NUS Refuses to have Debate on Definition of Ethnocultural

Image from NUS website

This past week, I have been an observer at the annual National Conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). The NUS purports to be the peak representative body of students in Australia and at this annual conference, policies are discussed and either passed or voted down. These policies are implemented and followed by the NUS in the following year, informing the campaigns and projects the Union and its office bearers pursue.

On the evening of Tuesday 13th  December, I attempted to garner support for a motion related to the Ethnocultural portfolio. Historically, this portfolio has been deprioritised: it is the only autonomous office bearer position that has not been a paid position since its inception.

My motion read as follows:

“This conference compels the NUS General Secretary, in consultation with the NUS Ethnocultural Officer and the NUS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer, to investigate changing the definition of ethnocultural from ‘a person from a culturally or linguistically diverse background’ to ‘a person who identifies as a person of colour. This includes people from a minority ethnicity, who are white passing, who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and all those who have been marginalised or otherwise discriminated against because of white dominance/supremacy.’”

To preface, the term ‘person of colour’ is not a reference to the literal shade of someone’s skin. The term is intended to be inclusive and aims to create a collective identity that emphasises the common experience of systemic racism at the hands of white dominance. This motion would bring the NUS definition of ethnocultural in line with the definition used by the ANU Ethnocultural Department.

The motion recognises the experiences of people of colour as qualitatively different from those who are linguistically or culturally diverse. Where ‘culturally or linguistically diverse’ could cover those who speak multiple languages or those from other white-majority countries, the proposed definition commits the Ethnocultural Officer to fighting against racism and oppressive systems. Reducing the meaning of ‘ethnocultural’ to ‘individuals who speak different languages, from different countries’ hinders the dissection and dismantling of racist systems.

More pragmatically, the motion is an attempt to prevent breaches of collective autonomy with the NUS and at Australian universities. The most notable example of this occurred in 2015 when a white South African man was elected to the position of NUS Ethnocultural Officer. This candidate was supported by Student Unity, a Labor Right faction. Aditi Razdan, the co-chair of the ANU Ethnocultural Committee for 2016, commented that the “election was deeply controversial – a power play. It was even mocked by members of the faction that put him there as if it were some display of their political capital. Many people of colour within the NUS were hurt and disempowered”.

The responses to the proposed motion from the factions were telling. A factional leader from Student Unity said there was “no way they would support this motion.” When asked for reasons, they said that “members of their ethnocultural caucus would be excluded under this definition.” The Socialist Alternative also refused to give this motion its support, stating that “tinkering on the fringes of bureaucracy is antithetical to fighting racism.” They also asserted that “anyone can pretend to identify as black” and “a white man has been pivotal to getting outcomes for PoC at some Australian Universities.”

On the other hand, the National Labor Students (a Labor Left faction) were willing to lend their support to the motion. Betty Belay (NLS), the NUS Ethnocultural Officer for 2016, commented that “people of colour is a better term for those represented by the Ethnocultural Officer, as this term resonates with people, and acknowledges their experiences are qualitatively distinct from those who are simply culturally or linguistically diverse.”

However, Unity and Socialist Alternative together constitute a majority on the conference floor. This means they have the power to prevent motions from being raised and discussed. The unwillingness of these factions to allow people of colour to speak, in a forum where this motion could have been openly discussed and voted upon, is reflective of their priorities: they are not concerned with allowing people of colour to be heard, or lively debate on the issue to be had.