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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 6491

Senator BUSHBY (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:36): I rise also to contribute to the debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. This bill is about one thing and one thing only: whether all students, approximately one million of them, at higher education facilities across the nation should be forced to pay an indexed fee of $250 or more every year to fund the activities of student politicians and/or the social and sporting activities of a small minority of their student colleagues, and whether they should be banned from graduating if they recognise that they have no need for so-called amenities and refuse to pay the fee. Accordingly, the coalition opposes the bill, because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they will not or cannot use. The fact is that many, indeed probably most, students would have little need or inclination to make use of the so-called amenities that this reinstated tax is likely to fund. And, of course, this new tax will be imposed on all students, regardless of their ability to pay.

But a new tax coming from this government is hardly surprising. Despite being one of the most incompetent govern­ments in Australia's history, one thing that the Rudd-Gillard government have proven is that they are more than competent when it comes to devising new taxes. Here we are today once again considering the imposition of a new $250 tax on students, a tax supposedly to fund valuable services that will ensure the added extras of uni life will be available to uni students and that they can have proper representation. In my exper­ience, the vast majority of students attend uni to get a degree that will best equip them for participation in our society—to set them up for a career—and to expand their academic knowledge and understanding of our world and how it works. Of course, along the way, many students manage to have a little fun as well, but most students are quite capable of having a bit of fun without the need to dip their fingers into the pockets of their fellow students to fund it.

When I was at uni, a bit over 20 years ago, I was involved in the Tasmania University Union. I first stood and was elected because I and other students were appalled at the way that the fees we were required to pay were being spent and the total lack of benefit that we were getting as a result. My view was that, although I could not stop it being collected, maybe I could see it being better spent. So, together with a number of other students, we ran as the Better Management Team. Interestingly, we clearly were not the only ones that felt that way, because we received well over 80 per cent of the vote. I subsequently spent three years as an elected representative on the TUU, the second of those as a vice-president and the last as treasurer. We had to work hard to turn around the momentum to ensure the funds compulsorily raised by the then equivalent of what is being proposed in this bill were spent in the best interests of those who had been compelled to pay it. The reality is that, no matter how carefully we did spend it, the vast majority of those who paid it received little benefit because, no matter how well the money was spent, most of the services offered were of no benefit to the majority of students.

Quite apart from the support for blatantly political purposes, which was endemic and which I and others elected with me put an end to, a huge proportion of the amenities fee equivalent was spent subsidising the hobbies and the sporting and drinking pastimes of a limited number of students who had worked out the system. We worked at the time to place better and stronger qualifying conditions around these activities and had significant success, although I understand that with subsequent elections a lot of the work we did was undone.

But this was because the temptation is there, when students are forced to pay into a compulsory fund, for the money to be doled out to favour individual office holder ideologies and to support activities and people with whom you are familiar. I recall that student moneys at the time went to support ski lodges, rowing clubs, football clubs and water polo clubs—all very worthy activities in themselves but all activities that people can easily participate in without the need for subsidies from other students. Many of those receiving a subsidy for their activities were well able to afford those activities without subsidy. For example, many of the skiers would have been skiing regardless. Similarly, there was no end of 'societies', which were in many, if not most, cases fronts for drinking clubs. Again, this is all a part of the fabric of uni life, but it is a fabric which would exist, and indeed still does exist, without money being taken off those who do not choose to partake in those activities and being given to those who do wish to.

The bottom line is that, although uni is rightly primarily about study, students will, regardless of whether there is a student organisation funded by a tax on all students or not, seek out their own way to add value to the experience of uni life and to the extent that best suits them. They will, if they are so inclined, continue to play sport, socialise with like-minded students, participate in activities of their own choice and even collectively organise to ensure they get a fair deal. The question is whether they have a right to do so at the expense of other students who do not choose any or all of this and whether a student-wide tax should be imposed to pay for them to do so.

The total we are talking about under this bill amounts to a $250-odd million new tax on students, who in many cases are really not in a position to pay it. Given that the Greens and Labor purport to represent the least advantaged in our community, I would have thought that imposing a tax on students, many of whom come from backgrounds that mean they struggle to afford to be at uni in the first place, would be anathema to these so-called progressive parties. Yet here they are lining up to take another $250 off each of them, regardless of their ability to pay, so that some students can have their choice of activity or their drinking subsidised or so that student politicians can be funded to cut their teeth.

