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'... a focal point for the restless energy and fired passion of Australian students in each valley of the continent.'
-- National Union of Students General Secretary Daniel Mookhey
Since its resurrection in 1987, the National Union of Students in Australia has been plagued by doubt over its reason for existence. “The National Union of Students lurches under the weight of applied idealism and mistaken expectations,” said current NUS General Secretary Daniel Mookhey. “Too many seek too much too soon from an organisation configured to do nothing more than harness the energy of Australian students and speak as their voice.”
Opinions differ wildly over why the student union exists and what it should aim to achieve. NUS State President Tim Chapman said that “NUS should be the body through which students views are articulated and fought for at a national and state level.” Mr Mookhey went further to say that the Union should “rally students to the defence of their education. It should act as a platform to facilitate people’s involvement in the political process. It should be a voice for progressive social change. It should be a focal point for the restless energy and fired passion of Australian students in each valley of the continent.”
Around these two office-bearers lie opinions ranging from a viewpoint that NUS should be a tool of the forthcoming revolution to a determination to see the Union completely disbanded. Somewhere in the middle, hundreds of thousands of students belong to a national organisation that struggles for recognition and barely clutches at cohesion.
'Why should students still be foreced to contribute to an organisation whose views they do not support and subscribe?'
-- National Executive member Gareth Ward
The University of New South Wales Student Guild, University of Sydney Student Representative Council (SRC), UTS Student Association, and most other student organisations, student governments and student associations in Australia are members of the National Union of Students (NUS). Student organisations join NUS so that the national union can represent all students across Australia.
NUS functions in a similar manner to all incorporated organisations. It has an annual national conference attended by delegates elected from the members of NUS, a board of directors (National Executive) that oversees the administration and activities of the Union, and a group of officers (National Office Bearers) that conduct the business and activities of the Union.
Each student organisation holds annual elections, and it is then that delegates to the National Conference of NUS are elected. Campuses elect between two and seven delegates, depending on the number of students at the university. Only delegates are entitled to vote at National Conference, and the number of votes allocated to each delegate again varies in relation to student numbers. For example, a delegate from UNSW carries 15 votes, while one from NIDA carries only two. Each year, intense battles erupt on almost every campus over delegates, for there is a direct relationship between the number of votes you hold and the amount of power and influence you wield.
National Conference is held each year in December, and is the supreme decision-making body of the Union. The conference last for five days, and at the conclusion of proceedings all involved are exhausted, probably drunk, and keen to go home. There are two principle functions of the conference: to debate and pass policy to direct the activities of the Union and its office bearers in the following year, and to elect the national office bearers, national executive and committee members for the next calendar year.
Delegates generally align themselves with one of the major factions within NUS. The National Broad Left (NBL) is the most left-wing element within NUS. They are an umbrella group that includes organisations such as Socialist Alternative and Resistance. The Australian Labour Students (ALS) are slightly less left-wing than the NBL, and a small percentage of their members associate themselves with the left of the Australian Labor Party. The National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS) and Student Unity are the two largest factions involved in NUS, and are linked to Labor Left and Labor Right respectively. These two factions generally hold very close to half the votes at National Conference. The Liberals, like an Australian version of the Republican Party, are the most conservative force in the Union, sometimes split between a progressive Wet and conservative Dry sub-faction.
The politics of policy
Violent street protests over education issues are rare these days, and in the minds of the public, the enduring image of student activism is a scattered group of students walking slowly to Hyde Park to the sounds of a muffled megaphone and a half-remembered chant.
In the three months leading up to conference, every delegate is invited to submit policy. All factions make submissions, and many different views and ideas are espoused. It is during the first four days of conference that policy is debated. This is when all delegates get a chance to speak, support or criticise any policy that is debated. As each individual policy is debated for an average of around half an hour, conference never deals with more than a small percentage of policy written. As each faction has specific policy that they would like to see debated, there is much wheeling and dealing to get policy to the floor.
For a specific piece of policy to be debated, it must be placed on the agenda. For policy to be placed on the agenda, it must be passed through Business Committee. Business Committee is a seven-member committee elected on the first day of conference. Every major faction has enough votes to have one, occasionally two, of their candidates elected to the committee, and as a result any given faction needs the support of three others to gain four out of the seven votes. How that is done is a complicated process.
Each faction has a Conference Organising Group (COG) and several runners. A COG is a desk with a few key people, all of who know which policy their faction would like to see debated, passed and blocked. They send their runners to other COGs with policy, and if three other factions support it, then the runner will take the policy to business committee, who will then place it on the agenda. It is, however, difficult to gain the support of three other factions: runners often return to their respective COGs without the requisite support, and are dispatched again with a different piece of policy, only to repeat the process indefinitely.
‘Who threw the first punch?’
'The best achievement in recent history is probably throwing me out of the conference one night for simply implying that we had a radical communist running proceedings.'
