NUS Observers Recommend Reaccrediting in Lead-Up to SRC2 Vote

SRC will vote on whether ANUSA should reaccredit to the National Union of Students (NUS) on Tuesday 20 March. In the lead up, observers sent by ANUSA to the National Conference (NatCon) have recommended reaccreditation, while the Liberal Club Treasurer has launched a campaign to disaccredit.

The two observers, Harry Needham and Howard Maclean, delivered their reports at SRC 1 on 27 February, describing an unruly conference floor and high levels of factionalism. Both ultimately recommended reaccrediting to the NUS, contingent on the Union meeting key performance indicators (KPIs). Where they differed was on how much money ANUSA should give the NUS  – Needham suggested $10,000, Maclean just $1.

Both observers submitted reaccreditation proposals, while a prominent Liberal Club member proposed disaccreditation

Needham, the ANUSA Education Officer, plans to draft KPIs in conjunction with seven other student organisations to force reform of NUS. Needham argued in his report that reaccreditation for $10,000 would mean the KPIs would be “impossible to ignore, as their non-fulfilment threatens the financial livelihood of the NUS”, given 40% of the NUS’s funding comes from these eight universities. These universities, Needham revealed at SRC 1, include Curtin, Edith Cowan, the University of Western Australia, Newcastle, Melbourne, Sydney and Flinders. These KPIs would include those put forward by ANUSA in 2017, when accreditation for $10,000 was subject to a number of KPIs regarding transparency, accountability and conduct. These were ultimately not met, meaning ANUSA did not accredit, and thus didn’t have a voting capacity at NatCon last year. Needham stated that “reform of the NUS is possible”, but acknowledged that change may be “small and incremental”, echoing his position in the reaccreditation debate last year.

Maclean, the current Clubs Council Secretary, favoured accrediting for just $1, suggesting “ANUSA should attempt to work around NUS”.  In contrast to Needham, Maclean argued that “NUS cannot be fixed” due to a perceived resistance to change. Maclean decried NatCon as “a toxic cesspool of bullying, antagonism and partisanship”, but noted that, in principle, “a national conference of student associations to share experiences, knowledge, skills and ideas is very valuable”. Maclean was also critical of the Union’s transparency and accountability mechanisms in his report, describing the NUS as “half dead” due to a perceived  imbalance of power towards entrenched factional groups, (specifically naming Student Unity) which stifle attempts at reform. His criticism of the different factions also extended to SAlt, who Maclean argues are “the single largest reason why NatCon is as useless as it is”, citing their malicious hostility on the conference floor, notably screaming at candidates they disagreed with. At SRC 1, Needham called Maclean’s proposal of $1 accreditation a “joke of a sum” that would mean ANUSA “will hold no weight whatsoever with the NUS”.

Ashish Nagesh, Liberal Club Treasurer and current ANUSA Gen Rep, launched a campaign Friday night to disaccredit. Nagesh, whose election ticket Stand Apart was primarily focused on NUS disaccreditation, cited transparency and accountability issues in an infographic posted to ANU Schmidtposting. In the infographic, Nagesh also quoted a number of past ANU observers to NatCon criticising bullying and harassment on the conference floor. The infographic was criticised by Needham as “heavily distorted”, with 2017 NUS ACT State Branch President Nick Douros and current NUS National Executive member Niall Cummins (both Student Unity members) also weighing in against it.

Both observers criticised NatCon floor behaviour and factionalism, but disagreed on the prospects of improvement

Both Maclean and Needham were highly critical of floor behaviour at NatCon, particularly that of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and Student Unity (Unity) [for an explanation of the NUS factions and the running of NatCon, our explainer may be found here]. Needham, a National Independents member, reported factions “hijacking discussion in order to virtue signal or score rhetorical points against their ideological opponents”. He also condemned the lack of discipline, particularly NatCon’s notorious practice of paper eating. Maclean, a small i-independent, described “verbal harassment, borderline physical assault, and generally antagonist and partisan behaviour”. He noted this behaviour occurred not just on the conference floor, but throughout the entire week, to the extent that some delegates started taking lunch back to their accommodation to avoid confrontations.

Both observers highlighted the complete absence of any discussion on campus sexual assault, after Unity pulled quorum on the final day of NatCon. Both also reserved special criticism for 2017 NUS General Secretary Nathan Croft, a Unity member. Needham described him as “blatantly incompetent”, while Maclean went further, asserting that his “comprehensive incompetence dogged the union for the entire year”. Croft was ejected from conference floor during the Administration chapter after yelling over a speaker, behavior Needham characterised as “more befitting of an angry toddler than an office bearer in a national union”.

Needham, who attended the conference in 2016 as well, reported that there were positive improvements, pointing to the respectful discussion of Queer* and Indigenous issues, as well as greater discipline with timing. Needham took these improvements to mean that reform of the NUS, even if incremental, is indeed possible.

NUS Accreditation debates have been contentious in the past

In 2017, ANUSA accredited only subject to KPIs (which were not ultimately met), in a 24-11 vote after the 2016 observers delivered reports critical of floor behaviour.  In 2016, ANUSA chose to disaccredit from the NUS after the conference devolved into a fracas on the final day of the 2015 conference. Last year’s ANUSA elections featured the first explicitly pro and anti-NUS tickets since the 2015 election, broadly associated with Labor Right (Unity) and the Liberal Club respectively. One candidate from each of those tickets was ultimately elected: Nick Douros, last year’s NUS ACT state branch president and a Unity member, and Ashish Nagesh, the Liberal Club Treasurer.

Observer’s full liveblog of the NUS National Conference may be found here.

Taz Hudson contributed to this article.

Skanda Panditharatne attended NUS National Conference as a student media observer in 2017.