Observer NatCon 2019 Daily Blog

By Anthony Lotric and Rebecca Zhong

10.27

Day 2: Afternoon session

 

The afternoon and evening sessions of the day were dedicated to policies under the ethnocultural chapter, with some education policy also being passed in the evening. The education chapter is the lengthiest in the policy book, containing over 60 policies — twice as many as most of the other chapters.

A speaker from NLS criticised the wording of the first motion, titled ‘Decolonisation [of] your Universities’. In particular they were critical of the language in the action points which included demands for “universities to decolonise their history and their institutions”, calling for more “actionable” motions. An SA member spoke in support of the motion, but argued that the source of racism is “at the top of the country”, including both the Labor and Liberal parties.

Around this time, there has been some back and forth about speaking time in the Grindies corner, where we are seated. The speaking time is currently 1 minute long. It was a little difficult to follow what was happening at the front of the room.

ETHNO 4, ‘Close the camps, bring them here!’, failed to pass when Unity… . During the debate on this motion, an NLS speaker told the conference floor that “it’s too hard” is not an acceptable response to the issue of ending offshore detention for refugees. SA members also spoke in favour of this motion.

Next up was ETHNO 15, which called on Unity to “stand against the Far Right”, in reference to the faction voting against an SA motion calling on the NUS to “campaign against the Far Right” at 2018 NatCon. A Unity member described last year’s anti-Far right policy as “pathetic”. An SA speaker told the Unity students that “the Christchurch massacre is on the back of your Government”, referencing the Labor party’s refugee policy. The motion failed.

Tensions between SA and the other factions relating to the approach to NUS policies were again displayed during debates on a motion to establish an Ethnocultural Officer Network. SA opposed the motion on the grounds that the creation of such a network “is not an effective way to fight racism”. In response, a Unity member speaking for the motion argued that student leaders are better equipped to run campaigns against racism by forming cross-campus networks across Australia.

Two separate motions were successfully passed: ETHNO 4 condemning China’s treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, and ETHNO 2, which criticises the ‘Racism. Does it stop with you?’ campaign as “tokenistic”.

SA members spoke in favour of ETHNO 5 . However, an international student from NLS rebuked the SA representatives, criticising them for their “entitlement” in speaking on behalf of Chinese students.

The motion included a policy to condemn and call for an end to refugee deportation. An SA student described it as “outrageous” that Unity “keep putting up amendments to remove mention of the Labor party from motions”. Another SA student said that “both [Labor and Liberal] Parties are committed to hardline racist policy”. ANU student Zoe Ranganathan (NLS) similarly described it as “gross” that Unity wanted to remove all mentions of Labor. The amendment was carried by Unity, with all other factions voting against.

The last policy to be discussed in this session was ETHNO 9 (‘Fight Racism to save the planet! NUS supports climate justice’) before it was brought to a close for dinner.

 

Day 2: Evening session

 

Discussions of ethnocultural policies continued after a break for dinner, and debate on the education policy chapter was also commenced.

A student representing the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) spoke for the motion against anti-semitism: “I am a proud Jew – I will never be afraid to be jewish”. Students from Unity and NLS also spoke for the motion. ANU student Kim Stern, who is part of the SA faction, replied that NLS should be “ashamed for taking cheap pot shots” against SA in light of their protests against racism. The motion carried unanimously.

Towards the end of the day, a start was made on the education policy chapter, with EDU 22 (‘National Day of Action for climate justice and civil liberties’) being discussed. The motion failed as it was voted down by Unity, who argued that Extinction Rebellion climate rallies are “not accessible activism”, and that they were not in favor of “wasting student money” on rallies. Consistent with the position adopted by SA throughout the entire conference, one member said that the climate strikes this year “left the Liberal Party pretty afraid”, and reiterated that “[NUS needs] to mobilize as many students as possible.”

Up next was EDU 45, ‘Our Education in Our Hands — a National Campaign to Fight Corporate Universities’. As with the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, SA is critical of the motion, with one member calling for student mobilisation “at the grassroots level”. A Grindies member responded that it was about “more money for SSAF,” while an NLS member said, “You can’t call everything you don’t like a ‘vote Labour’ campaign.”

Everyone but SA voted in favor of the motion, to cries of “shame”. A number of students from SA have moved from their seats to where NLS is seated, and a shouting match has ensued in that part of the conference floor. Anton Lucas, who is with the Liberals, was named three times for filming, and left the conference floor. As he left the room, chants of “Racist, sexist, anti-queer, Liberals are not welcome here” could be heard from the SA faction.

