Matching T-Shirts, Politics and a Side of Yelling: AUJS at NUS 2016
Jo Friedman's Personal Account
By/ December 22, 2016
For the first time in a decade*, AUJS has sent a non-voting delegation to observe the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference (NatCon) from December 12-16 at Deakin University, Waurn Ponds. The incoming National Political Affairs Director, Ariel Zohar, who organised the contingent, emphasised the importance of AUJS’ attendance in order to ‘engage with student leaders around Australia and learn about how student politics operates.’ Student politics is a well-paved path for ambitious politicians, and many of the delegates treat this conference as a prelude to their potential future careers. Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are just some of the names that started their careers in student politics.
So how exactly does student politics operate?
Across Australia, there are 17 major universities that pay several tens of thousands of dollars in affiliation fees to the National Union of Students. Every year, these universities hold elections to select their campus’ student representatives and delegates for NUS and for its National Conference. Readers may recall voting for “GO!’ in the Monash Student Association, “Stand Up” for the University of Sydney Student Representative Council or “More Activities!” for the University of Melbourne Student Union. Students tend to vote for tickets promising ‘cheaper textbooks… online lectures… stronger rights for minorities” but they are often unaware that these tickets are aligned to different political parties. Victorian and NSW universities such as Monash, Melbourne, Deakin, UNSW and USYD are generally controlled by student tickets affiliated with the Labor Party, split into factions distinguishing the right from the left. Student Unity, the ‘Labor right’ faction (think Bill Shorten), controls the majority of Victorian universities, while National Labor Students, the ‘Labor left’ faction (think Tanya Plibersek) controls Monash Clayton and the majority of USYD and UNSW.
Many of the leading figures within these student factions are the leaders of their university’s student body, fighting for the rights of their university’s students. Others go further, taking positions in NUS – the union that represents all university students nationally. NUS plays a crucial role, lobbying government for students’ rights, organising national education protests and voting on policy issues to reflect the opinions of Australian students, who NUS claims to represent. The National Conference is the place to vote on these policy issues and elect a new team of National Office Bearers (OBs) who are responsible for leading the fight for students. This year, the conference was based in Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus in Geelong – home to the Geelong Football Club, Barwon Heads Prison and some of the world’s best wool.
From Monday to Wednesday, the AUJS delegation keenly followed the debate, with some issues sparking fascinating discussion. A motion for additional Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) during university staff strikes was proposed by Student Unity (Labor right), which argued that although students need to support staff members when they decide to strike, students also need to be supported when staff goes on those strikes. Yet the National Labour Students (Labor left) and Socialist Alternative countered that supporting PASS classes during teacher strikes would limit the impact of the strikes and effectively delegitimise the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). After an impassioned debate, the motion failed.
Sometimes, seemingly non-controversial issues attracted significant and surprising dissent. A motion proposed by Student Unity to work with vice-chancellors to hire career counsellors and aid students in their search for future jobs was rejected by Socialist Alternative, because ‘students should never negotiate with vice chancellors, who only care about making money.’ A plan to lobby for online lectures across all courses (supported by the vast majority of Australian university students) was opposed by Socialist Alternative as it ‘plays into the hands of the university by allowing staff to be cut’ and ‘goes against the wishes of the NTEU.’
Other times, passionate debate devolved into riot.
During the policy discussion about women’s issues, the small Liberal delegation proposed a motion that would lobby universities to increase support for mothers completing their degrees. It was a sensible, non-controversial policy. However, simply because it was proposed by the Liberals, Socialist Alternative was against the motion, prioritising factionalism and conspiracy over policy. The group’s students screamed in the face of a Labor left member speaking for the motion, yelling and chanting aggressively as if she were promoting fascism. Not long afterwards, a Liberal Indigenous student was prevented from speaking for his own motion supporting the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This nearly resulted in a fistfight between him and an Indigenous student from Socialist Alternative, which was only prevented by security physically separating the two of them. Keep in mind, this is the same Socialist Alternative that introduced policy on the importance of freedom of expression on campuses.
The Liberal students were not beyond reproach. They repeatedly mocked the entire conference with their boisterous cheers when harassed by other factions for ‘failing the working class’ and ‘prioritising bosses over students.’ But despite their contributions, the Liberals do not censure other students from speaking, and are not the reason policy on LGBTI issues was left to the final 15 minutes of the conference.
In some ways, the conference floor is a hyped up, dumbed down version of Parliamentary Question Time. Factions cheer their own policies with the ubiquitous ‘hear, hear,’ applauding their fellow members with whoops and claps, whilst shouting ‘shame’ at their opponents’ views, hissing and cussing and labelling opposition factions as ‘scabs.’ As the factions generally vote in blocks, the outcome of a motion is decided well before it gets raised for debate, which means the discussion lacks substance and is often used as a way to attack other factions. Student Unity attacks the far left for ‘doing nothing;’ National Labour Students attacks Student Unity for cosy-ing up to the Labor party no matter its policy, and Socialist Alternative attacks everybody for prioritising anything above militant socialism and national protests to overthrow democracy and advance their communist revolution.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that there was compelling discussion on a number of the issues that came to the floor. In the Ethno-Cultural section, a range of speakers told their stories of racism. In a discussion about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Student Unity waived their speaking rights to Micky Fisher, AUJS’ National Chairperson. Micky spoke about the impact racism has on the health and wellbeing of Australians, emphasising the importance of keeping s18C, unchanged, in order to protect the safety of minorities persecuted on the basis of their race. In the Women’s section, speakers explained the unique challenges women face as students, sharing their personal experiences of discrimination.
Yet even when the debate is civilised and the policy is important, the impact of the motions passed at NatCon can be unclear. NUS can pass as many motions as it likes calling for the Centrelink age of independence to be lowered or labelling Australia ‘a Racist Disgrace,’ but the policy is obviously outside of their jurisdiction. And from what I understand, relevant office bearers are only bound not to act against the policies passed - that is the extent of their responsibility.
Australian students have little understanding about these procedures and NUS in general. They would be very concerned to discover that their peak representative body organises a conference in which filming and photography is prohibited, minutes are not taken and agendas are not provided until the last minute. Issues such as ‘mandatory wearing of bucket hats’ and a ‘National Union of Students cookbook’ are debated on the floor and delegates physically eat the paper on which motions are written in order to prevent them being handed to the chair of the conference.
There is no doubt that NUS has campaigned powerfully for cheaper textbooks, fought against fee deregulation and made great gains for women’s rights at university. Indeed, in 2016 NUS made significant advances in spotlighting the extent of sexual assault and harassment which students face on campus, partnering with the Australian Human Rights Commission to run a national survey. However, students often find it difficult to get behind NUS when it remains highly politicised and extremely factional, which is on display at Nat Con. If you view NUS only through Nat Con, much of its passion and potential can be drowned out by the chorus of verbal assaults and militant socialists, red in the heart and face.
Despite NUS’ current state, the importance of a national student union should not be understated. Historically, the power of organised youth saw students rise up across universities and join forces to stand for free speech, object to the war in Vietnam and fight to end conscription. Students’ strong beliefs and unique perspectives deserve representation and NUS can and should be a national force of young leaders expressing our worldview and protecting our rights. By increasing the transparency and publicity of university elections and reforming the National Conference, the National Union of Students is more than capable of securing its place as the voice of the youth in Australia. It might just take a while.
AUJS NUS Observer December 2016
*AUJS cannot confirm the exact length of its absence at NUS NatCon
** AUJS can confirm that its delegates chanted "one of us" at Jewish students when they finished their speeches
NB: This is a personal opinion piece, and does not necessarily reflect the view of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students.