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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12448

Mr LINDSAY (5:13 PM) —I consider the member for Blair, who has just addressed the parliament, to be a good friend and colleague, and I hold him in high regard. But, Member for Blair, I have never heard so much rubbish in my life as what you have just said to the parliament, and you have gone down slightly in my estimation. But, of course, as a person who represents the Royal Australian Air Force and me being a person who represents the Australian Army, there is no comparison, is there, between my garrison city and your small city!

Mr Griffin —Controversial!

Mr LINDSAY —The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is helping here! Thank you, Minister, and thank you for your support for Townsville and our garrison city. The member for Corangamite, who is in the chamber, is very envious, because he has only Fort Queenscliff in his electorate!

Mr Cheeseman —A fabulous place!

Mr LINDSAY —There you go. The member for Blair condemned himself when he tried to make the point, which was an Exocet point, that the National Party should be standing up in the parliament for the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 because of the many rural students that they represent. A student in rural Australia who does not actually front up to the campus gets nothing for the $250 student services fee that this bill is trying to impose on them. For heaven’s sake, how could that be good for the National Party or for the students who come from regional Australia who do not actually go to the campus for their university education? How could the member for Blair stand up and claim that the National Party should be supporting this fee when it works against the very students they represent? The logic escapes me.

This bill is nothing more than a compulsory tax on university students. Let’s call it what it is: a compulsory tax, $250 every year and you pay it whether or not you get something for it. It is going to be levied on every one of the one million Australian university students, who will be made to pay it irrespective of how they study, whether full-time, part-time or by distance. They will have to pay it no matter how few services they want or how few services they need. It is just illogical to make students pay for services that they are not going to use, so I firmly oppose this legislation. I have opposed it all the way through and I certainly strongly supported the VSU legislation when it went through this parliament back in 2005.

It also represents yet another broken promise by the Rudd government. It is a surprise, that! Why are there so many promises that we have on the record, that were made at the time of the 2007 election, that have now been broken? Remember that Labor promised Australian students that they would not reintroduce a compulsory fee. In May 2007 Stephen Smith, the then shadow minister for education, stated explicitly that Labor was not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee for students, including any on a HECS arrangement.

Today in the parliament in question time there was yet another broken promise. This one was in relation to RAAF Richmond where, prior to the last election, the then Labor opposition promised that RAAF Richmond would continue to be the important RAAF base in the Sydney basin. What have we seen today? We saw the government now considering making RAAF Richmond the entirely inappropriate second airport for Sydney. There are a multitude of reasons for that, but that is not part of this bill, so I do not propose to discuss that. I have quite some knowledge about this and I can say quite definitively that RAAF Richmond is not an appropriate location for the second airport for Sydney.

This bill that we are debating today represents the second time this year that the Rudd government has broken their promise to Australian university students. I spoke on this legislation in March, which was the first time the government tried to introduce this tax. I thank Keegan Sard, who is a student at Bond University. I asked him about this, and he was quite definitive. He said:

To bring back the days of compulsory unionism in Australia will spell the end of a student’s right and freedom to spend the limited cash flow that we receive on the areas that matter the most to us. We have student bodies that regularly spend copious amounts of money on frivolous escapades without a benefit to students or as a collective group. We should not have to compulsorily fund these exploits unless we choose to.

The Labor Party is against choice, of course. Mr Sard went on to say:

In the current economic crisis where students are losing youth allowance benefits and struggling to live in campuses all around Australia, this is certainly not the time to impose a monetary penalty or tax that could further jeopardise students’ lives and wellbeing.

Mr Sard, thank you. You sum up exactly on behalf of all of Australia’s one million university students how they feel about this iniquitous tax.

Today I am going to speak on the same issues I raised in the House earlier this year. Labor presented the same bill and they have not taken into account any of the concerns about this fee which have been raised by uni students across Australia. I speak on behalf of all of those students but particularly those at James Cook University, which is incidentally the most significant tropical university in the world today—well done to Professor Harding, her team and her students at James Cook University. Students at JCU have saved a minimum of $235 per year under voluntary student unionism. They saved that every year since VSU came into being. The Rudd government now want to hit my students in Townsville and in Cairns at JCU with a $250 fee for services they may never use and with no guarantee it will not be used to play politics. This bill will make every one of Australia’s one million Australian university students pay that $250 a year regardless of their ability to pay or their desire to use the services the fee would be funding. I am opposed to this attempt to slug students with a compulsory tax they do not want.

Let’s have a look at a bit of the history of this. Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism by the Howard government in 2005, university students have saved on average $246 per year. This is a large sum of money for many students. In 2005 the then Labor opposition strongly opposed the issue with organisations such as the National Union of Students, spending one-quarter of a million dollars of student funds campaigning against the Howard government at the 2004 election. It is not hard to see why Labor want this back. Student compulsory fees were being paid in large sums to groups such as the NUS, who in turn were delivering political and financial benefits to the Labor Party.

Labor opposed a policy that hurt their self-interest. They did not consider what students wanted. The Labor Party profited from compulsory student unionism on campus and want to go back to the days of getting such support. That is what we have with this legislation before the House today. Despite claiming that this bill will not allow the money to be collected and used to support the political parties—I have seen the provisions in the bill—this provision would apply only to direct payment to a political party. But there is no protection from the countless ways that students’ money could be used for political purposes or campaigns. The Rudd government were not happy enough just to break their promise to university students not to introduce a compulsory fee. They are now doing it again.

