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NUS

What the heck is NatCon anyway?

8 December 2017

NatCon is the national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). This year, the conference is being held at Deakin University’s Geelong campus from 11 to 14 December.

The NUS is the organisation that represents the interests of university students in Australia on a national level. Affiliation to the NUS is often a contentious topic among student unions. Many view the organisation as ineffective and lacking in transparency. However, the NUS has also been praised for outcomes it’s achieved for Australian students, particularly in lobbying for the sexual assault survey and organising campaigns to combat the government’s attempts to deregulate university fees.

NatCon is a melting pot of ideology, cross-factional negotiation and political ambition. The major positions in the NUS executive, including president and general secretary, are decided at NatCon—or beforehand, in the back rooms where factional leaders make deals. Student politicians often have vested interests in the outcome of NatCon, as holding an elected position can be a stepping stone to a career in politics. Julia Gillard, for instance, was president of the NUS (then the Australian Union of Students) in 1983.

Why should anyone who isn’t a hack care?

Last year, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) paid $30,000 to the NUS in affiliation fees and it is likely that amount will increase to $50,000 this year. Full-time Commonwealth-supported students enrolled at the University pay $298 in Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) every year, about 40 per cent of which goes to UMSU—although, technically, the money that goes to the NUS must come from non-SSAF sources of income.

Okay, so what do you mean by ‘voting’ and ‘delegates’?

Each affiliated university holds an election, usually at the same time as student union elections, to choose students to attend NatCon as voting attendees (called delegates). Student media organisations from around the country (including your trusty Farrago NatCon team) also attend the conference.

A large amount of policy will be discussed at the conference. Often following shouts of “NLS up” or “Unity up” from their factional leaders, delegates hold up their lanyards to vote on policy. On the final day, delegates are given ballot papers to vote on the positions in the NUS executive. Delegates often hand these ballots to their factional leaders, who ensure that all delegates are voting within factional lines.

What are the factions?

Student political factions generally emerge from the youth chapters of unions and political parties and have differing views on ideology and policy. There are five major factions attending NatCon this year.

Student Unity will be the largest faction at NatCon with almost half the votes. Also known as Labor right, Unity is made up of several sub-factions, which makes the group vulnerable to factional splits.

The National Labor Students, also known as the NLS or Labor left, have held the NUS presidency since 1987, a result of the ‘sweetheart deal’, which gives them the position in exchange for Unity getting the general secretariat.

Socialist Alternative, also referred to as SAlt or the Trots, are a Marxist faction. You can identify members of SAlt by their chants. Notably: “No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities,” “No solution; revolution!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-queer; Liberals are not welcome here.”

The National Independents are a smaller faction built on the principles of not binding votes and allowing a range of ideological opinions.

The Australian Liberal Students Federation, otherwise known as the ALSF or the Liberals, are widely believed to attend NatCon only to stir shit. They often submit little policy and hold little negotiating power, because Liberal-controlled universities often elect to disaffiliate from the NUS. Xavier Boffa, whom you may remember from the MULC dispute, is their national president.

The independents, also known as the small-i indies, are delegates who aren’t affiliated to any of the major factions.

Out of the University of Melbourne’s seven delegates, it is likely that four will be voting with SAlt and two with the Nat Indies. One is unaligned. SAlt’s dominance amongst our delegates is a result of a deal between the Stand Up! (NLS) and Left Focus (SAlt) tickets in the UMSU elections.

So, what’s going to go down?

It’s difficult to predict the order of events at NatCon because the conference doesn’t run to a public agenda. Instead, the Business Committee (BizComm), who are elected at the beginning of the conference, determine what will be discussed out of the pre-submitted motions and policy. In past years, the members of BizComm have torn up, binned and even eaten pieces of paper containing motions to prevent discussion that does not suit their own faction’s agenda.

Following the election of BizComm, it is likely that a motion will be passed to ban filming and photography for the remainder of the conference. This motion is generally voted up by the larger factions, with the Nat Indies and Liberals usually being the only factions to dissent.

Delegates affiliated with factions will applaud their comrades while shouting down members of opposing factions. Often chants will be employed to prevent people from speaking. “Scabs” and “shame” will be repeatedly shouted all directions.

Votes often begin with factional leaders calling “Unity up” or “NLS up”, directing delegates to vote with their faction. Because this type of bloc voting is common, the outcome of votes is generally known before discussion, resulting in debate that can be pointless and lacking in substance—delegates often use speaking time to attack opposing factions instead of actually discussing policy.

For the meeting to remain quorate, 50 per cent of delegates and 50 per cent of votes need to be present. However, because a number of votes are given to proxies, a handful of people leaving the room can result in the conference losing quorum and halting discussion until quorum is regained. In the past, factions have left the room when a deal has fallen through or discussion has not been favourable to their agenda, while others have physically barred the exits of the venue to stop people from leaving.

If you believe any of the information in this article is factually incorrect or you have information you want to share with the Farrago NatCon team, contact us at editors@farragomagazine.com


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