You’re the voice?

Finding a place above the politics at the National Union of Students National Conference.

Student unionism in Australia has long extended beyond political lines and SRCs. As factional representatives from campuses across the country gathered at the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference, we spoke with leaders from outside the student political bubble on what it’s like having your voice heard above all the shouting at the peak representative body’s annual gathering.

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Ethan Taylor
President of Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students (UATSIS)
Student at University of Melbourne

What were you hoping to achieve by coming to NatCon?

I was hoping to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students received the adequate attention they deserve. Hopefully this can increase our levels of representation at NatCon in the future.

What has your experience been like as an observer at NatCon so far?

I suppose being someone who doesn’t really identify with any faction, it’s been quite overwhelming. At times I’ve been very hopeful for the NUS as an organisation. At other times I’ve been very doubtful towards its productivity. So it’s been a lot of ups and downs.

How incredible would it be if most students across Australia were really tuned into NatCon”

From the perspective of an observer that sat at the back the entire time and just got to see everything from there it was quite heartbreaking to see the divide that sits so firmly between some factions who, if if they just worked together, could achieve a lot. And that’s not to say there’s no cooperation. I acknowledge that they do a lot on the national executive. But from the perspective of an observer on conference floor, you see everyone at their strengths. If only everyone knew how to play to each other’s strengths and respect each other while they’re speaking. Then the productivity would increase. And I think the NUS as an organisation would be able to grow.

I also chaired a chapter of policy discussions, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy. From that perspective, it’s very interesting. I didn’t have too many issues when I was chairing, which was unusual compared to every other chapter, like welfare. It was really nice to see everyone respecting each other, and everyone giving who should be talking, the right to speak. It was always Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students speaking first. No one had a problem with that, which was great to see. I think this chapter is demonstrative of what the NUS can be and what it can grow to be.

Do you feel there is opportunity to have your voice heard? And how could NatCon improve for non-factional representatives?

I feel like more than opportunity, there is leeway. I think they’re two different things. Opportunity is making a space available for a particular voice to be heard. Leeway is that I had to come in and push to say this is what’s happening. And luckily they all listened and respected that. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of opportunity, but people were willing to work with me and with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates here, which was incredible. More than opportunity, there was respect.

What’s your relationship like with student media?

It’s good. I think the University of Melbourne student media is pretty incredible, just because I go to that university and I know them all really well. What they do is really cool and I get along with them really well. I’m always refreshing Twitter on conference floor to get all the different perspectives on what’s going on at NatCon. And I think student media is brilliant like that.

I don’t see too much bias, and I think that’s really incredible. When I look on the Twitter feeds, from everyone, besides delegates tweeting, I usually get a really good commentary on what’s happening. I would like to see more student media here in the future, and more national reach for student media at NatCon. So that more students across the country can feel included in the discussions from NatCon. How incredible would it be if most students across Australia were really tuned into NatCon.

And have you had much interaction with student media in the past?

I have, and those interactions have been mostly good. I think it works a lot better if you have a relationship with reporters, and if reporters have the opportunity to build a relationship with you, and with leaders from different student groups. I think media could be more holistic in its coverage of the issues that are affecting students if they covered and spoke with other non-factional groups.

I think while my experiences have been mostly good, better relationships between student media and other autonomous and cultural groups would be incredible. Not only for students in Australia, but for NUS too. If student media are covering the issues affecting non-political student groups, then NUS can better see the issues that students care about.

What’s one headline about the work your organisation does that you would have liked to see in a student media publication?

“Indigenous students take their place in student politics”

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Eli Madar
Conferences Convenor of Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS)
Student at Australian National University

What were you hoping to achieve by coming to NatCon?

I was hoping to get a better understanding of the umbrella body of student politics in Australia and understanding why it is that we (our student unions and SRCs) send members to NatCon. I’m also hoping to better put forward the perspective of and issues affecting Jewish and other ethnocultural student groups. Coming from a non-factional student representative union myself (AUJS), understanding how NUS sees itself as a representative body is really interesting. Questions like “If it’s actually representative”, and seeing the role party factions play. Not only in the ideology of NUS but in the practical outcomes from conference floor and other deals.

