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50 YEARS OF THE GUILD: LOOKING BACK WITH '93 GUILD PRESIDENT, SIMON JOHNSON


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Date
2019-10-24T13:51:22

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When were you at Curtin and what were you studying?

I was in the Business School from 1989 until 1994, and I did a Bachelor of Commerce. It was in my second year of study that I became involved in the election campaign and I became the Guild Treasurer, and then at the end of that year I didn’t need much of a shove to run for Guild President, and I was lucky enough to win. So, I took off a year to do that in ‘93, and then the following year I graduated from university.

What was it like studying at Curtin in the early ‘90s?

Curtin was a fantastic place to study! It was a large campus and it had only just begun the process of beautification that you enjoy today. When I was there it was largely an environment of bleak, brutalist buildings from the 1960s, that hadn’t improved much at that point, but it was just starting to.

There was also a big change in perceptions of the graduates from the university and that was reflected in the students that were going there—students with more of a vocational orientation, for sure.

The status of the university was growing as well. There was a lot of excitement around the campus compared to what I saw on other university campuses at the time. We had a fantastic Activities Officer, a lady called Deb Taylor. We used to get fantastic bands on campus. Curtin, at the time, was seen as the most fun campus and the most happening place socially during and outside of lecture hours. We had big shows and lots of incredible bands. If you were into alternative music, we got all those big names that were touring Australia at the time. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but access to music like on Spotify—that didn’t exist then. Radio was still important; the culture of going to live music was a little richer then that it is today.

Yeah, I feel like people are a lot more isolated today because they can just go home and listen to music or watch movies on their online streaming services; it’s so much easier to be entertained alone nowadays, which limits our time spent with other people.

Yeah exactly, I believe that there was more of a sense of community across the student body then. The Guild was a little bit slow sometimes, but they were responding to that desire for people at Curtin to have a more balanced educational experience, so that the university environment was an important component of their development, and what they got out of the university experience outside of the classroom and lecture hall was just as important.

How did you hear about the Curtin Student Guild and why did you want to get involved?

A close friend of mine was the Media Director, a guy called Peter Ellis. He was also the Guild President the following year when I was the Treasurer, so he got me involved in it. But I also come from a family with political orientations, and although the Guild isn’t a political organisation, the whole notion of volunteering and student representation appealed to a certain orientation within my makeup.

So, before you even went to uni, were you already planning on getting into student politics?

Yeah; a lot of people decry people who do those kinds of things, but I think it’s a really important part of your commitment to any community you’re a part of—to not sit back and complain, but to participate. I’ve always seen those kinds of representative organisations as a positive force more so than a negative one. I think if more people got involved then you’d have a better quality of representation.

What did the role of Guild President involve?

I sat on a lot of high-ranking university committees and councils: the Resources Board, the Academic Board. The student voice was always really welcomed, as long as it was thoughtful and considered. The lecturers and a few key individuals—four people I remember in particular: Lance Twomey, Peter Yacopetti, Will Christensen, and Joan Cole—were all great supporters of the student representative effort.

At the time I was there, [Kim] Beazley was the Minister for Education federally, and he was pushing the quality of education agenda. What that did was put a spotlight not just on vocational outcomes, but on the actual quality of the education that was delivered to the students. What came out of that process review was the finding that the student guild not only had an important but a central role in developing the broader university environment.

Whilst we had a Federal Government that supported our role and identity, we had a State Government that actively loathed and sought to repress us. Unfortunately, in their zealotry they refused to give us even a staggered introduction [to guild fees], they just made it voluntary almost overnight. I spent a lot of time dealing with the Guild administrator at the time in preparing the Guild for that new reality of a voluntary utilities fee.

I also did a huge amount of work with the other guild presidents at UWA, Murdoch and Edith Cowan; coordinating our activities, learning from each other, exchanging ideas. I was pretty involved with the National Union of Students too, which was probably a less important contribution ultimately, but one that was still enjoyable and important for ensuring that there was a national voice for students at a time when there was a lot of changes underway in the education system.

Tell me more about the Guild membership fees; was this the thing you were most passionate about changing during your time as President?

As a part of the student services that the Guild provided at that time, there was a large fee that everyone had to pay as a mandatory business, which was essentially redistributing and subsidising services that I felt should have washed their own face. I thought that most of the Guild fees should have gone into the student representation effort and that the campus services like the library, the bookshop, and the tavern, should have been self-supporting and not profit-seeking. I was focussing on doing that in my year as Treasurer, and then when I was Guild President there was a change of government and one of their policy platforms was to make Guild membership voluntary. I had a lot of plans but they were really swept aside by the student cross-campus campaign to oppose legislation, and then in the background, to prepare the Guild for what was really going to be an inevitable outcome, given all the mad political zealots in the Court government.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your fight against this movement, and in your role as President in general?

The biggest challenge we had was finding a way to interface with the government when they had an agenda that they were mindlessly implementing. We tried very hard but we found very few of the Liberal-Nationals Party Coalition were even willing to speak with us. Unfortunately, the Young Liberals in particular had sought to cast guilds as political hotbeds and demonised us as training grounds for the ALP and so on. A lot of people were of that inclination and had that orientation for sure, but most people’s focus was local—on the campus and not on their own personal ambitions.

So, the biggest challenge I faced personally was working effectively within the university system to ensure that we weren’t a voice to be consulted, but that we were proactive in the development of agendas and initiatives. That can be difficult sometimes because the student representative lifespan is only 12 months on one of those committees.

But the things I was proudest of that we achieved as a Guild Council were the number of students who I know we provided a tremendous amount of help to. We also started some planning of the extension of the Guild House at the time, which was also a big plus for the campus to this day. There were some buildings that were built in the ‘70s and we did a big expansion of it and we planned it, and then the construction started about two years later.

Our focus that year was a bit more practical in terms of bricks and mortar, changing the culture of the service delivery, and making sure the business side of things ran well.

How did working at the Guild influence you and your career after you left Curtin?

It was hugely important in terms of leadership opportunities that were offered [to me] later in my career. I don’t think it made a difference in the first 5 to 10 years of my working life, but as I got much older and I had the opportunity to be involved in leadership roles, I discovered that I had learnt so much—the importance of how you curate your contribution in certain environments.

I gained privileged insight as to how to be more effective in those kinds of environments through my exposure to forums like university council. I think that was tremendously educational for me as an individual. Being responsible for a lot of students in difficult positions and the student representation side [of it], I think it instilled in me a deeper sense of compassion in terms of making sure that everyone is helped along in the process.

A lot of people can be subject to things like harassment, unequal opportunity to participate, and I saw lots of powerful reasons why a representative structure is necessary in any large organisation—to ensure that there is a broad opportunity to participate. I don’t mean that in any kind of socialistic way, it’s more just about giving people a bit of a hand when they need it. From that point of view, I always thought that by getting involved in the Guild and that effort, that it kind of it triggered a few things in me that I hadn’t developed as an individual before that.

Then, most importantly, it developed for me a whole new network of friends of all political colours and different personalities. I think my life is a lot richer for that experience.