The factional war that’s violent, ugly and going broke or The National Union of Students – National Conference 2014

by Finbar O’Mallon | @finbaromallon

The NUS National Conference is a gathering of almost every one of Australia’s university student unions and this year it was held inside Monash University’s Mannix College. At work inside the NUS, various factions vie for paid positions and political capital.

The two big factions are Student Unity (SU), associated with the Australian Labor Party’s right-wing; and the Socialist Alternative (SAlt), who spearheaded most of 2014’s anti-budget rallies across the country.

There’s National Labor Students (NLS), the Labor Left. The two smaller factions are Grassroots Left, best compared to a radical-left version of the Greens; and the Independents, who are a faction and not independent general student representatives.

Factions vote in blocs, requiring them to cut deals with others by negotiating officer positions at a state and national level. And whilst a delegate can stand up, vocally criticise a proposed policy to much applause from their own faction, the same faction will then vote in favour of the policy. SAlt’s did this a lot.

The floor erupts for showmanship, people will yell “shame”, “scab” or “fucking cunt”. At one point a SAlt delegate actively followed an Independent around the room, calling them a “scab” as the Independent tried to get away.

Student Unity held committees to write up new songs to taunt the socialists with, this year’s rhymed with Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”. They would sing, “I’m so trotty, I don’t wash my clothes”.

At the end of each night, with the last night going until 4:00am, delegates would retire to their rooms or to drink. SU and NLS had their own punch, a recipe passed down from ‘Cellar Master’ to ‘Cellar Master’.

SU would defend their tabled policies, which were some of the most conservative in the policy book, by saying they were realistic and they were “the right of the left”. They also tried to enjoy NUS as much as possible: they held up policy debate one morning because its members were too hungover, with the showers in the shared bathrooms covered in vomit.

It was a big year for students. Education Minister Christopher Pyne was still plugging his higher education ‘reforms’, which –if they ever pass– will have students taking on more HECS debt as universities are allowed to charge whatever they wish.

Photo - Finbar O'Mallon
Photo – Finbar O’Mallon

When the floor opened for the first time at 3:00pm, it was clear policy would focus on proposals to officially condemn the “neo-liberalisation” of the education system. But delegates couldn’t settle on student politics.

SU delegate labelled these “trot love-ins” to goad SAlt. One SAlt delegate screamed, “You fucking cunt! You fucking cunt!”. This would set the tone for the rest of the week.

Not once over the whole conference was the idea to take a dual lobbyist / activist approach discussed.

And no one liked student media being there. After one fight, where a delegate was ‘named’ (named thrice and you’re expelled), the floor moved to ban filming on the floor. But there was perhaps another side to this: to avoid delegates filming videos to accuse people of assault.

On Tuesday the Grievance Officer –with whom you can file harassment complaints– told delegates “generally being an arsehole was not okay” and reminded people on the nature of consent, as several sexual harassment complaints had apparently been filed.

Tuesday morning was subdued, as some dealt with hangovers. There were some policies which had general support: the NUS voted to lobby for New Zealand students to receive HECS and for better protection of students’ working rights.

However things came to a halt when SAlt passed their policy, “Fuck Abbott and his class warfare budget”,  requiring the NUS to officially encourage students to participate in anti-budget protests. Student Unity voted against it because students could potentially engage in jailable behaviour.

SU were mostly against the pro-protest policy on principle, but the previous year’s conference had given them another reason to block it.

In 2013, SAlt delegates staged a sudden protest and suddenly cornered SU members. One SU delegate admitted they’d jeered at SAlt but he was soon surrounded. SU men stood to the front of the group as SAlt delegates physically abused the women. Allowing similar protests would be, in SU’s eyes, condoning that behaviour.

Soon after, the floor discussed the appointment of next year’s Ethno-Cultural Officer. SAlt didn’t want SU’s candidate who was a white South African male, Michael Bezuidenhout.

Omar Hassan, from SAlt, jumped the stage, grabbed the mike and yelled “White South Africans are not oppressed. White South Africans have been a problem on this Earth for a hundred years!” Hassan was banned from speaking again that night.

Later, the union moved to vote on a policy where the NUS “will defend students expelled or otherwise disciplined for participating in protests against [budget] cuts”. SAlt and Grassroots Left said yes, SU and NLS said no. The vote is too close to call and so there’s a campus count.

