NUS National Conference: An Indoctrination into Unaccountable, Tribal Politics

Opinion and Analysis – Bringing you the informed perspective of our reporters

CW: Discussions of bullying and offensive language

In the Woroni office, the NUS National Conference has a reputation for being worse than the worst student politics debate. However, the best analogy for attending the National Conference, is being a modern witness to the late-stage Roman Republic.

All the trappings of democracy, and no substance. The assembled factions vote, and nominally, delegates can speak for or against motions proposed. However, when the chairing is so blatantly biassed, when bullying is allowed across the room, when whole factions refuse to debate on issues, and when no one seeks to hold the executive accountable, it is a democracy in name only.

And, just as the Roman Senate became an opportunity to fawn over dictators, the NUS’ purpose seems to be something entirely different to a democratic assembly. Rather it appears to help indoctrinate future ALP politicians into tribal politics based on enmity, hatred, and unaccountability.

Allow Me to Abuse This Chair

A meaningful debate relies on an impartial arbiter, who can ensure orderly discourse. However, both Unity (Labor right) and the National Labor Students (Labor left) serially abused the chair throughout the conference. They did this to the benefit of their delegates and to the detriment of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the independents. Whether it was intentional or not is unclear.

For the chair to ensure open debate they must enforce speaking limits. The chair, normally NUS President Georgie Beatty (she/her), consistently failed to do this. Beatty, a member of NLS, often tolerated Labor heckling SAlt, while giving Labor delegates extra speaking time if SAlt interjected too much. Additionally, Beatty consistently allowed Labor delegates to speak over time.

At one point, a senior member of NLS insisted that “I’ve got to say this” when defending a decision not to debate an amendment to a motion. Beatty allowed the NLS delegate to finish their speech at their whim.

Beatty also used her position as chair to defend her decision earlier this year not to tell student unions about the Australian Labor Party’s support of the Religious Discrimination Bill. With no cap to her speaking time, she simply launched into a defence of her actions.

A key convention of chairing any meeting is that the chair suspends their factional allegiance, and takes steps to distance themselves from the faction. No attempt at this was made, with Beatty several times calling a vote, only to then tell NLS – her faction – which way it should in fact be voting.

As the conference moved into the autonomous motion chapters, the chairing deteriorated further. During autonomous chapters, the chair is typically the current office bearer for that chapter, or the future one.

These autonomous chairs were a mixed lot. Many delegates from all factions praised Ben Naiju (he/him) – an ANU Unity delegate – as the chair of the BIPOC section. However, the chair for the Regional and Rural section – Unity member Cheyne Howard (she/they) – complained about how “…tiring it is fighting against the fascist left [SAlt],” almost immediately after taking the chair.

Both NLS and Unity rejected a procedural motion to remind all chairs that they must be neutral and even-handed in their behaviour.

Throughout the conference, both Unity and NLS used naming – a delegate named three times is removed from the conference – discriminately against members of other factions. To be clear, those members did deserve to be named, they were speaking out of turn, and disobeying procedural motions passed by the floor. However, Unity and NLS had equally bad delegates who would yell out of turn, often using coarse language that the conference’s Grievance Committee expressly condemned.

The last form of resistance in the Senate came from the few noblemen who decided to mock the Emperor. And as easy as that sounds, even for student media, NUS delegates continuously raise the bar for satire without even trying. To the point where people think we take them seriously.

“You White Bitch” – 2023 NUS President, Bailey Riley

The principles of NatCon include student unionism and student leaders collaborating to discuss, protest, and move motions on “education, academic freedom, access to education, social security, and health and welfare”. On top of these principles the conference aims to encourage “attendees to engage in discussions and debate among peers”.

Despite these principles of respectful debate, the rude, derogatory and sexist language used through the conference shocked attendees and observers alike.

Throughout the week delegates repeatedly told other delegates to, “Shut up you white bitch”, or just called them a “cunt”. However, the chairs of the conference only named a delegate for this behaviour once.

The language persisted throughout the conference despite an official grievance complaint and despite the Women’s Officer’s condemnation of the word “bitch.”

Not only was the phrase repeatedly used, but it was done so by the incoming President of the NUS – Bailey Riley (she/her) who, when finally named for the language a second time, proceeded to flip off the crowd, terming them a “cunt”.

All of this language occurred during the autonomous chapters of the NUS, including the women’s section. These motions of these chapters frequently aimed to improve terminology and respect for minority student groups as well as push issues and stances at the NUS.

