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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1637

Mrs MIRABELLA (7:04 PM) —As shadow minister for, amongst other matters, youth, I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009.Whilst the bill does indeed contain other measures, its primary purpose is to impose a new tax on the one million students attending universities across the nation, whether the students are full time, part time, studying on campus or external. Whether or not they have a need for the services and activities which the $250 fee is intended to prop up, they will all be hit with what amounts to a new compulsory annual $250 tax, equating to $250 million around the nation taken from students, who can least afford it.

The opposition will be opposing this bill. At a time when students are doing it tough and the government is splashing around $42 billion, including money for a so-called education revolution, they are slugging students with a $250 tax. The bill represents a broken promise—surprisingly!—by the Labor Party.

Mr Anthony Smith —No!

Mrs MIRABELLA —Yes, member for Casey, it is a broken promise encapsulated in this bill. Did the Labor Party promise at the 2007 election that it would introduce this tax? Did it tell students at universities that it would force them to pay $250? No, it did not. In fact, it did the opposite. At a doorstop in May 2007 the then shadow minister for education, now the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said:

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.

That was in May, just five months before the last election was called. So not only did Labor not promise to introduce such a compulsory tax, the then shadow minister actually gave a commitment to a voluntary amenities fee. What do the colleagues of the Minister for Foreign Affairs think of forcing increased fees on our university students? During debate on the higher education support bill on 14 October 2003, the member for Wills said:

But there is good news, because Labor will not support any measures to increase fees for Australian students or their families. In my book education is not about how much money your parents have.

The Minister for Finance and Deregulation and member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, said in that very same debate, on the same day:

The reality is that Australian students and Australian families have pretty much reached the limit of their capacity to contribute to their own education or their children’s education.

So, before the 2007 federal election, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs promised not to introduce a compulsory amenities fee and the member for Wills stated that Labor would not support any increase in fees for Australian students. On top of that, we had the current minister for finance state his belief that students could not afford to pay any more. Now, after the election, the Labor Party is introducing a compulsory $250 amenities fee. This proves that any promises the Labor Party makes before an election are absolutely meaningless. It will say and do whatever it thinks will get it elected.

As stated by the Minister for Youth:

… the bill will also provide universities with the option to implement a services fee from 1 July 2009, capped at a maximum of $250 per year to invest in quality support and advocacy services.

The minister went on to say:

Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and enhanced advocacy that the fee would support.

In other words, before deciding what types of services and amenities the university can spend its compulsorily levied fee on, it is going to have to consult with students. Who will these students be, exactly? I think they will be a very small group of student politicians. They will be the so-called representatives of the student union, representatives who are elected by, at the very best, 10 per cent of the student population—and more like five per cent if you are at Sydney or Melbourne universities. You can be sure that these student politicians will be representatives, definitely, of their own vested interests and the advancement of their own political careers. They certainly will not be representative of the majority of students on campus because the majority of students on campus do not bother to participate in student union elections. There may be some criticism from the other side of the House on that but it is within the rights of tertiary students to attend a university and engage, or not engage, in whatever activities they may choose—including voting and being involved in student unions.

In addition, the minister, in an attempt to allay any obvious concerns about what such compulsorily levied fees could be spent on, said:

… the bill prohibits universities from allowing the expenditure of any funds raised from a compulsory student services and amenities fee to support political parties, or support the election of a person to the Commonwealth, state or territory legislatures or to a local government body.

This clause is really meaningless. It will allow the compulsory fee to be spent on a whole range of political activities. It does not expressly prohibit funding of campaigns for or against political causes or particular legislation, or of any campaigns that the student unions may run. Nor does the bill expressly prohibit the use of compulsorily acquired funds to be channelled to the student media to promote whatever cause they desire. In fact, this is expressly allowed under the guidelines. Worse still, the new student services and amenities fee guidelines, which are supposed to outline exactly what services may be funded by the new fee, will be tabled as a disallowable instrument—but not until after the bill has been passed. So we are not quite sure exactly what form the guidelines will finally take when they are tabled.

