NUS NatCon 2018: A postscript

KPIs, Liberal ballots and queer autonomy proved contentious issues at NatCon 2018.

A graphic in the style of a retro arcade game menu that reads: NUS NatCon. Game over. Inster affiliation fee.

The National Union of Students’ annual conference—or NatCon, as its frenetic followership calls it—is often decried for its displays of chaos, debauchery and insolence. Nonetheless, the policy passed at NatCon, alongside the often heated debates on the conference floor, are consequential in setting the tone of the student movement for the year ahead (so long as contentious motions aren’t eaten up).

The outcome of policy tensions

Honi brought you an analysis of anticipated policy tensions in the lead-up to this year’s conference. As we predicted, factions riled up to either support or condemn the implementation of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for National Office Bearers. KPIs place performance requirements on National Office Bearers, and are often used in conjunction with conditional accreditation, meaning that unions continue to pay their affiliation fees only when performance indicators are met.

On the conference floor, National Labor Students (NLS/Labor Left) were in favour of KPIs, putting forward policy which noted that KPIs would increase “the efficiency, transparency and accountability” of the NUS––an organisation infamous for appointing paid office bearers who are at best idle, and at worst entirely inactive, to the extent where legal advice has been sought for the removal of presidents who have failed to submit monthly reports.

Student Unity (Labor Right), however, voted in favour of a Socialist Alternative (SAlt) motion against KPIs. This is a curious coalition of two political groupings who are all too often at ideological odds with one another.

The platform of SAlt’s motion urged the NUS to “recognise that KPIs are used to discipline and coerce employees.” Likewise, outgoing General Secretary Jacob Cripps (Unity) decried both KPIs and his rival Labor faction, questioning how NLS could simultaneously support “corporate policy” and be trade unionists. The motion against KPIs passed.

In his final report as General Secretary, Cripps was proud to proclaim that he had left the NUS’ budget with “a big fuck off surplus”, commending his faction for being the most apt when it comes to handling the organisation’s finances. The role of General Secretary, responsible for managing the budget of the of the NUS, has been bestowed upon a member of Student Unity for over a decade.

In 2018, the NUS charted increased affiliation from already accredited unions, including USyd. Despite this, total income from affiliation fees decreased by $16,425. By and large, it’s likely that any introduction of KPIs would further diminish affiliation income for the NUS, potentially to the extent of throwing its budget into deficit. This year, a major affiliate in ANU refused once again to reaccredit, citing transparency issues. For an NUS General Secretary wanting to keep their budget in surplus, KPIs are no doubt bad news (beyond any concerns about increased corporatisation).

Closer to home, SRC President Jacky He suggested tentative support for KPIs under his presidency should they be introduced. But there’s a catch. He told Honi that although he doesn’t think KPIs should be established for unpaid office bearers, “KPIs within reasonable boundaries can be considered to be set for paid positions in NUS.” In any case, He assured Honi that the SRC’s affiliation fees wouldn’t be decreasing in 2019, going so far as to consider an increase, depending on “the flexibility of the SRC budget.”

“You dealt with Libs!”

As Honi understands it, SAlt were given Unity’s ballot papers for the election of the Adelaide Campus Representative. Among these ballot papers were the proxied votes of twelve Liberals (including USU Board Director Lachlan Finch, who, unable to make the conference due to an army cadetship taking place at the same time, handed his vote to Connor Wherrett of Unity). With the use of these ballot papers, SAlt’s candidate for the position, Leila Clendon, was elected.

The use of Liberal ballots was widely criticised on the last day of the conference, particularly by members of NLS, who denounced SAlt for purporting to be left-wing, yet all the while “dealing with the Liberals.”

Honi reached out to relevant members of both SAlt and Unity as to whether a any kind of deal was made between them for the ballot papers, but did not receive a response to request for comment.

2018 NUS Women’s Officer, Kate Crossin (NLS), told Honi that she had notified members of SAlt that they would not be able to elect a member of their faction to the position without Liberal ballots. “I assumed they would take a political stance to not take those ballots.”

If a deal was brokered between SAlt and Unity, it’s prudent to question whether the actions of SAlt are parallel to the ‘vote-washing’ practices which have allegedly been used by NLS at USyd in the past, where NLS does not directly negotiate with Liberals, but works with a third faction who is happy to do so. If it’s the case that SAlt dealt with Student Unity to receive Liberal ballots as opposed to dealing with the Liberals in isolation, then they too worked through an intermediary.

However, USyd’s 2018 Education Officer James Newbold of NLS confirmed to Honi that “NLS doesn’t deal with, give votes to, or solicit votes from Liberal candidates, whether directly or through intermediaries.”

This policy hasn’t stopped NLS from expressly pairing with campus Liberals in the past. Weathered hacks will remember the infamous alliance of NLS’ successful 2016 presidential candidate, Isabella Brook, with Liberal Ed McCann, in a deal which saw McCann promised the position of vice president of the SRC. Brook went as far to boast the slogan “Ed McCann for VP” on her campaign shirts.

It remains to be seen whether NLS’ anger at SAlt translates to their own disengagement with Liberal groupings at USyd hereon.

It’s okay to be on the right

Liberal deal or no deal, there’s no denying that sentiments of the right—indeed, the far right—crept into policy discussion nonetheless. A motion within the Ethnocultural chapter of policy titled ‘It has ALWAYS been OK to be White’, condemned senators who voted in favour of the white supremacist slogan in Federal Senate in 2018, and acknowledged that “you cannot be racist to white people.” The three Liberals present, alongside Student Unity, did not support the motion and voted against it.

