Fear and Loathing in La Trobe

Felix Donovan and Justin Pen spoke to a cabal of faceless men and women.



1. “A training paddock for future frontbenchers”: What is NUS and NUS NatCon?

The National Union of Students (NUS) is the national organising body for university unions and student representative councils in Australia. The University of Sydney is affiliated through the Student Representative Council (SRC), which pays an annual affiliation fee to the organisation.

During the Howard years, NUS opposed the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) through an influential anti-VSU campaign. In recent years, it has shifted its focus to lobbying for the retention of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF).

With notable alumni including Julia Gillard, Kate Ellis and Tony Abbott, the National Union of Students has played a large part in the student political landscape and provided a training paddock for future frontbenchers. From its conception, NUS has been dominated by Young Labor factions.

Other contemporary issues include continued support for queer students, women, as well as ethnically and culturally diverse students.

With notable alumni including Julia Gillard, Kate Ellis and Tony Abbott, the National Union of Students has played a large part in the student political landscape and provided a training paddock for future frontbenchers.

Every December, over 300 University students from states across Australia attend NUS’s National Conference, affectionately known as ‘NatCon’. Although the aim of the conference is to pass policy to guide the campaigns and operations of NUS and to elect the National Executive and Office Bearers over the following year, discussions are often highly political and have been known to disintegrate into sledging matches.


2. House of Cards, Writ Small and Unglamorously: Who has power at NUS NatCon?

In 2013 the balance of power of NUS shifted by the nationwide shellacking that National Labor Students (Labor Left) suffered, nowhere more evident than at former stronghold campuses like the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney.

Since 1992, NLS has allied with Student Unity (Labor Right) in what’s known as the ‘Sweetheart Deal’ to lock out other factions from attaining the top Office Bearer positions. The pair has been able to do this because their combined delegate count was comfortably above the 50+1 mark (the proportion of votes required to elect OBs).

Under this deal, NLS caucus would decide the President, while Unity got General Secretary. They also often divided the smaller OB positions between themselves, with NLS historically filling Women’s Officer and Unity determining Welfare Officer.

In 2013 the balance of power of NUS shifted by the nationwide shellacking that National Labor Students (Labor Left) suffered.

This year, however, with NLS’ delegate count crippled, the two Labor factions did not reach the 50+1 mark when deals were being made. Before NatCon began, 35% of delegates on conference floor were Unity, 14% were NLS, 16% were SAlt (Socialist Alternative, affectionately referred to as ‘the trots’ in non-revolutionary circles) and 18% were capital-I Independent. The rest of conference floor was comprised of Liberals and non-affiliated delegates.

These four main factions began negotiating for OB and Executive positions months before delegates flew to Melbourne for NatCon. Sources within NLS, SAlt and the Indies told Honi that for a time, there was the possibility of a leftist bloc emerging: an alliance of those three factions, which would divide the OB positions between themselves, effectively locking Unity out. For many delegates within those factions, this was the preferred option as it would “hand NUS back to the activists,” as one Indie delegate said.

In the end, however, NLS once again signed the Sweetheart Deal – this time giving Education Officer to SAlt in exchange for their support for an NLS President, Deanna Taylor, and Unity General Secretary, Isabelle Kingshott. There is some doubt as to whether Unity wanted to leverage their numerical advantage to gain the presidency. In any case, it seems that the faction’s negotiators likely had to offer the presidency away in order to stymie the possibility of a leftist bloc. Particularly for NLS, in addition to the prestige and power of the position being offered to them, the situation presented a prisoner’s dilemma: If they did not take the offer of the presidency from Unity, it was up for grabs for SAlt or the Indies. And so it was that the smallest of the four factions on conference floor walked away with the biggest prize of all.

At this point, Indie delegate votes were viewed as ‘top-ups’ on the three-way deal that had already been struck (which more than comfortably hit 50+1), and the Indies signed away their ballots for President, General Secretary, Education Officer and Welfare Officer in exchange for half of the Queer Officer portfolio and a better chance at getting the NSW State Presidency of NUS.

The election of the Queer Officers from the Indies and SAlt came at the cost of a collectively endorsed and autonomously pre-selected candidate for the position put forward by Queer Collaborations, the national representative conference for queer students. It was a move that was criticised by many. Sydney university student and outgoing SRC Queer Officer Fahad Ali commented that “it is appropriate for NUS delegates, if they truly intend to honour their duties and represent their constituencies, to take direction from the queer community on who they should elect to represent our community.”

A number of delegates from the University of Sydney were elected to executive positions on national and state levels. Hannah Smith (NLS, who ran under ‘ACTIVATE’ during last year’s SRC elections) was elected President of the NSW branch of NUS; Amy Knox (NLS, ‘ACTIVATE’) was elected Women’s Officer of the NSW branch; Jennifer Light (Unity, who ran under ‘STAND UP!’ during last year’s SRC elections) and Declan Waddell (Indies, who also ran under ‘ACTIVATE’ during last year’s SRC elections) were both elected to the National Executive of NUS.


Comic by Helen Xue (@hdxue)


3. The Nit, The Grit and The Shit: What happened over the four days of NUS NatCon?

NatCon is a four day conference; three days are allocated for policy discussions and decisions. Almost two days after policy debate was supposed to begin, policy debate actually began. “Unimpressive” is how one delegate described it to Honi. Farcical seems more fitting.

