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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 6440


Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (20:23): Another day, and we are debating another tax from this socialist green government. Another day, and we are debating another attack on personal freedom from this socialist green government. Back in 2005, the Howard coalition government gave students across Australia a tax cut. Back in 2005, the Howard government ensured that students across Australia were able to benefit, like anybody else, from an important freedom, the freedom of association. And, back in 2005, the Howard coalition government ensured that students across Australia had the freedom to choose which services they wanted to access on campus and which services they were prepared to pay for. Let us make no mistake. What we are talking about here today is a tax. It is a tax on students to be imposed by this Labor green government. It is a $1 billion tax over the current budget cycle. Of course, this is a high-taxing, high-spending government. It is a government that has higher taxes as part of its DNA. We had the Henry tax review tell us that we had too many taxes—that we had 125 taxes in Australia, that 10 of those taxes collected 90 per cent of the revenue and that we should have fewer taxes. Guess what? Since the Henry tax review suggested that we should have fewer than the 125 taxes that we had at the time, this government has come up with at least another five. We are talking about the mining tax, the carbon tax, the flood tax, the student tax and the new tax on LPG. This is just one of many taxes, and students are now in a line with everybody else, being on the receiving end of the worst aspects of this high-spending, high-taxing government.

I chair the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes on behalf of the Senate. We have inquired into this tax. Of course, the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes has been rather busy, because this government consistently comes up with yet another tax. As we started to inquire into this student tax, government senators on the committee were trying to argue that somehow this is not a tax. 'It's a fee,' they said. 'It's a fee for service.' A fee for service is payable when you access a service. A fee for service is something that you pay when you use the service. It is something you do not pay when you do not use the service. I draw senators' attention to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, which defines a tax as 'a charge, usually of money, imposed by legislative or other public authority upon persons or property for public purposes'. This is exactly what is happening here. It is a compulsory levy. It is a compulsory charge which is supposed to be imposed by legislation which has been put forward by this Labor green government, and it is to be payable irrespective of whether a service is accessed or not. It is supposedly a levy which will fund services provided for public purposes.

If the government think these services are so important, maybe they need to reprioritise some of their other spending. Maybe they need to reprioritise their spending on things like pink batts and—

Senator Mason: School halls.

Senator CORMANN: school halls and all the other things that the government are so good at wasting money on. Maybe they need to have a look at their $350 billion budget and find some things that they can reprioritise so that they can fund the services that obviously senators on the Labor side and senators like Senator Hanson-Young think are so important. Why should all students have to pay for the services that Senator Hanson-Young values, irrespective of whether they access them or not? They should not. They should not be required to. This is the crux of this issue.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 does not introduce a fee-for-service arrangement. If it were a genuine fee-for-service arrangement, students would be offered choice about whether or not to access the service and pay for it. This is a compulsory levy imposed by socialist green government legislation, which the universities would be required to collect as tax collectors. Senators on the government side—Labor and Greens senators—have said universities support this. What a surprise. Universities are in this with the government. They are going to be the tax collectors collecting the tax and they are, of course, seeing a benefit in this for them.

Has anybody on the government side asked the students? Let me tell you what the students think about this. Out of the submissions received by our Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, 89 per cent of students making a submission to the committee were opposed to this tax. Further, the Australian Democrats actually went out of their way, when this issue first came up, to survey students in their Australian Democrats Youth Poll. Maybe the Greens are so removed now from what happens on campus that they have lost touch with where students are at. Maybe Senator Hanson-Young should do a survey on campus to find out what students really want. Maybe Senator Hanson-Young needs to spend a bit more time on campus and ask students whether they want to pay another tax irrespective of whether they will access the services that are to be funded by it or not. The Australian Democrats Youth Poll 2008 showed that 59 per cent of those surveyed did not believe that voluntary student unionism legislation should be reversed. This is of course a broken promise, yet again. If it is such a good idea to slug students with another tax, if it is such a popular thing to do, if the services are so important, if they are going to be so valued, if this is such a great concept, why didn't the Labor government tell us before the 2007 election that this was something that they would do? In fact, this is what the shadow minister for education said at the time, when he was asked the question 'Are you planning to introduce compulsory student unionism? Are you looking at reversing the voluntary student unionism arrangements?'

No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m 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.

There is a theme here. Why is it that the Labor Party before an election tells us that they are not going to introduce a tax and then after an election they do? Why is it that they keep deceiving people around Australia about what their true intentions are when it comes to taxes like this one?

Senator Nash: Because they know the people will hate it.

Senator CORMANN: Because they know that people will hate it. That is exactly right. Because, if they told people the truth before an election about their high-taxing intentions, their high taxing plans, they know that people would not support them. So this is where we are.

