For the first time since the foundation of the National Union of Students (NUS) 15 years ago, Labor's right-wing student faction, Unity, was ousted from the office of general secretary at the NUS annual conference, held in Ballarat on December 4-7.
The conference delegates elected a candidate from the Independents faction, Matthew Chuk, to the position. This came in spite of the long-standing deal between the two major Labor factions, Unity and the "left-wing" National Labor Students, and which is aimed at keeping the office of president for NLS and general secretary for Unity.
For those fighting for a national student organisation that campaigns effectively against the government's attacks on students' rights and higher education, and involves students in struggles for social and environmental justice, the weakening of Labor's stranglehold on NUS is undoubtedly a positive development. However, most of the left at conference failed to provide a strategy for how this can be done beyond having activists elected to office-bearer positions.
For many participants at the NUS conference, campaign strategy and discussion of political issues is a long way down their list of priorities. Much more important to the Labor factions, and even for many to the left of them, are the deals done off conference floor for office-bearer positions.
By these standards, left-wing activists are right to say the conference was a "success" for the left. The Grassroots Left grouping won the positions of women's officer, one queer officer and a seat on the national executive. Socialist Alternative won the education officer position. The environment officer position went to the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) candidate.
However, much less clear is what this "left voice" in NUS will actually say and do.
In the context of 2007 being a federal election year, the left will need to challenge those who would reduce NUS's activities to once again being a proxy election campaigner for the ALP.
The left's failure to argue for and win an alternative perspective at the NUS conference has already weakened the willingness and ability of the new NUS leadership to play a leading role in building grassroots movements.
Much of the policy submitted to the conference was not even discussed, partly as a result of Labor's control over the conference agenda and partly due to the lack of any united efforts from the left to prioritise particular policy for discussion.
The major policy adopted by the conference for a campaign in 2007 was that put forward by NLS titled "Voice for the Future". It included three campaign priorities: for quality and accessible higher education; for student rights at work; and for action on climate change. While these are important issues, the intentions of NLS were to build a lobbyist campaign in the framework of the federal election. As the policy document stated: "It is also an opportunity for students to demand that all political parties adopt the student agenda as part of their election policy."
An amendment was put forward by Socialist Alternative to add a fourth priority of a campaign against the "War on Terror". This was blocked from even being discussed on conference floor.
Likewise, policy submitted by Resistance calling on NUS to endorse the March 17 anti-war rallies and the campaign against US President George Bush's visit to Australia in September was kept off the agenda.
Instead, discussion at the conference was dominated by proposed reforms to NUS's constitution. Reforms passed by the conference included reducing pay rates for women's, welfare and education officers to half-time office bearers. The only office bearers to remain on full-time pay will be the president and general secretary.
The Labor factions argued for these reforms on the basis of NUS's "survival" in the face of the federal Coalition government "voluntary student unionism" law, but did not put forward a budget for the organisation as demanded by a large number of the delegates.
Despite the combined vote of the left factions easily having the 25% required to block this reform, no serious attempt was made to do so.
The position taken by Labor students reflects the sort of union they want to see — one where the president and general secretary play the most important roles in the union as media spokespeople, while activist office bearers play a peripheral role to NUS's work. Unfortunately, this perspective went largely unchallenged by the left so as not to risk deals made for office-bearer positions.
The only way the left stands any chance of seriously changing NUS into a more activist and relevant organisation is if it is more united and if it has a common strategy for what it's seeking to do with NUS. This requires a move away from playing the games of Labor students and the getting-office-bearers-at-all-cost approach.