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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12486

Mr SLIPPER (8:05 PM) —I do not say that the statement ‘You can put lipstick on a pig but it remains a pig’ is an original statement, because it certainly is not, but in my view the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 is ‘a pig’. This is one of the most outrageous pieces of legislation that I have seen introduced into the House of Representatives. The government claims that it is not seeking to re-institute compulsory student unionism. Well, this is in effect compulsory student unionism by stealth. I do not have a problem with students choosing to make an investment in facilities at university, I do not have a problem with students spending money on, perhaps, sporting facilities, but I am opposed to the element of compulsion. This legislation, as you would know, Madam Deputy Speaker, is being introduced by a party which in government has historically supported compulsory student unionism and also compulsory unionism in the community more generally. It is the old ‘no ticket, no start’—if you do not sign up to the union, you do not get a job.

I strongly support the people in the community who want to join a union, if that is their choice, whether it be a labour union or a student union. But I also support the right of those who choose not to join, because I think that in Australia in 2009 we should consider ourselves to be a democracy. I do not believe in conscripting people into membership of organisations—it ought to be voluntary. The government, unfortunately, through the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 is bringing in a piece of legislation which effectively rips up the promises made by the government when in opposition prior to the 2007 election. It has been quoted undoubtedly in the House before tonight that the then shadow minister for education, the now Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in May 2007:

I am not considering a HECS style arrangement. I am not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

So effectively he told the people of Australia, who voted at the election later that year, that Labor would not be bringing in a compulsory amenities fee.

What exactly does this legislation do? This legislation turns back the clock—turns it way back. In effect it brings in a compulsory and significant tax of $250 for each and every one of the million tertiary students in Australia. I have no doubt that the facilities at universities in many cases are superb. I have no doubt that they obviously need money to survive, they obviously need assistance and they obviously need support, but it is wrong for the government to allow universities to conscript students into making a compulsory payment. It is the antithesis of democracy. In many cases students will never use those facilities, so why should they be compelled to pay for those facilities? I have not yet heard an argument from the government that is in any way, shape or form remotely compelling as to why the government is ripping up a pre-election promise by, essentially, wanting to take control of $250 of each and every one of the one million tertiary students in Australia. It really is a ‘welcome to Labor’s reality’ tax. I am very disappointed in the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the government for defrauding the Australian people as they did at the election later in 2007.

On top of that, students who pay the fees will have very little say on how those fees are going to be spent. I know that there is supposed to be some form of consultation. Under the rules, universities are required to talk with students about where the money is directed. However, this consultation is likely to be with the ‘elected’ representatives of the student union, who historically have been appointed by the very small minority of the student body which takes part in a non-compulsory vote. I am told that figures sometimes show as little as five per cent or 10 per cent of students actually vote to appoint student union office bearers, so a non-representative group will be the people sitting down with the university authorities to talk about how this confiscated $250 from our one million tertiary students in Australia will actually be spent.

I would like to make a prediction that the student fees will, in effect, fund the actions and activities selected by the student union hierarchy, whether or not individual students are supportive. I ask the government to reconsider because how on earth can you ask students to pay $250 to a university to be used for purposes dictated by a body elected by five to 10 per cent of the student membership?

I was a very strong supporter of the voluntary student unionism legislation introduced by the Howard government in 2005 because it gave students a choice as to whether they would be members of the union. Effectively, we gave them a choice as to whether they wanted to pay money to be part of a union which in many cases would espouse political views diametrically opposed to their own. We also gave them a choice on where they would spend their money. This bill before the House, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009, essentially deprives students of that right. We are treating students as being substandard Australians and this bill takes away choice for what, it could be argued, is the political advantage of Labor.

As they enter university, students are hit with myriad costs. They emerge from the school system, which is fairly regimented and regulated, where in many cases they do not have to think for themselves about choices in the way that they will at university. They are hit with myriad costs that they previously have not had to bear. These costs can include textbooks, a computer and software—all of which are actually quite expensive these days—as well as accommodation, transport, food and so on. For those students who are entering university directly from year 12 it is a daunting new world that they face. Often they are leaving home for the first time and facing the prospect of having to fend for themselves for the first time; away from the comfort, security and love of their parents’ home, to make the journey toward education and career. This is particularly so for students from regional areas who go to the capital cities to study. To be hit within additional Labor charge of up to $250 will be a significant additional burden.

