NTEU National Council 2022

(or.. NTEU and Transphobia 2: Redemption)

2022-10-27: Removed a link to an opening speech on request.

This was my first in-person national conference (previous two have been Zooms), and if I could describe it in two words, it’s “solidarity” and “exhausting”.

I will write another post about what the NC is like in a general sense because I think it would be super helpful for new or prospective members to learn about the process, but I still want to discuss the actual substance of 2022 motions and what happened.

Real quick, about me: I am professional, continuing member at Deakin Uni. I have been at Deakin for almost 20 years collectively (couple years off in the middle to live in the States) and have been in the union for under half of that. I joined Branch Committee 4-5 years ago as an ordinary committee member, was Branch VP (General) for a year, then went back to ordinary committee member. I have been in national council for the last few years.

The motions this year were varied, and with people in different stages of bargaining there were some contentious subjects, particularly around how much pay we push for. I will not go too deeply into it, but there were arguments that limiting universities in how much they can ask for hurts regional universities. I am from a regional university and don’t really understand the argument. I understand there’s a risk of knowledge drain/etc if bigger universities can pay more, but it seems to me that even regional universities have the money to pay their staff fairly, and us limiting ourselves is us starting to fight on the back foot. Basically: the issue is management’s problem, not ours. Us limiting seems like we’re helping management’s side, but apparently my view is the minority. The limitations were passed.

Besides that, there’s no doubt there’s a large conservative contingent who work hard to not change anything on the argument it’ll cost money and/or they know better. We actually had a dean (or associate dean? executive dean? whatever) in here saying they worked hard and earned every penny, including executive bonuses, and that’s why casuals shouldn’t have fees that better match what they are actually earning (a motion formed by/with the National Tertiary Casuals Committee). We had another person tell us how they were president or whatever of their wine guild, and their wine guild does stuff a certain way, so we should adopt that too (?). I had someone come up to me when I voted for UniSuper Fossil Fuel Divestment and tell me pensioners weren’t going to be happy! There’s no doubt there’s some interesting people here, and there’s no doubt the union has a conservative group, but it’s heartening to see the progressive side grow too.

With that, let’s get to a couple motions I think are core to the union, and core to showing the union is accepting of all people and not living in an antiquated, coloniser-centric world:

Changes to NTEU Policy Manual: NTEU Support of Rights of People of Diverse Sexualities and Genders a.k.a. “the QUTE motion”

For those that saw my post about last year’s national council, this was the main topic. I won’t rehash the play-by-play, but basically the Queer Unionists in Tertiary Education (QUTE) caucus drafted a motion and unanimously voted for it to be brought to national council. The motion primarily dealt with having a proper policy in place for supporting queer members, but particularly called on the union to condemn so-called “gender critical” ideology. Note I call it ideology because it’s not a science, not a study. It has been twisted by the UK style of “gender criticalness”, which is just an outright cover for transphobia. It joins the long list of shitty bullshit “science” used by bigots to be bigots (eugenics, phrenology, etc). Anyway, last year, with the strong support of the general secretary, an amendment was put in that defanged the QUTE motion. There was strong debate, but the amendment won. The QUTE motion was passed as amended, and everyone except the conservatives were upset. QUTE, a caucus that by default is used to fighting bigots for their rights, didn’t give up. They got angrier and more determined.

What a difference a year makes. We had NTEU elections in August/September of this year (2022), with National Council happening in October, so we had a lot of new council members who joined to fight for what they believe in. Amy Sargeant, head of the QUTE caucus, is one of those people. As the leader of QUTE, and a council member, she was well placed to draft a new motion. Working with QUTE members, as well as some of the elected officials (president Alison Barnes, incoming general secretary Damien Cahill, and assistant general secretary Gabe Gooding), they drafted a motion which was discussed and reworked and debated quite a bit, both before and during National Council. When we reached the block where the motion was to be presented, there were flyers in front of every seat explaining what the motion was, what the term ‘gender critical’ has become, why it’s important to pass the motion, etc. Finally, the motion was presented. It is attached as a pdf here. Amy, being the mover, gave the opening speech, which was every bit as emotional and powerful as you’d expect for someone who is used to having to fight. She was eloquent, direct, and left no doubt that the world was moving on from allowing transphobia, and NTEU shouldn’t be left behind. After that (and my memory is hazy here), I believe Alison Barnes spoke for the motion as the seconder. She wholeheartedly put her support behind it, which was great to see!

