group.
What changes do you see within universities today?
My daughter went to Curtin up until about two years ago, and what I can see happening now, and it’s actually a bit sad, is that back then all the interaction was on campus. You would meet all your friends, you’d be able to network, it was really full-time in that way.
Nowadays it’s all online, it’s all distance education, there’s just not the inclusiveness that used to exist. I’m not sure any of the social issues that used to be debated back then [still are], I’m not really sure there’s a great sense of political and social consciousness on campus among students. I think a lot of people are tunnel-vision in terms of completing their course, getting a job and moving on with their life.
The interesting thing is that a lot of the people that I met at WAIT are still friends to this day and some of them are close. I’m not sure that that’s the case anymore with students going to campus; Curtin now has about 60-, or 65,000 students. Back then when I was there we had about 10 or 11,000 students. It was abuzz, the place was abuzz, and I’m not sure if that’s necessarily there anymore.
I agree, but it’s also a lot harder on us now as students because we have a debt to pay off, so we almost have to have a tunnel vision, there’s a lot more pressure to succeed…
Yeah, you’re right, and education was free for us back then.
Any last advice for students on gaining more ‘political consciousness’?
I think I’d say that if they want to have a well-rounded education, they need to have some political consciousness, and if they don’t, they’re going to be worse off for it. You can’t be brilliant or intelligent and not have a social conscious—it’s just not logical.