It will be interesting to know what these fees go to in the area of services. But in many cases they will be services the students will not need, want or use. For many students, it is simply wasted money. Wouldn’t it be better to allow students the discretionary opportunity to use that money for purposes more directly associated with the advancement of their educational progress, like buying extra books, rather than having it confiscated and used, in many cases, for political activities.

It should be noted also that the legislation does not preclude student unions from spending student money on extremist political causes. The bill leaves open a huge range of political activities upon which this compulsory fee could be spent. For instance, campaigns for or against political causes, specific legislation, policies or party policies are not precluded. The bill does not actually stop the use of these compulsorily acquired funds by student media for whatever minority cause the student union bosses want to use this money for.

I find this bill is the absolute antithesis of democracy. The bill amounts to a rort created by the Australian Labor government, one that is impacting not only on the wallets of students but also on their freedom to choose who they associate with and their political alliances. Why on earth should students be forced to pay $250, which, after this token form of consultation by universities, could be allocated to student unions and used to promote political causes diametrically opposed to what the students believe in? This is just shocking. It is appalling. This is a situation which is completely and totally unacceptable.

As a member for a regional area, I am very fortunate to represent the University of the Sunshine Coast. This is a wonderful new institution, which obtained its full independent status through the intervention of Dr David Kemp, who overruled the bureaucrats in the department of education after the university made a case to him, supported by local members. This university is doing a wonderful job. Even though it is doing a wonderful job, as Australia’s newest greenfield university it is still not able to provide the range of educational disciplines that many local students want, so many students who want to study medicine, law, dentistry, veterinary science or a range of other academic disciplines are still forced to go away from the Sunshine Coast, which is regrettable because I would like to see at least a medical school and a legal school at the University of the Sunshine Coast. They are forced to go to a capital city—in most cases Brisbane—where they have a huge range of new expenses. This $250 charge, if the universities in Queensland choose to impose it—and I suspect they will—will make it more difficult for those students to thrive and survive and get the educational resources they need to enable them to pass their exams and qualify in a professional area.

To add to the concern of students, the fee is indexed. The government has not indexed the qualification levels for access to the Commonwealth seniors health card. More and more Australian seniors are now being excluded from holding the Commonwealth seniors health card because the income levels have not been indexed, and this is at a stage in their lives when they need access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme at concessional rates. While the government has not indexed access to the Commonwealth seniors health card, it is in fact indexing this $250 fee to take into account future inflation increases. It is a cost that will rise considerably over time. It will be a handy little earner for the Labor Party and the Labor Party apparatchiks who operate through many student unions. Over three years alone, at three per cent annually, the figure would increase to $273.

I suppose every cloud has a silver lining, even if the silver lining is a fairly dud silver—I was going to say ‘dull’ silver, but it is probably dud silver as well. The government will allow students to take out a loan for this cost, a loan that could be paid back later, along with other education related expenses. But we have a situation here where this bill will make the attaining of tertiary qualifications just that little bit more difficult. As I said earlier, this fee was never discussed by the government during the election campaign. It was never revealed as a Labor plan. People were duped and deceived into voting for the Labor Party on the basis that the Labor Party was not going to introduce an amenities fee or a compulsory fee for students. Despite that and despite the comments made by the now Minister for Foreign Affairs when he was the shadow minister for education, that promise has been torn up. People have been conned and deceived, and the government tries to suggest that this is somehow an acceptable position.

Let us look at a couple of the defects in the bill. There are many defects in the bill, but this bill makes no provision for any government monitoring to make sure that the money is spent sensibly. There is no clear understanding of any obligations that the education providers themselves—the ones who get the money—may have to provide certain services, representations and support to students. Frankly, this bill shows a complete and total lack of understanding of the challenges facing university students. It is heavily biased to the support of the Labor side of politics. It brings in an element of compulsion, an element of conscription, without taking into account the impact on the lives of ordinary, real, decent young Australians, who are of course our nation’s future. It is a broken election promise by a government that will do anything and say anything to achieve its political goal, no matter what the consequences for the people of Australia. Is this bill a precursor of federal legislation making trade unionism compulsory? Where on earth will the government stop in its pursuit of its ideological aims? This bill, as I said at the outset, is a pig. The government might have put lipstick on the pig, but it is still a pig. It is a pig that ought to be slaughtered.