The first thing you notice about the National Union of Students’ National Conference is how much it feels like a school camp.

Half-asleep students crowd onto coaches that drive them an hour and a half out of the city and into the bush. They pile off the coaches and crowd into 1970s-era buildings to check in, then walk past the shared showers and sad little common rooms to dump their luggage in their dorms. Each night, they line up for a warm dinner cooked in bulk, then stay up late in their dorms, gossiping and drinking the alcohol they smuggled in with them.

The closest thing NatCon has to a teacher is the conference chair, who does their best to maintain discipline. NUS executive officers alternate in the chair. They can warn people not to speak, demand people leave the room, or try to smooth-talk them into cooperating. But they don’t always get what they want, because, at the end of the day, they’re a student the same as everyone else.

There’s a camp instructor, in the form of NatCon organiser Ella Gvildys. Ella does the daily announcements, enforces the code of conduct, and even gets the students to hush by doing the kindergarten call-and-response clapping rhythms. But Ella’s power is limited too. When some kids threw a temper tantrum and refused to leave their rooms all through Monday evening, there was nothing Ella could do.

It’s not that there’s no authority at NatCon. The executive and the organisers try to keep everyone in line. And each faction listens to its own “headkickers,” “whips,” and senior figures. But whereas everyone on a school camp just wants to have fun, the NatCon attendees have vastly different goals.

To debate or to not debate:

Ideally, NatCon is for debating and settling on a policy platform for next year’s NUS. Motions are supposed to be proposed, debated, and voted on, in the style of the best democratic marketplace of ideas. 

Much of the debate, however, boiled down to factionalism. The factions come prepared with a stance for most motions and shut their ears to dissent or cooperation. Alongside Student Unity (Labor Right), which dominated this year’s conference, the key factions are the National Labor Students (NLS, Labor Left) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt). 

In pure Marxist fashion, SAlt was obsessed with criticising the incumbent Labor government’s economic management, reductively pointing to the crises in cost of living and housing – even during motions regarding Sexual Assualt and Sexual Harassment (SASH) in higher education. Without properly acknowledging all dimensions, SAlt proudly identified a problem, declared the need for its abolition, and demanded the NUS support endless protests. 

But the Labor factions did not present concrete policy solutions either, and spent most of their time defending the Labor government and sticking to their faction’s line. Debate over General Secretary Sheldon Gait’s sponsored trip to Israel nearly convinced some Unity delegates to support a ban on gifts, but the faction’s strict hierarchies changed their minds.

NLS, meanwhile, was caught in the middle of Unity’s centrism and SAlt’s dogmatism. The faction was generally ineffective and its delegates may have done better out of NatCon had they stayed in their rooms.

At the periphery were the independents, who deserve the most respect for their efforts at the conference. They freely criticised Labor, unlike Unity and NLS, without making Labor hatred their entire focus, unlike SAlt. The independents pushed for engaged debate and real outcomes in a factionalised talkfest.

Their efforts were to no avail. Unity’s domination of the conference gave it the power to defer debate on motions from the First Nations, Queer, Regional and Environmental chapters. Faction leaders defended their most egregious act of deferral, pushing most motions on Palestine to the Ethnocultural chapter, by arguing it would be more ‘efficient’ to move onto other matters.

However, the faction itself was a major source of inefficiency, giving their speakers more speaking time (though ANU’s Ben Naiju did a sterling job) and regularly proposing and passing joke procedurals, like demanding the conference show Subway Surfers gameplay on the hall screen. 

Unity also used its majority to bloc multiple motions together and treat them as one motion with limited speakers, and to pass some motions without any debate at all. By waiving or curtailing speaking rights, sometimes with NLS help, Unity could pass motions and procedurals without explanation, thus avoiding accountability. 

These included passing amendments to the wording of Palestinian motions, which changed what stance the Union would take on the issue. Ultimately, the NUS sees Israel’s siege on Palestine as one of “ethnic cleansing”, not “genocide” and the Labor factions only cared to speak on it  under a motion calling it a “humanitarian crisis”.

Debate was also drowned out as factions leveraged identity politics to undermine dissenting speakers. This was particularly apparent when Unity passed a procedural to ban cisgender men from speaking on policy in the Women’s chapter. 

It was bad enough that motions on SASH were primarily allocated to the Women’s chapter, harmfully suggesting that only women experience SASH. But Unity’s abuse of identity politics went even further, leading to the verbal abuse of non-women individuals who did speak on the motions. 

NLS delegates also abused identity politics to defend themselves and push back at SAlt’s discussion of Palestine, with one speaker yelling “If you are not Arab, sit the fuck down”. 

However, there were moments of productivity and cooperation, like when delegates were heard in silence and met with unanimous applause as they rose one by one to push attendees to fight harder for a free Palestine. Some delegates brought a solemn air to proceedings by passionately sharing their personal suffering, like ANU’s Skye Predavec and UTS’ Nour Al Hammouri.

