After spending three days attempting to sound sincerely aware of the needs, concerns and issues facing thousands of students across Australia, by the final night a lot of attendees at the National Union of Students national conference give up the pretence.

At “natcon”, as its known, you don’t have to worry about the Kool-Aid, but beware the punch.

Student Unity, the tightly-rehearsed band of Labor right operatives that controlled the conference, drink a punch prepared to a secret recipe designed to maximise potency. They elect a cellar master from among their ranks each year to prepare the concoction for the comrades who pay $20 each night for the privilege.

The National Labor Students (NLS), Labor left, drink something a bit fruitier, but still laden with enough plonk to make sure the smaller faction can take on Unity in a boozy singing contest: who can remember all the words to “solidarity forever” after this much to drink?

The National Independents, the faction you have when you don’t have a faction, take punch after a complex and participatory ceremony, but not before a $400 transaction is processed at the nearest bottle shop. The recipe is a little more flexible, just as these delegates are allowed to be in their votes.

And then Socialist Alternative, with no discernible punch of their own, come to the party in smaller numbers, still armed with their trademark bravado. They are ready to accept the hospitality and punch any other faction might offer.

This is how the 2017 National Union of Students (NUS) national conference ends: in a car park at 3am with most content enough that the good work of student unionism has been finished as best as the system allows for the year.

Never mind the conference skims over most policies, didn’t manage to discuss sexual assault on campus in a year when the Australian Human Rights Commission released a landmark survey showing it was a clear threat to students across the country, and instead spent more time talking about pineapple on pizza.

As everyone drinks and chants and sings into the night, NLS’s Mark Pace, the 2017 campus president at Adelaide University, is all but certain to be installed as the NUS’s national president.

Factional deals in place, the NUS is pushed off into another year, still certain of its own relevance but fading from the consciousness of most Australian students.

People behave differently when they know they’re being watched. But when you can’t play along at home via video link, they’re left to carry on in any way they see fit. That’s how NUS national conference proceeds.

At past conferences, factions have sought to block doors and physically intimidate other attendees. Shouting matches have ensued and other sneaky business, including paper eating, on conference floor has taken place without its perpetrators being held accountable.

Critics say live streaming would have prevented this. Outsiders would be able to see what was taking place and could hold their elected delegates accountable for their behaviour.

Woroni and most other student publications have repeatedly called for the ban on live streaming to be lifted but, just as conference gets under way on the first morning in little more than a procedural murmuring, live streaming is banned.

Throughout the conference, senior Student Unity members are at pains to remind Woroni that the behaviour of their faction on conference floor is not representative of either the faction nor the NUS. If conference was live streamed, they say, home viewers would get the wrong idea about the good work Unity and the union do.

When NLS caucused on the issue at their pre-conference gathering, they voted to move towards live streaming the event. A number of NLS members Woroni spoke to fully support the move, but many raised concerns about autonomous chapters. “We need to make sure people’s identity is respected,” one said. “It’s something that’s possible.” Autonomous policy chapters, which feature motions surrounding women’s, queer, disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, can only be spoken on by people who identify as belonging to the group the policies concern.

But Micky Fisher, the 2018 Monash Student Association president and the public face of a campaign that saw Monash return to the Unity fold after years in the wilderness, revealed one night another motivation behind resisting live streaming.

“If I’m behaving like a terrorist for three days, I don’t want people to see that,” he said.

The NUS national conference is a political pantomime.

The factions perform their choreographed routines, honed after years of tradition and founded on political knowledge passed down from one cohort to the next.

There’s no room for dissent in Unity, the faction which controlled 45 per cent of votes on conference floor in 2017. A senior Unity figure stands out the front of the faction, all dressed in dark navy blue t-shirts which brand them as “STUDENT UNITY 2017” in a US college football jumper-style font, telling them how to vote. For most of the conference, it was Jill Molloy, the 2017 NUS national welfare officer, leading the faction.

“Unity up,” Molloy would command during a vote, raising her conference lanyard over her head while pacing up and down in front of the faction. All the other lanyards would be raised above heads in coordinated movement. No brain power required.

NLS offers a similar spectacle, but seems a bit more relaxed. They sit on the other side of the main aisle on conference floor to Unity, the other family at the wedding. NLS wear red t-shirts, and at this conference had them emblazoned with Jeremy Corbyn and his phrase: “For the many, not the few.” Both Unity and NLS take their pews at the front.

Socialist Alternative, universally known as the Trots, hardly have a quiet moment. The 2017 education officer, Anneke Demanuele, constantly moves around the faction and its hangers on. She leads the yelling and chanting, and isn’t afraid to get in the face of others on conference floor. (She did not respond to a request for an interview.)

The Trots’ main tactic is to yell. They yell at Unity and NLS, they yell at speakers, they yell at other people on the floor. They seek to disrupt and divert attention, shouting indiscriminately for a more militant NUS, more protest, more action and more resistance.

