The NUS has rushed through a series of motions on Palestine on the second day of its National Conference (NatCon), which also saw Student Unity (SU) prove its dominance on the conference floor by avoiding a factional split.

After pulling quorum on the first night to avoid a motion condemning an NLS-controlled  union, the NLS finally returned to the floor at 2:50 PM on the second day. The condemning motion was not put to the floor and quorum and the chaos returned. 

Student Unity members are proud, but not proud enough to chant for Palestine:

To keep SAlt and Grindies from pulling quorum, the conference started with a string of pro-Palestine motions. These were pulled from several different portfolio chapters, condensed into blocs, and allocated limited speaker lists to ensure debate would move on to other issues.

The first bloc of pro-Palestinian motions condemned Israeli violence in Palestine, with NLS, SAlt and Grindies speakers criticising the Union for failing to take an official stance, criticised the Union for not taking an official stance in support of Palestine. The first bloc also passed a motion to publish a press release in solidarity with Palestinians. 

A Palestinian SU member spoke in heartfelt support of Palestinian solidarity. His speech was met with a standing ovation from the entire floor, along with chants of “Free Palestine” from NLS, SAlt and the Grindies, though SU remained silent.   

The more contentious second pro-Palestinian bloc included calls for industrial action and condemnation of “Zionism” and The Australian Government, motions for both of which failed. 

Speakers from SU argued that the motion calling for industrial actions would place a strain on the working class, while NLS emphasised the need for international solidarity. 

SU was also exposed to regular criticism during debate on Palestine due to two of its faction’s office bearers in NUS taking a sponsored trip to Israel in July this year. An Israel trip by NUS General Secretary Sheldon Gait and First Nations Officer Patrick Taylor prompted a motion of censure and a motion seeking to ban gifts including flights. 

While SU easily voted down the censure motion, it faced difficulty in its effort to amend the gift ban to a gift register. SU moved an amendment to a motion, “Keep (student) politics clean”, to change the call for a  ban on Office bearers receiving gifts to a “gift register”. In essence, these amendments would allow the NUS executive to continue to accept gifts from external parties, which could be in the form of trips to countries. 

NLS demanded a member-by-member campus count for the vote on the amendment, hoping some SU delegates would split and pass the ban. Members voting for and against the amendment were sent to opposite sides of the room, with the clear majority being SU, who stuck together and passed the amendment. 

The conference hit its theatrical peak when SU’s assumed majority on the conference floor was confirmed. The count showed SU had 720 votes on the floor, while only 528 were required for an outright majority.

The passing of the amendment was followed by SU singing “Student Unity forever” (to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”, or the Rabbitohs’ “Glory, Glory to South Sydney”) while SAlt, the Grindies and some NLS members matched their tempo to chant “Free, free Palestine”. 

The ANUSA executive gets along, until you bring up submarines:

The conference also saw ANU’s attendees line up to debate AUKUS. ANUSA’s Labor executive members (and SU attendees) proudly defended AUKUS, with Treasurer Will Burfoot declaring “AUKUS protects our future” while General Secretary Milli McDonald said it would deliver “good union jobs”.

ANUSA’s independent executive members, however, were highly critical, with Education Officer Luke Harrison and Welfare Officer Skye Predavec telling the conference the AUKUS pact would invite militarism and risk Australian lives. NLS speakers similarly criticised AUKUS, but SU’s majority ensured that an anti-AUKUS motion failed while a pro-AUKUS motion passed.

McDonald and Burfoot’s support for AUKUS amounts to a backflip from their election ticket’s apparent activist opposition, and is set to be a source of tension in ANUSA in 2024.

The conference also swept through a series of motions in the Welfare and Education portfolios, including on housing affordability, the cost-of-living crisis, and drug legalisation. NUS will now call for the legalisation of cannabis and MDMA, after Predavec’s motion 5.2 to #LegaliseIt gained unanimous support.

“Please hand back the mic (and the motions) nicely”: 

The second day was marred by brief moments of violence, once at the Business Committee (BizComm) table, and once between the chair and speaker

The BizComm is a group of seven people from each of the factions, deciding which motions will be considered. When a faction wants to put forward a procedural motion it needs to be passed to BizComm to vote on before it is put to the floor for the wider conference to vote on. In past years BizComm has been competitive or even violent as attendees race to hand their procedural to a member of BizComm from their faction.

This year the floor passed procedural motions to reduce physical violence at BizComm, but the second day saw one instance of a race to the committee between faction members, each aggressively obstructed by members of opposing factions. 

Violence also briefly broke out on the floor during debate on the Universities Accord, which are opposed by independents and SAlt but supported by the Labor factions. SAlt argued that the Accord amounts to a “plan for the bosses” with only tokenistic student representation. 

During the speaking times, Deputy Chair and General Secretary Sheldon Gait, a member of SU, repeatedly and aggressively snatched the mic from Grindies and SAlt speakers. However, when members of SU and NLS took the stand, he remained respectful. 

Before the Accord motion, the Palestinian motions had failed, and as a result, the Grindies and SAlt would reroute their speech to the talk of Palestine. Gait warned that speakers who do not stay relevant to the discussion or speak over time will lose their speaking time. 

When Gait snatched the mic from both Grindies and SAlt attendees, with escalating aggression as the night went on, he never explained on which of the grounds he was doing so. 

The Chair controls the debate, and is only held by NUS office bearers, majority of whom are SU and NLS members. Despite the widely accepted convention that the Chair must dissociate from their factional allegiance when taking the stand, neither NLS nor SU members made an attempt to do so, which became increasingly apparent when Gait did everything, even tripping and falling on the floor, rather than letting a SAlt speaker speak.

The day continued to see SU flex its control of conference by interrupting debate with joke motions and limiting opportunities for competitors to speak. SU voted through motions to congratulate one of its members on their graduation, sing happy birthday to Taylor Swift, recognise Tasmania’s members of Australia’s federation, and display Subway Surfers gameplay on the room’s TV. While SAlt speakers heckled and decried SU’s approach, the conference remained dominated by a faction apparently drunk on its own power.

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