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Who's who in the stupol zoo? NatCon '22: Explained

For the next four days, Josh Davis and Joel Duggan will be bringing you all the shouting, scabbing, and paper-scoffing from the conference floor, all the way out in the idyllic suburban paradise of Waurn Ponds.

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With a federal election, state election, and the first in-person University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) elections in two years done and gone, you could be forgiven for thinking that the political season is well and truly over.

But you would be wrong, dear reader. So very, very wrong. Because unfortunately for student journalists across the country, today is NatCon. For the next four days, Josh Davis and Joel Duggan will be bringing you all the shouting, scabbing, and paper-scoffing from the conference floor, all the way out in the idyllic suburban paradise of Waurn Ponds.


Hang on, what’s stupol? What’s NatCon? What’s a NUS?.

The National Union of Students is the “peak representative and advocacy body” for all post-secondary students in Australia. Student unions across the country can choose to affiliate to the NUS—for a hefty fee—and use their combined resources to lobby governments, protest, and organise coordinated national campaigns. It’s kind of like a union of other student unions. Union-ception, if you will.

Most important NUS decisions are made at its annual general meeting (AGM), the National Convention (NatCon). Here, elected delegates from each affiliated university come together to debate and set the NUS’ policy direction, and compete with each other for a number of coveted office bearer positions, usually along strict factional lines. For the last two years, NatCon has been an online affair, but this year it's back at its traditional home at a regional Victorian university campus—Waurn Ponds Deakin, to be precise.

Affiliation to the NUS does not come cheap. UMSU paid $90,000 this year for the privilege of sending seven elected delegates to NatCon, a further $8,800 for their (and Farrago’s) tickets (which include food and accommodation), and $3,600 in grants to subsidise the cost of tickets for student observers.

The heavy financial cost of affiliation, combined with the NUS’ historically mixed effectiveness as a representative body, make affiliating to the organisation a controversial choice; this year alone the NUS have both run a coordinated campaign to lower the Age of Independence for Youth Allowance—a crucial step towards addressing cost-of-living pressures on students—and financially mismanaged $9500 of students’ money (including $8000 from UMSU) in contracts to factional allies of Student Unity. UMSU has historically stood by the NUS (although not without debate), but a number of other student unions have withdrawn in recent years, including the then-Adelaide University Union (now known as YouX) and the Australian National University Students’ Association (which has since reafilliated).

 

What actually happens at NatCon?

Traditionally, the entire policy platform of the NUS has been re-litigated and re-approved at each NatCon, but since 2020, NatCon has instead voted only on specific amendments to a standing year-to-year platform.

Delegates submit proposed changes before the conference, and the full list is circulated to all attendees. A five-person Business Committee (BizComm) is then elected (consisting of factional powerbrokers—you may be sensing a pattern), and decides which motions will be considered and voted on, and which ones will be thrown out.

Once the numbers have been crunched and the agenda set, delegates debate motions on the conference floor, usually casting their vote by yelling out the name of their faction, and “up” or “down” correspondingly. If this seems to you like an odd and archaic way to run an AGM, you’re not alone, but since every faction (except for the Grindies, more on that in a bit) binds their delegates to vote a certain way, and knows how many votes each other faction has, the results can usually be interpreted through this shouting match.

Whilst quite a lot of people tend to come down to the conference floor to watch and participate in this shouting match, only elected delegates are able to actually vote on policy. Both the number of delegates and the strength of each delegates’ vote is determined by the size of their student population, measured in “equivalent full-time student loads”, or EFTSLs.

UMSU’s delegates are particularly important here, as since we have a comparatively large student population and only one student union across our various campuses, our delegates are worth more than any other. In 2021, UniMelb’s seven delegates shared 104 votes between them, compared to the 23 shared by the Australian National University’s five.

On the final day of the conference, once policy amendments and urgency motions have been considered, delegates also elect a National Executive and a number of paid and unpaid office bearers to run the NUS for the year. The results of these votes are usually predetermined by factional negotiations and deals made before the conference begins, but a last-minute upset is not unheard of. Farrago understands that this is not currently on the cards, but stranger things have happened.

 

What’s a faction?