Elected ANU delegate Howard Maclean said that activism is the foundation of the faction. “They care about student interests only so far as they align with their own, and a very large part about why they care about student activism is it offers one of the most fertile grounds for recruitment and profit,” he said, pointing to their constant peddling of party newspaper Red Flag.

Harry Gregg, a rising star of the NLS from the University of Sydney, said that if you can “see through the outrage” of Socialist Alternative “they’re willing to talk.” Gregg said NLS and Socialist Alternative agree on many of the same things, including a socialist economy, but the factions had irreconcilable differences.

Gregg said he didn’t expect adults to behave the way that they did. “I did expect passionate debate, but I didn’t expect getting in people’s faces,” he said.

Socialist Alternative have a reputation for getting in people’s faces. Constantinos Karavias, who was installed as education officer at national conference, threw a napkin at the education minister, Simon Birmingham, during a National Press Club address ahead of the last federal budget. Karavias, who spent 2017 actively campaigning on the ANU campus, registered for national conference with an RMIT student card, Woroni understands, and told conference floor he was from the University of Tasmania. Karavias wrote for Monash University’s Lot’s Wife between 2012 and 2014, and was described as a Melbourne University student by the Herald Sun in February 2016.

Karavias, who will lead the NUS’s flagship “Make Education Free Again” campaign in 2018, is part of the group of hardened, perpetual student activists who shout the loudest from the Socialist Alternative benches for a more militant NUS.

Will the policies debated make a difference to most students?

Probably not.

The majority of Australian students do not turn up to the protests and national days of action (NDAs) organised by the NUS, so vigorously debated on conference floor.

When debate floor finally faltered for the last time without discussing sexual assault, Howard Maclean said: “If policy actually mattered, I’d be more disappointed than I am.”

Harry Needham, the 2018 ANUSA education officer and co-convenor of the National Independents, said: “Sexual assault was not discussed because Student Unity pulled quorum on the morning of the last day of conference. I believe that this was due to a dispute within the faction, although I have no special insight into the murky inner workings of the Unity machine.

Needham, who supported accreditation last year, said that the portrayal of the NUS as a collection of self-centred hacks is untrue. “Almost everyone I have encountered there does genuinely care about getting the best possible deal for students. It’s whether they have the right priorities and go about things in the best possible way that is open to question,” he said.

“I don’t believe it was deliberately obfuscated but I do believe that the failure to discuss sexual assault can largely be attributed to the factional nature of ‘natcon’,” he told Woroni.

Only Needham and Maclean travelled to the conference from ANU, attending as official observers rather than delegates.

The biggest outcome at national conference is political point scoring for delegates and observers. Participation and involvement at the NUS is the tried and true pathway into federal politics for the up and comers of the Labor party.

Federal Labor right senator Richard Marles was NUS general secretary in 1989 and current Unity members have worked in his office. The embattled, former Labor MP David Feeney, who survived the 2013 election in his inner-Melbourne seat of Batman on the scantest of margins only to resign after failing to prove he wasn’t a dual citizen, orchestrated the split from the National Organisation of Labor Students to create Student Unity in 1991. It was understood his influence was still being exerted over Unity members on conference floor in December.

The leader of the opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, has served on the NUS national executive, while former prime minister Julia Gillard was the last president of the Australian Union of Students (AUS), the precursor of the NUS, before it collapsed in 1983. Victorian senator Scott Ryan is one of the very few Liberals who has sat on the national executive at the student union.

Less than 15 minutes after arriving at the Waurn Ponds campus of Deakin University, on the outskirts of Geelong, Woroni was shown in a carpark a list of people who would be installed onto the union’s national executive.

The list was accurate when the result of the election was announced after the end of the conference.

For Dylan Lloyd, a national conference veteran and part of the small Greens-aligned Grassroots faction, it’s particularly galling. Lloyd was unanimously endorsed last year by the Australian Queer Student Network for queer officer. Lloyd was never going to be elected to the role, it was not in the deal cut by the major factions.

In 2015, Lloyd missed out by a small margin. This year there was no chance despite nationwide endorsement from bodies representing queer students. Socialist Alternative, which does not believe in identity politics, gets the spot in a deal carved out by the major factions.

But no one offers a clear path away from the factional parochialism that suspends the NUS and was identified in a 2014 audit by TLConsult, which said: “The status quo is unacceptable and its prolongation will have negative consequences for the future of NUS.” Since then, reformers have faced off conservatives in trying to adopt the bulk of advice in the auditors’ report.

It’s just the way things are, they say. Nobody’s going to change it, no one has the power to. Maclean said it was best to think of the conference as an internal Labor party affair, with a few others attending. “A very large part of its purpose to the main Labor factions is as a way of ‘blooding’ relatively junior members of the party (same for SAlt) and giving them important political experience,” he said.

But some do better than others to make the system work. Last year’s national president, Sophie Johnston, a former campus president from UNSW and NLS member, was popular in both Labor factions.

“We did not let factionalism divide us, we did not let ‘natcon’ define us,” Johnston told national conference in her valedictory speech.

“I think the next office bearing team has a lot of work to do. NUS can’t change in one year. We didn’t let our factionalism get in the way of us getting work done, it didn’t get in the way of running campaigns and representing students,” she said.

