This week, the National Union of Students (NUS) held its National Conference (NatCon) over Zoom, for the second year in a row. Delegates Zoomed in individually or in state or campus hubs from across the country to passionately discuss motions across climate change, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, Indigenous rights, unionism, disability rights, amongst other policy issues. NatCon delivered its usual screaming matches, cheers, jeers and much more, chaired by outgoing NUS President and ANU student Zoe Ranganathan.
The usual suspects gathered for the conference – Student Unity (SU), National Labor Students (NLS), Socialist Alternative (SAlt), and the Green Independents (Grindies). ANU’s five delegates this year were: Grindies Luca Corby, Phoenix O’Neill, Christian Flynn, NLS member Sinead Winn, and Blake Iafeta. Corby did not attend, but sent a proxy, and Iafeta did not appear to be in attendance.
Day One started off shakily with the Zoom link sent out four minutes after the start of conference. Ultimately, NatCon began by moving a motion to create a National Vocational Educational Officer, in an effort to commit to vocational students’ advocacy. Meanwhile, a motion to create an Environment Officer failed.
Delegates debated numerous motions about unionism and workers’ rights, endorsing motions to define casual work, guarantee jobs for youth and a just transition away from fossil fuels. After heated debate, NUS voted against welcoming all unions in trade unions, namely police unions.
There was also fierce debate about whether NUS should be a lobbying body, the view of NLS, the Grindies and Unity, or a solely activist entity which should be dedicated to marching in the streets, from SAlt’s perspective, who continually promoted their National Days of Action throughout the conference. SAlt also repeatedly expressed its discontent with NUS’s supposed lack of involvement in climate activism, and posed a national day of action.
Within the Education Chapter, the union voted for a motion, proposed by Winn, resisting the tracking of students using software like Proctorio, another to improve special consideration, as well as a motion against university restructuring as a reason to cut courses.
On day two, the union further discussed motions on education, alongside policies on women, LGBTI/Queer, First Nations, Disability, and International student issues. Notably, the delegates passed motions on free sanitation products at universities, allowing non-binary and trans people into autonomous women’s spaces, and accessibility in university assessments.
Subsequent motions on subsidised student accommodation on campus, accessible support for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and more free psychology services also carried. The union also voted to embed the aims of its #ChangetheAge campaign earlier this year into its platform, specifically to lower the Age of Independence for Centrelink eligibility to facilitate financial independence of young people.
SAlt spoke in opposition to many of these motions, suggesting they were directing NUS towards being a service provider rather than an activist organisation.
In the final session of day two, NUS voted to stand against the oppression and discrimination of First Nations people and endorsed campaigns condemning police brutality. A significant issue of contention concerned the role of non-First Nations people in First Nations activism, with the Labor factions arguing the need to prioritise First Nations voices, which SAlt disagreed with.
Additionally, the representatives voted to acknowledge invisible disabilities and diagnosis as a barrier to disabled students and the importance of intersectionality in disability. Within the International Chapter, the union passed motions to increase the fortnightly working limit from 40 to 50 hours and to reform temporary graduate visas to extend from 2 to 3 years for all students.
The final day of the conference began with the Ethnocultural Chapter. Delegates voted to support refugees and migrants, to not deport them to danger, to say no to war, and to recognise all forms of genocide. A Unity motion expressing solidarity with dispossessed people around the world drew significant debate, with SAlt likening it to the “all lives matter” movement, suggesting it diminished the plight of Palestinians, but nonetheless passed.
Within the Small and Regional Chapter, the NUS voted to improve the living standards of regional students. In the following chapter, concerning climate change, the delegates acknowledged the disproportionate impacts of climate change on regional and rural students.
Furthermore, union delegates voted for universities to implement a third gender option, to affirm the Darlington Statement on Intersex rights, and to reconnect campus queer officers.
The outcome of the NUS 2021 Annual Election is yet to be determined, with candidates submitting their nominations yesterday for voting over the upcoming weekend. A handful of ANU students are running, including Education Officer Beatrice Tucker for ACT Branch President.
A key point of contention throughout the conference was about the effectiveness of NUS as an advocacy body. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the motions passed at NatCon will indeed lead to tangible change in the lives of Australia’s students.