-- UNSW Liberal Club Secretary Anthony Boskovitz
To the casual observer, the conference itself looks like a lecture full of inattentive students. A large hall is filled with chairs and tables, with 500 delegates and observers sitting in their factions according to a pattern that has remained the same for years. The two largest factions, Unity and NOLS, sit at the front of the conference hall. The Liberals sit at the back, and most other groups find a place inbetween. The benefit of having a standard seating pattern is that it’s easier for a member of COG to find a faction in a hurry.
Not that factions are easy to miss; the major factions design t-shirts for their delegates, so that the conference floor is broken into blocks of colour. Some have complained that this makes it easy to stereotype individuals at the conference and causes instant hostility between people wearing opposing t-shirts, like a barely-civilised version of West Side Story. Others say that it creates a sense of community within a faction and allows you to find like-minded students easily in a crowd.
Delegates are often wholly inattentive to speakers. Some delegates work as runners for their faction’s COG, which entails negotiating with other COGs to get policy onto the agenda. Delegates also move on and off the floor to collect proxy votes (that is, votes being held on behalf of someone in absentia), which takes careful coordination to ensure that as many votes are being exercised on the floor as is possible.
During an ordinary session of the conference, Business Committee adds policy to the agenda and delegates speak for or against a motion. It is a constant challenge for the conference chair to keep the floor under control. Speakers are rarely heard in silence; the floor often responds to speakers with cheering, clapping, insults and verbal abuse. During the 2003 National Conference, delegates on the conference floor turned their back on speakers and held up signs with insulting messages. Whole factions will often stand on their chairs and sing to disrupt the conference, which results in delegates being ‘named’.
Some members of the far left consider verbal support to be intimidating to speakers and support their delegates by waving their hands silently in the air. In 2001, the radical-left faction NBL tried to stop a speaker from being heard by humming loudly. The chair couldn’t identify which delegates were making the noise and thus couldn’t stop it.
Altercations between delegates are not unknown. Some participants take student politics very seriously, while others treat it with contempt. It is a natural environment for one person to react badly to another’s opinions. In recent years, fights have broken out over the presence of American flags on conference floor and attempts by observers to leave the room during a contentious policy debate. Cameras were banned from the conference in 2003 and some students were asked to leave by security after a violent brawl on the floor. Although the aggression rarely escalates beyond a lot of shouting and the occasional right-hook, national conference is an extremely hostile environment for first-time conference-goers.
Cynical minds in NUS believe that the elections are the only important part of the conference.
The ballot is held on the fifth day. Cynical minds in NUS believe that this is the only important part of the conference. Elections are held for the national positions of President, General Secretary, Education Officer, Welfare/Small and/or Regional Officer, Women’s Officer, Queer Officers and Environment Officer. The twelve members of National Executive are also elected, as are the members of Education Committee, Welfare/Small and/or Regional Committee, Women’s Committee, Queer Committee and the Postgraduate Committee.
Of the office bearers, only the President and the General Secretary wield real power within the Union. The President is the official spokesperson of NUS, and must authorise all material produced by the other national office bearers. The General Secretary deals with the administration and service provision of the Union, sets the budget and is oversees the financial state of NUS. They are accountable to National Executive throughout the course of the year.
National Executive usually meets face to face three times a year, with several more meetings taking place over the phone. As National Conference never meets more than once a year, national executive acts as the highest decision making body in NUS for the vast majority of the time. It has the power to direct any national office bearer, committee member, or State office bearer. Holding or orchestrating a majority of the votes on National Executive would leave those responsible in a very powerful position within the Union.
With the exception of the Environment Department, every portfolio has a corresponding committee. The numbers on the committee are not standard, but there are between five and eight people on all the committees. Each committee is chaired by its office bearer, and is responsible for providing them with direction and guidance throughout the year. Committees only meet three times a year, usually in National Office, and as a result do not actually play a large part in the operation of NUS. That said, they do provide a forum in which the activities of NUS are scrutinised.
Not all aspects of the National Union of Students, Inc., operate as efficiently as they could. Last year, a special rules conference was organised for the purposes of solve reforming the structure, and thus improving the efficiency, of NUS. Unfortunately, not enough delegates attended to legitimise the proceedings. Organisers hope to repeat the event this year with more success. There is a consensus amongst the key players that two main issues need to be addressed, above all others: the role and importance of national committees, and the effectiveness of state branches in their current form.
Powers reserved for the States
'NUS is a small union with limited resources and a lot of battles on its hands.'
-- 2004 NUS General Secretary Daniel Mookhey
Every State has a State branch. The structure of each branch is similar to National Office, with most States having a President, Education Officer, Women’s Officer, and so on. State conferences are held in the month leading up to National Conference, with the delegates elected to National Conference from that State attending the State conference. State conferences are the highest decision making body in the State, but can be overruled by National Conference and National Executive.
State executives are responsible for the administration and operation of each branch, and act as the highest decision making body when State conference is not meeting, which is most of the year. State office bearers and committees are responsible for implementing the campaigns that come out of National Office, and for coordinating activities across the campuses in their State.
Stating the obvious
National Office is not sufficient to conduct all the activities of NUS, but equally clear that the current state branch structure does not work.
