Physical violence, secret policy deals, and factional warfare were discussed this week when the NUS National Conference observers reported to ANUSA. The conference is generally hostile to media and has banned recording, so these reports are the first look ANUSA, and ANU students, get of NatCon, and therefore greatly impact whether ANUSA funds and supports NUS.
The National Union of Students (NUS) campaigns and lobbies on penalty rates, deregulation, and other student issues. It is governed by the National Conference (NatCon), where delegates from member universities vote on policy, elections, and other business. Each year, ANUSA votes on ‘accreditation’ with NUS, which means paying a fee and voting at NatCon. ANUSA is not currently accredited, so the elected delegates attended as ‘observers’ (excepting Karan Dhamija who chose not to attend). ANUSA President James Connolly negotiated for the National Independents faction, where Education Officer Jessy Wu and General Representative Tom Kesina also sat. Jillian Molloy, former president of NUS’s ACT branch, sat with Student Unity, the Labor Right faction, and was elected Welfare Officer at the conference. Connolly, acknowledging his perspective as a negotiator, was lukewarm on NatCon, while Wu surprised many with harsh criticisms. Molloy said she was “one of NUS’s largest critics”, but while she did call for reform she largely focused on the successes of NUS, and did not include her former role as secretary of ANU Labor Club, a strongly pro-NUS group, in her disclaimer. Molloy did not respond to Observer’s request for comment.
Fistfights, physical intimidation, and screaming matches, has plagued the reputation of NatCon in past years. This year showed improvement in that fistfights were avoided and an independent grievance officer was appointed, but physical intimidation remained prevalent. Wu said she was “followed around and towered over by somebody from SAlt (Socialist Alternative)” after a policy disagreement. Reports disagreed on the severity of the problems; Molloy called it a “significant improvement” and argued NatCon “is a time where passionate people speak on policies and actions that mean the world to them”. Connolly, however, labelled it as “tribalistic”, and Kesina described the atmosphere as “an even more juvenile House of Reps Question Time … where delegates tackle each other to eat bits of paper” referring to the practice of stealing and eating printed motions before they reach the Chair, so they cannot be discussed by the conference.
Last year’s NatCon neglected many topics like environmental and queer* policy, but this year was successful in passing policy. Connolly described the platform as “sensible, non-controversial and progressive,” highlighting the ‘Make Education Free Again’ campaign and Molloy’s welfare policies as key successes, and Molloy wrote at length of the successful Welfare policies she authored, highlighting campaigns against penalty rate cuts. Wu and Kesina, however, argued the NatCon process made policy unrepresentative. “Policy positions and elections at NatCon … are passed or failed before-hand, because factions have already decided their positions” said Kesina., and Wu affirmed, “On 98% of the policies, none of the speeches affected the way anyone voted.” Wu further criticised the NUS education campaign ‘Make Education Free Again’ “I know there is disagreement” Wu said, “about whether free education is the most equitable fee structure… but that wasn’t discussed robustly. Instead there was a behind closed doors deal to give the position of Education Officer to the Socialist Alternative, and as a result there wasn’t a critical engagement over the education campaign of the NUS.”
NUS received criticism from all observers on minority issues. During Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) policy, one of the few Indigenous Australian delegates was prevented from speaking after “SAlt tried to drown him out, acting in a physically intimidating manner”, because he was also a Liberal. Observers universally condemned this behaviour: Molloy called it “unnecessary and unfair.”, while Connolly said it “ranged from inappropriate to appalling.” Wu highlighted “hypocrisy” in NUS’s “blind allegiance” to trade unions like the SDA which oppose marriage equality, although the Conference later voted to condemn the SDA’s stance. Furthermore, NUS cut honoraria for Disabilities, ATSI, and International officers, promising savings would go to campaigns for those groups – but the campaign budgets have also been cut. Observer regrets we cannot confirm details of expenditure, due to NUS not releasing financial statements.
Accountability and transparency were condemned in the reports. Kesina raised the example of Lambros Tapinos, a Labor City Councillor appointed independent Returning Officer responsible for running NUS elections, who “purchased alcohol and drunk with [Labor] delegates”. Tapinos was later dismissed from his role for allegedly tampering with proxy forms, which Kesina described as “an insult to the word independent”. The absence of a policy book or agenda at NatCon neutered the capacity of others to understand or participate. NUS mostly does not publish documents critical of itself; they have not released minutes of last year’s NatCon, any minutes of the National Executive since April last year, or their audited financial statements. When asked if NUS was accountable, Wu responded “I would say broadly, 78% no.”
While all agreed NUS needs reform, no observers declared their position on accreditation, citing that NUS remains the only national body representing students in a time of cuts to education and welfare. The question asked at accreditation debates for the past two years was: do ANU students need NUS enough to justify NatCon? Judging by the reports, and comments from SRC members, this seems likely to be the question considered in three weeks when ANUSA debates 2017 accreditation.