Ironically, it is SAlt who, based on the substance of their heckling, comes off the best. Their heckles call on other factions to debate issues, and for delegates to push back against senior factional leaders. It is still unconstructive and creates an intimidating, inaccessible space, but they do not call people “bitch[es]”.

There is also a collective amnesia around the behaviour of delegates. Labor will shout and kick when a SAlt delegate says “LGBT” not “LGBTQIA+” because they allege it ignores asexual people, and yet they don’t mind when their delegates swear across the room. Likewise Labor delegates will claim that SAlt is the worst behaved because they call for a debate.

Admittedly, SAlt did chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” following a motion on the country. The Anti-Defamation League labels the chant “ostracising”. Unity, meanwhile, chants “Dig it [coal] up, and ship it out.”

Overall then, the language is astonishingly rude, bitter and discriminatory. It is remarkable that a supposedly-vanguard organisation like the NUS permits it when Australia itself grapples with sexist language in federal Parliament.

The Roman Senate has Cato the Elder’s “Carthago delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed]” at the end of each of his speeches. The NUS has “Shut up you white bitch.” It is not quite the same.

Head Kicked

The factions which run NUS are composed of delegates from university campuses across the country.

How many students then, understand that most NUS delegates simply sit in the back rows of the hall, raising their hand whenever a senior faction member – a “head kicker” – tells them to? How many students know that their delegates bind themselves to factions, even supporting motions that the delegate themselves oppose? And, how many students know that delegates’ travel is often paid for by SSAF fees?

This includes SAlt, NLS and Unity, all of whom bind their delegates to vote along faction lines.

Head-kicking and factionalism have two main consequences for the NUS. The first is that it renders debate largely meaningless, as delegates refuse to  even contemplate changing their mind. Debate ceases to be about ideas and instead becomes a competition of stamina. The only substantive change seen throughout the entire conference was SAlt which, over several days, whittled away at NLS until it agreed to oppose the Religious Discrimination Bill.

The second is that the NUS, distracted by factional deals, chants and shouting-matches, ceased to hold its executive accountable. As the peak representative body for students, the office bearers of the NUS hold an extraordinary amount of power.

However, there is no debate on the work of the executive. Factions prevent logical criticism because delegates can only appeal to their rabid, tribal third of the room; best done not with arguments but with chants, slogans and base insults.

Most factions gave the officer bearers “friendly” questions. Only SAlt used its question to air grievances it had with the officers. And even these were politicised grievances to do with activism. The factions, focusing only on the distribution of power, refuse to engage with how well officers have run their portfolio.

This meant that only student media and SAlt asked the General-Secretary Emily Sagolj about the $10,000 her previous faction members allegedly “mismanaged”. Under the auspices of legal confidentiality, a real threat to the NUS saw no interrogation.

Student media questions repeatedly received eye rolls from the chair and head kickers, while Unity officers – whose former faction members (it bears repeating) “mismanaged” $10,000 – said that the need to remove an officer bearer was “unlikely”.

Caligula, the third Emperor of Rome and the first to go insane, famously had the Senate elect his favourite horse as consul. Unity and NLS will vote up a motion to celebrate Taylor Swift’s birthday, in the same session as reducing speaking time to 30 seconds in the interest of expediency. It is genuinely unclear at what point any delegate or faction would draw the line, maybe if the motion called on each delegate to provide a coherent thought, and not a slogan.


Julia Gillard is possibly the most famous prime minister to begin her political career in the Australian Union of Students – the NUS’s predecessor. Rumour has it that Bill Shorten created Unity’s current punch recipe. The list goes on. The NUS is often criticised as being a breeding ground for ALP hacks to practise their stump speeches.

Considering the inefficiency and overall pointlessness of the National Conference (the factions mean that all motions could actually be easily passed remotely) viewing the NUS as an introduction to two-party politics is the most reasonable interpretation.

It raises the question then, of what politics are these delegates being introduced, or indoctrinated into? It is certainly not one that prioritises respectful, meaningful and outcome-based debate. At a guess, the National Conference’s purpose is to inoculate delegates to faction-pleasing speeches, bullying of political opponents and blind party discipline.

The binding nature of factions makes all delegates complicit in the behaviour. Complicity, and the attached guilt, breed the most wonderfully unquestioning and electable politicians. And that indoctrination is effective. At one of the final ANUSA meetings in 2022, members of Unity and NLS tried to motion that ANUSA provide $40,000 of SSAF to the NUS.

After all, if this was not the case, student media would be allowed to video the proceedings. Yet, a motion banning all photography, filming or livestreaming is the first thing passed at each National Conference. I wonder why?


This article is a piece of opinion and analysis, providing the perspective of the authors.


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