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50 YEARS OF THE GUILD: LOOKING BACK WITH FORMER GUILD PRESIDENT, JAMES BEST


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Date
2019-11-29T11:20:03

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By Jay Anderson

So you were at Curtin—which was then the West Australian Institute of Technology—from 83 to 85 and you were doing a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and I’d just like to know a bit more about you prior to that; where you grew up, where you went to school and what led you to WAIT.

I was born in Melbourne. My Dad, who was from Donnybrook, got a job in Melbourne and moved over there, met my mum, and then I was born, and I spent 15 years living overseas.

Whereabouts overseas were you living?

Singapore, Belgium, the USA and England which was pretty unusual back in the day. When I finished year 12, I got sent back to live with my grandmother in Booragoon and applied for a couple of university courses. I liked the WAIT one the best and that’s where I chose to go and study.

So how did you become involved with the Student Guild?

Back in the day, building 401 didn’t have a common room and the Social Science students, being a bit of an organised militant bunch, decided that we needed a place to hang out, so I went on a bit of a hunt and found a store room down in the basement. I decided to talk to the University about getting it all cleared out and converting it into a common room—which is what we did. Then we raised money to buy furniture and a coffee machine and chairs and tables and all the rest of it and at that time we decided we needed some help from the Guild. So we set up the Social Science Students Association and the students said “why don’t you be our rep on the Guild Council”. That was about third year; so we got all that organised and some right spark said “you should run for Guild” and I went “well, because I’m in third year, I’m not going to do that,” but I thought if I ran as Guild President I could effectively do a fourth year.

Okay, so you finished your bachelor degree at the end of your third year and at that stage you were a student rep. What did you do in your fourth year while you were Guild President?

I did a Politics 401. I enrolled in a single unit to maintain my student status and effectively did a thesis on student politics.

What motivated you to stick your hand up for that—especially when not a lot of people were?

You’re right, it was a pretty poultry student voter turnout—I think it was about a 10 per cent student voter turnout in those days.

Yeah, I think it’s about four per cent now!

Well I got it up to around 20 per cent when I ran on the basis of “let’s get more services.” The idea was if we could do a common room for the Social Science students surely we could do similar things for other faculties. When I was on campus there was only the cafe at the Ref and the tavern and students couldn’t go to Common Ground. Students were forbidden. It was only for staff.

At the same time Richard Court was the Premier and he was putting pressure on voluntary student unionism. So I thought we could get income from the Guild by running our own cafe services

With voluntary student unionism a lot of the funding that the Guild used to provide services for students would have been lost.

Correct, and we decided to go from a passive income to actually generating income.

So as President were those the two biggest issues you were facing? What were some of the other challenges?

The really big issue was voluntary student unionism and the introduction of HECS, and luckily we had the support of the University administration. Donn Watts, the Vice Chancellor, was absolutely fantastic, without him we wouldn’t have had the encouragement and the support we needed. He was also concerned about the introduction of HECS and voluntary union fees and whether the University would be lumped with running the Tav and the Ref, and have to pick up some of the counselling and some of the other costs that the Guild was running in those days.

What was the thing you were most proud of achieving during your term with your team?

I think getting the Guild on a commercial footing, but also having a united team. I think there were about 17 student Reps on the Guild Council and 15 of those were part of my team, so we had a really strong united team. I think I was really proud about being able to unite all the students on the council to focus on fighting the introduction of HECS, and being able to position the Guild to be able to manage its own affairs and generate its own income.

I worked hard to try and take the politics out of it. The Guild needed to provide services to students. There isn’t a Liberal way or Labor way or Greens way of doing that, there’s good student engagement and then there’s politics that get in the way of it. I was very much focused on delivering services rather than fighting politics and I actually ran on the basis of doing that. I ran on the IT team—which was the independent team—with the message that “Party politics hasn’t really delivered much so lets try a new way,” and then of course because of my surname we used “IT’s the Best!” to campaign.

That is the perfect political campaign slogan.

Which is why I think we got it up to 20 per cent. But don’t quote me on the actual turnout but I know it was significantly higher than it normally was.

