<p>NatCon is the annual national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). This week, the student politicians will descend like locusts on the Mt Helen campus of Federation University, 10km outside Ballarat.</p>
NatCon is the annual national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). This week, the student politicians will descend like locusts on the Mt Helen campus of Federation University, 10km outside Ballarat.
The NUS is the primary national body representing the interests of Australian university students. At NatCon, students from around Australia discuss a whole lot of policy and elect the 2019 National and State Office Bearers.
The NUS is a controversial organisation. Some condemn them as ineffectual, describing NatCon as nothing more than schoolies for the lowest form of human life (student politicians). Most students aren’t familiar with the NUS as an organisation. One student Farrago spoke to said those who are familiar with the NUS mostly know it as “inept, out of touch, or in direct opposition to the stated wishes of autonomous student groups.”
They have also been commended for their campaigns, from being at the forefront of the fight against deregulation of university fees to lobbying for the national campus sexual assault survey. In 2018, the NUS made a submission to the inquiry for the Higher Education Student Loan Amendment Bill, which would’ve lowered the minimum repayment threshold for HELP debts and placed a cap on loans, and lobbied crossbenchers to vote down the bill. In their annual report, highlights include organising National Days of Action against sexual violence, lobbying politicians, and running campaigns to increase students’ awareness of their rights at work.
This year, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) has run the gamut between calling for the resignation of some National Office Bearers and financially supporting the campaigns of others. The big players often go on to real politics—Julia Gillard is the most famous example, having been President of the Australian Union of Students (the predecessor of the NUS) in 1983.
If you’re not interested in politics, why should you care? For one, you pay for it. The University of Melbourne collects a Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) from every student, whether that’s by directly hitting Commonwealth supported students up at the start of the year or by folding it into course fees. In 2019, the fee will be $303 for full-time students. A big chunk of this––around a third—goes to UMSU. UMSU typically chooses to pays an annual affiliation fee to the NUS, and that number is increasing. In 2017, UMSU paid $30,000 to the NUS, and in 2018 it was upped to $50,000. For 2019, that number has been raised to $65,000. Affiliation fees across Australia together comprise 70% of NUS annual income—it is dependent on this funding.
While this affiliation fee isn’t supposed to come from SSAF income, many valuable programs UMSU runs rely on non-SSAF income, like the VCE Summer School. At the meeting of the UMSU Students’ Council this week to approve the budget for 2019, the Whole of Union fund—a general fund that Students’ Council can dole out for various purposes—was reduced to allow for a greater affiliation fee to the NUS. Uses of the Whole of Union fund include supporting cross-Department collaborative events, as well as covering unexpected costs for UMSU Departments and volunteering programs. In essence, UMSU has determined that supporting the NUS to the tune of $65,000 is a valuable use of students’ money.
Given this, what say do we have in how the NUS is run? During the annual UMSU elections, students also elect seven delegates to represent the University of Melbourne. These seven delegates are afforded voting rights at NatCon. Due to a deal between Stand Up! and More! this year, six of those seven delegates are associated with the National Labor Students (NLS), also known as the Labor Left. These include the 2018 UMSU President, Desiree Cai, the 2018 UMSU Education (Academic) Officer, Alice Smith, and the 2019 UMSU President, Molly Willmott. The seventh delegate, Anneke D’emanuele, is a member of the Socialist Alternative and a former NUS National Education Officer.
Both factions will be in the minority on the floor of the conference, with the largest faction being Student Unity—the Labor Right. Other factions to watch out for include the recently-united Grassroots/National Independents, a broad left group containing members of the Greens and other non-aligned students. The Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) also supply a handful of attendees but don’t have a strong presence.
Unfortunately for those looking for a truly democratic experience, many votes at NatCon have predetermined outcomes. The positions of President and General Secretary have historically gone to the NLS and Unity respectively under a long-standing deal. Former UMSU President Desiree Cai is rumoured to be a contender for the NUS Presidency. The other Office Bearer positions will be typically be traded off in deals, with delegates often seen handing their ballot papers to factional leaders to complete.
Policy discussion goes a similar way, with voting beginning with shouts of “NLS up” or “Unity up”: factional leaders directing their delegates to vote in a particular way. With many votes already decided, debate will thus often consist of factions attacking each other or attempting to disrupt or drown out the speeches of their opponents. The policy itself will include various condemnations of other factions alongside substantive submissions regarding how a national union can best support students across Australia.
One of the more striking features of NatCon to watch out for will be the question of quorum. 50 per cent of delegates and 50 per cent of votes need to be present to continue debate or conduct a vote. Factions can “pull quorum”—leave the room as a group—when discussion turns particularly nasty, a deal falls through or a vote will be lost. Other factions will block the doors to stop this from happening. On the last day of the 2017 conference, Unity pulled quorum and prevented any discussion taking place on any Women’s policies.
The Business Committee (BizComm), who are elected at the start of the conference to determine which policies will be discussed on conference floor, are also known for some pretty bonkers behaviour. Motions (on pieces of paper) will be thrown out or even eaten by members of BizComm if they don’t align with their faction’s agenda.
Student media from across the country attend NatCon, including us here at Farrago. Filming is usually banned on the conference floor, but we’ll be there with a liveblog, a spreadsheet and further analysis for anyone who wants to follow along at home.
Disclaimer: Elinor Mills ran with More! in both the 2017 and 2018 UMSU elections. While some members of More! are aligned with Grassroots/Nat Indies or the Labor Right, they themselves are not a member of any factions one might see at NatCon.