Notes on a Scandal: Conversations and Reflections on Gary Newman’s 'The State of the Union'

'The State of the Union' is a fascinating dive into the insular world of student politics by covering the 2003 student election at the University of Melbourne, one of Australia's most prestigious universities. Twenty years on from when the documentary was released, it remains a testament to what happens when politics gets ugly. If one was to compare it to the contemporary world of student politics, one can't help but wonder how much has changed.


Tribal. That was the word Gary Newman used to describe student politics at the University of Melbourne in the early 2000s.

“I remember one student when I asked him how he would describe politics at Melbourne Uni, he replied ‘tribal’,” Newman explains over the phone, recalling his 2004 documentary The State of the Union. “My sense was [that] those student politics was a proving ground for young political apparatchiks. For some, it felt like a game.”

The State of the Union is a fascinating dive into the insular world of student politics by covering the 2003 student election at the University of Melbourne, one of Australia's most prestigious universities. Twenty years on from when the documentary was released, it remains a testament to what happens when politics gets ugly. If one was to compare it to the contemporary world of student politics, one can't help but wonder how much has changed.


House of Cards at the University of Melbourne

Gary Newman, then a student at Deakin University, became interested in creating a documentary after hearing about the volatility of student politics at the University of Melbourne. “I was in student politics myself, and a previous editor of the student magazine at Deakin University. I heard that the politics at Melbourne was—how could I put this—somewhat more intense than [what] I was accustomed to at Deakin.” 

To Newman, “intense” seemed like a quaint word to describe politics at any given university. He confesses that he had little idea of what he was walking into: there was no formal process for the creation of The State of the Union, no clear answer he was searching for. “I picked up a friend's Handycam and just decided to … rock up and point a camera at what I was seeing and conduct a few interviews.”

Student politics at the University of Melbourne in the early 2000s was a particularly hostile world, shadowed by allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the hands of the incumbent leaders. As he dug deep into the matter, what Newman began to uncover was a world more common to House of Cards than an ordinary student election as one may imagine. It was a deeply factional warzone, one that Newman looks back on with dismay. 


“I would describe the political culture at the time as toxic, to be frank with you. In hindsight I would say it was concerning, to say the least. My impression was that this was the place where young political apparatchiks were cutting their teeth. I think that's problematic because some of the tactics that were being deployed were pretty shady.”


On both sides of the political spectrum, a handful of tickets engaged in duplicitous activities to achieve an advantage in the election. As explained in the documentary, right-wing tickets spread homophobic claims about opposing left-wing tickets on so-called “shit sheets”. They also created “feeder tickets”, designed to deceive voters into endorsing seemingly individual groups that were in fact aligned with larger right-wing tickets. Electoral rules were amended to prevent smaller parties from entering the election as well as give the incumbent Labor Right faction an advantage. These tactics systematically disenfranchised smaller, often left-wing, parties and forced these groups to band together, which resulted in the formation of the Pride ticket for example.



Farrago’s Struggle with Reporting the Scandal

Jacky Bailey was an editor of Farrago during that period and she recalls the tactics used by tickets during the election: “We used to print a special edition of Farrago that had a summary of each candidate and what they stood for. One faction broke into our office and stole the photos and documents submitted by their opposition.” Bailey admits that the organisation of the Farrago office was not great. “We actually didn't even realise they’d been stolen because we didn't have super good record keeping. We thought some candidates had failed to submit. It was only after it was printed that it became clear when a bunch of really angry people showed up at our office saying ‘Where are our candidates?’”

Bailey and the other editors of Farrago tried to report on the alleged corruption but found it incredibly difficult to seek evidence or get someone on the record. “We got to the point where we were so angry and so frustrated by what was happening. And we felt so helpless that we put a couple of things to print even though we didn't really have the evidence to do it.” Bailey also recalls her forays into trying to expose the corruption:


“I was having a conversation with one of the Labor Right guys, who was deeply involved with the corruption and he outright told me a bunch of stuff word for word that they were doing—just basically straight up confessing. I told Gary and wanted to see if I could get him to do it again. Gary wired me up so that we could catch it on camera if he'd say it again.” Unfortunately, their effort to attain a clear confession of corruption did not pay off. “I couldn't get him back into that frame of mind.”


The Farrago editors eventually published a separate sheet on the issue, though, Bailey says: “It had virtually zero impact, partly because it wasn't a real edition. But by that point, the whole thing had become so factional that I think the student body just thought we were all lunatics.”


Corruption to the Point of No Return

David Lees was involved in student politics at the time as a member of the More Beer! ticket. During the two fateful years, Lees wrote about the happenings in his unpublished memoirs in which he commented: “The election had an emotional and physical toll.” Lees saw the cracks in the union during his involvement in the election, and came to realise that he had to step away. “The voice in my head was screaming at me: ‘Get out. Even your own guys are pissed off at you. Get out. [The union] is beyond saving. Get out.’” 