Then… the transphobes got their turn. An amendment was put forth to strike references to the gender critical ideology and add in extra education on trans people and trans issues. If there was an amendment that included solely the extra education, I think it would have been good, but of course that was just the sweetener to try and get this poison passed. Everyone knew this was coming; no one knew how much support it’d have. SPOILERS: very little. The amendment is here, moved by the incoming Victoria Division Secretary Sarah Roberts and the incoming Victoria Division Assistant Secretary Joo-Cheong Tham. Sarah and Joo-Cheong seem very worried about people saying they are transphobes, so I’ll let their words speak for themselves: here is Sarah’s opening speech and here is Joo-Cheong’s speech as seconder.

Going over the statements, they’re a lot of “I’m not a transphobe but….” dressed in the language of gender critical transphobes. A couple of key transphobes came up, including Holly Lawford-Smith and Kathleen Stock, which hurt the credibility of the Amendment even more. There’s also the claim that the union is policing what is researched (not true, it prevents gender critical ‘research’ being used for transphobia), but the amendment movers rightly have no problem with the union banning ‘research’ into Islamophobia and other racial vilification, or homophobia. It’s just transphobia where they want to draw the line and say it’s OK. Curious. Anyway, the arguments are tired and well worn, and Amy, being a trans woman, knew exactly what was coming and debunked it in her opening speech, before they could even raise the issues. There were a few supporters for the amendment, who were a bit less flowery with their “I’m not a transphobe, but…” but were basically the same bad faith arguments. One person actual said they were a gender critical feminist. I don’t remember if they also tried to claim they weren’t a transphobe. I believe we may have even gotten a ‘I know trans people’ in there as a reason for pushing the transphobic amendment. It’s all bullshit you’ll see in any debate over trans rights, and guess what: the transphobes are transphobes every time. Just because you try to cover it or aren’t actively attacking trans people yourself (although many would say the amendment is attacking trans people), running cover for transphobes and concern trolling is harming trans people.

People voting for the QUTE motion (unamended)

Luckily, things were different this year. The transphobic amendment went up and was resoundingly defeated. Quickly after, the original motion was passed with an overwhelming majority. Victory.

I don’t know what happened to my fellow councillors in the last year. I know some were voted out and replaced by more progressive people, but some people that voted against QUTE last year voted with them this year. A couple speakers against the amendment and for the motion spoke about being educated in the last year, either by someone else or by looking into it themselves. Whatever the cause was, it was great to see national council listen to our oppressed comrades in the QUTE caucus and pass the motion. They’re the ones being hurt by this. They are the experts.

NTEU Position on Palestine

Speaking of experts, Fahad Ali, a Palestinian man living in Australia, created a motion that includes support for Palestine and labels Israel an apartheid state. This is a fact that while objectively true, is actively denied by the dominant western coloniser countries (I’m sure they have no underlying agenda in not admitting one of them are an apartheid state…). Anyway, Fahad, wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh over a shirt supporting Aboriginal rights, gave a powerful speech about what is happening to Palestinians. You just need to look at any newspaper to see the state of Israel is destroying Palestinian houses/kicking them out of their land. Hell, they’re even shooting reporters now. There’s no denying what the state of Israel has become, encouraged by the lack of action from the western governments. The classic claim, of course, is that criticising the state of Israel at all is antisemitism. This is bullshit. But, you don’t need me to say it. Read the motion here and Fahad’s amazing opening speech here. After the opening speech from Fahad, Andrew Tjea, an Aboriginal national council member from ECU in Perth gave a short, strong speech focusing on solidarity as seconder.

