The Other Student Union

Words by Martin Ditmann
Infographic by Kevin Hawkins

Screaming, fighting over chairs and real policy discussions were the backdrop for another emotionally charged conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). The NUS is the top student representative body in the country—and it’s one of the most contentious organisations in Australia. Every December, a nationwide horde of elected students and observers descend on La Trobe University the NUS national conference (“NatCon”). The NUS has the strong potential to affect students—so what is it and how does it work?

Factions and voting

NatCon delegates may be elected individually, but it’s the conference factions that hold most of the real power. Several NUS factions bind or pressure their delegates to follow the factional line during policy votes. Delegates who vote differently risk admonishment or expulsion from the faction.

Some factions, such as the National Independents grouping, are fervently opposed to binding. But Amy Jenkins, an NLS delegate from the University of Melbourne, supports it. “I believe in binding because I believe in collectivism,” she says.

Factionalism is taken a step further during formal ballots for NUS leadership positions. During these, most delegates give their wads of ballot papers to key factional figures to fill out. In a practice many students would find alarming, they’re filled out according to predetermined deals.

“I am sure any student would be concerned that large stacks of ballots are changing hands between voters and filled out by other delegates,” says Tom Hayes, an independent NUS delegate from the University of Melbourne.

Some delegates told Farrago that they supported the procedure, claiming that it was a practical matter.

Fighting

This year’s conference had everything from screaming to fighting over chairs. Cries of “shame, shame” were constant. NatCon has a very long history of intense and immense conflict—both physical and verbal—and this year was no exception.

In the biggest incident of the year, a physical fight between Unity and Socialist Alternative members led to widespread assault claims. Sparked by a contested rally, it follows a history of tension between the factions.

And then there was the person who was physically blocked from voting. Senior Indigenous student and NLS-aligned delegate Alison Whittaker was unhappy with an NLS deal that saw her passed over for the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer. NLS had already received her ballot papers under proxy form arrangements.

“The NUS stipulates that if ballots have been picked up by a particular group there’s no means of recourse beyond that,” says Adam Galvin, an UMSU Education (Academic) Officer and NLS-aligned NUS delegate.

But Whittaker was outraged. “Left NLS. I love my comrades but I will not tolerate systemic and institutionalised undermining of marginalised ppl,” Whittaker tweeted after the incident.

Administration and transparency

The administration and transparency of the NUS often faces heavy questioning. The NUS website does not appear to contain any of its recent conference documentation or reports. Lists of NatCon delegates are nowhere to be found.

Few national or student media outlets cover NatCon. Sending a single reporter to the floor costs $1100.

A range of factions claim they want to see greater NUS transparency. However, factions like NLS and Unity claim that there are big technical and financial roadblocks to things like issuing free media passes.

Policy

Most of the time at NatCon is spent ploughing through a massive policy book with hundreds of pages. The conference often runs out of time to discuss entire policy chapters—environmental policy fell by the wayside again this year.

Delegates cried during this year’s prominent queer policy discussion, particularly after a tribute to late trans activist Amber Maxwell. Delegates marked it with a display of uncharacteristic bipartisanship.

Delegates debated whether Australia should allow parallel imports of books, which would bring in more foreign textbooks. The right saw it as an opportunity to reduce book prices, while some on the left said that it could hamper Australian publishing.

Also on the minds of many at the conference was another contentious issue—Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). A compulsory university-levied student services fee currently funds Australian student unions. Many on the right say it should be voluntary.

Liberal student Claire Chandler is staunchly pro-VSU. “I believe in our freedom to associate and I don’t think we should be made to pay for something we don’t need or want to be involved in,” she says.

UMSU Secretary Sam Donnelly disagrees, believing that the SSAF funds crucial activism and activities. “VSU is something that I think destroys student life,” he says.

The future

NatCon saw four University of Melbourne students elected to NUS office bearer roles. Notably, Unity’s Isabelle Kingshott took the key Secretary role.

New NUS Victorian Environment Officer Pat Dollard is looking ahead. “I want to see really good engagement with campuses,” he says.

But NUS’s member unions, which fund it, are now frequently debating how much money and support it should get. UMSU Students’ Council has now resolved not to pay NUS dues until it receives more financial information.

The NUS debate is raging on around the country.

NUS President Deanna Taylor says the NUS is a powerful way to get students’ voices heard. “We have a foot in the door to the federal government that other organisations might not have,” she says.

Independent NSW delegate Cameron Caccamo says the NUS is worthwhile, but clearly underperforming. “NUS is a fantastic organisation in principle and theory only,” he says.