Behind Tribal Lines: Freak Power at USYD
WORDS BY JEFFREY KHOO
We had nothing to lose: we were like a bunch of wild-eyed amateur mechanics rolling a homemade racing car onto the track at Indianapolis and watching it overtake a brace of big Offenhausers at the 450 pole.
“Freak Power in the Rockies: The Battle of Aspen”, by Hunter S. Thompson, in Rolling Stone, October 1 1970
Wednesday 6 September, 12:09 am
Normally, Hunter S. Thompson would start an article like this by describing his current physical state, which invariably was not good. He’d describe with razor-sharp precision how he managed to descend into whatever godforsaken, drug-addled slump he was in at the time - a bit of LSD here, a whiff of pot there, probably some harder shit thrown in just for fun.
But I think I’ve outdone him. I’ve gone one better. Ladies and gentlemen, gather round, because I believe I’ve discovered a drug so strong, so powerful, so horrifically atrocious that even Mr Thompson would stand back and applaud slowly.
That drug is the potent sense of regret that I feel right now having launched an independent campaign for the USYD SRC.
Wednesday 6 September, 12:18pm
Before you accuse me of opportunistically grabbing this platform so kindly provided to me by virtue of my position as a reporter here at Pulp, let me just jump in and pre-empt you.
It’s completely true.
But hey, if you can’t beat ‘em …
Wednesday 6 September, 1:15pm
I decided to run for SRC because, honestly, I didn’t know we had one. I remember that it was somewhere in ABS, overhearing some Young Lib- oops, “independent” mates talking about the upcoming elections. They used lots of words I didn’t understand, like “ticket” and “preference deals” and “having plans for a Friday night”. Somewhere amidst this chatter, I remember turning to my friend and - like out of a scene from a second-rate soap opera - we locked eyes, thinking the same thing. We can do that. It shouldn’t be too hard. Right?
That was Friday. We had until the following Wednesday to find more people, convince them to run, convince them to support us at least, create a policy statement, fill out two thousand forms, and then hand them in. We had to do that in less than a week, while others had been gearing up for months. So it’s safe to say the odds were against us.
But before we could think about the road ahead, we had to find the SRC office.
Thankfully, a chance encounter with some hacks heading to the office meant that we miraculously managed to hand in our forms before 4:30pm. The deed was done. And as we slid our papers over the desk, my friend and I once again locked eyes, and I think that once again our thoughts were aligned.
What the fuck have we got ourselves into?
Wednesday 6 September, 6:05pm
Holy shit. This place looks like a chapel. The seats are lined like pews, four rows deep on each side. Huge, wall-height stained glass windows tint the carpet with the remaining sunset. There’s a few people milling around, in very distinct groups. I spot a Young Labor friend I know, another friend from the Liberals, a Switch member. Except for me, everyone here, I find out, is a member of a campus faction.
The executive calls for quiet. Several times - it takes a while for the councillors to hush. One, two, three, four … thirteen, fourteen, fifteen …? Shit! Just shy of quorum. The room groans. Some councillors sink their head into their hands. We can wait it out for a while, the executive proposes. But still, no one comes. The meeting is called off. Again.
As everyone gets up from their seats and file out in their factions, muttering about this anticlimax, the three presidential candidates briefly cross paths in the centre aisle of the room. They exchange hesitant hugs and wish each other well with their campaigns. Every pair of eyes is focused on the trio, watching this interaction with keenness and deep-set suspicion.
Thursday 7 September, 2:03pm
I’m reclining on an aggressively orange couch in the New Law building, watching a Labor hack teaching me the ancient art of the “walk-and-talk”. He’s kindly agreed to give a demonstration. As he parades in front of me, I’m trying to rest my head comfortably. This couch is long and sloping, shaped like one you’d find in a psychiatrist’s office. Lord, if I didn’t need yet another omen …
“Alright, so what you need to do is to essentially approach someone, preferably they’re alone, and engage them in a conversation. You have to say your name and your ticket as many times as possible. They won’t remember it otherwise. Jeffrey, HEART for SRC. Jeffrey, HEART for SRC. Jeffrey, HEART for SRC. That’s incredibly important.”
Dear reader, don’t look at me like that. I’m only reporting what I’ve witnessed.
“Final thing: keep it short and have a goal in mind. On election day, that goal is obviously the polling booth. So what you should do is, later today, actually time the amount it takes for you to deliver your pitch” - he steps back a few paces - “and then” - his arm is outstretched, pointing towards an imaginary destination - “you walk at a speed that means when you finish your pitch, and you’re asking for their vote, ta-da! The polling booth is right there.”
“Wait, so I can walk them up to the booth?”