In a campus count, every single delegate has to line up by campus, taking half an hour just to move everyone into place before conference officials start tallying votes from each campus. SAlt follows them, tallying the count and making a note when the campus seems to have voted against them, perhaps looking to close the gap by next Nat Con.

April Holcombe from SAlt chases around an Independent, yelling, “Once a scab, always a fucking scab!” SAlt and SU delegates are in shouting matches. Finally the officials bring the total vote home, the motion fails and SU cheered. Again, SU’s reasoning has two sides: career-wise it’s bad if they’re seen propping up protesters who take it too far; and it means supporting the same protests that threatened them in the past.

Photo - Finbar O'Mallon
Photo – Finbar O’Mallon

When the  floor went to Disability Policy, the whole floor booed SAlt, who argued against the NUS establishing better means for disabled students to access National Days of Action.

SAlt delegates said disabled people would damage “the momentum” of the movement. When SAlt raised their hands to vote against it, the whole floor pointed and yelled “shame”.

The next morning, on Wednesday, people are whispering about one SU member who decided to piss on his friend whilst he was passed out outside. Some fellow SU-delegates shun this member and his friend apparently filed a grievance complaint.

Wednesday was the final day for policy debate and people believed it would go to 3:00am after the original start time of 2:30pm was pushed backed till 4:30pm. Delegates were either too hungover or too busy cutting deals to reach quorum and someone had thrown up in the shared bathroom.

Kyol Blakeney and Anna Amelia, both of Grassroots Left, criticised the floor for passing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) policy too fast last night. They felt the speed which the floor voted it through deprived them of a chance to properly discuss why good ATSI policy mattered. When they’d finished speaking the floor stood and applauded and in a few hours the same people applauding would call them scabs.

Then it was time to change the NUS forever. In the past, Western Australian student unions had worked out a deal where their state officers would be paid for their roles, unlike state reps elsewhere. With WA being Grassroots Left and Independents territory, SU and SAlt were quick to round on them as they protested against the deal, labelling them all –Blakeney and Amelia included– “scabs”

Then SU and SAlt voted to cease paying the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer, Disabilities Officer and International Students Officer. Even Student Unity members were furious at the decision, chastising their colleagues online. A speaker from the Independents came to the stage, screamed at the Speaker, saying it was a disgrace before security escorted her out of the hall.

Photo - Finbar O'Mallon
A delegate turns leaves the floor in outrage. Photo – Finbar O’Mallon

General Secretary Isobelle Kingshott  approached the floor and said last year’s heads had lied about NUS being in a surplus. NUS was $65,000 in debt, however on Friday, The Australian would report the figure was closer to $95,000.

Kingshott told the floor if they didn’t pass these motions, and approve a financial audit, the NUS would be bankrupt. The floor voted it in.

After policy talk, it was time for candidacy speeches. Delegates would approach the stand, telling the floor why they should be voted in for their respective position.

The speeches were a facade: those who made speeches were the ones most likely to get in based on the pre-arranged preference deals.

Michael Bezuidenhout went to make his speech for Ethno-Cultural officer. SAlt and Grassroots Left delegates stood and turned their backs before chanting “racists are not welcome here” as Bezuidenhout continued speaking whilst SU delegates formed a ‘barrier’ around him.

SAlt and Grassroots Left protested against Bezuidenhout’s appointment, accusing him of racism only because of a racist stereotype of white South Africans. It was highly likely SAlt had traded off the Ethno-Cultural officer position for something they considered more valuable.

The night finished at 3:00am. Even then, some delegates were still running the halls, yelling “let’s get fucked up”.

    Michael Bezuidenhout [centre frame] delivers his speech with support from fellow Student Unity candidates. Photo - Finbar O'Mallon
Michael Bezuidenhout [centre frame] delivers his speech with support from fellow Student Unity candidates. Photo – Finbar O’Mallon

Finally, it was voting day. Delegates are expected to make an individual choice, not a factional one. In reality, they collected their ballot and handed them off to factional leaders who filled them out, ensuring the execution of deals they’d been working on all week.

And when the polls closed on the Thursday the SU and NLS crowded the pubs together and SAlt started heading home. Grassroots Left and the Independents, the two smaller factions, found a corner on the Mannix College grounds and would immediately cease conversation when strangers came too close.

There was no need to speculate on who had got what, the major factions already knew what they’d won.

The mood turned sour at the pub when it was learned that one of the SU delegates had told an NLS member to “go die on apartheid beach”.

The final night has a reputation for being the messiest but the night quietened down and people filed off to bed. And that was it.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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