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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 6486

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (13:16): It is a great pleasure to follow Senator Birmingham, who has articulated a number of the concerns around the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. I commence my contribution to this debate with a broader issue, and that is about principle. It helps when you come to this place or to the other place—when you enter parliamentary life—if you have some guiding principles. These are the things that allow you to instantly assess the merits or otherwise of a piece of proposed legislation or to respond almost immediately to a circumstance in respect of policy, initiatives or programs that are suggested. I am talking not about the sorts of flexible ethics that a number of politicians and political parties may use in order to get themselves elected but about the core principles. It is about how you view the world and it is about the strength of framework which you bring to use your intellectual rigour to make assessments about policy.

These are the sorts of things that stop politicians from misleading, deceiving or lying to the Australian people. These are the sorts of things that would have prevented, for example, the Prime Minister saying, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' just a few days before the election and then introducing a carbon tax under a government she is leading subsequent to that election. It would be the same sort of principle that would prevent an opposition from saying, 'There are no plans for a compulsory amenities fee,' when they are in opposition and the same sort of principle that would lead a minister to say, 'There will be no compulsory amenities fee,' when they are in government.

Unfortunately, these sorts of principles that support integrity, honesty and transparency are completely missing from the government, and it is characterised in this debate. Not only did Mr Smith say that he had no plans for a compulsory amenities fee when he was in opposition in 2007 but Minister Ellis, who was perhaps not— and I will be very generous here—the most effective minister—

Senator Hanson-Young: That would be a first.

Senator BERNARDI: Yes, it would be a first. Thank you, Senator Hanson-Young. Normally, I would be considering your contribution and it is very tough to be generous about that. Anyway, getting back to Minister Ellis—who perhaps has not covered herself with extraordinary glory through her ministerial career—she did say that there was not going to be any compulsory amenities fee, and what we have before us is effectively a compulsory amenities fee. When you apply principle to this debate you say, firstly, the Australian people were once again deceived by the Labor Party. That is a big X—it gets a no; you do not win any credit for that. Secondly, this compulsory amenities fee offends the principle that should guide every single Australian that there should be no compulsion in paying for things that you are not going to use. It should reflect the user-pays system whereby if people are going to opt into something they should pay the price for that.

Many in this chamber have had the experience of university—some enjoyed it. I did not particularly enjoy it. I found myself one of the few people at odds with the leftist orthodoxy on campus. What I cherish about that fact is that I protested against these compulsory fees right from the word go, because I did not see that there was any value for money in it. I do not see that funding from the student union for the Days of Our Lives club or the role-playing Dungeons and Dragons club, and things like that, really added much to university life. When I reflect on the product of the student unions, and the student politicians that have tried to translate their student politics into places like the Senate, I wonder why we are funding this sort of activity and this sort of initiative. Is there a real benefit for it amongst the millions of students?

I suggest that this $250 proposed fee is basically a $250 million tax on students. It is a tax that many of them will get no benefit from because of the new and radically altered nature of university and student life today. There is an increasing number of students who are doing external studies or who are studying part time. There is also an increasing number of mature-age students. These are people who return to university and who do not have the time, interest or need to take advantage of the myriad services that are provided through the student union. I say they do not have the need because many of these things are available through other external bodies, whether they be quasi-government bodies or through voluntary organisations. If there is a need for support or counselling or prayer space or some sort of advocacy group, these are all available outside of the university campuses. So what we are seeing is a replication of services in some instances, but we are also seeing the building of empires. This is something that really has no place on our university campuses. They are places of higher learning and, as such, people should be focused on that. If people want to participate in clubs, sporting groups or other initiatives then it is only reasonable and fair to ask those who are participating to make a contribution to those initiatives. It goes without saying that sometimes it would be at quite a significant cost. I myself was a member of the University of Adelaide rowing club and took great benefit from that, and I understand the university rowing club is still prospering and thriving despite the fact that there is no compulsory student amenities fee. That is just an example of how the Henny Pennys who said the sky was going to fall when we took away this fee have been proved wrong once again. What has been taken away is the ability to rort and manipulate the system, to buy influence and to peddle propaganda, some of which Senator Birmingham himself was a victim of.

We have to come back to the point: if these services are not particularly necessary in the sense that they can be replicated elsewhere, why are we forcing students to pay $250? That is money which, might I say, will get added to a HECS bill, will be an imposition on them with their generally small incomes or will have to be picked up by a third party. We cannot deny the fact that many students are already struggling, and not just young students. A number of older people who return to study have other obligations in their lives, so they find it very tough to make ends meet. That means that there will be $250 less for textbooks, study materials, transport or the general costs of living, or it will be $250 more of HECS debt, which we know is becoming increasingly difficult for students to manage.

I have also touched on the changing nature of university life, and that relates to the demography of university students today. They are not elite institutions anymore. They are places of higher learning where the majority of Australian students go after finishing high school or when seeking to pursue a higher education. As I said, there are many more students now studying part time or in the evenings to complete work. These people cannot and do not participate in or take advantage of the services that the unions allegedly provide. More people are interested in taking advantage of the greater flexibility and the competition between universities. They have the opportunity to avail themselves of new technology which enables a virtual learning environment where people can be at home or anywhere in the country and undertake their university studies. There are now approximately 13,000 students studying externally. Having been an external student myself, I know how flexible and important this sort of option can be. Why should these 13,000 students be forced to pay for a service that they will have very limited if any opportunity to utilise?