“Up to the exclusion zone. Put so much as one toe over that line and you’re toast. But it’s actually a really effective way to get people to vote for you. They kind of don’t know what they’re doing, so they just go along with it. Put that pressure on them. Actually, in the USU elections this year, the guy who placed first, he was a fucking weapon. Also, he spoke Chinese, and he did all his campaigning in the International Students’ Lounge. That sort of shit you can’t help. Any questions?”
Friday 8 September, 5:15pm
“I’m not running. I’m past those days. I’m really just here as support. I think that it used to be fun when I had time for that sort of stuff. I got involved through the Conservative Club on campus. I’m pretty much an arch-conservative. That taught me lots. You find your tribe, but you also meet people who hate your guts just because you’re this or that. It can be difficult to talk to someone who straight up doesn’t agree with you and never will. I don’t know. Things aren’t as civil as they should be.”
Tuesday 12 September, 11:48am
“Hey! Do you have 30 seconds? … No? Okay. Have a great day!”
Tuesday 12 September, 11:50am
“Hello! Can I walk with you for a bit? … Alright. No worries.”
Tuesday 12 September, 11:57am
“Hey! Can - oh? Okay. That’s fine. Have a great day.”
Tuesday 12 September, 12:16pm
Oh no. Vision has pulled out the dogs. There’s a sudden increase in foot traffic around the Vision stall compared to this morning. Despite students saying they hate stupol, and despite all the campaigns fervently attesting that they attract votes through the strength of their ideas, it’s surprising how many people get sucked in by the doggos, those unwitting weapons in the war for hearts and votes.
Tuesday 12 September, 1:04pm
Stand Up HQ has obviously made some frantic phone calls in response to Vision’s canine assault. A campaigner in the distinctive red shirt is now approaching with the cutest pupper you’ve ever seen. A pomeranian the size of a bread loaf. His name is Ralph, or Ralphie as he’s known to his friends, and he’s got a smile that just tugs at your heartstrings.
I decide that today’s campaigning is a lost cause, and go up to tell Ralphie what a good boy he is.
Thursday 14 September, 12:57pm
Why are the police here? Two of them just sprinted down Eastern Avenue. Shut the fuck up, I’m not kidding. They went - hang on, what is going on there? What the fuck? A protest? Sweet baby Jesus, why do they need the cops?
Friday 15 September, 1:17am
I thought this gig would be more glamorous, to be honest. I thought that running a campaign would be inspiring and that I’d Frank Underwood the shit out of this thing. I steeled myself for the worst, for the inevitable moment where it would transpire I had brought a butterknife to a gunfight. But right now, I’m lost in a bare yellow field miles from the fight, trying to right my compass and seeing if I can pick up some scent of blood.
Friday 15 September, 5:06pm
“Listen. Jeffrey? Listen to me. This is what they do. They try to get you with them, act like they’re your friend, and then once they’re done with you, they toss you to the roadside. Believe me, this is not their first rodeo. They did the same thing to [----], right, and they fucked him over. Same thing with [----]. She can tell you all about it. And she will say the same thing I’ve said. I know it’s hard, because you know them, they’re your friend. But this is politics, and I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
Sunday 17 September, 8:55pm
The most urgent sensation I feel right now is this gnawing uneasiness, not knowing our efforts will pay off. I think that in the early days of this campaign, I reconciled myself to that fact. But knowing, intellectually, that it exists, and anticipating it, is a hell of a lot different to actually feeling it.
It’s tough because the line between winning and losing is so clear-cut. You get a seat or you don’t. You have enough support for your cause and what you’re fighting for, or not. It’s extremely easy to subscribe to that dichotomy. And I know that you’re not meant to do that; you’re not meant to judge your success by rigid metrics, external from your intuition. But I’ve invested too much time into this already. If we wanted to have a shot at this damn SRC thing, I feel like I had no other choice.
The one thing I do believe is that this has not been a waste of time. Hell, I guess it’s a rite of passage for a USYD student, and it’s lived up to that expectation a thousand times over. What better way to learn about this arcane institution and the wacky people who care about it than to dive head-first into it?
I think that ultimately, to run for the SRC here, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy. You’ve got to be something of a freak (masochistic? egotistic?) to want to subject yourself to the glorified shitflinging we call stupol. I guess I am a freak.
I’ve always found that writing is one of the best things I can do to work through an uncomfortable feeling. But the risk still
remains, and it refuses to be diminished.
So in truth it was probably a sense of impending doom, of horror at politics in general, that goaded me into my role in [our] campaign. The reasons came later, and even now they seem hazy. Some people call politics fun, and maybe it is when you're winning. But even then it's a mean kind of fun, and more like the rising edge of a speed trip than anything peaceful or pleasant. Real happiness, in politics, is a wide-open hammer shot on some poor bastard who knows he's been trapped, but can't flee.
“Freak Power in the Rockies: The Battle of Aspen”, by Hunter S. Thompson, in Rolling Stone, October 1 1970