Conor Takes NatCon: An Op-Ed23 December 2017
Last week I attended the National Union of Students’ (NUS) national conference and BOY, was it an intense week to say the absolute least.
If you’ve heard anything about NatCon, you’ve probably heard that it lacks efficiency and transparency, or that the conference is pointless and achieves nothing. You’ve probably also been told to only attend NatCon if you want to see student politicians fight to the death for five days. I entered NatCon expecting to witness all of the above, and I did not leave disappointed. However, I also came away seeing a real value—not only to the NUS—but also to the conference itself.
Despite showcasing some incredibly dumb moments this year, some chapters at NatCon showed real promise for what the conference could be. After the three of days of policy debate, I began to feel as though any productive sessions were outnumbered three to one by circular arguments and factional fighting. However, when the conference became a real forum for actual constructive conversation around the matters at hand, the delegates, observers and other representatives really shone.
I truly believe that if all factions viewed NatCon not as a week of political grandstanding and point-scoring, but of constructive debate, then NatCon could become an effective vehicle for enacting actual change in the lives of students.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) chapter really set a standard for how the week could have, and should have, been run. In the past, NatCon has failed to treat ATSI policy, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who contribute to the policy discussion, with respect. However, this year, it was the Indigenous students who led the policy discussion within the ATSI chapter. The chapter gained almost unanimous support on all motions with only the two Liberal delegates present voting against some of the motions considered. The chapter was also discussed and voted on to almost complete silence from non-Indigenous students. Not only was this a break from the almost constant bickering between factions, but it also allowed policy to be discussed and passed much faster without limiting speaking time.
I understand that the shouting matches between the factions in other chapters arises from real passion and conviction, but NatCon incites such intense tribalism in its very nature—and herein lies a huge issue. NatCon is the place where factions bring their newest and keenest recruits. These people are brought in so that they can then move into the space that the older members will slowly (and I emphasise slowly) vacate.
From this arises the political grandstanding and four minute speeches that don’t address the actual policy being considered but instead bash delegates from other factions or the national political parties that their factions support. From this arises the physical altercations on business committee as people literally fight to make sure that a motion that would work against their faction’s interests does not get debated. This further demonstrates disrespect for debate and the process of the conference.
This year, there were 354 different policies submitted to the conference volume. Of these policies, our records tell us that only 175 were considered, with 166 passing and nine failing. This left 182 policies that went unconsidered, a large chunk of which came from the welfare and women’s chapters. Only nine out of the 56 welfare policies and 11 out of the 50 women’s policies were discussed and voted on.
Reflecting on the reasons that these chapters went mostly ignored highlights a few of the main problems NatCon faces.
Both of these sections of the policy booklet were left towards the end of the last day, with welfare policy allocated less than 30 minutes of discussion time. This should not have been the case. These sections fell victim to Student Unity pulling quorum from conference floor earlier that morning, resulting in the conference transforming into a small dance break for the delegates like a country pub on Friday night. This forcing discussion to halt for over an hour and a half. Our reports suggest that Student Unity pulled quorum because some of their delegates were absent, and without these delegates they would not have their majority on the conference floor.
Another reason for the limited time spent on these chapters was because of the behaviour of a Socialist Alternative delegate earlier in the conference, who was named to be removed from the conference floor but refused to leave. This caused the conference to be dissolved and another session to be started after the lunch break.
At times, members of certain factions, particularly the Socialist Alternative, would even take up all speaking roles ‘for’ and ‘against’ their own policy. They would even take up speaking time, speaking in ‘formal opposition’ to the previous speaker, in order to take up speaking time to discuss a completely different issue.
These unnecessary breaks are common at NatCon and don’t serve any other purpose other than political point-scoring and wasting thousands of dollars. If this pointless sectarianism could be overcome then NatCon could come into line with the rest of the actions of the NUS, being a meaningful week of debate that could really benefit students and serve a purpose for those outside the Deakin University Fitness Centre in Waurn Ponds.
Despite this, there was promise to be found in both the incoming office bearers speeches and the outgoing office bearers’ reports. Speaking on the cooperation between the 2017 office bearers throughout the year, Sophie Johnston, the outgoing president of the NUS, stated that “we did not let factionalism divide us, we did not let NatCon define us.” Nathan Croft, outgoing general secretary advised the incoming office bearers to “put your factionalism aside”. Incoming president, Mark Pace, also spoke heavily on increasing transparency and efficiency in the NUS.
This could be actualised in the coming year if the incoming team worked on these points. It would be terrific for not only the NUS but also the student population if the NUS improved their website and online presence, and ceased the ban on filming at the conference—but I’m not hopeful.
In short, the conference is a week in which student politicians act in a less than acceptable manner, resulting from the constant arms race between the factions as they attempt to advance their own agendas. Until one of the major factions decide to completely eschew this tradition, I don’t see an awful lot changing.