This week at the Berwick Campus of Federation University, independent and factional delegates from around Australian universities have gathered to attend the National Union of Students’ (NUS) National Conference (NatCon). 

The NUS is the national representative body for tertiary students, composed of representatives from NUS-affiliated universities. Notable universities include the  University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney, Monash University and Australian National University. 

The Union is primarily divided along factional lines, with prominent factions being Student Unity (SU, AKA Labor Right), National Labor Students (NLS, AKA Labor Left) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt), along with some independents including Western Australian Independents and grassroots Independents, the grindies

NatCon is held annually to debate potential NUS policies for the upcoming year. The conference concludes with an election of the incoming National Executive of office bearers. Paid office bearers include President, General Secretary, Education Officer, Welfare Officer, Women’s Officer and the two Queer Officers. Unpaid office bearers include First Nations Officer, Disabilities Officer, Ethnocultural Officer, International Officer and Small and Regional Officer. 

The Conference maintains an infamous reputation of being a turbulent event featuring unruly debate, factionalism, verbal and physical violence, and this year is shaping out to be no different. 

The 2023 conference floor is dominated by SU, with NLS and SAlt splitting most of the remainder. A few votes are held by Independents and Young Liberals. 

On Wednesdays we discuss Palestine: 

The conference’s first day was marked by persistent division over the Union’s approach to hostilities in Gaza. A string of pro-Palestinian motions were proposed ahead of the conference, with  motions calling for Palestinian support and solidarity proposed under the Student Unionism, Women’s, Queer and Ethnocultural chapters of the policy handbook. 

However, proceedings took a turn after SU and NLS teamed up to defer debate of all Palestine motions from the first day’s ‘Student Union’ chapters to Wednesday’s ‘Ethnocutural’ chapters. 

This included motions such as “NUS supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign”, “Palestine is a union issue” and “NUS will publish a public statement and press release about Palestine”.

These motions would have positioned discussion of Palestine within the wider context of student unionism. The Labor factions’ deferral risks limiting debate on the conflict and suggesting the issue is merely Ethnocultural.

NUS ethnocultural officer Ben Naiju, from ANU, argued the revised approach would maintain a respectful debate. However, SAlt and the grindies voted against the deferral, with one speaker claiming the Labor factions had “conspired to squash debate on Palestine”.  

Tensions over the deferral saw the conference erupt into physical violence, with conference members from SU, NLS and SAlt shoving each other. However, the procedural motion to move all Palestinian debate to Wednesday ultimately passed. 

Throughout the day, SAlt and the grindies interjected in multiple NLS and SU motions as speakers for and against, each time diverting the discussion to Palestinian solidarity. Discussion on motions such as “A more realistic [NUS] subscription fee” were rerouted when SAlt speakers took the mic to speak on the “pressing urgency of Palestine” instead. 

The Conference Chair and NUS President, NLS member Bailey Riley, threatened to name speakers who engaged in discussions irrelevant to the motion. The conference also subsequently passed two procedural motions to restrict speaking times and warn aggressive attendees, despite opposition from SAlt and independent delegates. Heckling and counter-heckling persisted into Conference despite these changes.

NLS walks out and takes quorum with them: 

NLS brought NatCon’s first day to an early close by staging a walkout and refusing to return to the conference floor. The walkout began in response to an SU-backed motion to condemn the NLS-run La Trobe Student Union (LTSU).

The motion argued that during its latest election, the LTSU had “banned the use of specific tickets’, abolished the electoral tribunal and created new regulations which forced tickets to comply with. 

To hold quorum, the floor must have 50 percent of the elected delegates, who hold 50 percent of votes. Although the split between votes and delegates between the factions remain unknown, NLS walking out pulled quorum which could mean the left faction has a larger number of elected delegates, while its right counterpart, although being the visible majority, has more proxy voters than elected delegates. 

Ultimately, NLS never returned to the floor on the first night, while SU and SAlt members alleged that the left faction was in the midst of a leadership spill. 

Without a quorum, the conference could end without deciding on what the Union’s policies for next year are. ANUSA President and NUS delegate Phoenix O’Neill told Woroni NLS pulling quorum is “extremely disappointing”. They continue, “Hundreds of thousands of dollars of student money – disproportionately ANU students’ money – is being wasted on this conference” . 

If the NUS cannot pass motions to set a clear list of policies, the incoming executive will become less accountable, and its  actions and spending decisions in 2024 will remain uncertain and more opaque than ever. 

For more updates, follow Woroni on X, formerly known as Twitter. 


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