So, your relationship between the Guild and the University at that time was also really good? I’ve found that it has changed considerably over the course of the last 50 years.

Yeah, it was absolutely brilliant, and that was largely down to Don Watts. He had a very open mind and because of VSU and the introduction of HECS we actually had something in common to work towards. Don would walk up to my office weekly—he’d often just barge in and put his feet on my desk and we’d chat about whatever needed to be done. He also sent me over to Canberra to meet with the Federal Minister for Education, Susan Ryan. He organised to get Susan Ryan to come to Curtin because the other thing I was heavily involved in was getting the organisation to go from WAIT to Curtin. I got to meet Jeff Gallop because he was the member for Victoria Park and I was in and out of the WA Parliament. I went to Canberra to lobby for WAIT to become Curtin with Susan Ryan. That’s how Donn Watts and I came together on our campaign; and then during that time it was proposed to introduce HECS fees so we kept HECS out of the university the year I was there because we had such a huge campaign. So I think the thing I’m most proud of is my involvement in the University going from WAIT to Curtin.

So, these are all really incredible experiences that you had—how did all of this time with the impact who you were and who you became, and how did it effect where you went after you left the Guild?

I’ve always enjoyed working with groups of people and bringing groups of people together and to have that level of experience as a 20-year-old was incredible. I was also on the University Senate as well, so I got to meet some incredible people and see some amazing things; including the calibre of the Government’s discussions with the University Senate—which is now called the University Council—and just being able to see all that work and how it operates. It set me up for my career and everything I’ve done since. All the stuff I do is about bringing multiple stakeholders together and whenever there is anything difficult that needs doing my Guild experience has given me the background and the courage and the confidence to step up.

A lot of former Guildies have said similar things.
What about the relationships that you had within the Guild? I’ve found talking to a lot of people who worked at the Guild are still really good friends with the people they worked with. Do you still keep in contact with a lot of the people that you knew back then?

I do in fact—I met my wife there, and we’re still married and we’ve got a few kids and we hang out with all our mates. We actually got married on the campus down by the lake.
So there’s a group of about 30 of us that still hangout, and we all had kids together around the same age, so we catch up three or four times a year for dinner or events at each other’s places.

It’s been so interesting learning about where people have gone after the Guild because people are so young when they join the Guild, but they get all these incredible life experiences that affect them for the years to come in really big ways. What advice would you offer to students today? Not only those who are involved with the Guild already but those who are thinking about it and even those who might not be thinking about it.

I’ve got a real interest in leadership and governance but whenever you tell anyone that you can see their eyes glaze over. But it’s all about how we get everyone working together for the betterment of society. If you get involved in the Guild you get the opportunity to get some hands on leadership experience, you get to understand what motivates people and why people will want to work together and avoid the things that divide a community or divide a group. It’s very much about how do you get all of the different factions to collaborate to actually do something bigger and better and that they can achieve on their own.

What are you doing now? I know that you’re a Curtin Ambassador and I was interested in how and why you got into that.

So as a Curtin Ambassador I’m talking up the University and talking up the power of the University and also their future plan—make tomorrow better. It’s also about raising funds to provide grants for students who are disadvantaged or financially not able to get to university. So it’s about providing scholarships for students to be able to get to university because we want everybody to get to university.

I’ve also been chair of the John Curtin Leadership Cabinet. I was on the board of that for a couple years and then the board elected me the chair. That was also another key involvement of mine with the university over the last couple of years.

I’m using my leadership skills now at the Future Bayswater Community Group Incorporated, which is a social enterprise. We’ve currently raised $50,000 for a farmers’ market, we’re working with the government on a Metronet project. We’re also trying to get a digital enterprise hub up so we can do digital education and transformation of the businesses in town to help business be more effective and efficient with their resources and meet the needs of the 22nd century because the future is going to be vastly different to the past. When I was at uni it was pretty much the same as when my dad was in uni, but I look at my son now, who’s also at Curtin—he’s in his second year of Engineering—and I can see the pressures of the digital disruption and the jobs of the future are going to be different to the sort of activities and jobs that were available to us when I left uni.

So, I see myself as a bit of a futurist, thinking about how we help the community transition to the future and not be frightened of it.