Logo
Your voice on campus!

50 YEARS OF THE GUILD: LOOKING BACK WITH FORMER EDUCATION RESEARCH OFFICER, WILLIAM 'BILL' THOMAS


News details

Date
2019-11-06T08:59:03

For media enquiries, please contact studentengagement@guild.curtin.edu.au

More News

When were you at WAIT and what were you studying?

I was a student at UWA majoring in Anthropology, and I graduated in 1972. Then I went and did a Dip-Ed part-time, and I thought half-way through that that I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a librarian. So, I went to WAIT and started a graduate diploma in Library Studies. Half-way through the year and after the semester was over I got a job at the [Curtin Student] Guild. I did that for a couple of years and then went off and became a librarian.

What was your position at the Guild and why were you interested in politics?

I was the Education Research Officer and I was very much interested [in politics]. The Guild was all around us and I had previously been a Guild Councillor at UWA and been involved in politics there. I was a draft resister and was heavily involved in student politics at UWA, and got caught up in it at WAIT too.

A lot of students had no idea the Guild existed, while for others the Guild was their entire lives—it sounds like you were probably the latter! What were you responsible for as ERO?

I was doing research into educational matters because we were represented on various boards within the university; the Academic Board, which I was on, and a number of bodies that made policies which affected the students. It was my job to research our positions, make cases, and write submissions. But to be quite honest the President, Ross Barrett, and two or three other staff, were all left-wing activists. We all worked together and used our positions and the resources of the Guild to support whatever causes we were in. So, the Guild adopted left-wing positions and then we campaigned for them.

You mentioned you were a draft resister. Why was that?

I was opposed to the Vietnam War; it was raging and they were still bombing Vietnam then. I was a draft resister and I went to gaol for that. But by the time I got there [to WAIT], it was all over—Whitlam had been elected in ‘72, and as a consequence, that was ancient history.

Asides from draft resistance, what were the issues that you were particularly passionate about or wanted to change during your time at the Guild?

Essentially, student representation on boards—making sure that student interests were represented and arguing on behalf of students who had contested cases about various things. That was really the job and the nuts and bolts [of it]; but also, there was a lot of extracurricular going on—such as, there was a Dean called Dolph Zink, who was sacked [then]…

Yes, your colleague Andrew Thamo—who we have also spoken to as a part of this series—mentioned Dolph Zink and some kind of protest against him…?

Dolph Zink was a right-wing American; and shortly after the Vietnam War, when we were opposed to right-wing Americans, he was the Dean of Business Administration. All of us students from the social sciences and library studies and all that—we thought the guys studying Business Administration were all jerks, and most of them were… Including Colin Barnett [laughs].

Zink had essentially hired a private investigator to find dirt on an employee that didn’t agree with him; so, we stormed his office and got Zink sacked. I basically organised that campaign and put a lot of work into that. A lot of the staff joined the student protest because they also saw the immorality of it.

I can definitely see why they would agree with you. When the Guild was established, was there was always a sense of the Guild having to fight against the university administration?

No, the Guild has existed for almost as long as WAIT was set up, because I was then a Guild Councillor at UWA, and the very first councillor of the Annual Council of the National Union of Australian University Students, NUAUS—before they had to drop the ‘AU’, and it became NUS.

[The WAIT Student Guild] came to that conference held at Melbourne University in 1970, and the Guild was being set up then. A couple of times I went out to meetings at WAIT because the Guild at UWA was helping them, giving them advice on how to hire staff and all that. So, the Guild has been around for almost as long as the University itself, [and they weren’t necessarily in opposition to each other].

When you were at WAIT, it was a very different time to what it is now—a lot of people were looking at alternative lifestyles and politics. There were lots of articles in Grok Magazine that were anti-capitalist or anti-establishmentarianism. Do you think the Guild also pushed an agenda that went against mainstream politics?

Yeah, it was the 1970s [laughs]. The Guild gave the opportunity to people to have a voice and to use their resources; such as publishing in Grok. There were some people who were associated with the Guild, like myself, Andrew Thamo, Val Humphrey, and a few others, who weren’t numerically very large, and who ran the Guild basically. But most of the student body at WAIT were apathetic.

Ross Barrett, the President, wasn’t particularly an activist, but he was sympathetic. He had a really fantastic way of relating to the average student. We were atypical, but he wasn’t. He got elected on the promise of building a bar.

