Wednesday, December 22, 2004

NOLS memoir: space madness (II)

Melbourne to me will always be the image of Spencer Street covered in grit and rain slime. I arrived at the station in early December of 2000 and, confused by the tram lines I'd never encountered before, nearly stepped in front of the city circle service. Now trams are pretty cool, but when a driver leaned out of his window to tell me that my sleeping bag had fallen under the one that I'd just avoided, I was less than pleased. Picture me, carrying my heavy bag carrying clothes for a week, sprinting down the middle of the tram tracks in Spencer Street after a receding tram through traffic lights and sleet, after a sodden sleeping bag at that very moment between a tram's suspension and the precipitated Melbourne smog. It took me four blocks.

I gave my USYD NOLS comrades a call to find out where they were; then made my way to a beautiful room in the University of Melbourne where the atmosphere of caucus was putrid. They were starting to figure out our positions on education policy from the policy books, usually a pleasant though monotonous activity that somehow changed that year, into an aggression-charged competition to display political standpoints. Imagine a circle of thirty or forty faction members sitting, arms crossed and glaring:

A. I think (x).
B. Well I think (y).
C. What about if we amend the policy so that our position is a compromise (xy)?
A. No. B is fucked and right-wing.
B. No. A is being unreasonable.
D. What about (z)?
A,B,C look at D as if he was totally out of his tiny mind, and begin the battle from the beginning.

Thanks should go here to MV, whose apartment floor I slept on with about 7 or 8 other NOLS comrades. She's not in NOLS or the Labor Party any more, more's the pity. I think she still barracks for Hawthorn. Comrade: thank you.

I found out that it was the last day of the precaucus in Melbourne that we'd be having, as the faction had been booked to stay for three days at a budget sport and rec camp in Bacchus Marsh. Now I'm sure Bacchus Marsh is a lovely place, inhabited by wonderful people. I really can't say for sure. We brought our own horror with us, and the year-seven-camp atmosphere didn't do anything for the maturity levels. There were two catered meals a day but we had to organise washing-up details, putting-chairs-out and putting-chairs-away details, mopping details, etc. We shared the venue with what we eventually figured out was a men's consciousness raising group: a bunch of bearded silent men in Holden Racing Team t-shirts with tears in their eyes and Winnie Blues in their pockets. God only knows what they thought we were doing.

NOLS, of course, got about the rural campsite in the conference t-shirts we'd made: red and white on black, with the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists". I never actually got my hands on one but later they kept popping up amongst the broadleft on conference floor with ready-made stickers with the letter 's', to read "This Machine SKills Fascists". Somebody should really have thought of that.

The caucus whip's job is to keep the small bureaucracies running: as NOLS is the second-largest caucus we ran to about seventy people that year, who have to be woken up on time, given proxy slips for voting in caucus(!), kept up to date with what policy is being debated, and so on and so on. On conference floor the whips from each faction make sure that all the paperwork is correct, that there are enough numbers on the floor just in case anything gets voted on, and generally act like kelpies on speed. In Bacchus Marsh my job, after I stupidly volunteered for it, mainly consisted of waking up before everybody else, knocking on doors, and giving the socialist factional reveille:

Arise!, ye workers from your slumbers,
and the last fight let us face...

...beating time on doors with a metre-long cast iron soup ladle. Even bad jobs have their small moments of sheer joy.

In caucus room there was a seriously nasty and stagnant atmosphere developing. It's a paradox of small groups, that the more division and bad blood there is, the less often motions actually get voted on. In Bacchus Marsh the two sides which were developing had moved to the point where neither wanted to vote on anything substantial; to avoid actually testing the numbers in a vote. Politics was conducted by the unproductive system of argument, counter-argument, withdrawal, and muttered complaint. By contrast more healthy caucuses I have been to tend to vote and dissent with happy abandon.

We finally came to head with the major issue of the year on the last day at the camp. We had voted at the midyear conference to make a two-for-two deal with Unity: an arrangement where we would support two of their office-bearer candidates if they would support two of ours. NOLS candidates ran for President and Education Officer while Unity candidates ran for General Secretary and Welfare Officer. Unity's candidate that year for General Secretary was LB, a Victorian woman whose name I had not heard before but about whom I got sick of hearing.

LB, I was told, was a right-wing Catholic product of the SDA (the large and powerful Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association). LB, I was told, was a manic pro-life fanatic. LB, I was told, opposed feminism, supported Brian Harradine, worshipped at the temple of Baal, hated the sunlight and ate fried kittens for breakfast. In short, I was told, LB was not a candiate worthy of NOLS' support. What of our deal, then?

dodgy rhyme to end this post
I have to get this off my chest.
It gets harder as the more time passes.
Just give me ten; I'll finish off the rest
So you can all be part of my catharsis.


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