Welcome to Hell: 2019 NUS NatCon Explained

Unity dominates, NLS to pick up the presidency, and Grindies may take Education.

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The NUS National Conference (dis-affectionately known as NatCon) is the annual general meeting of the National Union of Students, the peak representative body for Australian undergraduate students. 

Each December Australian hacks congregate at obscure campuses to debate policy, raise motions, and, most importantly, elect its Executive and Office Bearers. Unsurprisingly, paid roles (the President, General Secretary, Education Officer, Welfare Officer, Womens Officer, Queer Officers) are highly sought after, but the National Executive, other non-paid office bearer roles and State President roles are prized by factions too.

Never heard of NUS? That’s perhaps not surprising. Despite its centrality to the 2014 campaign against university fee deregulation, and moments of prominence within the 2016-17 marriage equality campaign, the NUS has been criticised for its opaqueness, past financial mismanagement and the inaction of elected representatives.

Importantly, not all student unions are a part of the NUS. Notably, the ANU Student Association (ANUSA) has flirted with re-accreditation and disaccreditation over the past several years (finally electing to re-accredit this year). The University of Sydney SRC is affiliated, however, paying upwards of $60,000 to the NUS to support its projects and for the honour of sending seven of our finest hacks to argue with other aspiring politicians.

NatCon itself is notoriously opaque. Non-student media are barred, filming is routinely banned and unaffiliated observers are required to pay an exorbitant registration fee.

The Players

At its core, NatCon is a factional brawl for control of the NUS for the upcoming year. Control of the largest amount of delegates is important, but because quorum sits at only 50% relatively small factions can often delay debates until they get what they want. These are the players to watch out for.

Student Unity

Percentage of NUS Delegates: 51% (54% including controlled Liberal delegates)

Tipped to pick up: General Secretary

Student Unity (Labor Right) will dominate this year’s conference floor. Though the tallies of exactly how many delegates each faction controls is something of an insider’s secret, Honi has been told Unity delegates make up 51% of all NatCon delegates and will control 54% of delegates’ votes.

Unity has apparently picked up 8 Liberal-aligned delegates, including three Liberal delegates from USyd who will either be voting with or proxying their votes to Unity members.

Though Unity is now presenting a united front, it had been rumoured last week that Unity might split along the lines of the conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). 

The faction is notoriously disciplined however, so it’s perhaps not particularly surprising that the split hasn’t eventuated, or that Unity hasn’t talked to the press about it (though they’re always welcome to anonymously here). There’s always time for factional discipline to breakdown though.

Honi has previously reported rumours that the three Liberal delegates would proxy their votes to Unity this year in exchange for Unity’s support for a Liberal presidential candidate for SASS at its stacked AGM. But Honi can confirm that at least two Liberal delegates – James Ardouin and Laura Glase – are present at Ballarat NatCon, so may be voting themselves.

Last year, Unity and SAlt controversially use Liberal ballots in key votes for the elections of key executive positions, NLS condemning the practice (despite previously having used similar tactics at USyd).

National Labor Students (NLS)

Percentage of NUS Delegates: 17%

Tipped to pick up: President

Like Unity, NLS (Labor Left) is a nationally organised student Labor faction, that binds its members on votes at NatCon. 

In previous years it’s been relatively common to see NLS following Unity in a sweetheart deal, but Unity’s dominance this year means it doesn’t always need other factions support to pass motions. With only 17% of delegates, it seems it’ll find it more difficult to push through the motions it wants to see supported, or pick up important executive positions. 

But that’s less important than the fact that Molly Willmott of NLS, the outgoing president of the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), is tipped to be picking up the NUS Presidency. Labor Left has controlled the Presidency since 1987, including in 2017 when Unity also controlled an outright majority of delegates.

Socialist Alternative (SAlt)

Percentage of NUS Delegates Controlled: 12%

Tipped to pick up: Unclear

SAlt is the other large, organised faction on the NatCon floor, though is a revolutionary Troskyist faction. SAlt might be in a difficult spot, controlling the votes of only 12% of NatCon delegates. Though SAlt has previously picked up paid roles with a similar amount of delegates in the past, given a stronger showing of Grindies, that might prove difficult this year.

Grassroots Independents (Grindies)

Percentage of NUS Delegates Controlled: 15%

Tipped to pick up: National Education Officer

The Grassroots Independents, or Grindies, are a nominally progressive grouping that dominate UWA and ANU delegates. Unlike Unity, SAlt and NLS, Grindies do not bind on votes and are not a nationally organised unified faction.

The sticking point for Grindies over the past few years has been a desire to implement Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the work of the National Union of Students and its elected office bearers. 

Last year, an open letter signed by several prominent Grindies called for the enactment of NUS KPI’s, though the letter’s impact was quickly undermined after the UMSU President and USyd SRC President, Imogen Grant (Grassroots), told media they had not been consulted before their signatures were added to the letter.

This year, Lincoln Aspinall, an outgoing member of the NUS National Executive, and Conrad Hogg have proposed a motion to have the National Executive implement KPIs. A similar motion was unsuccessfully proposed last year, with the support of NLS.

KPI’s are likely to be controversial at this year’s proceedings, and are, frankly, unlikely to pass. NLS supported them last year, but SAlt and Unity have consistently opposed them. 

Controversially, Aspinall is tipped to be picking up National Education Officer – a position that usually goes to SAlt or NLS. That’s a significant improvement from previous years, where Grindies have previously held only unpaid positions and roles on the National Executive. 

Sydney, Represent

In Semester Two, USyd elected seven delegate running on Switch, Grassroots, Left Action (Socialist Alternative), Pump (National Labor Students), Boost (Liberals) and Unite (Labor Right).

But, predictably, only three factions will actually representing Sydney students: Unity (Labor Right), National Labor Students (Labor Left) and SAlt.

That’s because factions like Grassroots and Advance generally don’t send students to NatCon, trading away their branding for NUS elections prior to elections for electoral favours (like support of their presidential candidates). Liberals only recently started contesting NUS elections, but appear to have proxied their votes to Unity last year.

Disclaimer: Nina Dillon Britton is a member of Sydney Grassroots and is not affiliated with any national student political groups. Madeline Ward is a former member Sydney Grassoots and is not affiliated with any national student political groups.

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