NLS and Unity are opposed to EDU 26, which calls for NUS to pay for the fines of student protestors, particularly in relation to the activities of protestors involved in climate rallies and the Extinction Rebellion. One Unity member declared that he would “rather be shot down where I stand” than support a motion to pay the fines and legal fees of student protestors. This was the last motion to be discussed, with the session closing at 10 PM.

10.23

Day 2: Morning session

The second day began with a campus count, with the motion on whether Unity has the numbers (that is, if they hold 50% or more of the conference floor) passing with 1197 for and 972 against. Among the ANU representatives, there were 4 votes for ‘against’ from Lachy Day and Skanda Panditharatne of the Greens Independents (Grindies), Henri Vickers of NLS, and a SA proxy. Nick Pagonis, who is part of the Unity faction, vote in favor of the motion.

In the morning session, policies under the welfare chapter were discussed and voted upon. This included discussions of student support services, safe and affordable student housing, and access to mental healthcare. One motion which was passed supports more services which focus specifically on assisting victims of domestic violence at universities.

Members of NLS and the Grindies spoke in favour of WELF 7 which highlights rising costs of student accommodation provided by the private sector, but the NLS speaker argued that it does not go far enough: “these corporations are coming in and buying our universities to exploit students,” they said. A speaker representing SA also described the motion as “lackluster”, but it ultimately carried.

A bloc of policies opposed to the ‘war on drugs’ in Australian was passed. An NLS member speaking for the motion and in support of “humanitarian drug policy” asserted that “criminalisation has not decreased drug harm, but instead increased it”.

Another welfare motion called for an increase in free mental health services for students, particularly in relation to the policy’s call for an increase in the number of Medicare covered therapy sessions with a registered psychologist from 10, up to 15-20.

A subsequent bloc of mental health-related policies which included WELF 21, which was directed towards ‘raising awareness for regional men’s mental health’. This discussion produced heated exchanges between speakers Unity and SA speakers, with the former relating personal experiences with mental health to the conference floor after the latter announced that they would be abstaining on the vote because of the gendered framing of the issue, which they linked to the far right.

MISC 1 was also discussed as a part of the welfare chapter, titled ‘Deakin Sausage Crisis pt 2: gas BBQ boogaloo’. Two Unity speakers from Deakin University who spoke for the motion lamented the scarcity of BBQ facilities on their campus. They were then criticised by an NLS member who said “if Unity cared about student welfare, they would contribute more than one policy to the Queer chapter and the Disabilities chapter.” An SA member spoke next, accusing NLS of being “just as bad as [Unity]”.

A speaker from the SA faction, whose criticism of other factions is centred strongly on the mobilisation of students for ‘on the ground’ campaigning and protest, argued that “we shouldn’t be talking about this inane crap, about surveys” during debate on a bloc of policies which included an action requiring the NUS International Student officer to conduct a survey on student wellbeing.

10.08

Tuesday: Day 2 Wrap Up 

Day two of NatCon was dedicated to debating and voting on policy, and interspersed with plenty of factional confrontation, chanting and paper hats fashioned from Red Flag pages.

The implications of a policy being successfully passed is written out in the ‘action’ section of each proposed policy. Beyond determining the policy positions the NUS will adopt next year, they often requires the NUS to assist with on-campus campaigns, national days of action and student advocacy at universities.

The policy chapters covered today were Welfare, Ethnocultural and Education. A motion to ban filming for the duration of the conference was passed a little later than usual, during the morning session. Such a motion is usually passed early on in the conference, although filming and photography without the consent of attendees is also prohibited in the code of conduct.

A lack of transparency on NatCon proceedings has been an ongoing issue, with minimal minutes provided by NUS alongside bans on live-streaming and photography passed each year.  Additionally, the lack of transparency regarding the work of NUS office bearers is one of the problems which contributed to ANUSA’s decision to un-accredit from NUS and set KPIs in recent years.

The ANUSA delegates: Nick Pagonis (Unity), Henri Vickers (NLS), Skanda Panditharatne (Grindies), and Lachy Day (Grindies). Grace Carter, who is also an ANUSA delegate, was represented at the conference by proxy from the SA faction.

11.18

We will have more round ups of the NatCon sessions coming soon. For more updates, thoughts and memes direct from the conference floor, the place to be is at the #nusnatcon2019 hashtag on Twitter.

21.02

Day 1 Wrap Up

To kick off the Monday evening session motions from the ‘Unionism’ chapter of the Policy Book were considered.

