Today marks the start of the National Union of Students’ (NUS) National Conference (NatCon). While a traditionally lively in-person affair, NatCon 2020 will be held over Zoom and therefore will be boring.
For the most part, factions have already made submissions for votes and speeches, which represents a significant shift in how the conference will run.
What is the NUS?
The NUS is the foremost representative body for tertiary students through Australia. Student unions can choose to affiliate with the NUS or not.
The specific policy objectives of the NUS vary from year to year, but traditionally involve activism and advocacy across all issues concerning university students, especially national education policy.
The NUS’s purpose as either a student lobbyist to government policymakers or an external activism body is hotly contested. Certain factions, like SAlt, advocate for a stronger focus on student activism, while others, like Student Unity, argue for direct government consultation.
The National Executive is made up of a number of Office Bearer positions, as well as 12 General Executive members. These positions are filled by student politicians and are both paid and unpaid.
The paid Office Bearers are: President, General Secretary, Education Officer, Welfare Officer, Women’s Officer, and two Queer Officers.
The unpaid Office Bearers are: Ethno-Cultural Officer, First Nations Officer, Disabilities Officer, Environment Officer, Small and Regional Officer, and International Students Officer.
Like all things stupol, these positions are heavily contested and deeply factional. But there are some consistent alliances. In all but one year since the inception of the NUS in 1987, NLS (Labor Left) and Student Unity (Labor Right) have had a “sweetheart deal” where NLS has held the Presidency and Student Unity has taken General Secretary.
What is NatCon?
NatCon is the annual general meeting of the NUS, held in the second week of December. The National Executive is elected at NatCon (unsurprisingly) and who gets to claim paid Office Bearer positions is a central point of conflict.
Delegates also decide on the NUS’ draft platform, which consists of value statements about what the union believes in and what it will be campaigning for in the upcoming year.
No filming on the conference floor is allowed at in-person conferences. Attendees have been known to crowd and heckle other factions, eat pieces of paper that contain motions they do not want moved, and leave the conference in order to disrupt quorum.
Who are the delegates?
Student Unity and NLS have traditionally had the most delegates in conferences past, but 2020 is once again an exception. While Student Unity has retained the highest number of delegates, the Grassroots Independents, a broad left-wing coalition, have shot forward to second place.
USyd’s NUS delegates were elected earlier this year along with the SRC Council and the Editors of this rag. They are: Angelina Gu (Unity), Meredith Eicherly (Unity), Shreyaa Sundararaghavan (NLS), Lily Campbell (SAlt), Jack Mansell (SAlt), Maia Edge (Liberal), and Liam Donohoe (Grassroots).
Why should students care?
As an affiliated university, the USyd SRC pays over $75,000 of student money to the NUS for operational and conferencing costs.
With the Federal Government and university administrations across the country introducing austerity measures, impacting education quality and job security in the higher education sector, how the NUS uses its funds in its campaigns is relevant to all affiliated students.
So, how will it work this year?
Among all the things the pandemic has taken away from us, in-person NatCon is one of the harshest.
To be conducted over Zoom, this year’s hack-a-palooza will be a shyer, more reserved take on NatCons of the past. While there’ll certainly be less unhinged madness, it’s very possible that NatCon 2020 could be the quickest conference yet. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Factions have already made submissions to the draft platform and motions will be moved for amendments to the platform itself, which will be done chapter-by-chapter.
Each faction will have a predetermined list of speakers, and as all delegates (except the Grindies) are bound to vote with their faction, voting will be conducted at the discretion of the chair.
The chairs of each chapter are usually run by Unity or NLS, but in the case of identity chapters (such as First Nations Officer) it has to be someone of that identity. Given their unprecedented control of Education and Queer positions, there is some hope for a Grindies chair in these chapters this year.
How does voting work?
All of the factions except the Grindies bind; which means every delegate is committed to voting the same way as decided in pre-caucus.
For example, Student Unity has a two day pre-con wherein they caucus on policy, and caucus democratically binds.