Lees emphasised that the fall of the union was not a sudden crumble born of the events of 2003, but had been a slow decay over three years since the 2001 election. He once wrote in his blog: “The election in 2001 should never have been allowed to stand. The result of that election led directly to the fall of the [u]nion mainly because there were suddenly no checks and balances.”

When watching The State of the Union, it came out that the lengths to which tickets would go in the election are laughable. A point Newman emphasises in the documentary is that instead of pursuing the democratic process, the students involved sought destructive and corrupt practices. Overshadowing the entire documentary is an air of corruption within the student union, as it became embroiled in controversy under the presidency of Scott Crawford in 2003. Most prominently, the consecutive presidents Darren Ray and Scott Crawford led the union into disarray following corrupt business practices in relation to the $44 million Optima property deal for student housing. This served as a catalyst for the demise of the union, as Melbourne University Student Union Incorporated (MUSUi) ended in liquidation in the Supreme Court of Victoria on February 6 2004.


Conversations and Reflections

On one hand, the happenings of The State of the Union seem ridiculous and even comical. On the other hand, the 2003 student election indeed had far-reaching emotional impacts. “It was such a strong culture that you got sucked into it,” says Bailey, recognising how easily students became embroiled in the intensity of the election. Newman also points out that it was easy to negate the seriousness of the situation due to the theatrics: 


“I'm not prepared to say that it was over nothing, because the future of the union was at stake. You can look back on the experience and think ‘What a hoot!’ or ‘Isn't it amazing that such a big deal could be made over a student election?’ It's tempting to look at it that way. But on the other hand, there was some pretty serious stuff going on. There was a lot of money going through the union. There was a lot of money at stake. It's easy to dismiss what happened back then.”


If student politics is the breeding ground for politicians, the conduct seen in the 2003 election suggests a negative influence on aspiring politicians. In The State of the Union, several names appear of individuals who have gone on to attain prominent positions, namely, the current national secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Paul Erickson (who was seen aligned with the Labor Left faction at the time). Newman questions how positive the influence of student politics was on those who have gone on to pursue careers in politics:


“I'm not implicating anyone in foul play or poor conduct, but what you're talking about here is the breeding ground for people who go on to occupy very prominent positions in our society. In hindsight, I don't think it was a good breeding ground. I don't think the lesson they learnt was good. I don't think that is how you want to be breeding politicians.” 


This is a view shared by Lees, who was concerned at how the events of the 2003 election acted as a microcosm of behaviours that would reverberate into the broader political system. Shortly after the scandal at MUSUi, Scott Crawford went on to run for a position on the local council. Lees commented on this in his blog: “The fact that [Scott Crawford] is running for a local council at the moment worries me in the sense that I am concerned about who … is running every level of government. It is a great shame that people like [Darren Ray] and [Scott Crawford] may be operating within mainstream political parties.”


Legacy of The State of the Union

The reason The State of the Union has persisted and endured in the minds of students at the University of Melbourne is that it captures themes that resonate far beyond the realm of student politics: it demonstrates how the democratic process can be corrupted and eroded. “There were people around who were more interested in wrecking than being constructive. Certainly, my impression was that there were certain individuals who took great delight in frustrating the efforts of idealistic participants,” says Newman. Further, Newman sees the factional nature depicted in The State of the Union as a symptom of something greater: an ignorance at the heart of Australian politics. 


“People don't know how to listen and talk to each other. I think that tribalism makes us overlook what we have in common, and what we have achieved together. Politicians seek to divide us into tribes—and this is reinforced by a culture of outrage that's fed by mainstream media and exacerbated by social media. Throughout society, my observation is that people who identify with tribes don't know how to talk to one another, and don't understand or be empathetic to different perspectives or points of view.”


Looking back on the documentary, Newman isn't entirely sure how he feels about it. A sense of embarrassment or regret can be felt in his voice as he recalls the project. At one point in our conversation, he compares it to the 1978 Star Wars Christmas Special which is loathed by George Lucas. “I can't watch it without cringing,” Newman says, “but my view on it has changed. I was a young person who was having a crack, and you know, it was worth doing."

Though The State of the Union can easily be dismissed as a cultural artefact—a dusty relic of a bygone student culture—it is undeniably and eerily prescient. The documentary highlights a certain ethical emptiness at the heart of young people who were not motivated to make positive changes. Nowadays, Australians are more concerned about politics than ever, demanding greater transparency and accountability—anti-corruption was a platform central to Labor’s victory in 2022. 

Corruption rings through politics and one has to ask how corruption occurs. Is it a one-off occurrence made in desperation, or is it a behaviour, a mindset of believing that such actions are beyond accountability? If it is the latter, there is a fair argument to suggest that such practices are cultivated in student politics, namely, the microcosm of Australian democracy.

Today, the power of the student union has been decreased to prevent such a level of corruption from happening again. But the factional nature of student politics remains in the system, leaving tribalism to forever flourish on campus.

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