Sunday, December 19, 2004

NOLS memoir: space madness (I)

I think of it as a kind of space madness that afflicts people who go to NUS. Space madness of the kind that might have brought low heroes of bad kids' cartoons. Space madness that sets in when young men and women leave Melbourne from their precaucuses to go to Ballarat, where there is no longer any social contact with the outside world. Space madness that hits the lonely and the sociable alike. Space madness that delivers its victims into a world of altered behaviours and etiquette.

The space madness of NUS is something that can't really be described, it has to be seen and experienced. It's not just the long hours of summer daylight that throw Northerners off-balance. Weeks, months, years of suspicion and distrust are piled on top of each other, faction against faction and clique against clique; every delegate and hanger on becomes a conduit for the malevolent force pushing the conference along. Sleep is not an option. Friendliness and good cheer are things of distant memory. Julius Caesar's assassins would have been totally out of their depth—by the second or third day of Conference they'd be begging for Marc Antony to just fucking lock them out of the office and be done with it.

Rumour, gossip and innuendo are the accepted currency of conference-goers. It isn't possible to go to NUS and not hear stories of terror or jubilation, and even less to go to NUS and remain above the fray. Dignity is the first casualty of the struggle.

Perhaps Unity is going to deal this way, or that, perhaps the NLC will agree, or disagree, perhaps something else is going to happen that will ruin everything, perhaps something else might happen to bring success beyond dreaming. Delegates communicate their own knowledge to each other and keep cycles of lies and half-truths going. In the same way, no matter how powerful you are or how well-informed you think you may be, it isn't possible that you can know everything that's going on, or be up to date with every rumour. Ears are limited, bullshit is infinite.

I'd been talked into coming to NUS by my friends LH, SF and DK who'd gone in 1999 and had a wonderful time. Beer flowed like water, they said. Conference floor was a mix of comedy and drama with songs, chants, and so on, they said. It was something, they said, that was worth seeing and participating in, and I'd have an excellent time. Besides—they said—I was needed in caucus to come and argue on the right side.

These were not auspicious words. It's not a good sign when you're needed to stave off disaster not from the growth of other factions but from the growth of sub-factions inside your own. A dangerous and serious gap had been growing in NOLS for a period of months: there were a few people from New South Wales and Victorian campuses, in particular Sydney and Macquarie, who for whatever reason had decided to take the splitters' path. Things had been going downhill since the middle of the year at the midyear conference of NOLS held at UTS. Midyear conferences are meant to be social and educative; Labor left kids from all of the campuses across Australia should get together to drink, talk about politics, and get to know each other. In 2000, midyear was unusually edgy and conspiratorial—it baffled me at the time and, frankly, I still can't remember what the main points of contention were. The point of the exercise had been that blocs had been forming oppositionally to each other.

The elections of the second semester of 2000, to decide on each campuses' delegates to NUS, had been particularly successful for NOLS but also not without internal dispute. We won back the Presidency at Sydney University but increased the competition between ourselves. I suppose we all just accepted it as the way factions operated and as a normal part of politics.

There was MW, the star Presidential candidate who had been recruited back to NOLS after having left it in a huff over Union Board politics two years before. (It was a long story). There was AW, our most recent successful Union Board candidate whose claim to fame was having famously broken links with Wesley College, appearing in a magazine article which rightly condemned the primitive behaviour of the male students. DK was an up and coming young student politician, later to become NUS President, who, with LF, who had talked me into coming to Labor club in the first place, had done the most to talk me into coming South. Finally there was DR—unofficial leader of the fraction which I ended up opposing. DR was one of the very few genuine geniuses I think I have ever had the privilege of knowing, a really brilliant thinker and a masterful public speaker. In 2000, however, she gradually behaved more and more like someone without any sense of compassion or fellow feeling, someone ruthlessly driven. I hope that things have changed, and that it was just the space madness.

I'm getting bored and so are you. Let's split this story into two.

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