But it is important to remember that these students can currently still undertake these activities, do that drinking or cut their as teeth student politicians, just not on the account of other students who have been forced to pay a tax. If the relevant student organisations can sell the benefits of their activities or representation, they can still charge a fee and, if students see the benefit, they can still pay it. But, if this bill is passed, for many students on a budget it will mean $250 less for textbooks, study materials, transport and the cost of living—or, at best, $250 more in HECS debt.

This bill represents yet another broken promise by the Labor Party, which made a commitment before the 2007 election not to reintroduce compulsory student union fees, a promise made by then shadow minister for education, Stephen Smith, someone now being touted as a potential replacement for Prime Minister Gillard and apparently someone with similar proclivities. As you would appreciate, this is not the only broken promise from the 2007 election, and certainly it is not the only one from the 2010 election—the big one being the promise that there would be no carbon tax under a government led by Prime Minister Gillard.

If ever there was a time when a student-wide tax was justified—and I doubt there was—the case for such a tax is much diminished now by changes in the demographics and style of study undertaken in the 21st century. For example, there are many more older—what used to be called 'mature age'—students, and the incidence of external study is far higher than it used to be in the 1970s heyday of compulsory student unionism. These days, many more students study part time. In such cases, the benefits to be gained from the so-called amenities that this tax will fund are likely to be of little or no attraction or possible benefit. For example, there are around 130,000 students studying externally. These students will never have the opportunity to use the services they are being forced to pay for. Similarly, a single mother studying and working part time—not an uncommon occurrence—is likely to have little opportunity or inclination to partake of the so-called uni culture that pilfering $250 a head from students is said to be likely to deliver.

Listening to this debate, I have not heard any senator mention any service or activity that is likely to be provided by a student organisation that is not currently available: They already exist and are being provided and funded by the universities themselves, by the government or by the non-government voluntary sector. Many of them are free, others are heavily subsidised and all of them are available to university students without any prejudice or discrimination. For example, nothing stops university students from going to Centrelink or Legal Aid where they have a relevant need or to any number of non-government organisations such as the Salvation Army or St Vincent de Paul.

When people outside of university are interested in a pastime, an activity or a sport they join together in a club to pursue it and they all contribute money to the common pool towards their club or association or they go out and raise funds in the community to make it possible. The reality is that there are activity and sporting clubs all over Australia that manage to run, undertake activities and stay solvent without needing to be subsidised by taking money off others who are not involved in their activity or club. Students do not want to be treated differently to everyone else, and they should not be. Outside of the university, they certainly would not expect that everyone in their suburb should be forced to pay a levy or a tax so that they can enjoy beer appreciation or subsidised snow skiing. In the end, if clubs and services offered on campus are deemed valuable, students will seek out that value and pay for it without any compulsion.

Further, despite the very weak arguments put by the government, we on this side of the House remain very concerned about the potential political activity that the proposed tax will fund. I have touched on this when talking about my own recollections and the potential for the abuse of student moneys for political or ideological reasons. While the bill prohibits universities or any third parties which might receive money from spending it in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing to prevent the money being spent on political campaigns, political causes, or quasi-political organisa­tions per se, whether students whose money is being spent agree with it being used in that way or whether they do not.

Even if this prohibition is enforced, it is easy to see how it can be avoided and circumvented. In the past, student unions have proven to be very adept at using the profits from 'allowable' activities to effect­ively cross-subsidise activities for which direct funding was disallowed. Students are generally quite clever people and if there is an opportunity to get around something like this they will find it. But it is also doubtful if this prohibition, such as it is, will be or even can be enforced. Neither the bill nor the guidelines provide any credible enforcement and sanction mechanism. The bill merely states that it is up to the universities to ensure that the money is not spent on political parties and candidates, without providing any commensurate powers or any other mechanism to enforce this. There is no departmental monitoring.

For any action to be possible, individual students will need to raise and prove their concerns. Even then, it is at the discretion of the minister whether any penalty is imposed, something that I imagine is not likely to be easily attained. In addition, there will be no policing or penalties for universities that act in breach of the guidelines and no opportunity for the tax to be refunded in circumstances where political activity is proved.

The simple truth is that the bill funds the activities of student unions. It allows funds compulsorily acquired by universities to be used for 'student representation' and thus political activities of student unions will be funded by all students whether they like it or not. In a broader sense, it is no better than forced gambling where everyone is required to take out a ticket but only a few get to share in the winnings. Freedom of association, including freedom not to join an association, remains one of the core beliefs of the coalition and this bill stands condem­ned as a flagrant breach of that mighty and powerful principle. It is bad policy, it is outdated policy, it is blatantly inequitable and unjust, and it should be voted down.