The bill does not prevent student money being taken out of allowable activities and diverted into other, disallowable activities. We saw this cross-subsidisation occur in Victoria when the then government introduced legislation—similar in some ways to the current legislation—which purported to limit the activities that could be funded. They purported to do that by listing the activities, but student unions could take money from an activity which was allowed to be funded by the compulsory so-called amenities fee and could spend it on an activity that was not expressly allowed. In other words, a student union could receive money to run a cafeteria, take money out of the till and spend it on political propaganda. Or the student union could receive money to provide administrative support and use that money to fund the wages of someone who was employed to do that but who in fact spent their time campaigning for the re-election of the union president, for example. The student union could receive funds ostensibly to provide important services—but we all know how much those funds can get eaten up by administration costs. It is quite frightening when you look at some of the figures before the commencement of voluntary student unionism. Monash University collected over $8.5 million in compulsory fees in one year and a whopping 56 per cent of that went towards administration costs. One wonders about the range of activities that would be covered by a very imaginative and creative student union body classifying all sorts of activities as administration costs.

So we have a government who told the Australian people before the 2007 election that they would not introduce a compulsory amenities fee and they are now asking us to take them on trust and pass the bill and then at some later date they will introduce into the House guidelines which outline how the new compulsory regime will work. As they never intended to stick to their promise of not introducing a compulsory amenities fee, so they never intended to prevent political activities, causes and salaries from being funded under this proposal.

Of course, the minister will point to the fee guidelines as some sort of guarantee against the use of compulsorily acquired fees for political purposes, but quite frankly they are not worth the paper they are written on. Firstly, the list of items that can be funded is quite extensive and broad, but in any case, as we know, the content of the fee guidelines is largely irrelevant because, in addition to what has been said, there will be no system of monitoring or policing whether or not the universities comply with these guidelines. That is right: there will be no system of reporting back to the education minister so that judgments can be made on whether this quarter of a billion dollars of student taxes is being well spent. The bottom line is this: there will be no accountability. It will essentially be up to individual students to become the whistleblowers and to raise any concerns they might have about how their amenities fee is spent, and even then they would have to get access to accounts to prove their suspicions, and even then, if a breach is found to have occurred, it is at the minister’s discretion whether any penalty is imposed.

Can it get any worse? Yes, it can. The legislation provides the Minister for Education with the discretion to approve additional amenities and services that may be funded by the compulsory fee. We have the Minister for Education—a former union lawyer, a staunch union supporter and, importantly in this context, a compulsory student union advocate—and she will be the person given the legislated authority to make changes to the guidelines and decide what other services can be funded by this fee. Does anyone in this House honestly believe that the minister—someone who was a student union politician and who was the beneficiary of compulsorily acquired union fees—will actually act to restrain the political and other activities of young left-wing student politicians of today? Of course she will not. No-one honestly believes that.

Mr Melham interjecting

Mrs MIRABELLA —I see my friend across the chamber smiling. The Minister will do the exact opposite. She will do everything in her power to make it easy for ordinary students to subsidise the activist student political elite on her side of politics.

The Minister for Youth and Sport stated in her second reading speech that this bill is not compulsory student unionism. It is a pretty big claim, and it is a false claim. She might like it to be so, and if she is genuine in her wishes then I have some empathy, but when a government is bent on imposing a tax on students to pay for amenities and services that a majority of students will probably choose not to use or, in the case of 130,000 external students, may never have the opportunity to use—they will never have a direct say on what sort of services this money should be put toward—one can only surmise that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck. This is compulsory student unionism. If you force students to pay a fee that will fund the political activities of the student union without the students’ consent, you are breathing life into a student union that is unaccountable but financially very powerful. It is like compulsory bargaining fees in the workplace. The union is happy for you not to be a member of its association, but the worker still has to pay a fee—which, incidentally, is often the same amount as a union membership fee.