This is of course a tax that has been considered by the Senate before. This is a tax which has been voted down by the Senate before. This is a tax which has been put forward by the government before and has been rejected by the Senate before. The Senate should reject this tax again. Looking at the make-up of the chamber, I am not confident that the Senate will. Students across Australia will be on the receiving end of the Labor-Greens alliance which will come to play in this chamber. Students across Australia every year when they pay this tax should remember that this is a tax that has been imposed on them by Labor and Greens senators in this chamber. This is the Sarah Hanson-Young tax, because it is the Greens that are going to make sure that this bad tax will get through this chamber. I will walk up and down the campuses of Australia—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Senator Cormann, first of all perhaps you can direct your comments through me as the chair. The person you are referring to is a senator of this chamber, so you could refer to her as Senator Hanson-Young, thank you very much, while I am in the chair.

Senator CORMANN: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I understand and accept. I do not think that Senator Hanson-Young was that concerned, by the way, about my description of this tax as a Senator Hanson-Young tax. I will make sure, in the years between now and the next election, that students across Australia know that it is Senator Hanson-Young and the Greens who ensured that this high-taxing Labor government was able to get this tax through the Senate, because coalition senators—Liberal Party and National Party senators—have stood firm against this latest tax slug from the current Australian Labor government, and we will continue to stand firm and protect freedoms and ensure lower taxes on student campuses.

Let us just make a few things clear. Voluntary student unionism has been an absolute success. Voluntary student unionism has not been about abolishing student unions—nothing of the sort. Student unions existed under compulsory student unionism; they continue to exist under voluntary student unionism. Student unions continue to be able to charge fees. They have got to demonstrate value. They have got to demonstrate that they have got a service that people actually want to buy. They have got to convince students that the things they stand for actually are the things that the students support.

Senator Carol Brown: Oh, that's just a ridiculous argument.

Senator CORMANN: Senator Carol Brown is now interjecting, saying that this is just ridiculous. Senator Brown clearly does not understand what it is like to be forced to pay for something you do not support, to be forced to pay for something you do not access. If you are a financially struggling student, it is arrogant, it is offensive, it is completely inappropriate for a government like this one to force you to pay for something you do not value, you do not support and you will not access. Why should you? If those services are so important, if those services are going to be valued, one of two things can happen. Either they are such important public services that they will be provided by government—and many people in the community and indeed students can and will access those services through Centrelink, Legal Aid and various other government services that are available. If services provided to students on campus are not attractive enough, if they are not responding to a genuine need, then maybe they should not be provided. If they are attractive enough, if they are responding to a genuine need, then students will pay for them when they access the service.

It has been quite interesting listening to this debate. Senator Bilyk was saying that somehow we do not care about students because coffee on some campuses in Tasmania now costs $6. Some other senator said that drinks at the bar are now more expensive and food is no longer subsidised and is more expensive. The logical implication of your argument is that you want all the students who are not going to buy coffee at the student union, who are not going to go to the bar at the student union or who are not going to eat food at the student union to pay for it for those that will. The only way you can make it cheaper by having a compulsory levy is if you are working on the explicit assumption that there will be a whole bunch of students who are not going to go and buy a coffee or a drink or some food at this particular student-union-run coffee shop. That is the only way you can make it cheaper for those who will.

Senator Conroy: You were picked on at uni, weren't you?

Senator CORMANN: I know the Labor Party is bad at maths, but not even Senator Conroy can be this bad at maths.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator Carol Brown interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senators!

Senator Conroy: I am sorry he was picked on at university. I am. I apologise on behalf of us all.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cormann, please continue. I am sure people will listen appropriately.

Senator Mason: I wasn't picked on at university. I should have been, probably!

Senator Conroy: Only by George!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cormann, I am not going to call you till I think other people are ready to listen.

Senator CORMANN: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I totally agree with you. It is very important that other people listen, in particular Senator Conroy. I read in the media at the weekend that he is very influential with this government and maybe he can convince the Prime Minister that this is a really bad idea. Maybe he can do some work on the Prime Minister-in-waiting, Mr Bill Shorten. Isn't he your friend, the Prime Minister in waiting? Anyway, this is a very bad tax. This is a tax which will reduce student freedom of association and force students to pay for services they will not access. What is the problem that you are trying to fix?

In my home state of Western Australia, we have a great tradition when it comes to voluntary student unionism. There was a great government in Western Australia—the Court government—and in 1993 the education minister at the time, Norman Moore, introduced voluntary student unionism. So, university campuses in Western Australia have a longer tradition when it comes to voluntary student unionism, which means that university campuses in Western Australia were able to play under voluntary student unionism arrangements introduced by the Howard government. After voluntary student unionism was introduced in Western Australia the student unions had to restructure and change their focus. They actually had to provide services that people wanted. That is a novel thing—provide services that people want. They had to be responsive to genuine student needs. That is a pretty novel thing, isn't it, Senator Conroy.

