NUS a Toothless Tiger?

Does the National Union of Students (NUS) still have any relevance? Nick Rowbotham skipped Melbourne’s laneways, lattes and giant balls of yarn to sit in on the annual conference of Australia’s peak student representative body.

There were few surprises at this year’s National Union of Students Conference, held earlier this month at La Trobe University. NUS’ annual conference provides an opportunity for students around the country to meet and discuss national tertiary education issues. Each year, delegates from affiliate universities debate and vote on amendments to NUS’ official policy, and importantly, elect office-bearers and the national executive for the following year.

Since its inception in 1987, NUS has been dominated by the Left and Right factions of the Labor party, National Labor Students (NLS) and Student Unity respectively. The two factions have traditionally controlled most of the coveted (read: salaried) national office-bearer positions. This year was no different, with Jade Tyrell of NLS elected President, and Sydney University’s Todd Pinkerton, of Unity, elected General Secretary.

The only real controversy of the 2012 conference arose when disgruntled members of two smaller left-wing factions, the Socialist Alternative and Grassroots Left, staged a walk-out during a meeting of conference. The walk-out was prompted by the groups’ discontent with the two Labor factions, particularly after they were ‘locked-out’ of all but one of the national office-bearer positions. In addition, there was hostility towards Unity’s candidate for Women’s Officer, Mikaela Wangmann, who allegedly had ties to the SDA, a pro-life union.

Unfortunately, much of the policy discussion at national conference is lost amid the noise of factional dealings to secure elected positions. NUS was crippled by the introduction of VSU in 2005, which hampered the ability of student unions and associations to pay affiliation fees. This gutted state branches and compromised the organisation’s ability to effectively run campaigns. Today, NUS spends upwards of $200,000 on office-bearers’ salaries, and consistently less than $100,000 on campaigns.

One can’t help but feel that NUS has become something of a toothless tiger in the post-CSU era; many of the non-Labor factions now regard it as nothing more than an echo chamber for Labor careerists. This year’s conference sadly did nothing to contradict that sentiment. On the upside, the food was pretty good, and the Liberals were remarkably well behaved.