OPINION: NatCon is desperately in need of reform15 December 2016
I have one more article to write about NatCon for Farrago, but for now I’m going to jot down some thoughts.
I drove home last night after the conference. Got home at four in the morning. Woke up after a couple hours of sleep and, like on any normal Thursday, took a shower and prepared for work.
Already, NatCon seems to have receded into enormous distance in my memory. It now feels to me mostly like a mockery, in an early sense of the word, of Australian democracy. In the same way that students into International Relations sometimes get together and do “mock United Nations”, in which they discuss a fake international crisis, NatCon feels like a “mock Australian Parliament”, in which political students discuss fake policies using a charade of democracy.
They invent some political differences among them and take turns at public speaking while the audience carries on like Parliament in a rowdy session of Question Time. The surrealism of the exercise is enhanced by the facts that 1) the outcomes of all votes are predetermined by a small group of people in advance, and 2) previous years have shown that carrying a motion for a campaign against, say, campus sexual assault does not make it any more likely that any such campaign will materialise.
That’s what it feels like. Except it’s a real union.
The realest impact NatCon can actually be said to have is that sometimes some genuinely horrible things happen to attendees, like when a Liberal Indigenous student is not allowed to speak about his own motion about improving the lives of ATSI students, or a woman from NLS says something as innocuous as “this was a good policy by the Liberals” and she gets five people screaming in her face as though she condoned genocide.
The Liberals do not help. At accusations like, “all the Liberals care about are the bosses”, they shout “hear, hear!” showing just how seriously they take the conference. Wearing shirts that read, “Socialism: You make it, they take it”, they seem to think about the world as though they’ve just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, speaking in language more suitable to the capitalism vs communism debate of the 50s than the modern Liberal party.
But at least the Liberals aren’t using the terminology of a hundred years before even that. Everything to Socialist Alternative is a class struggle. This is the only appropriate lens through which you can look at the world, to the extent that any discussion that does not couch itself in such language must be immediately derailed. Socialist Alternative does not seem to realise that their manner makes them appear more like a cult than a group of people trying to win a political debate.
Then there are the two Labor factions — the core of NatCon. These speakers mimic Australian politicians most accurately. These factions are keen to use the Liberals and Socialist Alternative as scapegoats for the NUS’s many problems, but they are the only ones with real power and ultimately responsible for all of its failures.
The question a friend of mine has been struggling to answer: to what extent is the NUS reformable? Are the many horrible things about NatCon a necessary consequence of the fact that it’s run by political young people, or is it because the factions presently in charge of the NUS are morally corrupt? I don’t think we can yet say that it’s unreformable with any confidence. There are some extremely basic reforms that need to be tested before we can say that. The obvious three are the ability to film the conference, the introduction of a secret ballot and stricter enforcement of rules against verbal abuse.
And look at me. I have to admit, I feel gross. I just tapped out an opinion piece about all these awful things in about an hour. I feel like a Canberra journalist. There but for the grace of God.