Let us be clear. Not only is this a high taxing government which looks at students as just another target for its high-taxing ways, it is also a government that wants to do the bidding of its left-wing mates on student campuses. Its left-wing mates on student campuses are not able to raise their own money from students voluntarily. Unless you force people to pay to join one of these left-wing outfits, people will not join and will not pay. What do we do? 'We in government just happen to have a Labor-Green alliance in the Senate so let's use the opportunity to force students to pay this compulsory levy and that way we don't have to go through this pesky effort of trying to convince people that what we are doing is legitimate, that we are responding to a genuine need.'

Here was another one: some Labor senator during the debate said that voluntary student unionism was all about 'snuffing out student representation which was opposed to the conservative agenda of the Howard government'. It is nothing of the sort. I do not care what agenda the students pursue when they are on a university campus, and I am sure that Senator Conroy would have been very active in the Labor movement on campus. Great, that is fantastic. But I do not think that every other student who does not agree with his views should be forced to pay for it. Our government should not force students who do not agree with the views of students like the Senator Conroys of today, whether it is on the Australian National University campus or the University of Western Australia campus. I do not think that the Australian government should force students who do not agree with the Senator Conroys of today to pay a compulsory levy to fund his activities. They should not.

The government says there are all these safeguards and no, this cannot be used for political activity. The only thing for which student unions will be stopped from using this money is direct political campaigning for candidates to elections. You do not have to be Einstein to know that this is a gate that is so large that every single left-wing union representative and every single left-wing student will be able to walk through that in five seconds. You do not have to have a PhD in physics to know how you get through a gate that is that large. Everybody knows that there are different ways to skin a cat. You do not have to campaign for a candidate directly to pursue a political campaign.

Let me stress here again: students are entitled to pursue their political views, students are entitled to associate and organise themselves and campaign. Quite frankly, student associations are entitled in my view to campaign against sitting members of parliament, for somebody, against somebody, for a government, against a government—there is nothing wrong with that. But the Australian government should not be forcing others to pay for the activities of those students if others do not agree with them.

Senator Carol Brown interjecting—

Senator CORMANN: Senator Carol Brown begs to differ. Senator Brown, on behalf of the government, does think that all students should pay for the activities of the few that happen to have a view that they do not agree with. That is the fundamental problem with this Labor-Green government. They abuse the power they have at present by being the Australian government. They abuse it to force all students across Australia to fund organisations for the few at the expense of the many.

Senator Mason very eloquently talked about the million or so higher education students, many of them do not even—

Senator CONROY: Time!

Senator CORMANN: I am sure that Senator Mason will move an extension of time, but I summarise: this is a bad tax from a bad government and of course the Senate should get on top of it. (Time expired)

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (20:44): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. I was just warming to Senator Cormann's speech. That does not mean I agreed with it, but I was just beginning to warm to it. I thought I should outline a brief history of voluntary student unionism in the context and then set out my views on this. It is important that we distinguish between what has been very much an ideological debate and one in which we need to have a practical outcome. This is what this bill intends to achieve. When voluntary student unionism was introduced by the Howard government in 2005 it had a number of practical and quite drastic effects. I think they were acknowledged by the Howard government when it provided $100 million of transitional funding to universities through three competitive funding programs. The VSU Transition Fund for Sporting and Recreational Facilities allocated $85 million for 44 projects, the small business and regional campuses fund allocated $5 million for 19 projects and the regional university sports program provided $10 million over four years to Australian University Sport. I think that is a concession on the part of the Howard government that there were going to be quite significant impacts on campus life.

The problem here is that the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association and the Australian Union of Students concluded that the grants available in the VSU transition funds 'do not address the shortfalls in recurrent funding and provide only temporary respite from the pressing capital needs of the sector'. That is the key to this. The fact that the Howard government provided $100 million in transitional funding was an acknowledgement that this was going to have a profound impact on students and campus life, but it was just a stopgap measure. The transitional funding did not address the fundamental problem of not having recurrent funding for these activities.

These are the very sorts of activities that I think this bill will address in a fairer and more structured way. The opposition say it is unreasonable to go down this path, that it is unreasonable to fund these sorts of activities, but they are the very activities that the Howard government funded with its transitional fund. There is some flawed logic or some convenient overlooking of facts in this case. The Howard government acknowledged that those activities ought to be funded, but the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association is absolutely correct in saying that there is not sufficient recurrent funding for these activities. The opposition should acknowledge that these are activities that the former coalition government funded but did not fund on an adequate long-term basis.