State Branches, as they currently exist, form the other hurdle that NUS must overcome if it is to improve. State branches form the middle layer between National Office and the constituent organisations. They are charged with doing much of the groundwork and, as a result, the state branches duplicate many of the activities of National Office. This is due to either an unwillingness to cooperate (if competing factions are involved), miscommunication or incompetence. It is clear that National Office is not sufficient to conduct all the activities of NUS, but equally clear that the current state branch structure does not work.
State Conferences have a penchant for creating excess numbers of office bearers. In 2002, the NSW branch had thirteen office bearers whose wages totalled AUD$108,000. The total budget for the branch was AUD$135,000. This leaves AUD$27,000 to run all campaigns for all departments. The UNSW Student Guild’s Activities department has a larger budget in any given year. If NUS is to represent students in an effective way, or run campaigns that have positive outcomes, then it needs to ensure situations like this are not repeated.
One of the proposed reforms is to switch to a regional organiser system. There is contention over some of the fine details, but the basic proposal calls for the abolition of state offices, as they currently exist, and the employment of between two and five state organisers. A state executive would still be elected, and organisers would be responsible to this body. The number of organisers would be in direct proportion to the number of students in the state. State organisers would not be matched to specific portfolios. They would instead work to implement all of National Office’s campaigns on the campuses in their region, and to facilitate communication and coordination between the student organisations on those campuses. The potentially adverse impact of this change on autonomous organising by special interest groups needs to be managed carefully.
'The problem with student politicians going out and telling students what's wrong with education is that it puts the cart before the horse.'
-- Former NUS delegate Jebediah Cole
Committees are in place to hold office bearers accountable for their actions, and to provide them with direction and ideas in regards to their portfolio.
This would be effective if committee members behaved in a constructive way. However, the political composition of a committee affects its behaviour towards the office-bearer that it directs. If a committee is friendly to its office bearer, then the questions are designed to make the office bearer appear as though they have been diligently fulfilling their duties. If the committee is unfriendly, then any opportunity to ask the office bearer awkward questions is never passed up. This environment is not conducive to the development of original ideas.
That said, the three annual rounds of committees provide a forum in which participants can interact with other students who share their concerns. Some factions see the conferences as an opportunity for interstate factional leaders to engage with one another before National Conference, and there are those who feel this is the only reason the committee structure is maintained. Committees provide an extra mechanism for students to involve themselves in the activities of the Union, and the more students involved in NUS, the more legitimate its activities become. But at what cost?
National committees are a major source of expenditure for NUS, yet their effectiveness is arguable. The financial burden of flying between 20 and 50 committee members to Melbourne far outweighs even the most constructive of suggestions that arise out of the meetings.
The current administration is currently trying to develop a system that will allow students to participate in the Union without it becoming inordinately expensive. It appears that a consensus has been reached between several of the major factions in regards to the efficiency of NUS, but no reforms have been passed by the conference-—yet. Such a major reform will take time to reach acceptance by the majority of the conference.
Last chance for change?
'In 1999, we saw a sustained and well-organised campaign against the VSU legislation, and it was an excellent success.'
-- 2004 NUS General Secretary Daniel Mookhey
'The organization should just be ended and be put out to pasture because it is incapable or achieving any worthwhile outcomes or achievements and is a waste of students valuable resources and money.'
-- UNSW Liberal Club Secretary Anthony Boskovitz
The immediate threat to NUS remains the implementation of voluntary student unionism (VSU) Some would see this as a good thing, promising to remove the union and with it, its wanton spending on disagreeable campaigns. Others would see this as detrimental to students. If these are truly the last years of national student representation, it is a shame that they will be spent fighting the change rather than helping students one last time.
It remains important for NUS to evaluate its core objectives of lobbying the government, acting as a national spokesperson and running awareness campaigns, with a view to streamlining these objectives and cutting down on excessive waste. When contacted, students from within Unity, NOLS and the Liberals agreed that NUS could not survive if VSU was implemented. If it were to survive, it would need to be a streamlined organization, without expensive state branches or committees. Instead, a reformed union might consist of a handful of office-bearers and a national executive that meets once a month by phone. The grassroots actions of the union could be left to member organisations. Assuming, of course, that any continued to exist.
In the meantime, there will be vigorous debate within NUS about which direction to take in the future. Even if VSU is defeated again the Senate, NUS will need to examine ways to reform itself. All delegates should embrace this opportunity to improve the union. Delegates represent some of the most active students in Australia and form the backbone of student representation. Their responsibility in building a viable union for the future should not be taken lightly. For all of the factional rhetoric espoused at national conference, this is a chance for the union to evolve into a more useful organisation. It is an opportunity that NUS can scarcely afford to waste.
This article first appeared in Tharunka, the student newspaper of the University of New South Wales. Students at my university are required to pay $5 per year to belong to NUS, but few know of its existence. I wrote this article in response to confusion about the union's role in the anti-voluntary student unionism campaign. A lengthier version was published in the paper on Monday, 8 March 2004.