The NUS has achieved a rare moment of genuine cooperation on the third day of its National Conference, after motions condemning ethnic cleansing in Gaza achieved unanimous support.
The spirit of solidarity brought a distinct break from a day of rowdy debate, enabled by ineffectual and partisan chairing. The conference spent the day addressing issues from Women’s, International, Ethnocultural, and Education policy chapters.
ONLY WOMEN CAN SPEAK ON WOMEN’S MOTIONS
Speakers from both the Labor factions spoke passionately, often speaking from experience, calling the Union to endorse consent training and to stand against the University culture that perpetuates SASH.
Their speaking time was followed by SAlt speakers against motions, who would immediately accuse Labor speakers of perpetuating “structural inequality of women” through their affiliations with the incumbent Labor Government.
SAlt’s insincere conduct echoed a culture that Australian politics knows all too well, where experiences of SASH are too easily dismissed and disregarded.
Verbal aggression broke out when non-women non-Labor speakers took the stand. The Labor factions intensified their heckling, with members of SU yelling “sit the fuck back down”.
The Labor factions passed a procedural to block cis-men from speaking on the Women’s chapter. In defiance to the motion, Independent ANUSA President Phoenix O’Neill argued back, “What about BIPOC men, queer men, men with disabilities who are also at the risk of SASH?”
Chair and NUS Women’s officer, Emily Seaile of SU, named multiple SAlt speakers throughout the day, often snatching the mic from them mid-speech. The SU chair however never named the aggressive hecklers of her own faction, nor did she impede SU members from speaking over time.
…BUT ANYONE CAN SPEAK ON INTERNATIONAL MOTIONS
While Labor factions pushed to keep men from speaking on women’s issues, they were less reticent about letting white Australians speak on issues disproportionately impacting migrants of colour.
SAlt primarily attacked the incumbent Labor Government and targeted the Labor factions affiliated with it in shouting matches and tussles in the speaking line. One argument led to members from SAlt and NLS shoving each other, leading organisers to set stricter guidelines on speaking lines.
SU students became the embodiment of uninformed and unsubstantiated debate, posing to the floor, “Have you ever taken an economics course?” before claiming “more International Students, more housing crisis”.
However, NLS and SAlt united to berate the SU chair, who ruled with a dangerous mix of partisan bias and ineffective discipline. The chair named independents, SAlt and NLS attendees for minor heckling, while aggressive SU attendees avoided condemnation.
The most derided were the Liberal attendees, who made SAlt’s job easy by caricaturing themselves. One referred to international students as Australia’s “top export,” comparing the students with goods and services cash-grabs. Another, Sydney’s Satvik Sharma, repeated a rote defence of strong border policies, then started to chant “stop the boats” before being booed off stage.
Debate on international motions was most divisive during discussion of a motion condemning Narendra Modi’s government in India. To protect speakers and their families from recriminations, the conference passed a procedural to keep speakers anonymous. Speakers against the motion praised the Indian Government for bringing prosperity, while speakers for claimed the government “kills and oppresses Muslim minorities”. The motion ultimately failed.
The conference also moved through the remainder of the education policy chapter, covering accessibility in higher education as well as HECS fees. Unity speakers, including ANUSA Treasurer Will Burfoot, argued HECS “expanded the tertiary education system”.
However, independent attendees like ANUSA President Phoenix O’Neill hit back, saying “Will, your ticket ran on free education” in this year’s SRC election. They despaired that “this union will applaud the government spending money on anything except for students”.
ANUSA Unity members’ backflip follows a similar backflip on AUKUS, and seems to confirm that Unity members papered over their true views during their election campaign to sustain their coalition with NLS and SAlt. ANU SAlt member and Stand Up! candidate Chris Morris, for example, condemned HECS and argued that higher education has become a neoliberal “tool for the ruling class to increase their profit”.
Motions from the Queer chapter were broadly deferred in favour of the aforementioned chapters, sparking concerns from Independent attendees that they will not be debated at all this conference.
Earlier in the conference, the Labor factions passed procedurals to defer debate on Palestinian motions in the Student Unionism chapters to the Ethnocultural chapters, which were scheduled to be discussed on day three, Wednesday.
The ethnocultural chapter started with another string of procedurals, which made multiple amendments to the wording of the Palestinian motions. Most notably, the Labor factions passed amendments to change the word “genocide” to “ethnic cleansing”, and limited support of pro-Palestinian activism to only “legal” protests and rallies.
The majority of the movers, seconders and speakers were waived, with none of SU nor NLS members coming to explain the amendments. As a result, most of the speaking time went to SAlt, who spoke against the “watering down” of Palestinian motions, until the mic was snatched from them.
Following the procedural, SAlt’s heckling grew more intense and was as intensified as ever, and it’s division with the Labor factions became increasingly violent. SAlt abstained on motions calling for support for Ukraine and frequently rerouted the discussion to Palestine.
The Labor factions’ rejection of a SAlt-moved motion, calling the Union to endorse Campaign Against Racism and Facism (CARF), resulted in an aggressive verbal confrontation between SAlt attendees, NLS attendees, and SU’s Ben Naiju as chair. Venue security stood ready to intervene as Naiju demanded an end to confrontation.
However, in a whiplash-inducing move, speakers in support of the following motion calling for an end to the “Humanitarian crisis in Gaza” were uniformly treated with respect.
A minute of silence for lives lost in Gaza persisted, with subsequent speakers heard in near-silence. Two speakers of Palestinian heritage fought tears to give touching speeches and encourage the union to sustain Palestinian solidarity.
Attendees stood united and speakers genuinely heard and responded to each other, revealing NatCon’s capacity to be more than a fighting ground of factionalism.
While Thursday is Ballot Day at NatCon, National Officer Bearers (OBs), State Branch Presidents and State Education Vice-Presidents (EVPs) are generally decided by factions beforehand and elected unopposed. As usual NLS has taken the Presidency and SU will have the General Secretary; with Unity holding an outright majority of votes on the floor, the rest of the positions were essentially up to them to decide. The National Executive (NX) consists of the National OBs, State Branch Presidents and 12 General Executive Members.
President: Ngaire Bogemann (NLS)
General Secretary: Jonathan De La Pena (Unity)
Education Officer: Grace Franco (Unity)
Welfare Officer: Sabrine Yassine (Unity)
Women’s Officer: Ela Akyol (NLS)
LGBTI Officers: Edwina Stephenson and Elisha Gutteridge (both SAlt)
Indigenous Officer: Chandra Altoff (Independent)
Disabilities Officer: Mairead Foley (Unity)
International Student Officer: Reynal Adrien (Unity)
Ethnocultural Officer: Sa’Jacinto Hedus (Unity)
Small and Regional Campuses Officer: Caitlin Marlor (Unity)
Vocational Education Officer: Bethany Shegog (Unity)
This gives Unity eight of the thirteen National OB positions.
Furthermore, Unity picked up all seven State Branch Presidencies and two State Education Vice-Presidencies, NLS will hold three EVPs and SAlt two. There are 12 General Executive Members on NX, there have been 16 nominations and these will be elected on Ballot Day.
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