After Andrew gave his speech, an amendment was raised. This one wasn’t trying to de-fang the motion. In fact, it was trying to go harder, having the NTEU participate in BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) rather than supporting the rights of members to participate in it individually. The amendment is here. There were some points of order about when the amendment was raised and blah blah blah; Long story short the amendment didn’t get up. I actually think it’s a good amendment, and powerful. With a bit more planning, I reckon it could get up in the future. This isn’t an attack on the mover or seconder; they admit it was kind of a last-minute thing. It’s a good and simple change, though. Hopefully we see it next time.

After the amendment was shot down there was the debate. There were people against the motion, citing a very Israel-state-type view that any condemnation of Israel turns Jewish people against their own people (not the case!), but for the most part it went smoothly. The final speaker was the “right of reply” speaker, where the mover (David Gonzalez, who moved it but ceded his speaking time to Fahad to open the debate) once again ceded his closing speech time to Keagan Ó Guaire. You may be saying “wow, Keagan Ó Guaire doesn’t sound like a Arabic name.. it sounds Irish.” You’re correct. Keagan is an Irish-Australian man who works with Sinn Féin Australia (when he’s not doing work at the University of Melbourne). He opened with an Irish greeting and closed with another. In between he gave probably the most powerful and fiery speech of the day, if not the entire council. You can read it here.

Andrew Tjea (seconder), Keagan Ó Guaire (closing speech), and Fahad Ali (opening speech) celebrating the Palestinian motion passing while enjoying an orange.

Besides the two motions expanded on above, various things happened that were both good and bad:

For the QUTE motion, the Palestinian motion, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander caucus motions, and the National Migrant and Multicultural Advisory Group, solidarity was shown. We listened to the people that formed these motions, and listened to their battles, their pain. This is important.

As a union, we need to show solidarity to people who aren’t us. This hasn’t always happened in the past. And it’s still not happening for everyone, but it’s a start from a union that’s mainly built upon older cis straight white academics. I’m not in QUTE. I’m not Palestinian... I’m a boring cis straight white guy. Lots of National Council is like me (although it’s improving), but the important thing is we listen to those that aren’t and not think we know better. Not everyone is there (yet), and some may die never getting there, but this year was a vast improvement over last. I am hopeful it continues to grow.

Overall, I finished this national council in much brighter spirits than I did last year. Things seemed to be more smooth, more fair, more open. There’s politics being played everywhere, but that’s how this works.  I think the face-to-face in-the-room stuff, while more tiring, is also better than zoom. I definitely understand the desire of a remote connection though. If we could do a good hybrid setup, I think that’d be best, because there’s people who can’t make it because of kids, or disability, or any other number of reasons.  I am worried about Vic Div a bit, as a most of the people for the amendment to the QUTE motion and against the motion itself have some type of leadership in Vic Div, but we’ll have to see how that goes. A lot of the supporters of the QUTE motion (unamended) are in Vic Div as well, so that’s good.

Finally, I want to talk about A New NTEU. A New NTEU (ANN) is a group of members that came together during the elections this year, with many of the people involved running for different positions in the union, from national down to branches. They’re made up of some of the more progressive members who want to see growth and solidarity in the union (something it currently doesn’t have a lot of). I think almost every motion I mentioned above came from members within ANN. They are a diverse group who has come together to help push the union to the next level, and while I’m part of them, I am just on the sidelines. The energy and determination these people have is amazing. The comradery and support are refreshing to see to my cynical heart.  We had some wins, and we had some loses during this National Council. ANN people were there for people when we won something, and there for people when we lost something. It’s an extremely positive, motivating group that helped drive some of the change we saw in this council. I am proud to be a member of theirs. If you’re interested, hit up @ANewNTEU on twitter to see what we’re up to next.