EdCon 2017: What it Could Have Been

Michael Zacharatos

Imagine what could be achieved if you had Australia’s finest student unionists together in an auditorium: strategising, timetabling, mobilising. Imagine having Wayne Swan seated on a panel, and the goodwill that could be fostered between the senior and student branches of the Left. Imagine a week of solidarity against capitalism, discrimination, and the patriarchy, because surely it’s more productive to bond over a uniting cause than to nit pick nebulous and ideological differences.

Well, you better keep imagining.

In early July the National Union of Students (‘NUS’) held an Education Conference on the University of Queensland campus, with the purpose of discussing and planning action against continued cuts to education. The conference sees attendees from Labor Right (‘Unity’), Labor Left (‘NLS’), Socialist Alternative (‘SAlt’), and other small factions and independents. There are no Liberal attendees, and it’s hard to imagine any would feel welcome.

Throughout the conference you could bet that sessions would start late, finish early, and end in deflated sighs. Disappointingly, though in line with other major conferences, NUS prohibits any filming during sessions. While a variety of spurious reasons are provided, it’s hard to blame them — if you had organised this hot mess, you’d want to keep any reporting to print.

The plenaries were unproductive, frustrating to watch, and disturbingly similar to high school swimming carnivals. Held in lecture theatres, the delegates would divide up neatly and sit safely with their parties, they would thunder applause even if the speaking member of their party was making a fool of themself, and there was far more focus on scoring zingers and ‘sick banter’ than on the issues at hand. An open political panel featuring Wayne Swan was spent speaking over and interrupting the panelists and disguising ten-minute monologues about the ALP’s failure towards students as ‘questions’. A forum on planning campaigns degenerated into visceral debate, and tensions kept rising until one Unity male allegedly winked at a SAlt delegate. Welp, that was the end of that. Voices were raised, threats were made, people were called bootlickers, commies, fascists, neoliberals, and eventually Unity collectively abandoned the workshop, singing ‘Student Unity Forever’ on the way out.

The workshops were hit or miss. The first day saw a full room for the ‘Do You Have Your Priorities Right’ session, hosted by Aaron McGregor, which presumably would critique the current agenda of NUS. Anneke D’Emanuele, NUS Education Officer, arrived five minutes before the workshop was due to start and implored everyone to attend her workshop downstairs discussing campaign strategies. She was largely ignored. It was only when a senior NLS member burst in and cried “NLS up!” that half the room dutifully marched out — not that it mattered. The workshop couldn’t have been a high priority for Aaron McGregor; he never turned up.

Anneke’s workshop was lacklustre. For 45 minutes or so students from across the country stood up and recounted campaigning tactics they had found effective, which essentially came down to increasing visibility on campus with banner-drops and fliers, keeping a media profile by contacting journalists before large displays of activism, and getting tutors onside to legitimise any initiatives. While congenial, the actual information could have been just as well accounted for (and probably better articulated) on a single PowerPoint slide, in which case everyone could have joined Unity — who skipped the workshop — at the pub.

Workshops were occasionally derailed. James Newbold’s paradoxically titled ‘Economics Without Math!’ workshop aimed to equip the room with general monetary facts to rebut the Liberal fiction that the Left are poor economic managers. Well, side-stepping the awkward realisation that among unionists and future Labor politicians there was a demand for this workshop, it was by large productive. James led the room through economic concepts with explanations palatable enough for anyone hearing ‘underemployment’ for the first time. However, not even two slides into the presentation, a SAlt representative took issue with James’ summary of neoliberalism, and the next ten minutes were a back-and-forth about Keynesian theory, hyperinflation, and the Weimar Republic, until someone reminded the SAlt member that they hadn’t been complaining when their father gifted them a Porsche.

As nobody in StuPol is confident enough to toss out banter without their entire faction chuckling behind them, the smaller workshops are the more productive spaces. The mental heath sessions were lauded as zen, sensitive, and informative, and Sabina Rooney drew on her experience as UQU Women’s Officer to host the workshop on trauma-informed responses to sexual assault, which included an engaging discussion as to what extent — if any — restorative justice could play a part in university responses.

Overall, EdCon does little to instil faith in student unionism. During Vertigo’s two days at the conference there seemed to be a greater focus on sledging opposing factions and finding just the right words for a funny Tweet than on working towards the betterment of student education. This is disappointing, given there are plenty of other fields where NUS successfully lobbies and campaigns on behalf of students. The saving grace of EdCon were the small, focused workshops where politics were (sometimes) left outside the room and attendants actually did what they should have been doing all along — have reasonable, approachable discussion.