Thursday, December 23, 2004

NOLS memoir: space madness (III)

We had solidified into solid blocs of pro- and anti-deal. Of course political arguments were made to cover it; the anti-dealers stressed their left credentials and commitment to 'solidarity' with the NBL, and the abstract Left. Pro-dealers stressed the importance of sticking by political deals, once made, and the importance of loyalty as a genuinely idealistic virtue. Political arguments circled around and around to try to explain the difference; as if it were possible just to fit our fractions on a left-and-right linear scale.

AW from my campus was particularly serious and humourless about it. Those familiar with NOLS' habits know its four pillars socialism, feminism, unionism, democracy (whatever they're supposed to mean). Declaring the whole thing invalid, she simply declared herself a 'socialist', an umbrella term supposed to cover the whole gamut of human political activity, and would not take any discussion or mention of possible complexities. Positions (x), (y) and (z) were socialist, she could confidently declare, and positions which were NOT (x) (y) or (z) were, in consequence equal to 'right-wing'.

When I tried once to discuss sport--aussie rules, I think--AW pronounced all sport, of whatever kind, to be un-socialist. It was an attempt, you see, to split the working classes into unhealthy competitive instincts, to increase xenophobic nationalism, and shatter the co-operative spirit. I would have liked to see her argue that at some kind of non-student-political event, say, in the beer line at the cricket.

Everyone had to pick a side, and it was only the very skilful, the very idealistic, or the very very drug-affected, who avoided it. My comrade DF deserves an honourable mention here as someone who stayed above the fray through genuine good spirits and honourable behaviour: I think all of the participants could agree that he, of all of us, behaved best. The rest of us formed our sides, and picked positions; the 'hard left' self-appointed and the 'soft left' designated by exclusion from the 'hard'. Tall, sarcastic MO from South Australia set us all laughing hilariously by arriving back at the Bacchus Marsh caucus room, late at night after a bottleshop run, with a bag of lollies.

Marshmallows anyone?


The caucus meeting to decide on the issue of the deal, once convened, took hours. Everyone could see perfectly well that, having debated education, and student unionism, and women's, and queer, and international, and every other kind of policy, that a decision had to be made about what would happen to the deal.

On one side: it was obvious that a two-for-two with Unity, once sealed and signed, had to be delivered. The realities of factionalism demanded no less. NOLS' split in 1997 had produced the Australian Labor Students (ALS) colloquially known as the 'Rats', for their act that year of going back on a signed-sealed deal. On one side, the pro-deal 'soft' side of NOLS backed the argument that going back on the deal would stain our political reputation, and besides, be a bad act politically in its own right. The benefits of good political faith outweighed the temporary benefits of turning traitor and siding with the NBL. Solidarity, it was argued, was also a virtue to be extended to our Labor comrades on the Right, as well as our non-Labor comrades to our Left.

On the other side: it was obvious that NOLS' solid political commitments to pro-choice ideals meant that we would lose out politically were we to deal an anti-abortion General Secretary candidate into her position. The broad left were exerting considerable political pressure on the faction as a whole, which couldn't help but make an impact. The idealism which had drawn us all to Labor and Left politics in the first place really did sit oddly with such a compromising and cynical deal for power. Most of all we knew from experience exactly the level of abuse and intimidation the broad left would deliver us were NOLS to carry through with the deal.

I had my own say on the floor of caucus, perhaps one of the more intimidating moments of my political life. I stood in front of my stony-faced comrades, argued in favour of sticking by the deal, and expressed disbelief that people could seriously stand up and argue for ratting on a deal on political grounds. Then I went outside, where SF, my comrade from Sydney Uni, was in tears.

Early on in the debate, we decided on the terms of battle. We sat in a large circle. There were to be no applause to follow speakers, no interjections, and a speaking list was to be followed strictly. We would have a secret ballot at the end of a predetermined number of speakers. As a result speeches were followed by a dense, loaded silence, and listening involved staring.

The secret ballot was carried out and counted, the results a shock to everyone. The pro-deal 'soft' carried more than 25 votes, with the anti-deal 'hard' securing a bare 7.* It was, there are no two ways about this, a crushing defeat.

Who can tell what would have happened had the vote gone differently? There is no point whatsoever to that kind of hypothetical history. The loss on the caucus floor in Bacchus Marsh destroyed whatever remaining solidarity we had. Caucusing on the matter, and deciding to stick by the deal meant that the 'hard' left delegates had nothing to lose, having played their cards and done poorly. We all knew that sooner or later, there'd be a split, it was just a matter of degrees and consequences.

Even socially the 'hard' began to keep themselves apart. They ate by themselves, refused to come to caucus, rearranged the dormitory rooms so as to keep to themselves, and shunned contact with those of us who'd too obviously declared our sympathies. There was no time to patch things up; it was time to get the bus to Ballarat, scene of the NUS Conference proper.

*In 2000 only campus delegates and their 'alternates', appointed by the student associations that elected them, held votes within NOLS caucus, every vote having equal value. Others--like me--had speaking rights but no votes that year. The idea behind the rule was to discourage campus-based stacking, but has since been changed.

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