This culture of needing to be placed on a political spectrum to get involved with the NUS has alienated Jewish and ethnocultural students from being heard”

What has your experience been like as an observer at NatCon so far?

I think it’s been very interesting. I attended NatCon last year as well. And I think all of the factions were a little taken aback by the presence of a non-factional group at NatCon. They didn’t really know why we were there, and didn’t understand our place. And to me that almost came across as a little ironic because this is an organisation that is made up of representative bodies and individuals that are supposed to represent all students – to think that they didn’t really know how to react when another representative body of the same demographic they aim to serve come along as observers. I think this is also the feeling towards independent delegates here too. I think this is because student politicians don’t like uncertainty, and they don’t like not knowing where you stand, especially where you stand on a left-right political spectrum. And I think that impacted the way a lot of people saw AUJS.

I think this culture of needing to be placed on a political spectrum to properly get involved with the student representative body has alienated Jewish and other ethnocultural students from being heard on the issues that affect them. This is a huge problem, especially on issues related to racism and diversity on campus, and it’s an important reason why AUJS is at NatCon. To fight that culture and assert our place here and legitimise our voice on issues that affect us.

So the fact that you were there for issues that didn’t necessarily correspond or match with a particular faction didn’t go down too well with them?

I think they were skeptical because they didn’t understand why we were there or why we were interested. And I think that says a lot about how the factions at NatCon see themselves, that the NUS is purely a vehicle for factional ideology. The NUS has the capacity to do incredibly positive things, especially if their organisation is of interest to non-political students and issues. The fact that this year AUJS isn’t the only non-factional group here at NatCon is evidence that it’s moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

Do you feel there is opportunity to have your voice heard? And how could NatCon improve for non-factional representatives?

I think there are two issues with the approach to having non-factional voices heard at NatCon. Firstly, there are structural issues. You need a faction to waive their rights to speak so you can take their place, and this is very difficult to organise. Unless you have pre-existing connections or mates in that faction, you’re unlikely to get those rights waived to you. And I think that creates an access barrier, especially for groups that aren’t as engaged in the stupol process as others, that are looking to come to NatCon to get more involved in the student political process. It’s difficult to just be heard, and I think that’s necessarily discriminatory.

And I think that even if the structure of the system were changed to allow for non-vote holding members to approach the chair or business committee to apply to speak, it wouldn’t be a total fix. Above all there needs to be an attitudinal change. That everything someone says is important to the debate, even if they don’t have voting rights. Factions should support whoever comes forward to speak. I think if this was met with less predictable speeches by factions looking to fill their speaking spots, and less shouting, there could be more productive and representative debates occur.

What’s your relationship like with student media?

I know a few people from Honi Soit and other newspapers, largely from extracurriculars outside of uni. Being from ANU, I knew of both of our newspapers and am quite good friends with a few of the editors from both Woroni and ANU Observer that are here at NatCon. And I think we were able to have a lot more of an honest discourse and discussion because of that friendship. About what we saw NatCon’s role as being in the student political landscape, whether our universities should be subsidising students getting drunk and arguing for a week, and whether we saw NatCon as anything more than a meme.

The NUS has the capacity to do incredibly positive things, especially if their organisation is of interest to non-political students and issues”

And have you had much interaction with student media in your role with AUJS?

We do to an extent. As a special interest group most of the interaction we have with student media and also wider media like the Canberra Times happens in the wake of a crisis. Like when their were holocaust denial leaflets distributed around campus, we were approached by Woroni and the Canberra Times to have a discussion and provide quotes to appear in their articles. And I think that’s not good enough. Don’t get me wrong, it was important we were asked for input on issues that affect us like this, but I think student media and student organisations need to make more of an effort to have a relationship outside of crises. I think students don’t engage on a campus level as much as they used to and I think student media occupies a really important space in allowing students to live off campus or who engage in university in a different way to understand and interact in a very practical way with the student landscape. This is how students can understand the experiences of others at such a formative stage in life.

What’s one headline about the work your organisation does that you would have liked to see in a student media publication?

“AUJS fights against all forms of ethnocultural discrimination on campus”

 

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