Comment

Letter to the Editor: Filming at NATCON

7 December 2015

James Bashford

2016 General Secretary of UMSU.

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This letter is in response to the Farrago Editorial: Transparency and Accountability in Student Organisations

As someone who has actually attended the National Union of Students’ National Conference, I know that it’s a lot more than just the “political push and pull” most people outside of the organisation like to dismiss it as. NatCon is a place where incredibly sensitive topics can be raised and debated. For example, at the two conferences I’ve been to, I’ve seen the conference unite in a standing ovation after a trans activist told their personal story of the horrific discrimination and suicide rates their community faces. I’ve seen factions come together in support of the need for more accessible activism. I’ve heard sex workers and HIV positive students self-identify and share their stories. These are moments that are rarely included in media reports on NatCon, not because they’re not recorded but because they don’t suit the narrative of NUS being nothing more than a shitfight for hacks.

Student politics may be a melodrama but it’s not a reality TV show. If the editors of Farrago want NUS National Conference to be broadcast, they can’t ignore the full ramifications that this move would have. The moments at NatCon that I’ve described are ones that likely wouldn’t happen if the conference was recorded. In the world of student politics, it takes incredible bravery to stand in front a few hundred people and out yourself as trans, a sex worker, HIV positive or disabled. NatCon needs to provide a safe space for students to feel comfortable enough to do this, an all too rare opportunity in political spheres. Recording would be prohibitive to this environment and threaten the quality of debate.

In the face of factional opponents, constant tension and intense scrutiny, speaking at NatCon is already confronting enough. Add in live streams or recording and it only gets worse. Having speeches recorded and published would permanently expose speakers and the information they disclose at conference. They would risk further and permanent discrimination, especially from employers, and the quality and openness of debate at the conference would be compromised as delegates self-censor their contributions.

When it comes to recording NatCon, NUS is damned if they do and damned if they don’t – and this is exactly what many of those who push recording want. If NUS bans recording, it will be criticised for not being transparent enough. If NUS allows recording, many delegates will feel uncomfortable to speak openly while the media focus will remain on the conflict and melodrama of the conference rather than the productive debates that occur at NatCon. As a result, anti-NUS groups like the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation will make sure the conference is as acrimonious as possible, as they have in the past, to ensure negative media coverage and to further their attacks against student unions.

In the past year alone, NUS has demonstrated a clear commitment to increasing transparency both as a result of internal changes and pressure from affiliates including UMSU. Minutes of the National Conference are publicly available, reporting requirements for National Office Bearers have been strengthened, a new website has been launched and more information has been made available online. Of course NUS can do more. Registration costs for the conference do need to be minimised (balanced with the need to cover conference costs) and affiliation figures can be made more transparent. Broadcasting the National Conference, however, does very little to improve the transparency of NUS at the cost of diminishing the productivity of the conference and the ability of delegates to speak freely.

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