If quorum is not reached, delegates cannot proceed with debate and voting. When a certain faction doesn’t want to debate a certain issue, or doesn’t want to risk a vote on a particular policy, they order their delegates to leave conference floor.

After a prolonged registration period, the first day saw Student Unity pull quorum as education policy came up. In a move rumoured to protect their buddies in NLS, who had not yet discussed education policy in national caucus, Unity walked out of conference to cries of “shame” from SAlt.

The second day of NatCon saw violence towards women in Unity from SAlt, further delaying the start of debate. Current USyd SRC President and Unity delegate Jennifer Light told Honi that several Unity delegates were “traumatised” after being “intimidated and shoved” by certain members of SAlt. Finally, after Sarah Garnham, now the national Education Officer, offered an apology on behalf of SAlt, delegates came back to conference floor by late evening.

Unsurprisingly, debate was once again short-lived as NLS and SAlt pulled quorum again to block a vote on whether NUS should support the repeal of Parallel Import Restrictions, which are essentially targeted tariffs on university textbooks.

The second day of NatCon saw violence towards women in Unity from SAlt, further delaying the start of debate.

The final day of policy debate saw motions passed supporting a variety of campaigns, including a push to force universities to offer non-gender binary options on official records. Policy discussion also pertained to small and regional campuses, as well as Queer and Women-identifying students. Notably, environmental policy was not raised at all.

One of the more significant policies passed at the conference was the approval of an external audit of NUS. Despite the massive cuts that NUS suffered under VSU, it has not undergone any major restructuring. It is a national organisation running on a budget smaller than USyd SRC.

The audit will investigate how to strengthen the organisation, and the recommendations that come out of it will be debated and voted upon at the 2014 NatCon. Jennifer Light voted for the audit. She argued that the “audit into NUS is about planning ahead for the future of the student movement and considering how to be more effective advocates for students”.

It (NUS) is a national organisation running on a budget smaller than USyd SRC.

SAlt, however, opposed the audit of the NUS. Ridah Hassan, a University of Sydney delegate and member of SAlt, told Honi that there was two reasons for that opposition. First, “our national union should be student run, and the policy included the hiring of a “professional consulting agency””. Secondly, the advice an audit could provide would be centred around “cost effectiveness, business development opportunities and “realistic revisions”” which Hassan says “should have no place in a union.”

The events of the final day are usually set in signatures weeks beforehand. However, even a day of faction-controlled formalities was not totally devoid of action. Two NLS delegates from UTS – Allison Whittaker and Lucille Bonnano – left the faction after finding NLS too undemocratic and racially discriminatory.

Whittaker tweeted, “Left NLS. I love my comrades but I will not tolerate systemic and institutionalised undermining of marginalised ppl.” She told Honi, “It was a huge effort as a non-white member of NLS to achieve even the smallest access that was routinely granted to white members of caucus.”


4. Left’s Love’s Lost: implications of NUS NatCon for campus politics

The fallout from SAlt’s cooperation with Unity at a national level may sour the faction’s on-campus relationship with Grassroots, a coalition of ‘Broad Left’ students at Sydney University.

Although Grassroots members are not bound by caucus decisions – and thus, individuals’ views cannot wholly represent the faction – interviews with several members of Grassroots produced varied responses towards Socialist Alternative.

No Grassroots members who were interviewed registered surprise at the deal struck between Unity and SAlt. Indeed, several cited SAlt’s prior dealings with Unity, which have secured the faction one half of National Queer Officer.

Predictions as to Grassroots’ future working relationship with SAlt were, however, mixed. Clo Schofield, a member of Grassroots, mused that relationships centred on “ongoing campaigns like Queer rights and the pro-refugee movement” would likely continue unaffected.

“I’d hope we could continue to work with them constructively,” Nick Rowbotham, a member of the SRC Executive, told Honi, “but I sometimes doubt whether they’re really committed to working within, rather than against, the broad left.”

Hassan hit back at the accusations levelled at SAlt. She defended the choice to deal with Unity, as NLS signing the sweetheart deal “effectively ruled out a left-wing bloc forming a majority, and keeping Unity out was impossible.” She added that, “these criticisms are pretty hypocritical coming from the Grassroots Left”, and cited the 2012 SRC elections at USyd, where “Grassroots dealt with Unity and helped secure them Gen Sec of the SRC”.

“I sometimes doubt whether they’re (SAlt) really committed to working within, rather than against, the broad left.”

Not all members of Grassroots were as conciliatory as Rowbotham and Schofield. Mariana Podestá-Diverio, a General Secretary of the SRC, predicts that a “SALt/ Grassroots coalition, such as there was this past election, will not occur in 2014.” Podestá-Diverio remarked that this would be a result of myriad factors, not merely due to SAlt’s deal with Unity. She cited the “aggressive and hypersectarian nature of SAlt” as particularly relevant considerations for her assertion.

Podestá-Diverio, a former member of SAlt, further alleged that the faction merely viewed Grassroots as a “tool for political advancement,” and that SAlt would “probably dispense with us and any political relationship we have if a better opportunity arises.”

“Such is student politics,” she concluded.

Thanks to all the delegates who agreed to be interviewed for this piece and to Alisha Aitken-Radburn, who contributed reporting.

Correction: This article originally stated the National Queer Action Collective endorsed an autonomously selected Queer Officer candidate. The article has been updated to indicate that the autonomously selected candidate was endorsed by Queer Collaborations.

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