NUS: Power without glory

Rafi Alam ran from the National Conference with flailing arms

Aside from the wonderful meals, bountiful drinks, and a final night party hosted by DJ LEB XTC, National Union of Students’ (NUS) National Conference 2013 was a traumatic experience for most involved.

Here is a brief rundown on the chaos:

– Grassroots Left and Socialist Alternative walked out of a night’s conference due to what they saw as severe practices by the organising committee, dominated by NLS and Student Unity, and an avoidance of discussing policy. The Indies refused to turn up too.

– NLS was on the verge of breakdown as various delegates defected and they ended up endorsing a candidate for National Women’s Officer from Student Unity, a position NLS normally pursues but was unable to due to record low numbers, in exchange for National Queer.

– The ‘breakdown’ was also related to their snubbing of two Independent candidates for Women’s, Bec Doyle from UWA and Brigid Dixon from USYD, currently Vice President of the USU, who both gave heartfelt candidate speeches, a testament to NUS’s ability to stamp out dreams.

– The National Independents seemed very different from their USYD counterpart, the Voice group; while Voice are a motley crew of individuals including moderate Liberals, the West-Coast Independents (‘Windies’) seemed fairly radical and liked to ‘caucus’, often noting how much they despise Liberals.

– ALSF (Liberals), who are normally the rowdiest faction, hellbent on destroying NUS, were relatively well behaved. Some more conservative Young Greens members sat with the ALSF to the displeasure of more progressive Greens in the Grassroots Left.

However, what was most interesting about NUS was also what doomed it. There was an odd tension between camaraderie and conflict at National Conference.

I thought friendship would suppress some of the usual vitriol associated with student politics. Unfortunately this resulted in a lack of desire to seriously contest ideas. How could you, when you were living together, would be seeing them at lunch and dinner, parties; would always – inevitably – make eye contact? This meant that negotiations were often fraught with a confused mixture of courteous rapport and the crucial venom of adversarial politics. I could see this when it became inappropriate or uncomfortable to hang out with friends from different factions. Even if we got along at university, in a national union friendships are distorted along factional lines. Or, when the majority of the Independents supported NLS Clare Keyes-Liley for Education Officer, friendship trumped factions.

But when someone yelled “cunts” at the Grassroots Left at the post-conference party for not voting for Clare, it became clear that factions and friendships weren’t always oppositional – under the lure of power and influence of alcohol they converge into tribalism, lacking the ideology of the former and and the grace of the latter.

What this also means is that the NLS-Student Unity stranglehold of NUS is unlikely to be broken anytime soon – it’s hard to breakdown familial ties between groups who date each other, drink together, and do politics together in their other playground: Young Labor.

NUS was traumatic for many reasons. The reasons above would suffice, but unfortunately, it wasn’t all. NUS seemed like a place where activism hit a dead end. NUS is always Labor and will always refuse to contest a Labor government. It feels like a place where student politicians test drive a future parliamentarian life – speeches, voting, caucusing, negotiating, and the networking of the political class.

It was a place that was antithetical to ‘student’, one alien to the images of student activism, not only in countercultural nostalgia, but seen today in places like the UK, Chile, and Quebec. It was a sickly potion of slick branding, flippancy, and futility; of wasted money and deserted goals.

It’s a place I would not revisit.

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