What do students actually want? Students do not want to pay this compulsory tax. The Rudd government are trying to return to a system where students have no choice. But the real world is all about choice. I know the Labor Party rails against choice, but that is what the real world is about. This bill would have an unfair impact on students, who would be made to pay it no matter how or where they study.

A full-time student on the university campus may be using a variety of services but, in contrast, a part-time student who works during the day may only attend classes some evenings and use far fewer facilities. This does not even consider a distance education student who may only physically attend the university campus once a semester and never use any of the services. To charge all three students the same fee, irrespective of what they use, is clearly inequitable.

This bill is trying to take away the freedom of choice given by the Howard government’s introduction of VSU. This gave the students the freedom of choice to decide what they wanted to spend their money on. Students have been able to choose what areas and services of university are most appropriate to them and to use their financial resources accordingly. This user-pays system provides the best option for students and ensures that the inequality of the situation between the three types of students I just described does not apply.

The most important factor in this debate is what students think. They are the ones that matter. They are the customers. I can tell you I have spoken to students from many different parts of Australia and they do not want this fee. They do not want to lose their freedom of choice. So what do students think? I went and asked them. I asked one of my people to get a broad range of comments from students across rural, regional and city based universities, studying mainly at Australian National University, James Cook University, Bond University, University of Queensland, Monash, Charles Sturt University and the University of Sydney—a pretty widespread group to get advice from. I thank Johnno Patado for his help in assembling these comments.

The first question was: the government wants to bring in a compulsory annual fee of up to $250 for all university students, this money is then designed to assist university costs—what do you think about this? The first comment was:

It’s crazy considering the price of tuition fees already. An extra levy would deter people from tertiary studies particularly those who have to support themselves.

Good point. The next point was:

As a university student I’m appalled. Most of us cannot afford to study at the moment, but I also see university education more of a right than a privilege and I think, if anything, the costs of university should be diminished as we will eventually graduate and then start substantially contributing to the economy afterwards. The think the goals should be on encouraging students to graduate so they can start contributing sooner.

Dead right! And the next point:

And what about full-fee-paying non-HECS students? Would it affect them any differently to those on HECS? I’m not sure if bringing in another fee would be a help or a hindrance. To be honest, I would rather keep my $250 and spend it on my textbooks and you know exactly what it is going towards.

That is a good point too. The next student commented:

I’m against it. I don’t really see which costs yet another fee would assist with. That amount of money isn’t enough to significantly reduce university fees nor would it really subsidise texts, which are sold privately anyway. The main cost associated with university for many students is accommodation and $250 doesn’t really make a dent in that either, nor would assistance in that regard be easily monitored.

Finally to that question there was this response:

I think we pay enough already given that university used to be free.

Good on you. The student continued:

Students are struggling and an extra $250 is money most students probably don’t have especially with the extra cuts in youth allowance too.

Good on you, Labor! You are really doing the students in the eye on both fronts.

The next question that we asked was: what if this compulsory fee was used for political purposes? Whew, anger! The first comment:

I would like my money to stay mine, thanks, and I want to control what it is spent on.

Good point. The second comment was:

Absolutely not! If university students want to financially contribute to parties, that’s fine. If they want to join the Young LNP on their campus and do fundraising, that’s fine too. But no way should there be a compulsory fee to assist with that.

The third comment:

No way. People who are able to financially contribute and wholeheartedly want to contribute should be able to do so, and of course you can’t. But you can’t force someone to pay for the advertising they receive and absolutely not to forward any political agenda.

The next question we asked was: would the fee be acceptable if it was put onto your HECS debt?

A resounding no. For most people the fee will tally up to around $1,000 over a four-year course and that is around the cost of an entire unit of study and a big amount to pay off.

The next comment was:

Not really. It’s still not giving people the choice to support such a group if they want it or not.

And now to this question: do you use university services like sports, clubs, societies and university health? The answer was:

Sometimes the sports club and the uni club and the health service at university are really good but no-one knows where they are.

And then it continued:

We already pay for the classes and equipment needed for them. It’s the university’s job to use the money that we put into it to run itself.

We then asked: if, yes, would you rather pay for these yourself as a user-pays system or have a standard fee for all students that covers the cost.

User-pays for sure—

got the vote—

There are a lot of people who do not participate in anything. A standard fee is not fair for off-campus students who do their degree through correspondence.

Another one said:

We at Bond University have a standard fee that has to be paid before the start of the next semester for things like sport and certain clubs and societies. I opt not to pay it because I can’t afford to. I definitely believe that counselling and the doctor should stay free as they have given me unwavering support with my physical and mental health including references to hospitals and psychologists.

And finally, the comment:

I think I would prefer to have a user-pays system.

Since 2004 there has been no compulsory student services fee. What has changed? Have we seen students demonstrating in the streets, blocking the doors of Parliament House, as we had today with students demonstrating on another matter? Have we seen that? Not a single thing. Nothing. People are happy. Students are happy. Services are being provided. At every university in Australia they are there. So why this hell-bent push by the government to now impose a compulsory $250 student services fee on everybody no matter what kind of study they do, where they might be studying and how much they use the services? No, it is totally illogical to put forward this particular fee.

Many university students are under a financial strain during their studies. We all know that. Both sides of the House are well aware of that. Hitting students with another $250 a year fee may prove to be too much. Even with a HECS style arrangement this will be for many students an extra $1,000 on their HECS. We are still in a financial crisis and the future is uncertain. Saddling students with extra debt, with extra liabilities, at such a time is irresponsible. I say to the Labor Party: listen to the students. They do not want to pay this fee. They do not want an extra debt. For these reasons I will again vote against this legislation.