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NatCon Day 3: Wrapped

The final day of NatCon concluded with heated debate around the police, university management, and the CISA. Statements from outgoing OBs and candidates for the 2022 term tied up the three day marathon of the NUS’s National Conference— and boy are we glad.

Ethnocultural Chapter

In typical Unity fashion, the Ethnocultural chapter discussions kicked off with Unity-led motions to clarify existing NUS policy. Unity headkicker Emily Sagolj (once again) criticised the “chunkiness” of policy wording and pushed for greater conciseness in the NUS’ policy platform.

Two motions regarding the NUS’ stance on protecting refugees and migrants from deportation to danger were moved en bloc by Socialist Alternative (SAlt). A SAlt speaker criticised the Labor factions for their lack of “strategy” on the ongoing refugee crisis. The motion passed with little controversy.

However, floor discussions heated up after outgoing NUS General Secretary Param Mahal (Unity) moved two motions that would “broaden the language” and remove specific references to the dispossession of Palestinians from the NUS’ policy platform.

“This motion [Motion 2.124] will allow the NUS to talk about every single genocide as it happens,” Mahal said. “You cannot raise a hundred [genocides] here, but this amendment captures all of them.”

The loudest voices in opposition predictably came from SAlt. Owen Marsden-Readford (USyd) called it an “all lives matter motion”.

“Having that really fucking broad position covers for the Labor party and their shit politics,” said another SAlt speaker from the University of Wollongong (UOW). “It’s pretty fucking appalling.”

Although both motions passed, the heckling prompted the floor to jump to two urgency motions regarding the NUS’ stance on solidarity with Palestine and recognising the Armenian genocide, both moved by Unity.

Nour Al Hammouri (UTS, Unity) criticised SAlt for speaking over Palestinians, whilst Mahal encouraged SAlt hecklers to “actually talk” to students affected by these issues before speaking against these motions.

In spite of all the yelling, both urgency motions passed unanimously.

Small and Regional Chapter

Motions in the Small and Regional chapter were passed with little controversy. These included a motion to support regional students moved by Grassroots Independents (Grindies) speaker Chris Hall, who said that promoting collaboration between regional and metropolitan campuses was “integral” for student cohesion.

There were also discussions on the impacts of climate change on the regions and the importance of improving the living standard for regional students. Bridge Truell (Grindies) read out a statement from regional delegate Madison Ainsworth (also Grindies), who wrote about the “mental health” effects of being in a climate emergency.

“There’s so much apathy on climate change,” said Hall. “If you’re gonna sit behind your laptop and like a Facebook post, it’s not doing anything.”

This sentiment was echoed by USyd SRC President Lauren Lancaster (Grindies), who called for a stronger NUS strategy to tackle the climate crisis, and SAlt speaker Rory Gee (LaTrobe) who pushed for state-based climate collectives.

Urgency Motions

After an initially chaotic return from break, the second session of the day began and the conference moved on to passing urgency motions. A motion to “recognise all Vice-Chancellors as public enemies to higher education” was met with fierce debate, with Grassroots and Socialist Alternative speaking to the importance of attributing blame to those responsible in uni management. 

After seconding a failed amendment to remove the ‘public enemies’ wording, Unity speaker Emily Sagolj (Deakin) spoke against the motion. Fighting through heckling, Sagolj cited her successes at Deakin and made an impassioned argument that despite wanting to fight the “hierarchical structure that fucks up students,” calling VCs public enemies undermines the ability of students to negotiate with higher-ups.

The motion carried despite Unity voting against it.

Grindies moved a motion to recognise that trans rights are workers rights as well as for the NUS to support rights for transition leave, speaking to the importance of social and economic liberation for trans workers. The motion carried unanimously.

Shortly thereafter, NLS successfully moved a motion to implement a third gender option (‘X’) for all forms of student identification. Motion 4.10 for the NUS to affirm the Darlington Statement on intersex rights was also moved by NLS, with delegates speaking to its importance and saying that ‘there’s a reason we include the I in LGBTQI.’ 