Like UMSU, the NUS is an eclectic mix of politics, with delegates organised into different groups based on shared ideological or partisan allegiances—these are the infamous factions. However, unlike their university-level counterparts who operate under slick names like “Stand Up!”, “Community for UMSU”, and “Left Action”, NUS factions wear their broader partisan allegiances on their sleeve. Below are the major players and their share of the vote. Prepare for acronyms.

 

Student Unity

Approximate vote share: 45%

Also known as: SU, “the Right”

UMSU Delegates: Archit Agrawal (Community for UMSU), Disha Zutshi (Community for UMSU)

The youth branch of the Labor Unity faction of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Student Unity are the largest group at NatCon, historically made up of various sub-factions including the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA, the retail union), the Australian Workers Union (AWU), and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). They claim to be ideologically “principled, progressive, [and] pragmatic”, and represent the more conservative, right-leaning wing of NUS politics, having used proxies from Liberal delegates to swing key votes in the past.

They currently hold seven out of 12 office bearer positions, along with a majority on the National Executive, and whilst Farrago understands this is unlikely to change significantly based on their current projected vote share, we have also been told to expect some changes to which specific offices go to which faction.

Former UMSU International President Archit Agrawal and current UMSU General Secretary Disha Zutshi were elected as UMSU delegates on the Community ticket, and will both caucus with Unity at NatCon, attending in person. Agrawal was an early leading figure and two-time unsuccessful presidential candidate for the Community ticket before being elected to University Council this year. Zutshi is also the current Education Vice President of the Victorian State Branch of the NUS, which is also elected at NatCon.

 

National Labor Students (NLS)

Approximate vote share: 20-26% (we’ve received conflicting reports)

Also known as: Young Labor Left, “the Left”

UMSU Delegates: Sophie Nguyen (Stand Up!), Felix Sharkey (Community for UMSU), Atticus Corr (Community for UMSU)

The other half of the ALP’s presence on conference floor, National Labor Students (NLS) are the student branch of the national Labor Left faction. They claim to be driven by the ideological principles of “socialism, unionism, democracy, and feminism”, and are constitutionally prevented from signing any deals with Liberal delegates. Their South Australian branch split in 2020 to form the splinter faction National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS), and Farrago isn’t sure if the two are back together.

They currently hold four out of 12 office bearer positions including the Presidency, which they’ve held every year since the NUS was founded as part of a so-called “sweetheart deal” with Unity. Farrago’s rumour mill tells us that the Presidency will go to a NSW delegate this year, but we’re not certain which university they’ll be from.

Outgoing 2022 UMSU President Sophie Nguyen was elected as a delegate on the Stand Up! ticket, and will caucus with NLS, attending in person. She is joined by Felix Sharkey and Atticus Corr, who will also caucus with NLS, and were elected on the Community for UMSU ticket in a deal with the SDA and Unity. This deal saw NLS win a plurality of UMSU’s delegates, despite their traditional ticket Stand Up! only winning one, as Stand Up!’s primary vote collapsed after the implosion of their coalition partner Young TWU. To recap, three delegates, elected in a deal with the SDA/Unity, because of the implosion of a Unity subfaction they were allied with.

 

Socialist Alternative

Approximate vote share: 18-20%

Also known as: SAlt, SA, “trots”

UMSU Delegates: Maeve Russack (Left Action), Raphael Duffy (Left Action)

Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary Trotskyist faction affiliated with the national organisation of the same name. They advocate for more radical action from the NUS, and have been involved with the Stop the Menzies Institute campaign at UMSU throughout 2021 and 2022. They are strident critics of the perceived failures of other factions identifying with the political left, including NLS and the Grassroots Independents (Grindies).

They currently hold no office bearer positions, as they walked out of last year’s conference after the policy section came to a close. Their comparatively strong delegate share comes off the back of a year of electoral campaigning for the Victorian Socialists at the federal and Victorian state elections, and a significantly increased primary vote share at some Victorian student unions. Honi Soit reported last week that SAlt opted to sign on to a cross-factional deal with Unity over forming a “left bloc” with NLS and the Grindies that would have blocked Unity from office bearer positions. Given that Red Flag, SAlt’s socialist newspaper, today published an op-ed suggesting that they expect to pick up office bearer positions this year, Farrago can only wonder what exactly they were promised in exchange for signing onto this alleged deal with Unity. Watch this space.

