I take the long way home after EdCon Day 3. Radio up, aircon cold, trying not to scowl involuntarily at my fellow commuters. Heathcote Road closed — fuck me! Frankly, my post-EdCon soul felt withered and worse for wear.
The combined decibel levels (high) and intellectual dishonesty (even higher) of the last three days had eaten away at me. As one befuddled first-time NLS attendee asked: “What the fuck?” One thing I’ll grant the Conference is it certainly made me feel smart.
Perhaps luckily for me, I dodged the fraught plenaries Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, as they were later described to me variously as “cooked”, “fucked” and “miserable.”
The evening plenary saw SAlt and Unity engage in acrimonious clashes over international student activism: Unity speakers described having had friends killed in revolutions and the factions approached a physical altercation. The morning’s discussion of climate politics saw the panelist, former USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat heckled by SAlt, who questioned Wilkins-Wheat’s activist credentials.
Green Bans and climate activism
USyd Environment Officers Ishbel Dunsmore (Grassroots) and Angus Dermody (Solidarity) led a session discussing the legacy of the Builders Labourers Federation’s Green Bans throughout the 1970s, which involved construction workers withdrawing their labour to protect Sydney’s cultural and environmental heritage and demand progressive social change.
“It’s not just some inspiring story from the 70s, it’s actually a blueprint for climate organising right now… we need to be unfaltering in our call for a just transition,” said Dermody.
The speakers highlighted the importance of challenging anti-strike and anti-protest laws which constrain the capacity of unions and activists to strike over social and environmental issues.
Solidarity’s Jordi Pardoel added that environmental and social wellbeing are inextricable: “we have to be able to live in a place that we enjoy.”
SAlt speakers used the talk to continue to prosecute the case against an Accord between university staff and management, arguing that the Hawke Government’s Prices and Incomes Accord had eroded the ability for unions to be militant.
“We can’t collaborate with our enemy,” said Owen Marsden-Readford.
The talk concluded with interjections from Unity members about “beach houses” and BLF corruption.
What’s left of the Labor Left?
This workshop was led by USyd SAlt’s Yasmine Johnson, who argued that “Labor have failed to present working class people with any serious left wing alternative” due to the impotence of Labor Left.
“There have been, at times, a current of actual radicalism in the Labor Party,” Johnson said, “This is a far cry from the Labor Left that exists today.”
USyd SRC Vice President and NLS headkicker Mikaela Pappou was, as ever, ready to be drawn into the fray. “Socialist Alternative don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” she said.
She took aim at SAlt for “only supporting trade unions when you agree with them.”
“The difference between NLS and SAlt — it’s not that you have a strategy because, if you did, we would have had a revolution already — it’s that we’re not scabs!”
NUS President Georgie Beatty weighed in too, arguing that NLS was engaging practically with the Labor Party: “We believe that the best mechanism for change is the ALP!”
“Do you want to know what socialism looks like? It looks like these people right here… we’re the progressive ones, we’re the ones that are doing the actual fight,” Beatty said, to interjections from Unity.
Unity headkicker Guleid Abdullahi responded with: “I want to just make it clear to Georgie Beatty that Unity elected more POC than NLS did.”
Abdullahi added that “The reason Unity is in the room… is to make sure NLS don’t become SAlt… We keep you in the right spaces.”
USyd Education Officer Lia Perkins (Grassroots) entered the discussion by pointing out Labor politicians had not attended the USyd NTEU strikes, but was shouted down by the Labor factions. Fellow Grindie Luc Velez, who is the NUS Education Officer, backed her up, saying, “When USyd was on strike, in Tanya Plibersek’s own electorate, she did not come out to support the striking University staff”.
This contribution birthed two separate (and sonically competing) furores.
Unity speakers seized upon Perkins’ observation that Labor politicians hadn’t posted about attending the strikes on social media: “They were there when transport workers went on strike… they didn’t fucking post on social media.”
Perkins’ attempts to clarify that she had been pointing to a failure to attend some strikes altogether were drowned out by cheers from Unity, with one attendee yelling “There’s more to fighting for workers rights than taking to the streets”.
Amid this kerfuffle, SAlt targeted Velez, demanding that he commit to boycotting any process towards producing a University Accord and publicly denounce the Accord. This produced several minutes of bizarre semantic discussion over what constituted a press release — but Velez did commit to Honi that he would not be participating in the Accord negotiations and he disagreed with Accords as a political tool.
SAlt turned the Accord interrogation to NLS, asking whether they agreed with the strategy.
Pappou refused to be drawn into making a commitment, claiming: “The Accord is in the abstract.”
SAlt’s Simon Upitis responded by quoting a speech from Tanya Plibersek, which described the prospective Accord as “a partnership between universities and staff, unions and business, students and parents, and, ideally, Labor and Liberal”.