In response to Honi’s Twitter coverage of NatCon, a member of Student Unity noted that “Unity voted against it because it erased the existence of antisemitism, but sure, lets ignore that nuance hey.”

Honi reached out to incoming General Secretary of the NUS, Michael Iroeche (Student Unity) for clarification as to how the motion erased the existence of antisemitism, but did not receive a response.

The NUS and autonomy

Autonomy, and autonomous organising for minority groups within student unions has been a hot topic at USyd this year, with the usually tame election of the SRC’s Wom*n’s Officer being contested by individuals extrinsic to the Wom*n’s Collective.

However, the issue of autonomy for minority groups, or groups with specific organising interests within the NUS is nothing new. In 2001, the autonomy of the then NUS-affiliated Australian Students’ Environment Network (ASEN) was broken, when a member of the Australian Democrats with a lack of environmental organising experience was elected as the National Environment Officer instead of ASEN’s selected candidate. In 2014, Michael Bezuidenhout (Student Unity) nominated for and was elected to the position of Ethnocultural Officer, despite being a white South-African.

Pushes for NatCon to ratify the National Queer Officer candidates preselected at the annual Queer Collaborations conference have existed since at least 2012, and 2018 was no different. There is a tendency for these preselected candidates to be discouraged to nominate.

Dashie Prasad (Grassroots Independents) was both a delegate to this year’s conference and one of two preselected Queer Collaborations candidates for the role of National Queer Officer. They were told by the Returning Officer at the beginning of the conference that it would allegedly cost the NUS four thousand dollars to run a ballot for the position—the implication being that it would be a waste of money to nominate for a position that has already been pre-negotiated between factions.

Prasad told Honi, “I don’t think that the NUS should waste its money either, but I also didn’t nominate because for fear of called a scab for wasting union money on ballots, which has happened in the past.”

Although they were not expressly disallowed to nominate, Prasad “found out quite early that [they] wouldn’t be worked with to negotiate the position despite being part of a faction. Historically, negotiations have happened through backroom deals, it’s a weird idea that a person is one-hundred per cent assured that they won’t be elected to a position … that’s not how elections are meant to be done, they should be about people proposing their plans and arguing for why they should be given the position as opposed to getting the position through a deal.”

Dylan Lloyd, previously affiliated with an iteration of Grassroots Independents, was preselected by delegates of the Queer Collaborations in 2015, 2016 and 2017. During their nomination in 2017, Lloyd notes that they were “pressured multiple times to withdraw from the ballot by SAlt (including offering deals which [they] rejected out of principle for the QC endorsement).”

“At one point during the conference I was physically assaulted on the stage of the conference by a member of SAlt, who said I had pissed them off because I didn’t withdraw from the ballot.”

There is an argument in the fact that the Queer Collaborations conference is not officially affiliated with the NUS, and therefore bears no responsibility to respect the decisions made there, with regard to preselected candidates or otherwise.

However, both Prasad and Lloyd pointed out that the the responsibilities of the elected National Queer Officers as stipulated in the NUS’ constitution require them to assist with the organisation of queer conferences, such as Queer Collaborations, annually. Despite this, according to Lloyd, the NUS Queer Officers have ignored Queer Collaborations entirely in recent years. “I even organised a workshop in collaboration with the NUS Queer Officers in 2017, which they agreed to present via teleconference. They did not turn up on the day.”

There is no prescribed group that organises Queer Collaborations, other than the relevant organising body for queer students on the nominated campus for any particular year. Prasad argues that cooperation between Queer Collaborations and the National Queer Officers should be increased in order for preselected candidates to be taken more seriously, noting that the National Women’s Officer is often heavily involved in the organising of the Network Of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) conference (the equivalent of Queer Collaborations for wom*n students), despite NOWSA not being an official wing of the NUS.

Back where we started?

Last year, Honi queried whether the NUS was as bad as NatCon makes it out to be.

The tail-end of this year’s conference saw Socialist Alternative pulling quorum, disallowing the discussion of queer and disability policy, which ultimately had to be passed en bloc. Delegates and observers sat idle for about forty minutes in the interim, as Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ played on loop.

With more than one 2018 SRC presidential campaign putting forth grievances concerning poor use of student money by the SRC, it’s a surprise that the same criticism is not levelled at the NUS more often—perhaps because its work and operation largely remain opaque to most. Indeed, not only does the USyd SRC affiliate to the NUS, part of its budget is siphoned to paying the registration, accommodation and travel fees of USyd delegates and observers.

Whether through so-called corporate KPIs or otherwise, we echo the sentiments of those reporting on the 2017 conference, in arguing that there is still a greater need for transparency and reduced factionalism within the NUS so that it may achieve positive, progressive political objectives, and be held to account when it does not.

Despite a small change in the percentage of votes held by different factions, since the 2017 conference the functionality of the Union has remained largely unchanged. Likewise, with the continuation of a Labor stronghold on the conference floor, alongside futile attempts at introducing any form of transparency, the possibility of a more democratic and less opaque Union hangs once again in the balance.

Though there is neither a clear nor feasible alternative peak body for students, the benefits of affiliation appear murky.

Jessica Syed is an ex-member of Sydney Grassroots, and was the 2018 co-Wom*n’s officer of the USyd SRC.