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NUS backdoor deals result a step back for women’s rights

Following  accusations of vote rigging and corruption in 2009,  the peak body representing Australian university students, The National Union of Students’ decision to  block discussion on abortion decriminalization at its National Conference held late last year has sparked outrage amongst many female students.

Labor-Right’s Mikaela Wangmann, a member of the hard-line Christian socially-conservative faction of the ALP, the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA), was elected as NUS Womens Officer at the National Conference.

The SDA, one of the ALP’s most influential trade unions, has gained considerable notoriety in recent decades over its vehement opposition to same-sex marriage, stem-cell research and abortion.

Controversially, the SDA’s ardent social conservatism flies in the face of the views of the overwhelming majority of its membership, comprising mostly of socially progressive young retail workers, many of whom are unaware of the questionable causes their membership money is put towards.

In an unusual move, outgoing NUS Women’s Officer, Labor Left’s Noni Sproule chose to support the right-wing Wangmann over candidates that have been considered by some to  be more experienced and progressive.

“I will be open in saying that I had interactions with the out-going women’s officer where she appeared to be the only person trying to get Labor-Left a certain way, with Labor-right (Unity), Delegate Lizzy O’Shea said.

“It seems that all decisions as to the candidate who would be receiving the large factional block votes had already been decided prior to any policy discussion or speeches”.

“Women leaders who don’t allow discussion, who exclude, miss out”, Women’s Officer Candidate Brigid Dixon said in absentia, before unexpectedly withdrawing her nomination to support Independent candidate Rebecca Doyle reportedly in the interests of providing left-wing progressives with a choice.

Several women were sighted crying during her speech, which was uploaded onto YouTube by Honi Soit reporter, Adam Chalmers.

Whilst Wangmann moved policy supporting the choice for women to make their own decisions when encountering unexpected pregnancies, Sproule and Wangmann denied amendments to include the advocation for decriminalization of abortion.

“For me it was really disappointing to see factions and political manoeuvring get in the way of broad discussion about women’s issues”, Dixon said. “I feel it is very important to push for abortion decriminalization policy at this level, and NUS has the power to have a real interest” O’Shea added.

Whilst Sproule has been quoted saying that she “dispute(s) that a policy that spoke only of abortion and not of any other choices would have been a stronger policy”, National Queer Officer, Cat Rose disagreed.

“To characterise abortion as being ‘anti-choice’ or pressuring women to have abortions is so outrageous that it reveals their true opinion- that anti-abortion laws should stay on the books to give a moral hierarchy to choice, one that puts women who place an unborn life above themselves on top”.

Labor-Right member, Dorothy Rapisardi told Tharunka that although she is personally in favour of abortion decriminalisation, she believes there also needs to be discussion as to how the topic is presented to society, with structures in place to support women who choose either way.

“On issues such as these we (Labor-Right) leave it to a conscience vote. We don’t force our members to bind on issues that are so controversial and so many emotive factors” she said.

“I fully support Mikaela in her role as women’s officer and I think she’ll do an amazing job because she’s a strong progressive woman” she added.

On a social media website, Wangmann listed personal reasons for her refusal to push for the policy. “Perhaps if members of the indie(s)…had treated me with a level of respect, then I would have been more inclined to accept it”.

Dixon refuted such accusations as being untrue, “I remember quite clearly my interactions with Michaela, which in this instance was particularly civil. It was on conference floor, there were many of people who were present who can attest to this” she said.

Whilst Sproule has declined to comment, 2011 Women’s Officer, Courtney Sloane said debate around the topic was important.

“NUS should obviously be working towards decriminalisation of abortion. I think it’s an issue that affects young (women) more than if affects other women and decriminalising abortion is obviously where the conversation is right now in 2013”.

“Reproductive rights are certainly something the NUS Women’s Officer should be committed to addressing in their position. These aren’t issues that should be sidestepped, or at the very least, discussion around this issues needs to happen”, UNSW Women’s Officer, Amber Karan kolas, said.

Independent Delegate Astha Rajvanshi said she believed the policy that was carried was a step back from progressive lobbying for women’s access to safe, accessible and affordable abortions and contradictory to earlier policies that called for direct action on advocating women’s right to choose.

Claire Chandler on behalf of the Liberal Student party (ASLF) declined the opportunity to comment.

Whilst Wangmann has said that NUS has maintained support for abortion decriminalization as in no policy has said otherwise, leading Australian intellectual, Dr. Leslie Cannold from the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability Research Unit and Reproductive Choice Australia, told Tharunka that supporting the decriminalization of abortion, lies at the bottom line of the pro-choice movement.

“Who could possibly be pro-choice and support through omission the retention in the criminal code of one of what almost half of Australian women will have in their lifetime?

Who could support an antiquated law that’s been reformed in many states that actually prescribes goal terms for women who have terminations?  I’m sorry, that’s not pro-choice” she said.

At the time of printing, Wangmann had not responded to interview requests, but said on a social media site that she has been subjected to a true, hurtful and untrue character assassination.

“Your mates thought it’d be funny to spread untrue sh*t about me online” she said to one Independent, adding that “anyone who feels it is ok to do some of the things that happened to me at conference will have another thing coming”.

However one observer who wished not to be named told Tharunka they were skeptical of such claims and dismissed Wangmann’s accusations as lies.

“There was nothing untrue said, it was a political move to distract attention from the fact that due to her factional allegiance, she was unable to respond to questions as to why she was unwilling to even entertain the discussion of including the decriminalization of abortion in policy’, they said.

According to several NUS delegates, the current women’s officer failed to attend or phone-in for the National Executive Meeting held early this year. Women’s officer for The Australian National University, Beth Ritchie said despite ensuring her details were passed on, she is yet to receive any correspondence from the Women’s Officer.

According to Ritchie, liaising with campus women’s officers is a compulsory aspect of the women’s officer’s portfolio, a commitment which has been outlined in a motion put forward by Wangmann and listed on the NUS women’s department website.

In a recent report, delineating the Women’s Office’s campaigns for the year, Wangmann announced several initiatives, including safety on campus, continuing a survey about sexual assault and a campaign to lobby radio station Triple J to hold a program featuring all female artists.

National Executive member of NUS, Lauren McCracken told Tharunka that she believes such policies have been prioritised over policies carried at National Conference that have “arguably a greater and more immediate impact on women students”.

Such policies include safe university accommodation, affordable childcare and the women’s right to choose and access support. McCracken is awaiting response from the women’s office as to whether these issues will be addressed.

Karanikolas, who stressed her apolitical stance, has also expressed her concern. “It appears as though collectives around the country are going to have to push for more accountability from the Women’s Office this year”, she said.

NU receives its funding from universities around Australia’s affiliation. Currently, more funds are allocated to officer bearer’s wages than campaigns. Affiliation fees are indirectly gained from student’s Student Services and Amenities (SSAF) fees.dent’s Student Services and Amenities (SSAF) fees.

Renée Griffin