When and what were you studying at Curtin University?
In ‘99 to 2001. I started my Honours, but the Guild’s involvement stopped that in 2002. Then I did my teaching degree 2004 and 2005; and then I went back and did my Masters in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
I was in Guild—let’s see. I was Councillor in 2001; 2002, I was Humanties Rep; and President in 2003.
So you’ve had a very long history at Curtin, and with the Guild as well!
Well my mum used to say that my time at uni would have been significantly shortened had I not spent time at the Guild!
My mum has probably also worried about how much time I’ve spent at uni! So what was campus like during that 15 year period, and what was the Guild like?
I was in Humanities at the very south end of the campus, and it was often the deader-end of the campus, a lot of activity happened north. So we thought to try and develop that, and promote it more.
I got more of my contacts and experiences and my life-long friends that I’m still in contact with more from my Guild days than my actual studies. Probably more because my graduation class graduated well before me, because I got so delayed by Guild [laughs].
My Honours … most people came and went while I was halfway through because I was off doing Guild stuff. Patrick Gorman, Kate Mills—all those guys. We’re still very close.
But look, campus was a nice, wonderful place. I went there a few months ago and it’s vastly different twenty years on. It’s funny how parking is still a problem [laughs], but I find it a beautiful campus. It depends what you want to get out of it. Campus is more than just the buildings and the parks. It’s the friendships and the relationships you make. You can come and go to your classes, or you can stay and get involved and make the most of it.
We’ve heard similar things from a lot of alumni as we’ve been celebrating the past 50 years of the Guild. It made a difference for their time at uni, and for who they were on the other end of it.
I developed incredible life skills I never would have got if I hadn’t been involved in the Guild. How communities run, how the world runs, the way humans interact, the way bureaucracy works—you know that helped me as a teacher and it helped me as a politician.
We’ve been hearing that a lot too. But let’s go back before we get into that. How did you initially get involved with the Guild?
So it was Kate Mills—I think she was President two years before me. And we were in the same first year class. So I met Kate, but I didn’t get involved straight away. I think I approached her in my second year and said ‘I think I want to get involved!’. So she signed me up as a Councillor when she ran for President. I didn’t get elected, but I still stayed involved because we were very good friends. Then one of the Councillors resigned and I was appointed in their place.
Then onto your presidency, so let’s get into that. We’ve been chatting to a bunch of former Presidents of the Guild and asking them about the specific issues that they were facing. So what were they for you?
The year I was President was the first year that voluntary student unionism was repealed. So basically, compulsory membership—well it was called service and amenities fees. So we went from a membership of 2000 to maybe 30,000. We literally had an extra 20,000 members join the Guild and then access our services; and of course the millions of funds that came with us. Which meant plenty more scrutiny—but also the ability to really change the world.
We also had a general manager, Drew Smith, who had done some great services for the Guild but it was time for him to move on. I think, in the words of past presidents, they had never been able to resolve it. We ended his contract mid-year into mine, restructured and created a Managing Director. So in the middle of all that we also completely restructured the leadership of the staff in the Guild. I remember a meeting with all the executive directors who thought that chaos and the world was going to end and what have I done. But it was a big change. I never feel good making tough decisions—like with what happened with Drew. He was a good manager for the time he was there, but it was time. We were in a new phase and restructuring. I made the call we were going to do it. A few months later everyone said they were happy with the restructure, so I was happy with the outcome. But it was a difficult decision.
How old were you at this point? A lot of our Guild Presidents, naturally, have been quite young; it seems crazy that twenty-or-so-year old’s had all of the responsibility.
I’m probably not smarter now, I am, perhaps, wiser. I might have done it differently, but it was the right thing to do—just a tough thing to do. But the members and the students had to come first.
The other thing was the influx of funds. And the government was talking about changing the service and amenities fees. So we—and I mean we, because I was indebted to my student leadership team. When I was President my team was incredible. Most people don’t know that—the President gets a lot of the glory, but the others actually do all the work and without their council the presidents wouldn’t have been brave enough to make the tough calls. So with this money we decided to establish proper buildings for the expanding staff and student assist teams and that development is where the Guild is today.
Something that has been necessary too, clearly, as the expansion allowed the Guild to grow to where it is now. What else was the Guild spending their money on at the time?
Less about funding but parking was always a big issue. We were able to secure a deal with the university, to continue a very student-friendly parking arrangement for 2004 and 2005. And that was through our relationship with the university administration. I’d also like to mention Cassidy, my Vice President, who was integral to this. The deal had ended and we had almost no capacity to renew it, and because of our affluent relationship, not that previous ones had been hostile. But we needed to be tough when we needed to be tough, and we needed to protest when we needed to protest but otherwise we needed to work with … I mean we were partners! We all had the students interests at heart, and we had to work with them. I think it was because we had shown good faith throughout the year, so we actually got a better deal for parking because of that relationship.
Yeah, parking is still an issue—and I imagine it will continue to be. It’s interesting to hear about the relationship that the Guild had with the University during each period. Was there other points of conflict between the Guild and the University while you were there?
Oh, look, certainly. I mean, over common free time on Wednesdays, about fees and charges—the extra ones. About whether terms should be fourteen weeks or twelve weeks. So we had to convey the student message. And I carried that principle into my role as a union rep when I was a teacher at my school. We went on strikes several times when I was a teacher, because we had to show our principle and the department that we were serious, but then we had to sit down with them and nut out a deal. There’s not point just working out, you have to be tough but you also have to sit down and compromise. I think that we got the best deal that we could of under each of the circumstances.
