Pub in the Politics - should public university bodies take political stances?

 

The recent controversy around Cooper’s Beer and a video of two MPs drinking beer and disagreeing about whether Same Sex Marriage should be legalised has already proved to be a somewhat odd case of consumer backlash. The entire debacle has been a giant case of missing the point given that the message was about being able to respectfully disagree rather than explicitly endorsing an anti-same sex marriage position. Aside from this though, the response by many was to boycott Coopers until they supported marriage equality. This didn’t just include individuals not buying this beer (that they probably didn’t drink anyway), but also included bars not serving and refusing to stock the beer as well. 

In a free society, both individuals and private companies should have the freedom of speech express their views and to exercise freedom of choice. This extends to boycotts - a freedom many on the left were quick to champion in this instance. The hypocrisy of their position aside (try exercising those freedoms to not bake a cake without ending up in court..) In any event, the boycott was successful and Coopers caved in, proclaiming far and wide their support for marriage equality. Freedom of choice had won.

Long after this had all happened, along came The Loft at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). For those not familiar with it, the Loft is one of the bars at the university. It comes across as an attempt at a more upmarket bar (with prices to match) for those students who feel the main bar on campus, The Glasshouse, isn’t fancy enough for them. Despite being too late to the party, it announced it would be boycotting the beer and was going to host a fundraiser to support marriage equality. At this point, it was too late to do anything other than virtue signal and undermine the intital boycott.

But the big issue here is that The Loft UTS shouldn’t even be doing this. The Loft isnt the same as your ordinary business. Despite being a bar, it is also the beneficiary of a public institution and money levied by the state. As a university bar, not only does it exist on university land but it is operated by the university’s services provider ActivateUTS. The staff are employed by ActivateUTS. In addition, it benefits from SSAF money that students are legally required to pay to the university in the form of the 10% discount for students – money which includes contributions from ALL students and not just those who share The Loft UTS’s specific political stance. By being able to provide discounts to students with student money, it can compete against the wide range of offerings in the area. It also is used by ActivateUTS Clubs for room bookings for events.

 

So this isn’t just your average private business we are talking about here. It is an extension of a services provider for a public institution. It is not the role of public bodies and associated entities to be lobbying on matters of public policy. Even if you don’t go to the Loft at UTS, UTS students and taxpayers are still coughing up for its performance, or lack thereof. This includes students and taxpayers who hold different political views to those of the staff at The Loft UTS.

Some people might be asking, well why not allow it to? But that neglects a significant problem that exists anywhere big government is. Just because the actions of public institutions align with your agenda today, doesn’t mean that those same actions will suit it in the future.

What if the staff at the Loft were conservative and refused to stock beers from companies that were pro-SSM? Would those same people who boycotted Coopers be rallying to defend the rights of a business to refuse service in that instance? Of course not.  

We see it play out elsewhere as well. The 18C laws we are told are great because they protect racial minorities. But then a WW2 memorial by the Korean community in Australia becomes a target of a complaint. So much for protecting minority groups in Australia.

The Loft has since taken down its post and nothing further has been said. But it never should have gotten to that point in the first place. If students themselves decide that they will boycott the drink, that’s fine. But we don’t need the staff making that political decision for students. The Loft isn’t just another private business and as part of a public university, it needs to cater for all students and staff on campus - not just for those that share the personal views of the staff in charge. University students may appreciate politics in the pub, but it is time to take the university pub out of the politics.

As even Pro-SSM students commenting on the post agreed – the move and post by The Loft did nothing for the cause. Unsurprisingly, it was taken down soon after attracting backlash.

 

Alex Cullen is a Research Associate at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance

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