Picture this if you dare: A room. And it is full, full of sweaty 20-somethings of wildly different persuasions who willingly engage with student politics—and they are all trapped. They cannot leave the room because for three days, they have the task of debating policy and electing representatives for one of the biggest student organisations in Australia.
And the worst part is, it’s all real: the screaming, the crying, the accusations, the betrayals, the infighting, the controversy.
NatCon is happening again and this time, across many rooms in one (1) Zoom meeting.
And that means, from Monday 13 until Wednesday 15 December, Farrago too is trapped.
Your Farrago NatCon reporting team is Joanna Guelas, Max Dowell, Charlie Joyce, and Bayley Horne.
What the hell is a NatCon?
Well, dearest reader, a crude simplification would explain NatCon as the annual general meeting (AGM) of the National Union of Students (NUS). At NatCon, the NUS’ policy platform is discussed and amended, and office bearers (OBs) for 2022 are formally elected. Think of it as like a club AGM, but worse.
“Okay, why should I care about NatCon?” you ask. “No one actually cares about AGMs. NatCon sounds like a total waste of one’s time. I don’t even know what the NUS does,” you cry.
Farrago can answer that for you: the NUS is a student union—in fact, it is the student union; it is the peak representative body for student unions across the country. Affiliation with the national union sees student associations receive the clout, resources, and representation that only a federal organisation can provide. The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) pays a sizable amount for affiliation: in 2021, UMSU paid $95k in affiliation fees, more than any other NUS-affiliated union, although this is still technically less than the required amount set out in the NUS Constitution.
The NUS also plays a vital role in protecting student conditions across the country; at Melbourne, we are fortunate that UMSU is one of the most well-resourced student unions in the country, but many tertiary student organisations (especially TAFEs) often don’t have a student body at all or have token student representation at best. Naturally, this means many students at smaller or poorly-funded institutions don’t have much of a voice—the NUS is, however, capable of forming a collective front. Whether this actually occurs in practice is subject to considerable debate, even within the NUS, but at a time when students are persistently getting a raw deal from universities and the government, it’s pretty obvious: any body that can provide a collective voice is worth engaging with.
So, on the whole, NatCon genuinely has ramifications for all of us.
NatCon—order of business:
So what exactly goes down at NatCon? Those of you who have been around for a while may have heard all kinds of wild stories: hacks eating paper, the doors being blocked to stop people leaving (“pulling quorum”), and incessant chanting and heckling.
While NatCon does get pretty hectic, the last two years have been a little different. Due to the ongoing pandemic and border restrictions, the conference will be taking place entirely on Zoom, naturally limiting the possibility of shenanigans. Nevertheless, there are in-person state hubs for junkies who can’t get enough of the action.
As of last year, the NUS has tweaked how NatCon is conducted to make it run more “efficiently”. Traditionally, most of the conference is spent debating policy which is then voted on after discussion, although similar policies are often moved en bloc (all together) for expediency. Policy is moved by delegates, but anyone in attendance can speak for or against it. Once passed, a policy becomes the guiding principles for incoming OBs over the next year.
After NatCon 2020, however, this process has been streamlined. Rather than having to submit and discuss each line of policy anew, there is now an official platform of the NUS which was passed last year. This platform is essentially a condensed list of policies the NUS adopts on a more permanent basis, and instead of resetting the agenda every year, the platform is simply amended. This reduces time spent on policies for which there is broad consensus.
In terms of the agenda, policies are grouped into categories like ‘Education’, ‘Student Unionism’ and ‘Women’, but are not simply discussed one by one. Instead, the Business Committee (‘BizComm’), formed at the start of the conference, chooses which policies are to be moved and when (or even whether they are discussed at all). In person, representatives from each faction pass around lists of which policies they want discussed and the BizComm decides what is to be discussed. This is also where the paper eating comes from: if a faction does not have the numbers to pass/block a certain policy or they can’t keep a policy from discussion via legitimate channels, then simply destroying the evidence is an expedient way to keep something off the agenda.
So then, how does voting work? Not everyone in the room has a vote, only elected delegates. For those of you who not only vote in student elections, but pay attention until the end of the ballot, these are the NUS delegates you elect every year. Just about every delegate is aligned with a faction (to be discussed below), so NUS delegates are prized positions in student elections as they confer more votes on the conference floor. Not all delegates are equal either; only universities affiliated with the NUS can send delegates and within them, the number and vote share of each delegate is based on the number of full-time students. Melbourne is again in a unique position, as we not only have seven delegates but also the most valuable since they have the most votes, due to our large student population.
Delegates also vote on another important thing: incoming office bearers! Elections are held on the last day of conference, but unlike the policy chapters, this is surprisingly a much milder affair. Since the proportion of votes is already known going into the conference, factions negotiate with each other and divvy up the positions beforehand. The election is therefore more of a formality, although that is not to say last-minute developments don’t make things more interesting on occasion.
NatCon—the key players:
Like just about any political organisation, to understand how it works one must first understand who and what makes it tick. The NUS has earnt its infamous reputation for being bogged down in factionalism and petty politics for a reason—whether this is the case is not in the scope of this article, but it would be remiss not to provide an overview of its big players:
The factions (ordered by approximate size):
- Student Unity (SU): A large coalition of various sub-factions aligned to the Labor Right. Traditionally, they are the largest faction on the conference floor, sometimes even bringing the majority of delegates in their own right. Here at Melbourne, some Community for UMSU delegates will be sitting with the Labor Right.
- National Labor Students (NLS): Mirroring SU, NLS are students aligned to the Labor Left, although membership does not strictly mandate being an ALP member. From Melbourne, all three Stand Up! delegates will attend Natcon as NLS delegates.
- Grassroots-Independents (Grindies): A grab-bag of some ALP members, Greens, and independent student politicians (hence the name). Their main point of difference is that unlike the other factions they do not “bind”: a form of collective decision making in which all members must respect the decision of the majority, even if they personally disagree. At Melbourne, Community will be sending delegates to Grassroots-Independents as well.
- Socialist Alternative (SAlt): A revolutionary socialist Trotskyist organisation. You may recognise SAlt from their anti-far-right protests, and most notably, their stalls outside the Baillieu Library. The Left Action delegate from Melbourne will be sitting with Socialist Alternative.
In addition to the “Big 4”, there are occasionally some delegates that do not fit in. Liberal Party delegates are a rare appearance (often to the chagrin of just about everyone else in attendance) as well as legit independents who are not aligned with GI. It also bears mentioning that despite divides, NLS and SU have a ”sweetheart” deal where the positions for President and General Secretary go to NLS to SU respectively. Everything else is fair game!
Who are UMSU’s delegates to NatCon?
||Ticket in the UMSU Election
||Community for UMSU
||Community for UMSU
|Planning Jay Vynn Saw
||Community for UMSU
Why is Farrago talking about NatCon?
Every year, Farrago reports on NatCon. It’s not a constitutional obligation. We just do it.
We’ll be livetweeting the whole show (13-15 December) on Twitter because the new website has no liveblogging function.
Max Dowell was an UMSU delegate to NatCon in 2020, sitting with NLS. He has been to NatCon two times too many, and is looking forward to a third.
Charlie Joyce was also affiliated with Stand Up!/NLS.
Joanna Guelas has never been to NatCon.
Bayley Horne lives in Western Australia (fictional).