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Christmas comes early: National Union of Students national conference wrap up

The revelation that the organisation’s finances had been misrepresented to successive General Secretaries brought to an end a tumultuous week at the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference last week. NUS is made up of campus organisations from around the country, including the Sydney University’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC). NUS affiliates pay annual fees to…

Nation Union of Students logo on fire Flames added electronically by channel.

The revelation that the organisation’s finances had been misrepresented to successive General Secretaries brought to an end a tumultuous week at the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference last week.

NUS is made up of campus organisations from around the country, including the Sydney University’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC). NUS affiliates pay annual fees to the organisation. Sydney’s 2014 SRC paid $62,000, and the 2015 SRC is set to pay $72,000. Additionally, the SRC spends $20,000 or so every year to send seven student delegates to the National Conference in Melbourne.

This year’s conference opened with immediate controversy, as Sydney’s Liam Carrigan, a conference observer from Grassroots Left, suggested decreasing SRC funding for NUS in favour of campus-based activism and support services. Kyol Blakeney, President of the SRC, later reiterated the commitment, but he, like Carrigan, was met with vitriolic outrage and chants of “scab”. Socialist Alternative’s Sarah Garnham explained the accusation saying, “no matter how rotten the organisation is, threatening to defund it is scab politics.”

“Call me a scab all you like.” responded Blakeney, “I’m going to stand over there on my moral high ground and fight for my people.” As the week continued so too did the insults, culminating in a chant led by USU board director and Student Unity (Labor right) member Robby Magyar of “die, die Switchroots fucking die.”

“I was a target,” said Cameron Caccamo, a member of a network known as the National Independents. “On two separate occasions, one by Unity alone, another time by both Labor factions, the chant ‘F*** off Caccamo’ was sung.”

“I was called a scab by members of all three major factions, either for exercising my vote in the manner I desired, or for the group I chose to associate with. I never felt like I was able to speak, or do anything other than sit on conference floor surrounded by my associates, out of fear.”

Nevertheless, Student Unity were also to become the focus of vitriolic criticism, following the faction’s nomination of Michael Bezuidenhout, a white South African, for the position of National Ethnocultural Officer. Members of Sydney’s Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) and members of several other autonomous groups denounced the preselection as a rejection of the autonomy of the role. During Bezuidenhout’s candidate speech, in which he acknowledged some of the controversy surrounding his preselection, members of Socialist Alternative and the Grassroots Left turned their backs and chanted: “say it loud, say it clear, racists are not welcome here.”

Bezuidenhout won the ballot.

National Labor Students similarly found itself to be a target of criticism when Josh Rebolledo of UTS, moved a disabilities policy item that called for rallies endorsed by NUS to be “more accessible.” Amongst those actions described as “inaccessible” were long routes, stairs, and effigy burning. Socialist Alternative saw the latter as a pointed attack on activist militancy, and in particular the burning of an effigy of Christopher Pyne at a recent National Day of Action.

Such controversies are not new, and are often seen as part of the furniture of student politics and NUS. This conference, however, exposed a hint of something far more significant than mere name-calling.

In the aftermath of a structural audit that identified severe financial woes for the organization and identified need for significant cost savings, including the removal of pay for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer, Disabilities Officer, and International Student Officer, the 2014 General Secretary Isabelle Kingshott of Student Unity rose to address conference floor and announced that the past three General Secretaries, who had reported budget surpluses, had “lied”.

Those General Secretaries, Todd Pinkerton, Jon Barlow, and Patrick Sheehan, all Student Unity, had each reported surpluses to previous sittings of National Conference, Kingshott however said that the NUS was in fact in deficit in those years.

Previously, neither Kingshot nor the other members of Student Unity who this reporter contacted were willing to go on the record about the reason for the deception. A number of sources within the faction who declined to be named did however confirm her comments. Several of the sources claimed there was a “good reason” for the deception, with two indicating that misconduct by a senior staff member of NUS played a part. Honi has been unable to identify the staff member, but understands they are no longer employed by the Union. Honi’s repeated attempts to investigate further were stymied by claims that legal obligations prohibited any further disclosure of where student money went. Upon the publication of this article Pinkerton told Honi that the reason for the misreported surpluses was that the financial reports provided to him and other General Secretaries by NUS’ auditors had shown surpluses in error.

The revelation emerges at a critical juncture for the organisation. It is confronted by severely depleted cash reserves and this year alone ran a deficit of about $65,000. In the aftermath of Voluntary Student Unionism, affiliation fees are being lowered and organisations are disaffiliating at a growing rate. In his candidate speech Tom Nock of Student Unity, the General Secretary elect declared, “the next few years for NUS are all about survival.”

Proponents of NUS argue it supports small and regional campuses, providing them a network and extending information and campaign resources. They argue that the larger, well-resourced campuses can sustain the organisation. They further argue that the organisation allows for coordinated campaigns in the student interest, as well as lobbying efforts on a national level. Additionally,  NUS is said to facilitate useful policy debate that informs the student movement more generally.

Others counter that the organisation does nothing to support small and regional campuses beyond occasionally flying in paid office bearers. They criticise the generic campaign strategies that often reflect the ALP’s control of the organisation, claiming they seldom provide campus activists anything other than printed materials, endorsement, and a prescribed date for a rally. Above all, they view the organisation as a rung in the career ladder for future party hacks.

The debate over NUS affiliation is one that Sydney University will have in the coming year, with tensions between the Labor factions, Socialist Alternative, and their Grassroots and Independent adversaries likely to play out in the freshly elected SRC. This will occur even as students seek the best way to oppose the Federal Government’s imminent second push for fee deregulation. In one of its darkest hours, the great debate over NUS has never been more relevant.

Ed McMahon is a member of Grassroots Left but attended NUS as a reporter for Honi Soit.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story reported that previous financial reports had shown deficits, that was incorrect. Todd Pinkerton has since told Honi that NUS’ auditors had reported surpluses to him and to other General Secretaries. It further implied that Socialist Alternative member Declan Murphy spoke against Josh Robolledo’s disabilities policy item, this did not happen.