Beyond the thin and flag-fluttering boundary line enclosing the UWA University Club, where staff and cashed-up members gathered about champagne islands and mini sliders for Paul Johnson’s Christmas Party, a group of protesters milled. Made up of staff, students, union representatives and members of the Perth community, the rally was the amalgam of several events, pulled together in protest of the 7% UWA workforce cuts announced on Wednesday. The main organizers, however, were the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), who describe the move as “an attack on staff, teaching quality, and student experience at UWA.”
No mistake, the decision is one which is both pretty galling and pretty shameful. The announcement’s insensitive timing before Christmas, its suspicious coinciding with the National Union of Students conference in Melbourne, and the lack of consultation with staff were top on the list of protester’s concerns. What seems to really get everyone’s goat, however, is the uncertainty over which individuals exactly are going to get the chop.
But it was all too warm, quiet, and peaceable an afternoon to get too het up about it, really. In the non-existent summer breeze, purple “SHAME!”-emblazoned banners wilted. Every now and then, a chant was heard to ripple throughout the crowd, strugglingly lead by a very small girl clutching a very small loudspeaker. “The only cuts we want to see? To the VC’s salary!” gathered itself for a while, but others (“Staff cuts, no way! We’re gonna fight them all the way!”) petered out in a kind of mannered deference to the languid sounds of a girl on a grass stage, who strummed away on her guitar cover songs of Bernard Fanning and Bob Evans.
Making a ruckus seemed almost rude. Besides – as the President of the UWA Postgraduate Students’ Association pointed out – it is almost certain a percentage of those enjoying the event will number among the 100 academics and 200 professional staff to be axed in 2016. The Christmas party is the “only time the VC gives them anything”. Why take that from them? What’s more, many of the party-goers were only too happy to don the green “Who are the 300?” stickers proffered to them on their way into le u-dub club. This was hardly an “us versus them” situation.
In lieu of fierceness then, (which, after all and frustratingly enough, often puts rally-goers at risk of being re-branded as “militant” or “radical”) the protesters mostly gazed in on the university staff members and took pictures, whilst those within – appearing largely unperturbed as they sipped from long wine glasses and presumably exchanged hot employment tips, gazed out and took pictures in turn. Doubtless, each made for the other a curious spectacle.
It was an odd stand-off.
Nonetheless, it was an important one. Talking to the staff members interspersed throughout, we discovered that they were, on the whole, unsurprised by the planned reductions, which had been subtly augured by the VC in a speech given earlier in the year. Not all imagined they would be quite so far-reaching though.
One particularly wry-minded student compared the funding crisis to the notorious “budget emergency” of last year.
“It doesn’t exist anymore, because we don’t talk about it anymore. This is just the same kind of manufactured crime.”
Inside the club grounds, wine glasses clinked and chimed.
As Pelican discovered, however, the boundary between the two groups was not impermeable. Pelican would like to thank the VC for the ice-bucket Premium Blonde shortnecks, the magnum ice-creams being served (we kid you not) on white platters by itinerant waiters, and most of all, for keeping the entrance flippantly unguarded. It is to our great sorrow and regret that we did not get to thank him personally. For reasons unknown, Johnson chose – like an a-romantic Gatsby – to lie low at his own event. Even some two and a half hours in, of our host, Pelican received no word or sight.
We must allow for the possibility that he was there, and we just didn’t see him. We must also allow for the possibility he has a mortal fear of double denim and shiny orange snapbacks, and was simply evading us. I thought I fitted in quite nicely among the floral-print dresses, cream-colored ankle-length pants and neck-tied sweaters.
Or perhaps – and thinking about it, it seems almost a certain – Paul Johnson is one of the 300. Maybe he’s left already, nobly sailing from Perth right now to the Swiss Alps. Or has entombed himself in one of the campus club’s golden eggs, from which he will emerge in 500 years, when the memories of this year’s campus farce and folly have lost their sting. What with the Bjorn Lomborg debacle, the outrageous Gender, European and Medieval Studies Major sinkage, the pimping mascot Lawrence the Peacock scandal, and the hugely-mocked million-dollar rebranding campaign – it just feels like it’s his time. You know?
Besides – himself taking home for the year about $959,000 as the highest paid VC in Western Australia – we imagine he can do quite as well without us, as we can do without him.
Words by Kate Prendergast