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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.

NZUSA Democratic Circus

page 7

NZUSA Democratic Circus

"My position as senior chairperson of the executive committee of the special SRC Education sub-committee examining the extent of Student Association democracy entitles me to decide this delegation's international policy," I heard an anonymous student "heavie" slur out as he relaxed over a few beers at the end of the second day of NZUSA's August Council.

NZUSA is the national union of New Zealand university students. Its constituent members are the seven university students' associations at Auckland Waikato, Massey, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago Universities and Lincoln College. Twice yearly during the May and August vacations delegates from NZUSA's seven constituent students' associations meet to decide NZUSA's policy and to review the work of its full-time officers.

August Council, held this year at Victoria, was not characterised by any assassinations (other than the usual ones of character), bloodletting, or commission-room violence - tales which always seem to filter back from over-dramatic delegates attending their first council.

August Council was characterised by poor chairing of plenaries, a number of administrative hold-ups, mediocre food (always the number one complaint), and most importantly, an appalling lack of any real campus democracy.

Most of the complaints about council meetings always seem to hinge around bureaucratic things such as "wasn't the agenda badly arranged" or personality attacks such as "Tripe is a bastard for rubbishing that motion forbidding delegates to wear redsocks to commission meetings". These are always carefully noted by successive NZUSA presidents and remembered for next council meeting.

And this year NZUSA president John Blincoe had his share of notebook jottings about the inordinate amount of time spent on repeating questions to candidates for national officer's positions, the ridiculous procedure taken to conduct the priorities plenary (at which national priorities for 1977 are set) and the Finance and Administration Commission meetings which finished at four o'clock in the morning.

Getting back to Campuses

But very few people are usually concerned about how well NZUSA policy reflects the ideas held by students on constituent campuses and consequently how NZUSA Council's should work to make national policy.

Unionist Pat Kelly addressing Council

Unionist Pat Kelly addressing Council

A major argument against the Women's Commission was over precisely this point. Whereas nearly all the delegates to the Women's Commission saw it as a body which would construct new women's policy, Victoria saw it merely as a body which would tie together the policy which was hopefully being constructed on the constituent campuses.

It may be a circular argument but it has important implications for a diagnosis of the women's policy "problem" in NZUSA. The reason put forward at May Council for the formation of the women's commission was that NZUSA policy was not up to date and that there had been no attempt made to action it. Therefore a commission of women that focussed on women's policy would make women's issues a going concern in NZUSA. The argument against the women's commission was that the fault of NZUSA women's policy was that campuses had very little of their own women's policy and there had been no emphasis on it on the constituent campuses (or if there had the previous council delegates had not mirrored that concern). So, the fault lay in the lack of campus action and the undemocratic nature of the constituent associations, whose delegates were not doing their job in putting forward student priorities to the national, education and international commissions.

Photo of a group of students sitting at a table covered with paper

Dougal Stewart (Massey), Gyles Beckford & Anthony Ward (Vic.), Bruce Kirkland (NZSAC).

Hence, while the women's commission was seen as a solution by one group of council delegates, it was seen as merely a red herring by the other group.

The divisions which existed on this issue between Victoria's stand (that while the women's commission's work should be supported, the continuance of the commission should not be) and the stands of campuses such as Otago and Auckland (permanent continuance of the women's commission) continued on to other areas - divisions which I believe stemmed to a large extent from the position Victoria took up on the need for democratic associations and the challenge that this presented.

Victoria Under Attack

At council, if any rumours came around about a knifing incident, the first things most people did was to check the backs of the Victoria delegates. And it seemed to be a general feeling among most delegations that Victoria delegates were a "pack of fuckwits" or "far too serious". These criticisms were never publicly aired, but instead surfaced in the form of snide comments and jokes, or behind-the-back discussions.

On two separate occasions I approached a table where people were engated in a free-flowing discussion, only to find conversation stop in mid-stream and change to a "have you heard the joke about Victoria SRC...".

Victoria delegations have for many years believed in NZUSA Councils as makers of policy which a majority of the New Zealand university students supported. This can only be done if each campus has a democratic decision-making structure and it faithfully represents those decisions when national policy is being decided.

So, at August Council, the Victoria delegation (and any other Victoria students who were interested) had many long caucus meetings discussing SRC policy and its application to motions put forward by other campuses. The guideline was that if specific SRC policy was on the books then it would be formally moved by Victoria (e.g. the motion dealing with Israel), if general SRC policy was on the books then specific motions could be voted on but not moved or seconded, and if there was no policy or policy was contradictory, or unclear, then Victoria would abstain.

As can be imagined, this sort of process meant that on some motions considerable caucus discussion was necessary. But, although a couple of meetings went on for two or three hours, they were invaluable in unifying the delegation, in understanding precisely what our policy was, and in highlighting areas of policy in which work still and to be done.

To other delegations this process was an anathema. None had a clear body of policy (such as was contained in the much talked about Victoria SRC policy booklet) and most were not interested in examing their policy even if they had some. So, when it came to constituent caucussing most delegates headed for the pub.

Democracy at Massey

Massey was an interesting example of a totally undemocratic student union. It's four-member delegation was never together in one place at any one time, and its president Dougall Stewart was Massey delegate to four of the six commissions, as well as being cheif delegate at plenaries.

At the women's commission, Massey's delegate voted for a new policy on abortion. When asked whether Massey policy (supporting SPUC) contradicted the new policy, she replied that it did "but all the people I know around campus all agree that the old policy is rubbish". Surely a good way of deciding campus policy.

When a resolution looked as though it would be close vote, Dougall Stewart would suddenly find himself showered with free beers and cigarettes (and other favours that would make Nixon blush) because delegations knew that he personally held enough votes to get most motions through.

Otago and Auckland were very similar to this except they were a little more tactical in shooting their mouths off about "useless democracy".

Otago's executive decides policy on its campus as in practice does Auckalnd's (although they make reference to a SRC which has met two or three times this year).

But the motions put forward for discussion depend on the individuals who come to council from those particular campuses. For instance, at May Council Otago National Delegate Ross Denton made up about a dozen motions about the environment which had obviously neither been discussed on campus, or were intended to be discussed.

Canterbury is in a similar position to Auckland and Otago in its abhorrence of campus democracy (they, like Auckland, have an elected SRC which usually lapses for want of a quorum) although at council one or two principled delegates at least sought to discuss out their stands on issues in terms of existing policy. The Canterbury delegate to the Women's Commission managed to side-step policy by chairing the commissions meetins and hence not having to vote on issues.

Lincoln and Waikato are the smallest campuses, and even though decision-making structures such as SRCs are absent, they have both attempted, or in the case of Waikato, are attempting to make their associations as democratic as possible.

Both are small enough to avoid a very large gap between those who are elected to lead the association and the electors (there was a 50 percent turnout for elections on both campuses), and on both campuses there are a number of staff-student departmental committees which function as a basis for student action in the education area.

Where's the Support?

So while August Council concerned itself with Assessment and Civil Liberties campaigns, and passed motions about superpower hegemony and nuclear power, it failed to look over its shoulder to see how many students actually gave two stuffs about the whole thing - and if they gave two stuffs how they could get involved.

During the questioning of the presidential aspirants, many constituent associations put forward the view that in 1977 NZUSA would need a strong leader to ward off Muldoon and his fascist mates. But none of them realised that the only way to counter fascist threats is through having a strong base of involved members, so that when students' associations come under attack they can take it head on rather than having to worry about the amount of support they will actually receive from their own members.