Despite protests from Unity, a motion to condemn the Religious Discrimination Bill successfully passed including wording that condemned the ALP’s inaction.

A motion condemning the Victorian Police for holding an  ‘LGBTQIA+ community town hall event’ stirred the conference floor. This comes in the wake of findings from the Victorian Pride Lobby that most LGBTQIA+ Australians do not trust the police. After a failed amendment from Unity to remove an action point, SAlt and NLS defended the motion. 

NLS seconder Jye Langley said that “this event is about making cops feel good about themselves and will not improve the lives of queer individuals,” whilst SAlt member Shirley Killen argued that “we need to be clear that cops have never and will never be friends of queer people. To suggest that there can be some reconciliation is a joke.”

In contrast, Unity member and RMIT Vocational Education Officer Sheldon Gait spoke against the motion, arguing that “there are countries not so far from here where gay people are executed,” and that the safety of queer people in Australia can be attributed to police. After a continued defence which he jokingly attributed to ‘liking a man in uniform’, Gait was booed and the motion carried.

The Conference soon turned to consider disaffiliating and withdrawing itself from its partnership with CISA (Council of International Students Australia). CISA purports to be the peak organisation representing international students at the federal level. The body is mired in chaos as one of its former Presidents resigned mid-term in 2020 and recently elected controversial former Adelaide University SRC President Oscar Ong as its National President.

General Secretary Param Mahal (Unity) spoke to the motion, arguing that the partnership was unfruitful and proposed the creation of a new peak organisation to advocate for international students in lieu of CISA. 

Another delegate described CISA as “really bad crap”. The partnership originally emerged out of institutional reforms in 2017 following years-long (and existing) concerns that the NUS was fading into terminal irrelevance. Adelaide University’s Ana Obradovic (SAlt) stood against the motion.

Obradovic’s opposition to the motion is odd given that CISA’s President Oscar Ong has a fraught relationship with the left-bloc at Adelaide University. Ong is known for supporting a pro-life club, banning Adelaide SRC activists from endorsing NUS campaigns, ignoring WoCo’s autonomy and censoring activists on multiple occasions. Despite this, the proposal passed resoundingly, putting an end to the 5-years partnership between CISA and the NUS. 

Office Bearer Statements

Outgoing NUS President Zoe Ranganathan tearfully addressed the conference floor as the third and final day of NatCon drew to a close. She said that the presidential role is “not flashy” or “feel-good,” and “this year hasn’t been perfect”, speaking to the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on students. She commended the NUS’s achievements across the board this year, including the extension of grad visas, campaigning to lower the age of independence for Youth Allowance, the media exposure of Peter Hoj’s mismanagement of sexual assault, and recording an annual surplus. The crowd (mostly NLS) erupted into a song of “We love Zoe” as Ranganathan thanked her partner Molly Willmott, the National Exec, and the women of NLS for their support; “good luck and I hope I have done you proud.” 

Statements continued with GenSec Param Mahal thanking the floor for supporting its first international student in the role this year. Education Officer Chris Hall, Welfare Officer Arabella Wauchope, and Women’s Officer Georgette Mouawad followed Mahal, acknowledging various other campaigns led and supported by the NUS in 2021. These included the End Rape on Campus campaign, and partnering with School Strike for Climate.

In the face of an upcoming federal election, Queer/ LGBTQIA+ Officers Emily Boyce and Bridge Truell raised the need for continued support for the NUS’ long-running campaign against Mark Latham’s “fucked up” Parental Freedoms Bill and Christian Porter’s Religious Discrimination Bill. These would ban schools accommodating gender diverse students, and permit LGBTQIA+ discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs in certain areas of public life respectively.

In their parting statement, Disabilities Officer Kit Sanders deplored the continued erasure of people with disabilities from minority discussions: “Despite what one faction would have you believe, disabilities are not a secondary issue.” They also thanked RMIT for making disabilities a priority from the start of the year and reaching out. 