Pappou maintained there was nothing more to be said: “Eric will respond to your stupid question.. When there is an actual accord policy, then we will review it.”
With further pushing from SAlt, she continued: “You’ve been given an answer. You will not get an explanation of the answer. And I hope you hear it very clearly – write it down with your little pen. Currently there is no accord.”
Undeterred, SAlt asked whether it was, in principle, possible to reconcile university management and students, but could still not extract a clear answer, with Pappou maintaining this was just a rewording of the previous demand.
The power of radical student media
After the hubbub of the previous session, it was a relief to relax into my definitive favourite workshop of EdCon — a talk on the importance of radical student media delivered by Honi’s own Roisin Murphy (I’m obviously impartial here).
Murphy explained that student media is an imperative response to the right-wing mainstream media in Australia, adding that student media plays an important role in shaping campus politics: “Students in Australia are often seen as being a decade ahead of the mainstream… and that is because of the student papers that we have on our campus.”
Drawing on examples from the anti-Vietnam War movement to the recent campaign to reopen Fisher Rooftop, the presentation discussed the multifaceted strengths of student media, both to “break boundaries” and “to be a really cool archive… you don’t know the sort of impact that writing an article could have in 40 or 50 years.”
Audience questions touched on how to combat apolitical editorial directions within student media, with Luc Velez arguing that “[student media] is not an apolitical or off-on-the-side thing… the editors should be participants in the student movement.”
Cherish Kuehlmann, a SAlt member from UNSW, said that management at UNSW “know that they can just impose orders on the student union… ARC don’t allow you to publish heaps of criticism about management.”
ANU’s Grace Hill echoed the sentiment, saying that “you can’t disconnect apolitical student media from apolitical student unions.”
USyd SRC President Lauren Lancaster reflected on the recent pay rise given to Honi editors, suggesting that “a left-wing union has a patent impact on the ability of student media to be above water.”
Student poverty: A clusterfuck of Government design
The last workshop of the third day was ‘Student poverty: A clusterfuck of Government design’. I knew it would be fun when literally every faction piled into the room, primed and ready to unleash whatever arguments they had left.
Beatty opened the workshop by announcing “welcome to student poverty”, something most of the room did not, in fact, need welcoming to.
While “Jesus’ iPhone” continued to AirDrop outdated memes to whichever uninitiated souls had left their Bluetooth on, Kelly Fawcett from the Foundation for Young Australians shared a story from a student she’d recently met. The individual is a 23-year-old former full-time student, she said, who applied for Centrelink at 18 due to a family violence situation.
Fawcett explained that Centrelink required confirmation of this to prove independence (a necessary step to receiving Youth Allowance), so they offered to call the person’s home, in order to confirm that family violence was occurring.
According to 2013 statistics, two thirds of students are in poverty – this number is expected to have grown. Meanwhile, the daily rate of Youth Allowance is less than half the poverty line, and remains less than what those on JobSeeker receive, something Fawcett described as “aged based discrimination”.
Beatty added that more than 12 per cent of students had caregiver duties, and that their ability to perform them was impacted by not receiving Youth Allowance payments.
Beatty also emphasised that the Albanese Labor Government could be raising Youth Allowance and youth wages, saying “student poverty is so embedded in our lives… however it could be fixed if we had a Government who cared enough and did the hard things”.
NUS Welfare Officer Billy Zimmermann discussed the nuanced reality of experiencing student poverty, focusing on the normalisation of the “student diet”.
“Skipping meals, or nutritious meals, or culturally appropriate meals, is often the first thing to go”, Zimmermann said. When asked if anyone had ever skipped a meal to pay for other expenses, more than half the room raised their hand.
At some point, members of Socialist Alternative began disrupting the workshop and the room erupted into chaos.
Honi tuned back in when SA member Emma Dynes, wearing a White Australia has a Black history hoodie, described the Black Panther Party as a “stupid charity”. How the conversation got there remains unclear.
Beatty and Zimmermann spoke about the NUS’ campaigns to lower the age of Centrelink independence, claiming that while lobbying in Canberra, they’d received support from some key Labor MPs on lowering the threshold to 18 from 22. Beatty noted that NUS won their campaign to lower it to 22 from 25, last time that Labor was in Government.
Simon Upitis, a member of Socialist Alternative, expressed opposition to this strategy of lobbying. “We haven’t mobilised for the last two years… NUS needs to get people together and out onto the streets”. Honi thinks there might have been something stopping people from getting together in the last two years.
Nonetheless, Beatty and Zimmermann agreed that protest would be necessary, committing to a National Day of Action. Members of SA requested to know when this NDA will occur, and asked why it can’t happen now.
“You want an NDA… right now?” Beatty asked.
So that’s EdCon — three days of chaos, heckling and “political arguments” galore, and we’re still in search of the much-demanded strategy for the NUS. Better luck next year!