The National Conference (NatCon) for the National Union of Students took place this year at Federation University in Ballarat, Victoria. Honi went along, and made it back to tell the tale (we know, we’re surprised too).
The NUS is the peak representative body for undergraduate students across Australia, yet most have no knowledge of its existence and those that do have legitimate grounds for questioning its integrity, and asking what it actually does for students.
Debates at NatCon were broken into eight policy sessions focusing on different topics (such as Education, Women, Unions)., Things were delayed on the first day, meaning that no policy was discussed or voted on until after 7pm (the conference start time was 2pm).
Once the conference floor opened and speakers of all factions took to the microphone to accuse each other of wasting time, the tone was set for the rest of the conference.
All policy chapters are not created equal
Prior to NatCon, the outgoing General Secretary put together a 254 page policy book (plus other supplementary policies) to be discussed and voted on by the major factions present – National Labor Students (NLS), Student Unity, Socialist Alternative, and Grassroots/Independents – and the independents on the conference floor.
With only a limited amount of time on the conference floor to discuss policy, it was difficult to get through the entire policy book. Despite time being divided disproportionately every year, there was little foresight from the factions at the beginning of the week that this would indeed happen again, and no real structures in place to prevent it.
The policy chapter on education took upwards of five hours to get through, yet the queer and First Nations chapters were rushed on the last day of the conference, and the international chapter was voted on in only two blocs, with next to no discussion.
There were varying levels of respect and composure depending on the policy chapter being discussed. In both the Women’s and the First Nation’s chapters, the entire room behaved very politely to one another. In chapters such as Education, Welfare and LGBTI+, it was a completely different matter, with factions yelling, stomping, swearing and physically surrounding and intimidating each other. In policy areas where factions knew their behaviour impacted their legitimacy in speaking on the issue, they tended to remain respectful. These were generally also chapters where policy carried unopposed.
One of the most important policy points at NatCon this year was concerning the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), the way Australian universities have funded student unions since the enactment of Voluntary Student Unionism. Currently, there is no federal legislation which allocates a certain amount of SSAF to the NUS.
Although universities in Western Australia give 50% of their SSAF to student unions, this is not the case in the rest of the country, and it means that funding is a massive issue, which severely impacts the ability of the NUS to fulfil its function of fighting for students.
Incoming NUS President Molly Wilmott was one of the most vocal advocates of lobbying state governments to legislate compulsory student unions in universities as well as minimum 50% SSAF. Having limited funded means “we have less capacity to be organising against the university and against fucked administration,” she said.
Jews Against Fascism vs. Australasian Union of Jewish Students
One of the most contentious moments of the conference was discussion surrounding an amendment to ETHNO14: Fighting Anti-Semitism. The policy was moved by Hersha Kadkol and seconded by Vinil Kumar of SAlt, with an amendment made to change the second action point from: “NUS will actively campaign against far-right antisemitism, and support and publicise campaigns alongside the group “Jews Against Fascism”,” to also add “the group ‘The Australasian Union of Jewish Students’ (AUJS).”
AUJS then controversially moved to change this amendment in order to remove Jews Against Fascism from the policy altogether. This provoked anger from SAlt and the Grindies, not only because AUJS’ constitution lists its four pillars as Judaism, activism, pluralism and (the sticking point) Zionism, but because they saw it as a right-wing intervention to cut leftist Jewish organising out of the picture. The amendment to remove Jews Against Fascism passed solely from the support of Unity, arguing support of AUJS was needed in the fight against anti-semitism in universities. AUJS representatives who attended NatCon framed the conversation as a false dichotomy — either you support AUJS and Jewish students, or you support Jews Against Fascism and you don’t support Jewish students — meaning it was easy to see why Unity wouldn’t vote against the amendment, for fear of being branded anti-semitic (as SAlt was).
Labor, Labor, Labor
With the majority of the conference attendees being either Unity or NLS, there was a strong Labor energy throughout the entire conference which never waned. SAlt brought forward a few motions throughout the conference which demanded the NUS condemned the actions of the Labor Party. These were never successful. When these issues were brought up, Unity often responded with chants praising the ALP. One policy in particular called on the NUS to condemn the Christchurch massacre and stand in solidarity with the Muslim community. A SAlt speaker stated: “If you campaign for the Labor party, you spit on the grave of people who were killed by white supremacist terrorists.” Nicole (SAlt) also related the El Paso massacre to the Christchurch shootings and stated that Labor has had a “despicable role” in building the “confidence of far-right people around the world”.
Policy EDU35: ‘Why Labor lost the 2019 federal election’ was a controversial discussion.