Maeve Russack and Raphael Duffy were elected as delegates on the Left Action ticket, and will caucus with Socialist Alternative, attending in person. Their election came off the back of a remarkably strong result at UMSU, outpolling NLS-aligned Stand Up! in proportional ballots whilst narrowly losing to them preferential office bearer votes. Left Action also signed a deal with the SDA-backed Community ticket to run Socialist Alternative candidates under the Community brand, who were successfully elected.

 

Grassroots Independents

Approximate vote share: 5%

Also known as: “Grindies”

The result of a 2018 merger between minor factions Grassroots Left and National Independents, the Grassroots Independents (colloquially “Grindies”, rhyming with bindis) are a nominally progressive grouping made up of delegates from various left-of-centre political tendencies, including members of the Greens. They are the only faction that does not bind their votes, meaning that delegates are free to vote as they please.

They currently hold one office bearer position in Education Officer Luc Velez, but have since seen their estimated vote share collapse in a series of electoral losses across multiple student unions. Whether they will retain the Education Office or pick up any other remains to be seen, but seems unlikely. They have historically seen delegates elected at the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Western Australia (UWA), but Farrago has been told that many of these delegates and tickets formerly in the Grindies caucus have since left to sit as small-i independents, or proxied their votes to NLS. An organised grassroots caucus is still operating out of the University of Sydney, including proxied delegates from some other universities.

UMSU elected no delegates that will caucus with the Grindies. Some Community delegates in 2020 and 2021 caucused with the Grindies, but following a series of resignations from the Community ticket throughout 2022, the Grindies—at least as an organised political force—seem to have been marginalised in the ticket.

 

Australian Liberal Students Federation

Approximate vote share: <2%

Also known as: Liberals, Libs

The student wing of the Liberal Party, the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) make occasional showings at NatCon in small numbers, but have been largely absent for the last few years. When their delegates are elected, they often proxy to Unity instead of attending the conference.

They currently hold no office bearer positions, and are unlikely to gain any without some serious backroom dealing or a stronger-than-expected vote share. Farrago is aware of at least one elected Liberal delegate from the University of Sydney.

UMSU elected no Liberal delegates, however the ALSF Victorian Representative Conor Barnes ran in the ballot under the Rebuild ticket, unsuccessfully contesting the UMSU presidency as well. Rebuild won one spot on Students’ Council, but their elected councillor resigned before the first meeting of her term.

 

Independents

Approximate vote share: <5%

A number of small-i independent candidates, not belonging to any faction, are also usually elected each year. They don’t caucus with the Grassroots Independents, despite their name, and operate as genuinely independent individual delegates.

Farrago is aware of an increased number of independent delegates this year, including some formerly affiliated with the Grindies from UWA and ANU.

 

Who is UMSU sending to NatCon?

Name

Ticket

Faction

Archit Agrawal

Community for UMSU

Student Unity

Maeve Russack

Left Action

Socialist Alternative

Disha Zutshi

Community for UMSU

Student Unity

Felix Sharkey

Community for UMSU

National Labor Students

Sophie Nguyen

Stand Up!

National Labor Students

Atticus Corr

Community for UMSU

National Labor Students

Raphael Duffy

Left Action

Socialist Alternative

 

What now?

Previous Farrago attendees have varyingly described NatCon as “schoolies for the lowest form of human life (student politicians)”, “desperately in need of reform”, “worth engaging with”, and a conference with “a real value”. For our part, this year’s reporting team has never been to a NatCon, and are keen to experience the best/worst that this country’s aspiring political hacks have to offer.

We’ll be livetweeting all four days of the conference (12-16 Dec) over at @FarragoMagazine on Twitter, and posting daily recaps here on the website.

Got a tip, leak, or rumour? Fed up with your factional headkickers? Tell us what’s going on behind closed doors with this anonymous form.     

 

Disclaimer: Josh Davis ran unsuccesfully for NUS Delegate with Independents for Student Democracy (ISD) in 2021. He is not aligned with any campus-level or national-level political factions. Joel Duggan is too personally fulfilled to be involved in student politics.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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