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Dancing with the delegates – NUS NatCon 2021, explained

NatCon 2021 will run from December 13–15 with 20 universities attending across Australia. Here’s a breakdown of NUS, NatCon and what is expected to happen.

Have you been left with a stupol-shaped hole in your heart after September’s SRC Repselect? Are you yearning for some good old-fashioned yelling over zoom accompanied by swathes of not-so-sub-subtweets? Look no further than NUS NatCon 2021; where, on December 13-15, over 130 delegates from 20 universities across Australia come to duke it out on the political dance floor. 

What is NUS?

Following the collapse of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) in 1984, the National Union of Students (NUS) was founded in 1987 and is the peak representative body for tertiary students nation-wide.  

Functioning in both an activist and lobbyist capacity, affiliation of student unions with the NUS is optional — however, financial losses faced by many unions meant they could not afford to remain subscribed. Currently, there are twenty accredited universities, who pay hefty union fees for their affiliation. As of last year, USyd’s SRC paid over $75,000 in affiliation fees. 

The NUS is organised into State Branches and the National Executive. The executive of each state branch consists of a State President, a State Education Vice President, and NUS Campus Representatives who are elected by each university’s undergraduate student body, usually held concurrently with each institution’s SRC elections.  

The National Executive are responsible for the implementation of NUS policy and are tasked with overseeing NUS finances such as setting and delegating the budget. The current NUS President is Zoe Rangathanan of the National Labor Students faction (NLS, Labor Left), alongside General Secretary Param Mahal (Student Unity, Labor Right). 

The National Executive further consists of 9 Office Bearer positions: Education, Welfare, Women’s, Queer, Small and Regional, Ethnocultural, First Nations’, Disabilities and International, along with 12 General Executive Members. 

The National Conference

The National Conference (not-so-affectionately known as NatCon) is the NUS Annual General Meeting and, prior to COVID-19 times, is held in Victoria. Occurring in the second week of December, the three-day event hosts the debate and sets the agenda of the NUS policy platform for the following year. Operating similarly to the USyd SRC, delegates vote on motions which pass or fail, and the conference concludes with the election of the 2022 National Executive. 

The 2021 Conference will be held in a hybrid model of in-person state hubs and simultaneous live zoom meetings. This will likely revive a small margin of the in-person pandemonium that annually ensued at face-to-face NatCons, pre-Covid.

Each NUS-accredited university sends elected delegates on the behalf of their Student Union. The number of delegates sent is based on the number of students undertaking ‘equivalent full-time student loads,’ known as EFTSLs, at each university. Approximately, 5000 EFTSLs or less equates to 2-3 delegates, whereas 18 000 or more equates to a maximum of 7. Recent data from the Commonwealth Government, via NUS Accreditation Committee Report 2021.

However, not all delegates are made equal. At NatCon 2021, USyd’s 7 delegates equate to 66 votes, while Wollongong University’s 7 delegates are worth a mere 38 votes.  This year, the top three universities with the largest pool of votes are the University of Melbourne with 104, the University of New South Wales with 94 and RMIT University with 89.

This weighted system of vote allocation is somewhat responsible for the varying levels of politicisation at Australian universities. Political factions fight harder to obtain delegates at campuses which command more votes at NatCon, thereby producing increased political activity at universities where delegates are highly valuable. 

Over the coming days there will be much talk of  ‘the conference floor.’ This refers to the makeup of total votes that a faction holds; in other words, how many delegates they have across each attending University. 

In descending order of total delegates, the factional players at NatCon 2021 are: Student Unity, National Labor Students, Grassroots Independents, Socialist Alternative, and the Liberals. 

Student Unity

Share of total delegates: 44-46%*

Tipped to pick up: General Executive/ National Deputy President 

Historically, Student Unity has comprised the majority of NUS delegates and secured the most officer bearer positions on the national team. Despite describing themselves as a ‘progressive’ and ‘left wing’, the Labor Right faction have regularly worked with members of the Liberal Party, who often vote with, or proxy their votes to, Unity members. 

As in previous years, Student Unity swept up eight of twelve office bearer positions on the 2020-21 National Executive, including Welfare, Small and Regional Campuses, Women’s, First Nations’, Ethnocultural, International Students, and Disabilities Officers. This year will likely be no exception, with Unity occupying the lion share of the conference floor. Further, due to the long-running ‘sweetheart deal’ between Student Unity and NLS, the former has as typically held the General Executive/ National Deputy President position while NLS holds the presidency. However, Honi has been told that this year may present a controversial break in tradition, with UNSW’s outgoing SRC president Tom Kennedy speculated as being on the cards for next year’s NUS president role.

This year, two USyd Unity delegates have been elected: Matthew Carter, a former presidential candidate in this year’s SRC election, and Grace Hu. 

National Labor Students (NLS)

Share of total delegates: 20%*

Tipped to pick up: President 

National Labor Students, or NLS, is a broadly left wing faction that has controlled the NUS presidency since 1987 and traditionally held the second most delegates at NatCon behind Student Unity. It will likely be the third most prominent faction on the conference floor this year behind the Grindies like last year, with half the USyd delegates as Unity and the Grindies. While University of Newcastle Students’ Association president and NLS member Luka Harrison was tipped for the NUS presidency, Honi understands that this is no longer the case. NLS must choose another candidate before next week to maintain their presidential legacy. Its USyd delegate is current SRC Vice President Mikaela Pappou. 

Grassroots Independents (Grindies)

Share of total delegates: 22%*

Tipped to pick up: Education Officer, Queer Officer

The Grassroots Independents, or Grindies, is an allegedly progressive grouping that dominates UWA and ANU delegates. Nationwide, its members are mixed and not necessarily politically aligned, though it often aligns itself with the Greens (reflected by the Grassroots/Switch factional grouping at USyd).

The Grindies are the only group at NatCon that does not bind its members, meaning they are not committed to voting in the same way as decided in pre-caucus. This year, two Grassroots delegates have been elected at USyd, which is one more than last year and matches Unity’s numbers (with Socialist Alternative losing one of their spots from 2020). As in last year’s executive, the Grindies will likely pick up the positions of Education and Queer/ LGBTI Officer for the 2021-22 term, and continue to swell in overall prominence on the conference floor. 

The USyd delegates for Grassroots Independents are former SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu and Drew Beacom. 

Socialist Alternative (SAlt)

Share of total delegates: Unclear

Tipped to pick up: Unclear 

Socialist Alternative, or SAlt, is a revolutionary Trotskyist faction whose share of NUS delegates and office bearer positions has somewhat reduced in the last year. It did not secure any OB roles last year, with the Grindies and NLS scooping up Queer/ LGBTI Officer, and Student Unity securing Ethnocultural Officer, which were held by the faction in the previous year. This situation will likely repeat itself at this year’s NatCon, with SAlt holding around 11 percent* percent of the delegates in 2020. The faction is notorious for its rowdiness and heckling at the conference, though last year’s online format proved useful in alleviating lengthy speeches by SAlt members through the mute function. 

This year, Yasmine Johnson will be the sole delegate of USyd SAlt. 

*Delegate counts are projections only, based off available data and previous years

NatCon runs next week during the period December 13- 15. Follow Honi’s social media for live updates and wrap-ups of the conference. 

Disclaimer: Editor Zara Zadro is a current member of Switch, but does not represent their views.