It is also worth analysing the expectation of students of their university life now. I am of the opinion, and it has been fed back to me by a number of university students already, that they go to university because they want the credentials to enable them to get a better job or to pursue a profession or a particular career. The so-called university experience is not that attractive to many of them. They do not see it as developing their personal CV. They may participate in one or two aspects of university life, but it is more important for them to get the education and to be out there managing the other demands that we all have in very busy lives.

People tend to coalesce around things like Facebook rather than the Dungeons and Dragons clubs or those things that I mention­ed earlier. This may be a characteristic of the generation. They call themselves generation Y and they account for the bulk of university students at this point in time. This generation is less collectivist, less committed to the institutionalised civil society. They have a much more flexible way of assessing their interpersonal relationships and the types of things they expect from the organisations that they get involved in. As I said, they are probably much more likely to join a group on Facebook than to join a group on university campus.

I would put to those listening to this debate that the majority of students themselves, unlike the student politicians or those who are seeking to make a name for themselves in student politics, are not really interested in student unions or the services that these unions provide. The Australian Democrats, lest they be forgotten, once did a survey about compulsory fees which demonstrated that 59 per cent of students were against compulsory fees. So students themselves have said they do not want this. Then we find that only five per cent of students actually vote in student union elections. There is a big disparity in thought here. There is a lack of connection between what students want and what politicians are telling them they want. There is a big disconnection between how students act and how the student politicians will tell them to act. It is a tiny minority that participate in the student elections, and yet the politicians are trying to force all students to pay a fee which the majority of them simply do not want.

They do not want the fee, because they know that most of the activities and services provided by the unions are superfluous. They are provided by the university itself, by government organisations or by the voluntary sector in many instances. A lot of them are already available for free. Others are heavily subsidised. So there is not a great burden on the people availing themselves of these services. There is no prejudice or discrimination in access to these services. As I said before, if people outside of university require help they can go to Centrelink, legal aid or any other non-government organisa¬≠tion—whatever fulfils that niche. When people who do not attend university—whether they be apprentices, working people or whatever—want to pursue an activity, they join a local club or go to a commercial operation and they pay, whether it be a couple of hundred dollars to play football for the year or a $500 amenities fee to join a rowing club. Whatever it is, whether it be a club, an activity or an organisation, everyone makes a contribution not only towards the operation of the club but towards providing for it financially. Why are we now treating students differently from the rest of Australia? There has not been a massive breakdown in campus life since the compulsory amenities fee was scrapped. The only thing that has happened is that every student has been $250 or more better off every single year because they have not had to pay for services that they have not wanted. Ultimately, if more than a tiny minority of students want access to a club or service on campus, it will be provided. It will be provided because there will be a demand for it that will earn the patronage of students. There will be no compulsion and everyone will benefit—not least those who are not subsidising that interest when not using it.

We also know that the existing system remains open to political abuse and is devoid of effective enforcement mechanisms. The coalition is concerned about effective enforcement of this proposed legislation. While the bill prohibits universities or any third party which might receive money spending it in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing at all to prevent the money being spent on political campaigns, political causes or quasi-political organisations. We all know how these organisations operate: most of them have some sort of Green front, or something like that, and they peddle propaganda designed to infiltrate universities, appeal to students and push a left-wing barrow. But even with a prohibition on direct support for political parties and candidates, the question will be: how can this prohibition be policed? This bill provides for no credible enforcement or sanction mechanism. The bill merely states that it is up to universities to ensure the money is not spent on political parties and candidates, without providing universities with any powers to enforce this. We know that a lot of things that deserve higher scrutiny happen on university campuses. We know that people will try to rig and rort elections to gain power. They will do all sorts of things that would be considered inappropriate, because they believe that they are beyond the scrutiny of normal people.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

Senator BERNARDI: There is an interjection coming from Senator Hanson-Young. I am sorry, I missed that Senator Hanson-Young—if you would care to repeat it.

Senator Hanson-Young: Christopher Pyne and his activities when he was education officer at Adelaide university—what have you to say about that?

Senator BERNARDI: This compulsory amenities fee is student unionism by stealth. We like people to be upfront in this place, and this bill attempts to impose a compulsory fee which may in turn fund the activities of student unions. We should be under no misapprehension about this. This will fund the political activism of the Left on university campuses. In the past, student unions have proven themselves to be very adept at using the profits from the permissible or allowable activities to effectively cross-subsidise activities for which direct funding was disallowed.

We have freedom of association in this country, notwithstanding the recent outcries about these sorts of things. But the freedom not to join an association, not to join a union, not to join an organisation remains one of the core beliefs of the coalition. It is something we are committed to. We believe that someone opting into a system is always far preferable to forcing people into system. This comes back to the key principles with which I started my contribution to this debate. Unless you enter this place with a framework, with a set of principles with which you can critically analyse and assess bills, the policy issues and the substantive matters that we are all asked to make decisions on, you will be unable to level with the Australian people. You will inevitably be forced, compelled or tempted to deceive the Australian people, just like our Prime Minister did at the last election with her statement that 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead,' just like the former Minister for Youth, Ms Ellis, who said that there were no plans for a compulsory amenities fee and just like the former shadow minister, Mr Smith, just before the 2007 election. If we cannot take at face value the words of our politicians, those entrusted with running the country, what can we have confidence in? It is a genuine question, and it comes back to principle. This bill suggests that the Labor Party is devoid of principle. It has no policy passion— (Time expired)