In his speech, USYD Education Officer Jack Mansell (SAlt) called the Labor Party a “decrepit pile of shit” and said that there was no distinction between left and right. He was drowned out by Unity’s ALP chants.
“Racist, sexist, anti-queer…” chanted the room
At a conference dominated by ALP lovers and the left more broadly, Liberals were the minority, and a hated one at that. Two USyd Liberals, Laura Glase and Maia Edge, got up to speak against policies and were met with cries of hate that pretty much drowned out any opportunity to hear the arguments they were making. Laura spoke against Safe Schools, and Maia spoke against Mandatory Blood Testing for LGBTQI+ people. Despite the Liberals all voting against most motions in the queer chapter, including actions which supported queer collectives being activism-oriented and queer people feeling safe going to the bathroom at university, the rest of the floor voted for them, and they carried regardless. Anton Lukas, a Liberal from the University of Western Australia abstained or voted against most motions throughout the entire conference. We’re unsure why he bothered coming at all.
Grassroots/Independents (Grindies) and NLS had struck a deal to support each other’s nominations for Education Officer and Women’s Officer (respectively). However with the Grindies allegedly bailing on the deal, by Wednesday afternoon Unity’s Humaira Nasrin was elected to the Women’s Officer position unopposed. We reached out to Lincoln Aspinall, the Grindies member who was elected to the Education Officer position, for a comment but did not hear back. We did, however, receive this informative diagram of a rat by incoming USYD SRC Vice President Felix Faber (NLS).
Is it Sam? Is it Michael? Is it me?
Early on in the week, we reported on some uncertainty surrounding the role of Student Unity’s national convenorship. In short, Michael Iroeche (La Trobe), national convenor and NUS General Secretary over the past year, and Sam Roberts (Swinburne), 2020 General Secretary and NUS State President for Victoria in 2019, were involved in a two-month struggle for the position.
Unity National Convenor and NUS General Secretary are “tied” to each other, as a source told us. The ‘Gensec’ position has gone to a member of Unity for the last 13 years, with the last five all being from Victorian campuses. The struggle was apparently settled by the end of last weekend, and, contrary to the assumptions of many, did not result in the delaying of the conference’s first session.
It did, however, give rise to some amusing jabs from NLS, including Disability Officer Will Edwards saying that while Unity might be “50% Team Michael” and “50% Team Sam”, they were “100% Team Scab”. Ouch.
Student media backlash
On the third day of the conference Ali Amin, from the University of Adelaide (Unity) moved a motion against student media, who he likened to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. Molly Willmott (NLS) spoke for the motion too, criticising “a certain publication at the University of Sydney” for the “incredibly destructive” interference from editors asking for comment who are not even in the state and have “no idea what’s going on.” Honi thinks it’s ironic that a major part of this motion asked that speakers and faction members have right of response before publication, yet when we have reach out for comment, this is the response we receive.
Will Edwards (NLS) wasn’t nearly as subtle, using his time at the microphone to air all of his grievances with the 2019 Honi Soit editors. It’s clear he has some unresolved issues with our predecessors! Awkward!
Student media from Honi Soit, Farrago, the ANU Observer and Grok Magazine responded with a motion to be read to the floor, but Unity didn’t sign it because it wasn’t apologetic enough. Here it is anyway.
Your new exec
We’ve already named a few lucky individuals who will be national officer bearers for NUS this coming year. Here’s the full list:
National President: Molly Willmott (NLS)
Looks like we were spot on with our pick for this position. Molly was one of the more vocal members of NLS at this year’s conference, making sure to speak on several policies each day. In her nomination speech, she thanked the “powerful women” who have helped her along the way. This win will also see her hopping from one ‘president’ role to the next, having served as president of the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) this year. Following ex-nominee Jordan Mumford’s (Unity) speech in which he claimed he would be “the National President of the NUS for 2020”, Molly clarified that she, in fact, would be taking up that role. Glad we sorted that out.
National General Secretary/National Deputy President: Samuel Roberts (Unity)
Samuel came out on top of the Unity convenorship debacle. This was probably why he thanked Student Unity’s conventions in his speech – conventions which Iroeche had broken by allegedly making a deal with NSW in order to gain support. He also promised to reconfigure the current structure of the NUS, calling it “a relic of a pre-VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism) past”. It seems that he took no time embracing a leadership mentality, as a source informed us that he had told his faction on Day 1: “If a motion comes to extend to 11:30 then rip it up. I don’t care if anyone else in Unity has signed it, if I haven’t signed it then rip it up.”
National Education Officer: Lincoln Aspinall (Grassroots/Independents)
Lincoln was more or less at the center of NLS’ rodent-themed content which resulted from their broken deal with Grindies. His speech for his nomination was initially interrupted by rat noises, before NLS were told to be quiet. He went on to state that he would “restore confidence in our staff” and stressed the importance of an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere on campus.