Finally, International Officer Varun Kale said more work must be done for student representation in the CISA, adding international students are “as important as everyone else.” He said that the extension of grad VISAs was the “biggest win” for international students this year, noting that today the first flight of international students landed in Australia since the pandemic closed its borders. 

After this, the floor was briefly opened for questions and SAlt predictably grandstanded on the irrelevance of the NUS, a talking point the faction has laboured throughout the conference. Following a pithy response from Zoe (“I’m not sure what the question was there”), the Trots abruptly exited the Zoom chat and someone “brought out the bubbles,” (Honi is yet to confirm whether this was champagne or not).

Curtin’s Women’s Officer and Unity delegate Cassidy Pemberton also critiqued the efficacy of out-going Women’s Officer Mouawad, which was disputed as an “unnecessary” discussion in the Zoom chat. 

Candidate Statements

The candidates for 2022’s National OBs spoke in order of faction. First up was NLS’ Georgina Beatty, hailing from LaTrobe, who is running to be the next NUS President. Beatty spoke at length about student unions’ “proud history” of speaking out about social issues and argued that “the fight of our generation is climate change.” She emphasised the need to fight the Liberals at the upcoming Federal election, saying they would be reelected “over my dead body” and identified education activism as a priority for the coming year. “We have a parliament that is fundamentally against students,” she said. Beatty thanked NLS and especially previous NLS Presidents, before being passed the Chair by an emotional Zoe Rangathanan.

NLS Swinburne member Georgie McDaid ran for Disabilities Officer, offering a moving reflection on her own experience as a wheelchair user, NDIS recipient, and coming from a low-SES background. McDaid spoke out about the need to improve the NDIS as well as course cuts to the Humanities. She also thanked NLS for supporting her.

Jordy, NLS’ candidate for Queer Officer, discussed the need for “activism and advocacy” on queer issues and committed to working with campus queer collectives around the country. They also aimed to fight back against the Liberal government and continue key NUS campaigns on queer issues. 

Zebediah Cruikshank, an NLS member from UTS, ran for Indigenous Officer, speaking briefly about the need for the NUS to be active on First Nations issues. Luc Javier-Velez, representing Grassroots at UNSW, ran for Education Officer, speaking powerfully about the need for a “fighting” student union to combat the government’s attacks on higher education. He identified “free, liberatory education for all” as a priority, along with a campaign for the return of compulsory student unionism. 

Student Unity Presidential candidate Beatrice spoke about the need for fun student unions that provide “beer, bands and barbecues”. She threw in a thank you to the ‘Holy Trinity’: SDA, ALP, NDAs. 

Emily Sagolj (Deakin, Unity) ran for General Secretary, reflecting on the successes of student unions over the last two years but calling for “revitalisation.” She told the conference that students need to do more than just activism, arguing in favour of more events and outreach. She also called staff and course cuts “fucking ridiculous” and called for the election of a Labor government.

Unity’s Billy Zimmerman (Adelaide University) ran for Welfare Officer, speaking about the need to tackle wage theft and raise Youth Allowance: “We need to see all parties make commitments on how they will relieve the struggles people are facing all around the country.” Zimmerman thanked his predecessors and promised to work hard to fill their shoes.

Jac (UNSW), Unity’s candidate for Women’s Officer, promised to include gender diverse students in her advocacy and continue the End Rape on Campus campaign.

Jonathan De La Pena (Deakin), Unity’s candidate for the Small and Regional Portfolio, discussed the challenges facing regional students during COVID, including a lack of social connection.

Liam (Unity, Deakin) embarked on an eye roll-worthy speech about free education “through the public library system,” where he offered to personally read to students. 

The exodus of the Trots meant no SAlt members were present to nominate, but USyd’s Mikaela Pappou (NLS) said something about the SDA to cackles (Hi Oscar) from the NSW Hub.

This semi-coherent moment concluded the 34th National Conference of the NUS, with Zoe declaring it officially closed at 4.42pm.

And that also concludes Honi’s live coverage of 2021 NatCon! Keep an eye out for our post- conference analysis to come, and thanks for following along.