By Zanny Begg
From December 7 to 11, delegates to the national conference of the National Union of Students will be gathering in Ballarat. It's a pivotal conference, one which finds Labor stronger and the left weaker than in many years.
The time has come for the student left to take stock of where it's at in NUS.
NUS was established by Labor students in 1987 in an attempt to demobilise the mass campaign against the Labor Party's introduction of tertiary fees. Since that time, Labor Party members within NUS have tried to stifle, control and marginalise student activism.
This year, their position is particularly strong — in the most recent round of delegate elections, Labor students won over 47% of delegates, giving them virtual control over the union.
In the NUS state conferences of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, Labor students used their numbers to virtually lock out left-wing activists from office bearer positions.
More disturbingly, they have also used their strength inside NUS to move the union away from activist networks and campaigns. For example, in Queensland the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS — supposedly the "left" of Labor students) pushed through motions prohibiting the union from organising more than one national day of action against education cuts each year and disenfranchising members of the cross-campus education committee from high schools, TAFEs, campuses not affiliated to NUS and amongst academic staff and the community.
Labor students' determination to consolidate the bureaucratic structures of NUS is crystal clear — a situation which spells potential disaster for a student movement which, in 1999, faces further attack from the federal government, including legislation deliberately designed to smash student unions.
This should come as no surprise — Labor students have no interest in an activist NUS. What is a surprise is the attitude the left has taken towards these moves and its lack of coherent opposition to them.
The Labor Party has been able to concoct inside NUS a culture of factionalism and bureaucracy. The left has been so caught up in the resulting deals for positions that it has failed to notice that, somewhere along the line, the purpose of its intervention into NUS has been lost.
The left has started to accept the terms laid down by the Labor Party. The left squabbles amongst itself for that last slot on a committee. It accepts that "loyalty to the union" comes before all else (including building campaigns and activism). It retreats into the structures of NUS, thereby weakening the activist networks.
Our role has been reduced to providing "left cover" for a union which is bureaucratically controlled and dominated.
Most damaging has been the left's attitude to itself. It has been divided and, rather than formulating a strategy for taking Labor on, has put short-term factional loyalties ahead of the interests of students. It has lost the plot.
Resistance has proposed the formation of one left caucus inside NUS for this year's national conference. This proposal has been rejected by the Non-Aligned Left but is being considered by Left Alliance. This would be a first step towards strengthening the common concerns of the left and weakening the hold of the Labor Party.
But this is only one step in a larger struggle to transform NUS. More importantly, it's only one step in achieving our broader goals as a student left — to rebuild the activist structures, to mobilise and organise student anger and to build a mass movement capable of taking on the government.
And if it proves impossible for NUS to aid this purpose, then the option must remain for the left to build the alternative structures that will.
[Zanny Begg is the education co-officer of NUS Queensland and a member of the Resistance National Executive.]