National Welfare Officer: Ali Thabit Mohammad Amin (Unity)
Like his Unity pal Sam Roberts, Ali was also a member of NUS’ National Executive this year, serving as the State President for South Australia. In his speech, he vowed to work for students living below the poverty line, stating that it is “too easy to be complacent.” We can’t say that he was one of our biggest fans last week – one needs to look no further than his Twitter replies for evidence. He did say that we “improved significantly” throughout the conference, so it must have looked like we took his criticism on board.
National Small and Regional Campuses Officer: Kai Lachlan Donaldson (Unity)
If he wasn’t noteworthy earlier in the conference, Kai certainly made an impression after coming up to speak to his nomination while wearing an Akubra hat. He didn’t make himself too popular with SAlt after promising in his speech to meet with “Mr Adani” himself, (presumably Gautam Adani, founder of the Adani Group). Darcy Turner (SAlt), who withdrew his nomination, used his speaking time to condemn Kai and the rest of Unity for their joking demeanour, and his mention of his hometown currently “burning” was certainly a welcome wake-up call.
National Women’s Officer: Humaira Nasrin (Unity)
Certainly giving one of the more interesting nomination speeches, Humaira opened by saying she wished the position didn’t have to exist. Nonetheless, she promised to “fight so the women after us have it a little bit easier”. Like Will Edwards, Humaira also managed to escape exile from the floor. After being named three times and asked to leave during the first session of Day 3, Unity began chanting “Bring back Humaira” and “Pull the quorum”. You can’t knock the loyalty.
National Queer/LGBTI Officers: Natalie Acreman (SAlt) and Dashie Prasad (Grassroots/Independents)
Dashie, who recently spoke at and was involved in organising the Global Day for Climate Justice rally in Sydney in late November, was not actually at the conference, and instead had a speech delivered by proxy. In it, they warned that the attempts of the “right-wing media and government” to oppress and attack queer communites would be met with a “fighting force”, and stated “you will see radical organisation coming from me.” Dashie was also vocal in their support for the inclusion of all gender bathrooms at UTS earlier in the year.
Natalie also pointed to the Liberal government as one of an oppressive forces and vowed to harness “the righteous fury of young people” to mobilise behind the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights. Natalie was involved in setting up a “Students Say Yes to Marriage Equality” campaign at RMIT University in 2017, and has been a key figure in the fight against the religious discrimination bill in Melbourne.
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer: Kya Branch (Grassroots/Independents)
Throughout the conference, Kya Branch was a respected figure and key speaker on First Nation’s policy. Kya spoke about how lucky they are to come from Newscastle University, where there is a very high population of First Nation’s students. “We are a minority wherever we go in a post-colonial world,” They said. They brought attention to the fact that Aboriginal Australians are being killed, and Torres Strait Islander’s are being forced to leave their homes because of climate change. This year, the rights to the Aboriginal flag were sold to a private company. Kya promised to represent Indigenous students and campaign on some of these issues.
National Ethno-Cultural Officer: Vinil Kumar (SAlt)
One of the key talking points in many of SAlt’s speeches throughout the conference – partuclarly Wednesady night – was the climate rally in Sydney last week. Vinil’s speech was no exception, as he promised more rallies of the like and asked the other attendees “where will you be?” He noted that “where this oppression, there is resistance”, pointing towards multiple examples of this, such as in Palestine. And, just in case we forgot, he proudly declared that he was a socialist.
National International Students Officer: Ivanka Dishan Su (Unity)
Dishan has served as an international representative of the Deakin University Student Association. She said that her goal in 2020 is to, “enrich experience of international and local students, actively participate in activities that assist them with a smooth transition both physically and psychologically.” She said that she will fight for concession Opal cards and insurance and speak out against discrimination. “I hope through the work in 2020, NUS will bring more cross-cultural opportunities on campus and community programs,” she said.
National Disability Officer: Alex Loyd Leighton (Unity)
There was a bit of uncertainty regarding the election of this role. By the time voting had commenced, there were two remaining nominees: Tori Holliday (NLS) and Alex. However, the ballot results released by the NUS Secretariat deemed Tori “ineligible”, despite her seemingly having the vast majority of votes. It’s likely that this was due to a ruling made by NUS’ Accreditation Committee which denied the eligibility of candidates from non-accredited campuses, allowing Alex to be elected to the role.
Alex seems to have some grievances with Will Edwards, the previous bearer of this position, given that she criticised him for doing “jack fucking shit” in his time as an office bearer.