GEELONG — The self-styled future leaders of Australia assembled in blaring sunshine south of Geelong yesterday, wearing tribalistic t-shirts with a hunger for the cut and thrust of politics.
Maybe it’s best not to think of it like that, once you sniff the arrogance and sense the ego. These are the same faces from those debating contests and national conventions in high school after all.
But this is where careers will be made and broken.
This is where a good whack of future politicians will get their first taste of political blood and where scant little will be done for actual students. It’s all part of the joy of the National Union of Students national conference.
If question time in federal parliament drives you up the wall, it’s likely you won’t be able to stand the madness of #nusnatcon, a five day celebration of the most human, visceral components of politics: wheeling, dealing, bullshit and an allegedly robust belief in making a difference for students.
But ensconced in an architecturally dismal city on a campus far away, miles from anywhere but suspiciously close to an outlet selling cheap cans of beer, these students will plot out a course for a union that most students will never have much to do with.
And this year, we’ve been led to believe, it will take part in business hours. The conference hall is booked from 8am to 8pm each day. No 3am conference sessions of yore. Or so we hope.
The day started with a good dose of fake news. Operatives from National Labor Students (the Left) spread the rumour on Twitter that the Labor Unity (Right) general secretary, Nathan Croft, forgot to book rooms for delegates and observers to stay in. It was complete rubbish, but it set the tone.
Then Socialist Alternative (the Trots) missed the start of conference and the Welcome to Country. Apparently they were busy. They were at a protest – something about the revolution being on its way?
And, anyway, conference was almost a non event. After 1.5 attendees were checked in every minute – while the rest baked in the sun – the whole day’s business was officially over before it really began.
After 32 minutes, where 15 of those minutes were a talk-amongst-yourselves break called by the current NUS president, Sophie Johnston, to make up for too much efficiency, the conference floor was closed and delegates waved out to pre-dinner free time (read: booze). They had concocted a business committee and policy discussions would commence at 9am tomorrow, we were told.
But of course the day’s business was far from over. Factions don’t organise themselves. Cans of beer don’t get finished on their own.
Asked what the point is, a question that was perhaps too philosophical for the first day of the conference, a few delegates spun the usual line about working to improve the welfare of students, making education equitable, maybe even free. Student unionism matters, they say. It’s got strength.
But too often it looks like a ruse. This is a union controlled by factions. That’s the conclusion independent auditors reached in June 2014. It’s got more governance peculiarities than most students have HDs. Some brave reporters are vowing to live stream conference until they’re banned. Others would just really like to get their hands on the minutes of national executive meetings.
The NUS is a vehicle for politics. Unhinged, pure, unadulterated politics.
This week, we’ll be sure to see where it crashes.