First thing’s first. I am a member of the Australian Greens. I go to the office of Senator Robert Simms as an Empire Times editor, though. It’s a relief to escape the sweltering heat outside and enter the cool office. I find Senator Simms individually hand-signing Christmas cards. It’s a task he will return to as soon as the interview is complete. He takes me through to his office and we settle down to begin.
Senator Simms is the newest South Australian senator. He took over the role vacated by Penny Wright earlier in the year. He was once president of the Student Association at Flinders University during his studies. He is 31 and South Australia’s first openly gay senator.
What drew you to politics initially?
I got involved in politics when I was at university. There were two issues that really concerned me. The first was the treatment of asylum seekers back in 2001 so I was at high school at the time of the Tampa Election and I felt morally that the government was doing the wrong thing in the way it was treating asylum seekers. The issues that got me politically engaged at university was that the government was planning on increasing university fees by 30% and I didn’t think that was fair. I got involved in the Education Action Collective on [Flinders University]. That was what led me to get involved in the Students’ Association and led me to political activism.
What particularly appeals to you about federal politics?
For me, politics has always been about trying to bring about meaningful change and through the work we do in the parliament you can directly change peoples’ lives. That’s the thing I’ve always loved about politics, and at a federal level there really is an opportunity to do that in a big way. Just these last few months since I’ve been in the parliament, I’ve seen that capacity of legislation to have both politics and negative impacts and that opportunity to have a positive influence and try to change things for the better is what motivates me politically.
Considering your start in student politics, and work in local council, what have you found to be the different aspects of each level?
A lot of the fundamentals are the same. Some of the time in student politics, people focus too much on the games of politics, or the process and the theatre, but ultimately, you’ve got to be motivated by the ideas. You’ve got to have a strong values perspective and have a strong sense of why you want to be involved and what you want to achieve. If you have that, then that will sustain you when you get wins, but also when you have the many losses that often come in political involvement. Particularly if you are a progressive, a lot of the time you feel like it’s two steps forward and two back. If you’ve got your eye on the prize and have a long-term vision, and strong sense of values, then that will always motivate you.
You mentioned the games in student politics. What would you say of the way it’s often portrayed as particularly bitterly fought? An example being the recent SRC in the University of Sydney. Is that a fair portrayal of it?
Political culture can often be quite tribal. That’s just the nature of it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having passion and in fact it should be encouraged. I guess what I don’t like is sometimes when you see it becoming a little too personalised and too factional. Not focused on the main game, and I think people need to focus more on the issues at hand. That said, we talk about student political culture often having that unhealthy dimension. There are lots of things about student politics that are terrific. Look at the things student activists have achieved in this country. The work that’s been done in supporting the Queer movement, in supporting the Women’s movement, fighting things like racism, and the environmental movement. It’s student activism that has been really promoting positive change in Australia and that’s been the story of positive social change in our country over many decades. I think the student movement has a lot to be proud of.
Do you think students ought to be more engaged with local student politics?
Yes, I do, but the difficulty is that universities are structured in such a way that it makes it very difficult for students to have the time to be involved. That was certainly the case when I was at university and I think it’s got worse over the last few year because students are increasingly being cast as consumers and it becomes a bit like a degree factory. It makes it very difficult to get involved in the university community and university life. That said, I still think students should try to make the time to get involved because it’s very rewarding and it’s a way of building your own skills, and making a positive contribution as well.
What part would you say Flinders as a whole played in you choosing the path you did?
My experience at university was life-changing. I got to uni, I was very much in the closet, as a 17 year old guy and not very comfortable in terms of my place in the world. I didn’t have a very good time at school. I got to uni and met people I had common interests with. The first openly gay person I ever met was at Flinders uni, so I’ve got those positive memories and I also got involved in political activism on campus. I think had I not had those experiences at Flinders, I probably wouldn’t be in the role I am now because I wouldn’t have got politically engaged and activated.
What was the defining experience in your work in the student association, particularly at such a turbulent time?
It was a really challenging time, actually. I was the Education Officer for the National Union of Students back in 2004, and in 2005 I was Education Officer at the Students’ Association. After VSU [Voluntary Student Unionism] came in, I was student president of the new student organisation. It was pretty challenging because we had to deal with redundancies of staff. There were some people who were made redundant who had been working for the Student Union for 40 years. For me, that was a real reminder of the power of decisions made in politics to directly impact on peoples’ lives. Think about what happens when industries close in South Australia and the political focus on trying to find new jobs which should rightly be the case, yet the Howard government made some legislative decisions that meant more than 150 people in SA lost their jobs who’d been working for student unions over many years and yet they did that purely for ideological reasons. There was no reason for them to go down that path of bringing in VSU. It was purely because they were pursuing their own ideological and philosophical agenda. Fundamentally the wrong thing to do. Looking at what’s happened to student organisations around the country, you can see that. Even though the Student Services and Amenities Fee has come in, students still don’t really have control of student affairs on many campuses, and that’s really problematic. That’s a direct result of what happened when the Liberal party were last in power.
What significance do you think student media has in student culture?
It’s really important. It’s an alternate, independent voice. We have a media market in this country that’s really controlled by Rupert Murdoch and there are very few other players. Here in South Australia we have one [major] newspaper outlet in the Adelaide Advertiser and it is difficult to get other voices out there. I think student papers like Empire Times, which has got a proud history, play a really important role in offering an alternative voice and giving an outlet for students to express a view so I’d encourage them to keep pushing the envelope.
Who would play you in a biopic of your life?
So, I can choose an actor to play me? Hugh Jackman. I’m a fan, I’d choose him.
And a soundtrack to your life?
Something with Celine Dion.
What was your fondest uni memory?
Student elections. Active Left ticket back in 2006, we won every position on Student Council. That was pretty exciting.
What’s your favourite hidden gem or nook/cranny around the Flinders campus?
Actually, I used to really like the Clubs and Societies space. That was really good, but it’s now turned into an office/admin building, so that’s not quite such an exciting place to seek out. I used to like being around the lake too, that’s a nice area to sit. The Humanities courtyard also used to be quite a nice spot to sit.
Favourite movie this summer?
I haven’t been to the movies for ages. That’s terrible, isn’t it? I saw Crimson Peak. That was quite good. It’s worth seeing.
Interview conducted December 2015. Questions by Liam McNally.