Laboratory for apparatchiks 
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Justinian in Barely Legal, Election 2019, Law students, Politics

Law school during the election campaign ... Lots of students in suits as careers in Parliament House beckon ... The Canberra Bubble comes to campus ... Party hacks starting young ... Barely Legal's mother hands out Labor leaflets and dry fruit cake 

For the past few weeks, the law school has felt strangely empty. Most classes are down to skeleton-crew numbers. Celebrity lecturers find themselves free in their consultation hours. Even the usual ration line outside Flavour Cafe has vanished; only the Stockholm-syndrome sufferers remain, in love with the frankly abusive coffee.

It happens every time there's an election. As soon as the writs drop, off they go. It happened during the state election and it's happening again now. 

At first, I couldn't make head or tail of it. But after far more elections than a normal law degree should contain, it started to dawn on me. 

First I realised that the election absentees are the ones who, without fail, wear suits to university. If it's a boiling February day - a suit. Casual law society drinks - a suit. Torts exam - a suit. Usually something close-fitting and trendy. Trying to look like it's from the ground floor of David Jones when actually it's from level two.  

Then, I noticed this mysterious type has only one topic of conversation: political gossip, or the Canberra Bubble, to use the technical term. Which frontbenchers are sleeping with their staffers; which Senator is in a sham marriage; how often the Commonwealth has shelled out for so-and-so's flights to the Philippines. 

I always dismissed this talk as hot air: how could a slightly dull second year know anything about the nooks and crannies of power? 

Yet, I couldn't deny the other tell-tale signs: these students litter their Facebook profiles with selfies they've taken with politicians. When Malcolm Turnbull was shafted, some of them uploaded dignified snaps they'd once taken with the PM, a reminder of better days and a very fine function at the Sofitel.   

And when the election's on, it's campaign photos up to your eyeballs. Door-knocking, campaign t-shirts, letter-dropping, pre-poll booths. You name it. 

Eventually, it all made perfect sense. These disappearing law students are baby political staffers, MPs' advisers, head-office hacks, think-tank apparatchiks and union proto-thugs. 

It's important to be clear about taxonomy: the baby staffer is a slightly different breed from the pure student politician. The stupol dynamo thinks short term: they want to be a BNOC - a Big Name On Campus. They want people to point at them in the lunch queue, or see their name in the student rag's gossip column. 

The baby staffer, on the other hand, is content to defer glory: they sell their soul to the party machine now, in the hope of later eternal reward. Sure, they might run in a stupol election or two — but that's nothing compared to a trip down to sitting week with their MP. 

Even so, baby staffers are vague about their political involvement. Whenever I ask why they're in a political party, it's because they care about students, or because they're passionate about making change. 

They don't tell you that they're already on the payroll. 

One student in my cohort started working as an MP's adviser in his first year of uni: now, he only comes onto campus to sit exams or submit assignments. There's a rumour that the party is paying his tuition fees. I too would be worried to show my face. 

It can all get strangely close to home. My mother is a stalwart Labor woman, proud that she's working class (even though, or maybe because, her parents sent her to SCEGGS). She hands out at our train station every election. 

This year, she's been very taken with the other volunteers: "energetic young things," she calls them, and they get coffee together after the morning rush.

A few days into the campaign, my mother asked the party to send a poster we could mount on our house. 

I came home one afternoon to find three sheepish and familiar faces in my front yard. I had lost to one of them in a moot quarter final last year. The other two had once lumped me with all the hard work in a group project. They were all in Labor t-shirts, trying to set up a pair of corflutes. 

My mother was offering them a slice of her rather dry fruit cake, and waved me over. I let her introduce me to her new Labor friends. 

We all pretended we didn't know each other. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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