Yeah, everyone can get behind that [laughs]!

Yeah, so it wasn’t so much pushing an alternative lifestyle, but [with that] he got elected! Having succeeded with that, the bar was opened, the one that’s still there. And he was re-elected on that, and became the first President to do two terms while we were there.

The movement against the wood-chipping industry was also set up within the Guild at WAIT. It wasn’t a huge movement at the start, but it did become huge. It came from the activities of myself and Andrew Thamo, Val Humphries, Paul Bridges, and a few others… and Ross Barrett, who although he wasn’t particularly an activist, didn’t mind that the resources of the Guild were being used for those purposes.

What challenges did you face while you were campaigning for these changes?

I suppose just the fact that what we were promoting was a minority position. We had to persuade people to come across and support our point of view. The challenge was getting support. It was a time, particularly amongst the social sciences students, where, like you mentioned, alternative lifestyles were being discussed. It was mid-70s, and Woodstock was late ‘60s, so it was a long time after; but those ideas were still being filtered through… and long hair was all the rage. I had long hair, and a beard too [laughs]!

[Laughs] Yes, it doesn’t sound too different to now, beards are definitely back in fashion. What about the atmosphere of the time—do you think the ‘70s was a decade mostly filled with optimism?

I think towards the end [of the decade] the optimism abated a little bit, but you’ve got to remember that in 1972, Gough Whitlam got elected and ended the Vietnam War. It was the end of conscription, and the introduction of free [university] tuition, and all sorts of reforms. That was a huge thing; and then Whitlam got sacked by Kerr on the 11th November 1975, and the Guild was just about closed down [entirely]. We all went to the demonstrations [against that]. All of that turmoil—the Guild was right in the centre of that. Of course, we all adopted left-wing positions.

Do you think similar political activity like that which happened in the ‘70s, is happening today on the same scale?

I think there are all those kids that are going on climate protest marches and similar protests; and people are saying that these are terrible and so on, but it’s like hang on—that’s what you said about us. [They said,] “You should be listening to your lectures instead of protesting…” Well we were right, and they were wrong. The fact is, they shouldn’t have been bombing Vietnam. On the key issue of the time, the long-haired, smelly, scruffy people were right, and all those older turds just weren’t. So, maybe these kids might turn out to be right. I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Yeah, I think you’re spot on. What else did you learn from your time in student politics and how did it shape you?

I went on into politics, but I was in politics before I was in the Guild. I’d been acting in politics since I was 16. So, I suppose my time there [at the Guild] confirmed that interest—it wasn’t life-changing in that respect.

After I finished at the Guild, I went and worked as a librarian for a couple of years. Then I decided I didn’t want to be a librarian [laughs]. I became a union official for the Builders Labourers Federation. That was revolutionary.

What are the biggest differences you see in education now, from when you were at university?

I don’t see much sign of activism amongst the students now, and I think that’s a shame. But that might be because I don’t see it. But I do go to Melbourne University quite often and I don’t see much sign of student activism there; I think because they’ve got compulsory [Guild] membership. We didn’t have to sign up as members, students had to pay. If you think about it, they’d never get away with that now.

I think they’re mainly running a business. All over Curtin you see these cafés that are run by the Guild. We didn’t run the café, and we didn’t want to; out at UWA, the Guild runs refectories and it’s a big business. Half the headache of the President of the Guild, is who wants to run that? We’d rather the administration run it, and when they put up the prices, we can demonstrate against it. At UWA we had to put up prices, because that’s the cost of running a business, and the students protested, [which was good].

But look, I don’t know, I haven’t been actively involved in education in a long time; I’m in my 70s now.

What advice would you give to young people hoping to join the Guild or create change today?

Get life experience. Get wide experience.

If you look at the Labor Party, in the state caucus anyway, I think they have a very talented group of people under [Premier] McGowan. I think that’s what they need. Ben Wyatt, who I presume will be Mark’s successor—now he’s a guy who has come in and brought his legal and accounting skills into his role. You need people who have a range of skills in different areas [other than politics].

Now, I’m generalising, because Bob Hawke is an example of a guy who was a political apparatchik all his life, and he was a great guy. You don’t want to generalise too much… but also, Bob Hawke was a long time ago [laughs].