The National Labor Students faction (NLS) spoke to their motion, which would have the NUS support the recent merger between ‘United Voice’ and the National Workers Union to form the United Workers’ Union. The Socialist Alternative (SA) denounced the motion, asserting that the merger was merely a factional power play by Labor Left – amounting to “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. They spoke further in support of a union movement that had no  allegiance to the Labor Party, which they argue has weakened the movement in recent decades. The motion passed with the support of Student Unity (Unity), Labor Right and NLS, Labor Left.

We then moved to a motion condemning the ACTU ‘Change the Rules’ campaign for Labor during the election. This campaign was supported by both Unity and the NLS. A member of SA spoke to the motion,  alleging that the campaign wasted millions of dollars of unionists’ money to campaign for the Labor Party.

A Student Unity member speaking against the motion was interrupted by heckling from SA. They responded to this hecking with “I wish changing the rules would get these guys to shut the fuck up”.  ANU delegate Henri Vickers spoke in support of the motion while emphasising the political importance of mass mobilization of workers. NLS and SA voted against the motion, but it did not gain the support of Unity, and therefore failed to pass. 

Other motions from the Unionism chapter that were debated and passed in this session included one concerning wage theft and staff casualisation on university campuses, while another called on state governments to legislate for a minimum 50% SSAF allocation for student unions. 

At the end of the session, criticism was leveled at Unity by National Disabilities Officer Will Edwards for delaying the day’s business with their “game of musical chairs”. A shouting match ensued between Unity and NLS, Edwards’s faction. Just before 10:00pm the Grassroots Independents tried to have the evening session extended, but the motion was rejected by the Unity controlled BizCom and day 1 was brought to a surprisingly punctual close.

20.52

What does the conference look like? (Continued)

On the side of the conference hall, four ‘cogging tables’ have been set up, with one for each faction. These tables are an important step of the journey made by each motion (written alone or en bloc on pieces of paper, or the ‘cogs’) before they reach  the Business Committee (BizComm), who determine the agenda. Here, faction representatives negotiate and sign off on the motions that will be placed on the agenda to be debated and voted on. Delegates determined to prevent the discussion of particular motions have been known to tear up or even eat the paper those motions are written on. 

This year’s BizComm was elected unopposed, and is comprised of 4 Unity members, and 1 member each from the NLS, Socialist Alternative and Grindies.

20.48

What is NatCon?

The purpose of the National Conference (NatCon) is for student representatives from universities affiliated and accredited with the NUS to debate and determine the policies which will be adopted in the upcoming year, and elect office bearers.

So, what does the conference look like? 

All delegates sit with their faction, and the seating at the conference is arranged to reflect this, with an area dedicated to Student Unity (Labour Right), National Labour Students (NLS— Labour Left), Grassroots Independents (or ‘Grindies’) and Socialist Alternative (SA), as well as a delegates not associated with any faction, who fall into the ‘small i’ indies category. The Grindies are a recently formed faction that emerged last year following the merger of the Grassroots Left and National Independents. Unlike all other factions, the Grindies do not practice vote-binding. 

Observer understands that Unity holds roughly 51% of the conference floor, while NLS holds 16%, SA holds 12% , and the Grindies hold 16% of the floor. The Libs, who hold 3% of the conference floor, are voting with Unity. 

You can find a detailed rundown of the NatCon factions in this useful explainer by former Observer editor Skanda Panditharatne.* 

*Panditharatne, who is a NatCon delegate for the  Grindies, ceased all involvement with Observer in March 2019.

20.44

NatCon 2019 kicked off with a Welcome to Country just after 2 pm on Monday, after a delay with “delegate registration”. Such delays are apparently not an uncommon occurrence at NatCon, which will run from Monday to Thursday this week. The afternoon session, set to start at 5pm, also did not go ahead as scheduled after Unity members did not show up — Observer heard that they were dealing with internal factional matters. Unity controls a majority of conference floor, and sessions cannot begin without their presence. After lengthy delays, the evening session finally commenced at 8.32 PM, an hour and a half after its scheduled start time.

While waiting for the first session to commence, we overheard that the cost of running the conference— if accurate — comes to 9000 dollars of student money per hour and 300,000 dollars over the course of the conference as a whole.

We apologise for the delay in updates on the first day of NatCon, delays aside, we have been getting our bearings over the past 24 hours. NatCon has lived up to expectations so far in terms of the delays and the at times deafening yelling from the conference floor, although no paper eating has occurred so far.

Please contact us at [email protected] if you have questions, comments or memes. 

Pictured: Rejected Liveblog Graphic