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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 6561

Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (18:27): I strongly support the very eloquent and insightful contribution by my colleague Senator Mason. This is a bad piece of legislation. This is a piece of legislation that seeks to impose a tax on students. It is a piece of legislation that seeks to remove from students their freedom of association. It is an attack on personal freedom. The Greens amendment before us would make a bad tax even worse—as if this legislation is not bad enough, the Greens want to make it worse. Yesterday, as we were debating this legislation, Senator Hanson-Young was perhaps a bit disturbed that her name was going to be attached to the legislation as it stands. Her party, the Greens, will be ensuring passage of this bad tax, this broken promise, from the Labor government.

I draw the attention of the Senate to some evidence that was provided to the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, which inquired into this a very bad tax that removes students' personal freedom of association. The committee's findings state:

The committee, however, remains concerned that the bill provides inadequate protection against political activity.

Of course, the Greens amendment is trying to make a bad situation even worse. When asked whether he could rule out any money collected through the legislation going to the National Union of Students, the Chief Executive Officer of Universities Australia stated that he 'cannot guarantee that a single dollar would not go to the National Union of Students'. As highlighted in the submissions, student unions are highly political. I will quote here from the very eloquent submission put forward by the Australian Liberal Students' Federation—pages 7 to 8, for those who are interested:

Office-bearer positions on student unions are almost without exception won by student politicians who are able to mobilise their activist support bases. However, the vast majority of students are apathetic to political causes and do not participate in university elections.

It is extremely rare for more than 10% of students to vote in student elections, even at the most politically active universities. At Melbourne and Sydney Universities, two of the most politically- oriented in Australia, voter turnout can be 5% or less.

T he resulting consequence is student unions being run by student politicians, elected by a small proportion of students, who spend the wider student body’s money promoting partisan political causes …

I do not have any problem with student unions promoting partisan political causes as long as the government of Australia does not force every single student across Australia to pay for it. This is what this is about.

I draw the Senate's attention to some very insightful evidence by Miss Sasha Uher, who was then the President of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation. This is what she is said to the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes:

I do not dispute the right of student unions to exist. I do not even dispute the right of student unions to be highly political if they want to be, provided that membership and financial support of that union is voluntary. If students know what their union is doing and they have the choice to support those activities then it is their right to join. For example, I joined my student union this year because under VSU it has remodelled itself into an organisation that actually provides benefits to students. I am involved in clubs and societies, so it is worthwhile for me to join my union.

This is voluntary student unionism at work. This is voluntary student unionism working as it should—that is, that organisations that want to attract members to their cause should be able to convince them to join that cause of their own free will and accord, not because the Australian Labor government, supported by the Greens, forces them to pay a tax, a compulsory levy, which is there to fund activities which are not supported by those forced to pay the levy.

This is really basic stuff. This is an issue of fundamental personal freedom. I say to students across Australians: the Labor-Greens alliance in this Senate wants to take your personal freedoms away from you. They want to tax you and they want to force you again to fund causes that you do not support. Because Senator Hanson-Young thinks that the Labor legislation does not go far enough in removing personal freedoms, because Senator Hanson-Young thinks that the legislation does not go far enough in making sure that the money that is collected from students compulsorily goes into the pockets of those that will use it for political causes, Senator Hanson-Young, with this amendment, wants to put beyond doubt that the students' money collected from them against their will can be channelled into political activities that those students do not support. With all due respect, this is quite a disgraceful situation. Students should be free to decide what causes they support finan­cially or through their membership. They should not be channelled into financially supporting certain causes courtesy of a federal government mandate. That is not how democracy works.

It is very clear that the Greens are able to spread the rhetoric on democracy—on openness and transparency, for that matter—and on government scrutiny, but when it comes to walking the walk rather than just talking the talk and living by the word of proper democracy, freedom, scrutiny, openness and transparency the Greens again and again have been found wanting.

This bill is bad enough as it is. This bill should be voted down in the form that it is in. The amendment that has been put forward by Senator Hanson-Young on behalf of the Greens would make a bad tax even worse, which is why I very strongly support the comments made by my valued friend and colleague Senator Mason on behalf of the coalition. The Senate should join the coalition in voting this amendment down. It is a bad amendment, a terrible amendment and an amendment that will further disenfranchise students from right across Australia. It is going to reduce their personal freedom and it is going to facilitate channell­ing the money they are forced to pay into causes they do not support.

With those few remarks, I am hopeful that Senator Hanson-Young might take on board some of those comments that we have made. Maybe Senator Hanson-Young should reflect on the intrinsic truth of what it is that the coalition is putting in this chamber, and that is that students across Australia do not want to pay this tax. Students across Australia want to be able to choose which associations they can join. Students across Australia do not want their money to fund activities by some student union which they do not support. This legislation combined with the Greens amendment will deliver exactly that, and that is why the Senate should oppose it.