By Kerryn Williams
CANBERRA — A referendum is being held at the Australian National University September 4-6 on whether the Students Association should affiliate to the National Union of Students (NUS).
There have been two referenda on affiliation at ANU in the past eight years — in 1988 and 1993. Both lost by a significant margin.
Last week a referendum to disaffiliate from NUS was held at the University of Canberra. Activists in the no fees campaign were the main force behind the disaffiliation push. Their experience in building this campaign last year caused them to question the role of NUS. The referendum was lost 60:40, with only just over 500 students voting.
Eric Johnston, one of the activists campaigning for disaffiliation, told Green Left Weekly that NUS had not played the sort of role in the campaign that would be expected from a national student organisation.
"All we got from NUS was a few posters, often arriving after the date of the event. Rarely did any [NUS] officials visit our campus to give us support. There wasn't even much feedback on what was happening in the rest of the country."
The only time NUS turned up in numbers, Johnston said, was "when their jobs and funding base were threatened" by the move for disaffiliation. "They were here in swarms last week — the whole national office. Why couldn't we have had that sort of presence during the no fees campaign?"
Johnston said that the student march on Parliament House in May, just after the budget, was one of the experiences which made it clear to him that NUS was not interested in building activist campaigns.
"The action, organised by students from ANU and the University of Canberra, was very successful. That evening, John Graham, NUS national president, claimed that the demonstration was an 'NUS victory' — not a student victory — and that universities should join NUS!
"But when I spoke to Graham during the organising stages, not only was he reluctant to be a part of it, he wouldn't even provide $150 so that we could install a PA system in front of Parliament House!
"We feel that the $30,000 we send to NUS every year in affiliation fees could be much better spent."
Johnston was hopeful that students would learn from this experience and "avoid being intimidated by the NUS propaganda, which groups all those opposed to NUS with the conservatives".
Sarah Stephen, general secretary of the ANU Students Association and member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, agrees. She told Green Left Weekly that affiliating to NUS will not help students defend their rights.
The International Socialist Organisation is the most prominent group campaigning on ANU in favour of affiliation to NUS, Stephen said. The ISO is running a "students need unions" campaign. Stephen said the ISO confuses the issue by uncritically supporting NUS because it calls itself a student union.
She pointed out that ANU already has a student union, that all students are members of the Students Association, and that NUS, to which some student unions are affiliated, is more accurately described as a peak body.
Stephen said that NUS's composition, structure, involvement in campaigns and record in defending students' rights need to be weighed carefully. "This is what the ISO is obscuring with their 'students need unions' campaign.
"The ISO try to make it look like NUS is doing more than it is. For example, ISO claimed that NUS initiated this year's anti-fees national days of action. That's wrong. Even NUS acknowledges that these were initiated by independent activists."
Resistance is campaigning against affiliation because it is not convinced that NUS will represent the interests of the majority of students.
"NUS was set up by Labor students with the blessing of the then education minister. It has always been dominated by the Labor students, who have been, and are, influenced by senior party officials — the same ones which have reintroduced tertiary fees and cut the education budget. NUS has repeatedly shown that it is compromised by its lack of independence from the ALP.
"If the anti-fees campaign is to be successful, it has to maintain its independence from NUS control. When campaigns are subordinated to the interests of an ALP-dominated peak body, at best they will be severely hamstrung."
Why ANU should not affiliate to NUS
By Kerryn Williams