This week at Deakin University, Geelong, the National Union of Students (NUS) is holding its annual National Conference (NatCon) in person for the first time in two years. Factional and independent delegates from across Australian university campuses arrived in Melbourne yesterday to passionately debate topics ranging from Trade and Student Unionism, Education, Welfare, Women’s issues, Queer* issues, First Nations issues, Disability issues, International issues, Ethnocultural issues and Regional issues.

NatCon delivered its shocking but typical displays of screaming, chanting, incoherent mumbling, cheers, and snatching and eating the ballot paper. This article brings you a summary for day one and two.

The usual suspects attended, including Student Unity (SU) representing the Labor right, National Labor Students (NLS) representing the Labor Left, Socalist Alternative (SAlt) and a number of mixed independents.

The newly-elected delegates for the ANU included: ANUSA President Ben Yates, ANUSA Education Officer Beatrice Tucker, ANUSA General Representative Skye Predavec – who are all independents – Azraa Hussain (NLS), and Samuel Macrae (Unity).

A number of other ANU students attended as observers and faction officials, including Alex Nancarrow, Yerin Park and Isabella Harding amongst others.

Read the actual policy motions here, because it’s a lot.

Day One – SAlt Woos NLS with Negging

Day One focused on trade and student unionism, and touched on education. The motions over trade unionism centred on aligning and distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate unions, the relationship between unions and political factions, and privatisation.

Successful motions included the Same Job, Same Pay motion, resounding recognition that Wage Rises Aren’t the Cause of Inflation, and endorsement of the Better Off Overall test.

The debate drifted away from the motions at hand, focusing on the role of student unions, with various factions trying to flex their protest-organising credentials.

Moving on to student unionism, campus politics reached the big stage with the NUS Hates Scab Unions motion, stemming from controversy around the La Trobe Student Association (LTSA). The LTSA was accused of having, “executives on their board, and paid one staff member more than any of the student reps combined.”

NUS delegates also called out police unions in the Police are Scabs motion with NLS claiming that, “…police unions protect police officers who uphold racism and misogyny.” Unity voted against the motion, arguing that “even police” need unions.

From here the NUS passed an affirmative action motion and the similar Involving Oppressed Groups in Activism motion. Inclusivity and how to achieve it is a major sticking point between SAlt, independents, and NLS. SAlt opposes “Bureaucratic solutions to political problems” and this includes voting against affirmative action and attempts to carve out safe spaces for minorities in activist and union spaces.

The Student Unionism section concluded with a heated debate around the right to protest, versus obeying COVID-19 regulations, and standing in solidarity with Blockade Australia protester Violet Coco. Violet Coco was recently arrested and sentenced to a 15-month jail term for holding up one lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour bridge. Human Rights Watch argues it “sends a terrible message to the globe.”

To conclude the Day One policy movements, SAlt moved several motions from urgency up to education. These motions included – Rebuild the Student Union Movement, It’s Time for Change… in the Strategic Approach of the NUS, and What it Means for the NUS to Fight Under a Labor Government.

Day Two – Meet the Proud Members of Student Unity

Day Two focused on education, welfare, women’s issues, Queer* issues, and First Nations issues. The centrepiece was the Universities Accord, followed by issues of inclusivity and accessibility, and the routine battle between HECS and free university.

The Universities Accord is a roundtable negotiation between corporations, universities, the government and, possibly, students. The aim is apparently to fix issues in the funding of universities, staff working conditions, and other key problems of the education sector.

SAlt and most of the independents oppose participating in the Accords as they think the NUS would only be there to give approval, not meaningful contribution. The NLS and Unity, in contrast, support the Accords with the slogan “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” The argument here is that by not participating in the negotiations, student representatives would only allow for more anti-student policies to go unopposed.

President Georgie Beatty moved a motion which committed the NUS to the accords, and which forbids next year’s Education Officer from “impeding” the Universities Accord. Originally, there were several gag orders, such as forbidding any public criticism, but these were amended out. It is well known that SAlt struck a deal with Unity to get the Education Officer position next year. The gag order seems to be NLS’ revenge for SAlt’s deal.

Accessibility and inclusion motions seem to be the powder keg at this conference. Points surrounding the NDIS and the involvement of working class men in the women’s section were particular points of contention. SAlt described the NDIS as “neoliberalisation of health care” to which the NLS responded “[it is a] bit rich for socialist alternative to speak about the NDIS” pointing to the lack of disabled people within their faction.

HECS or free university is a staple debate of the NUS. Unity, ironically the party of Whitlam, supports HECS as the vehicle for upwards social mobility. SAlt is the most vocal supporter of free education. ANU’s own Andrew Norton believes that HECS will be included in the Accords, which makes the NUS’ stance particularly topical this year.

The Entirely Civil and Respectful Debates

The NUS is well-known for its loud and raucous debates, and this NatCon, the first in-person one in two years, is no different. The debate often has little to do with the motion itself, and inevitably moves towards inter-factional criticism. Most of the debate occurs between SAlt and the NLS, the supposed “left bloc” of NUS.

Shouting, heckling and chants dominate the conference floor. In the more intense debates, factions will simply argue across the aisle until the Chair can establish order. Speakers range from the sarcastic, hopeful comedian, to hoarse shouting and swearing at other factions.

SAlt wants to see a more activist, militant NUS, that protests heavily against the government and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Their main target appears to be the NLS, to the point that SAlt speakers often wander from the podium, or move the podium itself, to speak solely to the Labor left faction. They alternate between intense criticism of a perceived lack of activism, and calling on the NLS to distinguish itself from Unity and join SAlt’s platform.

When Woroni spoke to SAlt, their members framed this as wanting to “win an argument” and convince the NLS of their politics. It’s unclear how effective this tactic is, with SAlt and NLS displaying the most acrimonious relationship of any two factions.

The NLS, possibly drawn into the fray by SAlt’s arguments, has become more vocal in its criticism of the ALP. NLS speakers have conceded that “HECS is obviously a fucking death sentence” and that the government should lower the age of independence. However, they have also been attacking SAlt for a number of its positions.

Unity speaks far less than the other two main factions, preferring instead to chant over other speakers with slogans like “student unity forever.” When they do argue, they sit distinctly to the right of the other factions. For example, one Unity speaker condemned the radical activism of Violet Coco with “Have you ever been in the back of an emergency response unit? … Climate change action will only be hindered with more blood spilt.” Don’t worry if that’s confusing, our reporters also couldn’t understand the point there. The few Liberal delegates at NUS sit with Unity.

The debate is chaired by Georgie Beatty, the current President of NUS. When SAlt interrupts other speakers, Beatty pauses their speaking time, however, when SAlt is interrupted, their speakers rarely receive the same treatment. Beatty is an NLS member, and often refers to the faction collectively. Saying, for instance, “Come on NLS, this [amendment] is ours.” The deputy chair, General-Secretary Emily Sagolj, wears a Unity shirt and joins in with their chants.

That’s days one and two for you. Tune in for three and four on Friday. Please.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.