This kind of advocacy arguably delivered NatCon 2023’s single concrete outcome: a statement of solidarity with Palestine. Notably, the independent delegates’ forthright speeches on transphobia forced Unity  to take accountability and apologise for the transphobic implications of its ban on cisgender male speakers. 

However, debate was generally useless because factions were hardly listening to each others’ contributions. The only way to reach compromise at NatCon was to threaten pulling quorum – but even then there was little willingness to negotiate. 

Unaccountable non-accountants

It’s almost impossible to criticise the Union’s spending because of that poor transparency. Gait delivered the annual report and the annual financial report on the last day. The latter contains nothing more than an audit outlining the Union’s financial position, income and expenditure. None of the NUS executive is responsible for handling the Union’s finances, so that’s all the information we get in terms of spending. As Gait told student media, “I am not an accountant”.

Action points for motions are not comprehensive, oftentimes asking the union to support a stance, protest or campaign, without articulating what funds or resources the Union should dedicate to the action points.Without these specific directions, it is difficult to see how the Union will organise itself to achieve the motions that it did pass, and therefore how it will be held accountable. This is most apparent in the way no factions criticised the Union, nor its spending or lack of transparency. 

While we can’t fully analyse the effectiveness of NUS’ spending, we can get a taste just by considering NatCon itself, which is the most expensive NUS conference of the year. The 2023 expenditure figure totalled to $62,247, helping take the Union’s total earnings from all conferences to a profit of $146, 647. 

Despite the large investment into the Conference, NatCon 2023 was inaccessible and poorly managed. Organisers failed to ensure the venue was accessible for all delegates, making it difficult for at least one delegate to participate in proceedings, and sparking fights over provision of transport aids. (Ironically, delegates hurried through debate on Disabilities policy at the close of conference.)

The accessibility failures point to NatCon’s deficient administration. Attendees received emails with onboarding information less than a week before the conference began, while the 328-page policy book was sent distributed only two days out. before the conference, giving attendees little time to prepare and providing further explanation for the uninformed and unproductive debate. 

Another key expenditure item is on NUS executive office bearers (OBs), who are elected each NatCon. The total OB expenditure for 2023 was $39,387, of which $28,808 was spent on their travel and accommodation. 

When questioned, Gait admitted that the costs were large, but explained that most of the costs go towards OBs visiting affiliated member campuses. However, it is very difficult to substantiate his claim as the OBs do not make an effort to detail which campuses they visited. While the NUS does visit member campuses, this primarily applies to campuses that are Labor-controlled. OBs are much less likely to visit unions that have historically been independent-controlled such as ANUSA.

The majority of the Union’s work involves campaigning and lobbying for student interests. More than 50 motions in 2023’s policy book called on the union to support or build campaigns on issues.  However, OB expenditure on campaigns amounts to only $2,409. In comparison, OB Conferences and mobile phones cost respectively $4,107 and $1,537.

This limited investment into campaigns is despite a majority of OBs claiming to either organise or participate in major campaigns. Outgoing President Bailey Riley herself claimed to run a “massive campaign against HECs indexation”, along with The STOP Campaign and Fair Agenda, which addressed SASH on campus. 

While the cost of campaigns might be distributed in other expenditure portfolios, none of which are mentioned in the 2023 annual financial report, it is concerning that the total expenditure on campaigns between the twelve OBs comes to only two grand. 

This also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of NUS campaigns. Prominent campaigns such as the 2023 Budget protest and Canberra’s own Posie Parker protests were organised and attended not just by NUS executives and delegates, but also student unions who continue to  play a massive part in the advocacy scene. 

Conclusion 

Woroni has previously criticised NatCon for being “inefficient and overall pointless,” and we can confidently report that not much has changed.

ANUSA currently pays just under $34,000 in affiliation fees to the NUS. ANUSA Treasurer Will Burfoot, of Unity, told Woroni “the NUS is ANUSA’s chance to engage nationally”.  

However, it’s not clear that the NUS generates much value for students in terms of nationwide advocacy. The 2023 NatCon ended with the violence reaching a crescendo and the Union’s policy platform for the next year remains as blurry as ever. 

The NUS claims to contribute to major wins such as the Higher Education Ombudsman on SASH, but poor transparency around the Union’s activity and governance makes it impossible to judge these  whether these achievements are completely or majorly owed to it.  

Ultimately, if NatCon is to be a stage for productive debate, the Union needs to undergo mass reforms. Firstly,  by ensuring financial and governing transparency, secondly by discouraging divisive factionalism and thirdly by letting student media film and record the conference. The latter, Woroni believes, will significantly encourage accountable debate or at least stop the embarrassing chairing.

But perhaps the unproductive debate is the point. Unity attendees revelled in their control of the conference floor. They got to get drunk on a noxious punch every night. They got to relive their school camp memories without any teachers to stand in their way.

If you could blow students’ money on the crappiest, shoutiest, most expensive school camp in Australia, wouldn’t you?

 

Woroni is a recipient of SSAF. 

 

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 and emerging. 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.