The National Union of Students was on the verge of collapse this morning after a ballot to elect key office bearers was shelved amid serious claims of vote rigging and corruption.

Irate left-wing delegates have accused their right-wing rivals of holding secret 4:30am meetings and excluding delegates based on factional loyalties at the annual University of Ballarat gabfest, which has a history of violence, drunkenness and dirty tricks.

Sources have told Crikey that while speculation over an outright dissolution may be premature, the delay in the election to elect senior office bearers meant that the organisation’s future was uncertain. They say conference affiliation has been used as a political bargaining chip over policy.

Under NUS rules, delegates from student unions around the nation are charged $725 in affiliation fees. However, Crikey understands that the deadlines for the payment of fees is in dispute, with cheques arriving on Monday ruled ineligible.

The ruling means that the affiliation of several student unions is also in serious doubt, denying them access to the wheels of power. Meetings to resolve the dispute were then held in the dead of night when representatives from opposing factions were asleep.

The NUS’ returning officer, Josh Rayner, is believed to be close to the right-wing ALP camp, known as Student Unity.

NUS President David Barrow told Crikey that the allegations were serious and he was seeking legal advice on how to proceed. Barrow refused to comment on specific allegations.

However, Crikey understands that the core of the stoush relates to a co-ordinated takeover by coalition of Liberal and right-wing Labor students to install loyalists in key positions.

The faction’s tactics are believed to be overseen by senior ALP powerbrokers who are taking the negotiations very seriously. The NUS and its predecessor, the AUS, has provided a springboard to federal politics for large slabs of the ALP front bench with Deputy PM Julia Gillard reigning supreme over the organisation in the early 1980s.

The conference has a history of rancour. Last year, two Young Liberals were arrested on a suspicion of  drunk and disorderly behavior by Ballarat police after a wild late-night visit to a rival faction’s lodgings.

Delegates returned to Melbourne this morning alongside conference organiser Steve Michelson. Michelson is the former President of the Australian National University student association and current Victorian government lawyer in the Department of Human Services and is under growing pressure to resolve the fracas.

Peter Fray

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