The impact of VSU on campuses has been quite profound. A principal of a smaller tertiary institution in South Australia has told me how profound the impact has been on student life on his campus. I think it is important to acknowledge the impact this has had on regional universities throughout the country. It is clear that smaller and regional universities and campuses have been most profoundly affected. The consultations that the Hon. Kate Ellis undertook as Minister for Youth in February 2008 indicated:

While a 'user‐pays' model worked for some services (e.g. food and beverage outlets), it was reported that this type of delivery commonly resulted in increased costs to individual students.

Not having a well-administered VSU lends itself to all sorts of inefficiencies and distortions. This is the best and fairest way of dealing with these issues so we do not have those anomalies and distortions. The consultation on VSU that the minister undertook in February 2008 also indicated:

… VSU had commonly resulted in an increase in fees, which had led to a decrease in the number of clubs and/or in club membership.

It is also important to look at the impact VSU has had on student amenities and services. This bill does not actually propose to reintroduce student union fees. I think it has been criticised by the Greens for not going far enough. They said that the bill is quite conservative in its approach to dealing with these matters. For instance, these funds are not controlled by student unions per se. But to the government's credit and to the credit of the Australian Greens and Senator Hanson-Young, who has pushed this point, there will be consultation requirements for higher education providers in the representation guidelines. Higher education providers will be required to have a formal process of consultation with the democratically elected student representatives—and the emphasis has to be on 'democratically elected' student representatives. So there will be a level of consultation, as I think is appropriate.

Higher education providers also need to provide details of the identified priorities for the proposed fee expenditure and to allow an opportunity for students to comment on those priorities. There must be regular meetings or a process for the student organisations to meet with those who are making decisions about the expenditure of funds. They are quite modest measures that do not go as far as I think the Australian Greens have requested—that the funds should be controlled directly by student unions. So this is a fairly conservative approach, a softly-softly approach from the government in dealing with this issue. The issue is the impact that VSU has had on campus life and campus amenities.

I think it is also important to look at the views of the Nationals. Before he became leader, my friend and colleague Senator Barnaby Joyce, now the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, raised concerns about the ideological nature of this debate. He raised concerns about how country students who played sport had been punished. He said there was some sympathy from Nationals senators about the adverse consequences of VSU and the need to have them addressed. That is important.

The issue as to whether the fees should be compulsory is, of course, one that has driven much ideological debate. But this is about how you administer something for members of a campus and the most efficient, effective and fair way of providing student services which all students should be entitled to.

The fact that the fee is in the order of $250 per year, or capped at that, is quite significant. The government has taken a median approach when it comes to these fees. I think it is interesting that the Australian Liberal Students Federation is concerned that:

There are numerous student organisations that are political in nature that will be eligible to receive monies compulsorily acquired from students, as the majority of political groups on campus would not meet these requirements.

But it seems:

… the Australian Liberal Students' Federation will not be prevented from obtaining money from a student organisation, as it is not a political party per se.

So it will be interesting to see if the Australian Liberal Students' Federation will be seeking to obtain funds under this. If they do, I will not criticise them for it.

I think it is also worth reflecting on the very ideological nature of this debate. A lifelong member of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation did point out how philosophical and ideological this debate has been. It is worth looking at the alternative. The alternative is to go back to the system with the piecemeal, ad hoc approach of the Howard government of having a lump sum that is completely inadequate to deal with these issues. I know that it is not cheap to be a student these days. Most students juggle a part-time job, if not two, with study, and so the very suggestion of a compulsory fee is off-putting for many. However, for me, it comes down to: what do we want a university to be? Do we want it to be a case of students just turning up for lectures and tutorials and then leaving, or do we want it to be a time when young Australians learn skills, participate in activities and facilitate opportunities which will help them in the future? Ultimately, higher education has to be about more than just lectures and textbooks.

I supported this legislation when it was debated in the last parliament and I made a contribution at that time on 17 August 2009 where I referred to my youthful indiscretion as a Young Liberal on campus. We all make mistakes!

Senator Abetz: That is the only time you did anything good, Nick!

Senator XENOPHON: Senator Abetz says that was the only time when I did anything good, and that may be the view of quite a few in this chamber! I will not restate what I said back then. I think it is going too far when orientation programs are dropped, student academic advocacy is stalled, regional students are disadvantaged and counselling services are cancelled—and they have been. Recent university graduates have told me that they have literally caught the train to uni for a lecture and then, as soon as it was over, caught the train back home. Young people no longer engage in their university's theatre group, sports team, international exchange group or debating team. On the less social side, who will students turn to if they need counselling or support without the amenities that these fees will allow for? Without these sorts of resources, what sort of university life do we want students to have?

I do believe it is important that if students are asked to pay that they can be assured that what they pay goes into student services and not university coffers. I understand that the government has amended its guidelines to ensure this and this has been supported by universities. I believe that the future of our students, our universities and our nation deserves nothing less than a vibrant and vigorous higher education sector and I believe the end of the VSU and the passage of this legislation is a positive step in this direction.