So besides these sort of very student-focused issues. Was there are other matters the Guild was focusing on? Sociopolitical issues? For example, the Guild campaigned for marriage equality in 2017. Was there campaigns taking place while you were there?
During my year, it was a year later that the government actually changed the law to say it’s only between a man and a woman. I think we were just trying to fight for, at that stage, which the University was very open to, to have a queer safe space. Discussions about marriage equality were awhile off. But it’s funny, I actually still have on my desk the first LGBTI+ flag ever flown at Curtin. Which was a huge achievement of David Goncalves, who was the Education Vice-President in 2004, and the Queer Collective at Curtin. So the exposure I got at Curtin was very important for me as a young bloke. You know, back then, getting the University to run the rainbow flag was a big deal. Universities have come a long way in a short period, and now they can and should be leaders in civil rights. But we all had to come a long way. I had to, you know, learn why raising the rainbow flag was significant. And now—I’m actually a qualified marriage celebrant—and I married the first gay couple in Australia! To be honest though I learnt why that was an important social issue through my time at the University and with the Guild. Part of who I became, from my understanding of what are the issues of my day, was through the Guild. My education at Curtin, which was more than my classes—it was through my time at the Guild, my time working and saying who needs help, why are people being oppressed, how do we make people’s lives better. That came from the University and the Guild.
For me, so many of my social awareness, I grew in many ways, and learnt in many ways from my time at Curtin and with the Guild.
That’s really incredible. And as a queer student of Curtin I have benefitted from the Queer Collective which is now the Queer Department.
It’s really interesting that you went from a career as a teacher to politics. Did the Guild set you up for a political career, or were you thinking about that during your time with them?
In short: when I was a student I was never affiliated with Labour or with a party—I was certainly to the left. I wouldn’t say I was a socialist, but I just wasn’t aligned with anyone at the time. The State Labour Government had committed to repealing voluntary student unionism. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but Labour members actually met with us when I was a student rep and president and they said ‘We’re going to repeal this law and put this in’ and they actually met with the university and all the student Guilds and we actually all worked together to pass this bill that allowed us to have, instantly, tens of thousands of Guild members. So we were suddenly able to support students and be a functional Guild. So in short, I was impressed by this.
So after my time with the Guild when I was teaching I started volunteering for Labour. Then I absconded from teaching and I worked for a couple of Labour pollys in the education field and then I retired from politics and went back to teaching. When the State Liberal Government started cutting funds from education I started volunteering again and I said ‘Look, we can’t afford to cut money from our education’. I used to run an engagement program for students and they were cutting money from these needy kids. So I started getting organised and then Sue Ellery—the Shadow Minister for Education—approached me and she said ‘Look, you’ve been organised and vocal but if you want to help us we need a candidate for Southern River’. The plan was that we were never going to win this seat but if I helped they could divert resources from the seat they needed to win and then I can go back to teaching properly and we’ll have a Labour State Government. It didn’t work out that way! [laughs]. Now I’m here, but now we’ll work on properly funding schools and building schools. So that wasn’t planned, but I was lead back here—but the goal is to get back to the classroom—once I’ve fixed education.
Wow, what a journey. It’s really nice hearing about the drive behind your politics. How about we backtrack a bit in terms of the issues the Guild has and is still facing. Political apathy is something that Grok has reported on across the decades. So I wanted to know what your experience was like, and what advice you might have for the student representatives of today who are dealing with this.
Well look, I would defer to the student representatives of the day because I am an old man—I’ve got grey hair [laughs]. I don’t like giving advice but essentially: you’re the elected reps, you’re the students of the day, you know what to do. I will say that students have a lot on their plates, so it isn’t really even about apathy. Student culture at Curtin is very different from, say, UWA. Everyone at Curtin was working one or two jobs, you spend 20 hours at uni, and getting to and from uni and the cost of parking or the trouble of public transport. Then, you know, you had family commitments. This all meant that money was tight—so you didn’t have time to go to the tav or go to all the events. So I think every student did what was in their best interest—I mean would it be great to have a more engaged student culture on campus? Absolutely. I only ever lived 10 minutes from Curtin so I was really lucky—but not everyone had the flexibility I did. We have such a diversity of people at Curtin—from freshers to mature ages students, and we had this huge international population. There was so many things that I took for granted—I was this young, white guy living locally and went to school in the area with family that spoke English at home. I had huge advantages! I think it’s good to have a strong on-campus culture, but we have to be aware of the individual challenges we face. Everyone does the best they can and gets what they can out of their Curtin experience. Everyone has a different experience because everyone has different circumstances.
That’s really great to hear, because I think this is the conversation that we’re having at the Guild currently.
And it’s something that the Guild and the University have to continue to have together, to work on together.
Definitely. So what do you see the future of the Guild being, now that we’re at this 50 year mark—50 years of representing students. It’ll continue of course!
Absolutely! I think it was where I developed my understanding of the importance of unions. When we stand together we are stronger. Students need organised representation—whether you’ve got a hostile university or not, whether you’ve got a hostile federal government or not. Members deserve representation. My only advice would be that the Guild can only be as good as the people who stand for it. So I would encourage people to put their hands up.
One of the lines I first ran is most people don’t know their local council. They know that they pay their rates and the local council collects their bins and catches their dogs—but it’s far more than that. It’s the same with Guilds. If the council stopped collecting your bins—you would know. It’s the same with the Student Guild; if they stopped doing their work—you would know, because your university experience would be far less enjoyable.