By mid-January, new president Mark Pace is already in Melbourne, working long hours from the union’s new offices in North Melbourne. He’s gearing up for a lot of travel as O-Weeks commence around the country. But he’s also seeking to ensure the union is in a position to campaign during the next federal election.

“I want to ensure that NUS is adequately prepared for a federal election.  We’ve seen three consecutive major reforms to higher education fail since the election of the Abbott government in 2013,” he said.

“I’ll be working with students across the country to develop a student manifesto, a document outlining principles that reflect the student view of a high quality and accessible education system, that can be taken by NUS to any upcoming federal election.”

Pace leads a national executive which is the first in the NUS’s history to only have one woman, NLS’s Kate Crossin, who serves as women’s officer. “It is abhorrent that the national union does not have reflective representation in its national team,” he said.

“Both the majority of national office bearers and the majority of national executive are made up of white men. I have obviously contributed to this lack of representation and I am not denying that,” he told Woroni, also committing to working with the women’s officer to develop affirmative action policies for the union.

While the NUS last year sought to turn a profit on the conferences it runs throughout the year, Pace is focused on making sure campuses affiliate and pay their dues so the NUS is in a position where it can fund campaigns for students.

“My priority will always be to ensure NUS conferences are accessible to students, and that includes keeping conference registration costs as low as possible,” he said.

Pace has been put in a tough position. Factional insiders are concerned the NUS won’t be able to manage another surplus, like the one the 2017 general secretary, Nathan Croft, delivered to much applause on conference floor.

In 2016, the NUS was in the red to the tune of $61,178, but in 2017 reported a surplus of $11,952. The surplus, which Croft took credit for, was achieved after Edith Cowan University, University of Western Australia and Griffith University re-accredited and were shown to have paid their fees on time.

Croft used a diplomatic valedictory speech to reject claims the NUS, in its 30th year, was a dying organisation.

“A lot of people have said this organisation would be dead in two years, I can safely say it won’t be. It’ll be around for another 30 years,” he told the conference. “We’re not just holding on. We have an upward trajectory.”

Croft offered some advice to incoming national office bearers: “You can do it. You can fix this organisation. Be critical. Analyse what you see as wrong. It’s only through conviction you can make change, be proud of where you’re going.

“Please note, if you put your factionalism aside, this organisation will grow and actually become strong,” he said.

The question of accreditation will again be on the agenda at the ANU, after the SRC voted last year to reaccredit as long as a series of key performance indicators (KPIs) were met by the union.

On Tuesday, 27 February, Howard Maclean gave his report national conference report to the SRC which recommended ANUSA reaccredit with the NUS for $1 subject to last year’s KPIs.

Maclean recommended circumventing the NUS and working through other peak advocacy bodies that are more capable, including the Australian Environmental Students Network (AESN), the Australian Queer Students’ Network (AQSN) and the Council of International Students in Australia (CISA).

These “are often far more capable and bona fide than their NUS departmental equivalents,” Maclean wrote in the report.

The NUS signed memorandums of understanding at the end of 2017 with The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA), the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and CISA.

Maclean told Woroni that “disaccreditation is not a viable long term strategy” and that the “ANU must look to either committing to the NUS, or leaving entirely and looking at the creation of an alternative national organisation.”

Maclean’s report, which by its own admission favoured brevity over detail, was criticised by Niall Cummins, the ACT Student Unity convenor and NUS national executive member who attended the national conference.

“That brevity is no excuse for a blatant lack of balance, and that ignoring the achievements of office bearers in 2017 is ignorant at best and deliberately malicious at worst,” Cummins said. He said he was: “speaking as a student involved in NUS” rather than as a factional player or national executive member.

The 2017 ANUSA president, James Connolly, said ANUSA would not accredit with the NUS in 2017 when Matthew Incerti was appointed the national conference returning officer. Incerti is a previous member of Unity, contravening a KPI set by the ANUSA SRC that the returning officer would not be a former factional member.

But several sources have told Woroni that Unity general secretaries, which includes Nathan Croft, will always try to install a former Unity member as returning officer “just in case they ever need to meddle with the results.” Woroni is not suggesting results have been meddled with.

In 2015 and 2016, Lambros Tapinos, a Moreland City councillor in Melbourne and the 2004 NUS welfare officer from Student Unity, was returning officer under Student Unity general secretaries Tom Nock and Cameron Petrie. In 2017, Matthew Incerti – a former staffer for Labor MPs Mark Dreyfus and David Feeney, former organiser at the conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and 2009 Student Unity NUS ethnocultural officer – was returning officer under Student Unity’s Nathan Croft.

Maclean said: “Our votes would have mattered [and] been the crucial factors that might have tipped several policies and elections, such as winning a second seat for the National Independents in the NatExec [national executive].

“This is why there is widespread suspicion that Unity deliberately avoided meeting the KPIs, although there is no evidence to substantiate that suspicion.”

Know more? Email: jasper@woroni.com.au