All in all, there is not much latitude for change. The deals made pre-NatCon tend to be broadly stable.
Percentage of NUS Delegates: 45-47%*
Tipped to pick up: General Secretary, Women’s Officer
Student Unity, the Labor Right faction, has been the largest NUS bloc for some time now. They’ve consistently held onto the position of General Secretary under the guise of their supposed superior skills in financial management. In a regular year, they also tend to pick up a swag of other OB’s, with 2019 seeing Unity scoop Welfare, Women’s, Small/Regional, and International. Their election of Humaira Nasrin as Women’s Officer, with the support of flip-flopping Grindies delegates, was particularly controversial considering it was originally intended for NLS.
With the release of the most recent National Survey into Sexual Violence at Universities being pushed back, Nasrin is widely thought to have been spared a great deal of scrutiny in her role as Women’s Officer: scrutiny which may very well come back to Unity in 2021.
Angelina Gu, USyd Unity NUS delegate, was offered factional pre-selection for the role in the lead up to this year’s NatCon but turned it down in what was generously described as a “messy exchange.” While it’s uncertain if Unity will pick up the paid position again, it looks like the odds are in their favour.
While in 2018, Unity and SAlt secured a number of executive positions with the help of USyd Liberal delegate proxies, Honi can confirm that NatCon 2020 (like NatCon 2019) will see lone Liberal USyd delegate Maia Edge attending rather than proxying. In general, virtual attendance will make conference attendance much easier than years prior.
With a diminished NLS and the Grindies swelling in size, the Labor2 alliance might face stiffer competition for paid OB positions this year. But even then, Student Unity remains the largest and most influential faction in the NatCon Zoom gallery and that is unlikely to wane.
Grassroots Independents (Grindies)
Percentage of NUS Delegates: 21%*
Tipped to pick up: Education Officer, Queer Officer
The Grassroots Independents, or Grindies, are an ostensibly progressive grouping that has dominated UWA and ANU in the past. Sydney Grassroots is presently the biggest faction at USyd.
The Grindies have the most variance based on campus. In WA, the Grindies are the Labor Left faction. In Victoria, they are idpol tenderqueers. In the ACT, they are what essentially amounts to a faction of law students and/or debaters. And, well, NSW, is home to our beloved Liam Donohoe hero-worship cult — Sydney Grassroots.
Lincoln Aspinall, present National Education Officer, is expected to come under intense scrutiny this year, being described to Honi as “useless” and accused of prioritising UQ factional organizing over his position’s duties. This comes after the Grindies withdrew their support from a deal with NLS the previous year — wherein NLS would get Women’s and Aspinall Education — in order to vote with Unity.
As previously reported by Honi, Ellie Wilson (2020 USyd Women’s Officer) will not be vying for the National position anymore as she is no longer a student.
National Labor Students (NLS)
Percentage of NUS Delegates: unclear*
Tipped to pick up: President
NLS is a nationally organised Labor Left faction. Their four pillars are democracy, socialism, unionism, and feminism.
In previous years, NLS has held the second-most delegates behind Unity but that is not the case this year. Honi understands that multiple delegates (including those from the University of Wollongong) will be excluded from NatCon because NLS failed to meet the payment and registration deadline.
The machine appears to have been sleeping up until this point, but Honi can now declare that it is well and truly dead.
Socialist Alternative (SAlt)
Percentage of NUS Delegates Controlled: unclear*
Tipped to pick up: Probably nothing
SAlt is a revolutionary Trotskyist faction that is organised on a national level. SAlt has been notoriously known for screaming and heckling other delegates during conferences. This might be difficult to achieve this year in particular, but Honi has not forgone hope as of yet. It is hard to determine how SAlt will perform as they have picked up paid roles with little control of the floor in the past.
Disclaimer: Marlow Hurst is a former member of Student Unity.
*Delegate counts are projections only.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article contained misinformation about Student Unity’s binding process. It has been updated accordingly.