You Won’t Believe What NLS Is Doing For Power At NatCon

We forfeited journalistic integrity for a click-bait title in the hope you would read a genuine investigative piece on something you should (but probably don’t) care about: student politics.

NLS Image: Justine Landis-Hanley

It appears that student political factions Student Unity (Labor right) and National Labor Students (Labor left) have dealt away policy commitments in return for political positions on the National Union of Students in advance of this week’s annual conference.

If you’re confused, then have a read of our explainer here. It gives you the lowdown on acronyms from NatCon to BizComm. 

But back to deals, deals, deals.

Kicking my head in over all this head kicking

Every year, the head kickers (read: top dogs) from each faction bargain for positions on the National Executive. Faction leaders pledge to vote for another’s policy points in exchange for national executive positions. These policies dictate how the Union will allocate their resources for the year.

Who’s Got the Power?

One of the ballot papers you might have filled out during this year’s SRC elections was about choosing who was going to represent you at this year’s national conference – a process repeated across campuses around the country. If Martin Ditmann, a long term NatCon watcher loosely affiliated with the Independent faction, has accurate information, Unity has won the largest number of delegate spots at this year’s NATCON. This has given them huge negotiating power when dealing with factions that have a smaller presence on the conference floor as they can form a majority with the help of either NLS, the Independents or Socialist Alternative. 

Who’s Getting the Power? 

NUS General Secretary, Cam Petrie, has been collating lists of policy motions that delegates have proposed for discussion at this weeks conference into a shared google drive. Working off these documents, we at Honi have a fair insight into what has occurred behind the scenes. It’s pretty easy to work out what deals have been drawn up and which candidates have been preselected based on who is moving the most motions in each portfolio.

It seems Unity has struck a pact with National Labor Students for positions, typically known as the ‘sweetheart deal’ (Labor dealing with Labor).

Several sources familiar with the situation have suggested that the following people are probably pushing past the post:

NUS President – Sophie Johnston (NLS)

General Secretary – Nathan Croft (Unity)

Welfare Officer – Jill Molloy (Unity)

Women’s Officer – Abby Stapleton (NLS)

Education Officer – Eleanor Morley (SAlt)

ACT Branch President – Terry Watson (Unity)

NSW Branch President – Michael Murdocca (Unity)

Labor Dealing with Labor – A Love Story?

It is easy to blame Unity’s apparent deal with NLS on political allegiance and ‘Labor dealing with Labor’. But the past year has seen very public tensions between major players from each faction, with the two sides clashing over NUS mismanagement, poor electoral performance on campus, and parallel import restrictions. Here are some of the greatest hits:

Earlier this year, Petrie sought legal advice on the removal of NUS President Sinead Colee for neglecting her presidential duties.

NUS’ Education Officer, Max Murphy (NLS), was also allegedly criticised for mismanaging this year’s National Day of Action. A person identifying as NUS Welfare Officer Robby Magyar on social media called Max Murphy’s term in national office a “joke”, writing “we’re so much closer to free education hey – great 30 year-long campaign that one”.

Magyar himself has come under fire by senior members in NLS and the Australian Manufacturer Workers Union for his year-long National Cheaper Textbook’s campaign. The campaign advocated for lifting parallel import restrictions, which directly contravenes Federal Labor Party policy.

Not to mention, NLS have a fraction of their former power. Sure, they have secured the NUS Presidency since 1987 through clever dealing, but have recently lost considerable ground at all universities outside New South Wales. Since 2014, they have lost the University of Tasmania to the Liberals, La Trobe to Unity and the University of Melbourne to Independents, and their delegates at NLS will barely account for 20 per cent of the conference floor.

For Unity, dealing with the National Independents (making up around 22 per cent of delegates) or Socialist Alternative, would also have provided them with sufficient voting power to elect their candidates.

So why deal with NLS?

Given the rocky relationship between NLS and Unity at present, we suspect that NLS has given a lot to Unity in exchange for these two paid National Office Bearer positions.

In exchange for giving NLS President and Women’s Officer, we believe that Unity has been offered disability officer, environmental officer, and international officer. That number of positions would give them a super majority on the National Executive.

Back to that cache of policy documents: looking through the proposed motions from various factions, we suspect that NLS may have also agreed not to raise any motions to change NUS’ stance on parallel import restrictions (PIRs) as part of the deal. In this case, parallel import restrictions stop overseas printers making textbooks for Australian courses. It arguably makes textbooks more expensive, but also protects Australian jobs in the printing industry.

Given NLS’ strong opposition to the Cheaper Textbook’s Now campaign, which has lobbied to remove PIRs and the federal Labor party’s clear stance against lifting PIR’s, the complete absence of a motion to support PIR’s is a massive red flag. A massive flag reading “SOMETHING IS UP”. With neon lights. And a siren.

It’s also unsurprising that silencing discussion on PIRs would have been a deal-maker for Unity: it’s a huge ideological coup for the faction, a massive personal success for Magyar, and allows the cheaper textbooks campaign to continue. Moreover, it is a blow against the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, which traditionally supports the Labor left faction that NLS represents.

Honi reached out to Mr Petrie and Mr Murphy for comment on our speculations, but both declined to comment on the ‘deals’, with Petri adding that he “doesn’t want to breach confidentiality with other factions”.

So sit back, gag a little, watch the games begin, and see for whom the odds have been negotiated to favour.