Confused about all this talk of a National Conference of students? Wondering why anyone would eat a piece of paper? Questioning who the hell pays these people? In preparation for our ongoing NUS National Conference coverage, here are the basics…
Each year the National Union of Students (NUS) puts on three major national conferences: Presidents’ Summit (January), Education Conference (July) and the NUS National Conference, or NatCon (December). These conferences attract students from all across the country, with most major universities represented.
But wait, first…
What is the National Union of Students?
Put simply, the NUS is the peak representative body for university students in Australia. It operates through a National Executive and multiple State Branches (though the state branches are, broadly speaking, inactive).
This national body is made up of multiple Office Bearer positions, filled by student politicians (* denotes a paid position):
President*, General Secretary*, Education Officer*, Welfare Officer*, Womens Officer*, two Queer Officers*, Ethno-Cultural Officer, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer, Disabilities Officer, Environment Officer, Small and Regional Officer and the International Students Officer.
These positions, plus the State Presidents and 12 General Members, make up the National Executive, who is charged with governing the NUS and its activities between conferences.
It’s important to remember that, like most things in student politics, these positions are highly factional. Due to a long-running “sweetheart deal” between the National Labor Students (NLS, Labor Left) and Student Unity (Labor Right), the Presidency has been held by a member of the NLS each year since the organisation’s inception in 1987, while Unity has controlled the important General Secretary position every year bar one. Not surprisingly, NLS and Unity are the most represented factions at NatCon.
What does it try to do?
According to the NUS website, their mission is to “protect and advance the rights and interests of undergraduate students.” Their specific objectives are outlined in the NUS Constitution, but, frustratingly, remain as vague and subjective as the NUS’ general mission.
Even the delegates seem confused about its purpose, with frequent clashes over whether NUS should focus on grassroots activism or direct government lobbying.
Why should I care?
Because you pay for it. The Sydney University SRC, which receives a portion of the SSAF fee paid by all undergraduate students at the University, chipped in $63,000 to the NUS last year—and that’s excluding travel costs and registration fees for conferences. The NUS is funded by most other major universities too, so its budget is substantial. It’s especially large in the context of student organisations that get by on wafer thin SSAF fees but also have to fund lawyers and caseworkers for struggling students.
The NUS is also in a uniquely powerful position. Most of the issues that concern students on one campus also concern students on campuses across the country—housing affordability, mental health, and discrimination, for example. As the national union, the NUS is well-placed to advocate for students’ interests, but it has often been an ineffective voice. So, it’s worth considering who controls the student population’s loudest megaphone.
Ok, but what is this conference?
The National Conference is the largest and most important gathering of the NUS. It’s attended by well over a hundred people and determines NUS policy for the forthcoming year.
Aside from policy discussion, executive positions for the following year are also elected at the Conference. The people who hold many of these offices will be paid a full time salary and get a significant line on their CV for any future political careers. Outgoing executive members will report back on their last year in the job – theoretically, an accountability mechanism. This year, the conference is in Geelong from 12 to 16 December.
What’s on the (non-existent) agenda?
Despite being an annual event with huge institutional knowledge, NatCon does not run to a public agenda.
Instead, a business committee (BizComm) is voted in at the start of the Conference. BizComm then determines what will be discussed out of all of the motions that are pre-submitted and compiled into enormous policy books (40 pages of motions is not uncommon). However, candidates are typically voted on to BizComm along factional lines.
This process results in outrageous tactics being used to prevent discussion of certain motions. As motions are submitted on pieces of paper, BizComm members have, in the past, torn up, sat on and literally eaten motions.
What will go down?
In the same way that meeting a friend’s parents can give you an insight into their character, seeing the behaviour of student politicians at NatCon helps to explain the skulduggery of state and federal politics.
Conference proceedings routinely do not start until the early evening, often because the faction heads have decided that everyone is too hungover from the night before to get in before the PM. Consequently, topics like women’s policy are often not debated until after midnight. Last year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy was left until after 1am. Hardly respectful.
To remain quorate, 50 per cent of delegates need to be present. This is simple enough, but 50 per cent of votes also need to be present. Because votes can be proxied, a handful of people leaving the venue can force the conference to stop and wait. In past years, violent confrontations have occurred when one faction has attempted to stop another from leaving the conference room by physically barring the exits.
Policies that are debated are often a reflection of internal political divisions within the Labor party, as evidenced by delegates chanting the names of their respective right and left leaning unions.
A hardcore drinking culture, bitter interpersonal rivalries and underhanded double dealing are also present in swathes.
To follow our ongoing #NUSNatCon coverage click here.
Thanks to Cameron Caccamo whose insider knowledge was incredibly helpful in putting together this explainer.