There are some unintended consequences in this bill for universities. The bill is going to create a huge headache for universities, and I do not think it has been well thought out. Universities, in their desperation to obtain additional funds, may not have had a good look at this bill. Firstly, the SA-HELP loan scheme, which creates a new loan enabling a student to borrow money to pay this new fee, is going to create a massive bureaucratic burden for universities. Secondly, the new representation and advocacy guidelines place new and unfunded obligations on universities. These obligations were never foreshadowed and, disgracefully, they are tied to core education funding. For example, the draft guidelines already require the education provider to effectively fund resources and infrastructure for student unions. What could that mean? That could mean offices, salaries, elections and any other matters that can be considered relevant to the so-called advocacy services. These guidelines are so broadly worded that they could be interpreted to impose virtually any obligation on the university regarding student representation on that campus.

This bill illustrates an extraordinary obsession—perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the education minister and the Minister for Youth and Sport, remembering the good old student days and the fun they had when involved in student politics—to prop up student unions, organisations that currently attract a small minority of students as members. In addition to every struggling student, we are now going to have university administrations also subsidising the political careers and pet issues of the elite class of student activists.

Back in 2005, when the Howard government took the historic step of legislating for voluntary student unionism, there was a huge outcry that student services would collapse, and that has not been the case. It was a historic step for those who believe that freedom of association for students is a fundamental right and that students are mature and old enough to decide whether or not they should join a union and where they should allocate their money. The Liberal Party believed then and still believes that people who are, by and large, adults should be free to choose how they should spend their hard-earned money and what they should spend it on. They should not be forced to pay a levy for services that they may or may not use. The historic Howard government voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005 put a stop to the enforcement of ‘no ticket, no start’ on all university campuses, and it was a great day for many students, many of whom were not politically motivated and still are not politically motivated but were grateful that they could attend a tertiary institution for the primary purpose of achieving their education without being forced to fork out additional funds to the student union.

The bill back in 2005 put the often exorbitant fees back in the pockets of students, allowing them to decide where that money should be directed. We have seen since that time significant savings for students. Students on average have saved over $240 a year and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved on average $318. So we have seen a fall in the cost of union membership, which is a good thing. It forced student unions to be responsive to student demands, make themselves attractive, advocate the reason why students should join them, and also lowered their fees. It has also meant that students’ money has not been diverted in such a blatant manner to political parties and causes in that very blatant way we have seen on many occasions over the past few decades but most recently during the 2004 election, when the National Union of Students spent around $250,000 campaigning against the Howard government.

The accusations that voluntary student unionism has led to the collapse of student services are just bluster of an unrepresentative minority of students. Many services, counselling and medical services for example, are still available at almost every university in some form. In fact, the imposition of this fee and working through the amenities fee guidelines may often lead to a duplication of services at some campuses.

We have seen some interesting activities. For example, the RMIT Student Union produces a radio program on 3CR every week called Blazing Textbooks, which, as its website states, seeks to promote ‘an anti-capitalist perspective on current issues in education from around Australia and the world’. Hardly mainstream, but an interesting perspective to take. And they are entitled to take it, but it shows where their priorities lie. At the same time the website blames voluntary student unionism for the decline in its advocacy services. Any fair-minded person could see that this student union has placed greater priority on producing this radio program and having their bit of ideological fun than actually providing the sort of advocacy services that students would want and that would be relevant to students.

We have also seen a recent example where the student union at the University of Melbourne removed about $18,000 from its clubs and societies budget to give those funds to the National Union of Students. So you tell me where the benefit is for students there, when those who are members of the clubs and societies I am sure would have vehemently disagreed with that money being taken out and given to the National Union of Students. But under these guidelines and under this bill that would be not only a legitimate but a necessary allocation of funds. You could easily argue within these broad guidelines that it was essential in the interests of advocacy and representation of students that the National Union of Students receive even more funding.

The Australian Liberal Party is passionate about freedom, about freedom of association, and it is one of the party’s fundamental tenets. Whether it is membership of a union, an employer organisation or a student representative body, an individual should not be forced to join an organisation against their will. And we should not separate students from the argument of voluntary association. By and large they are adults; they have the ability to decide for themselves. We have always believed it is not up to politicians, it is not up to the minority who are involved in student politics, to decide what is in the best interests of students. We believe that students can best decide that for themselves. But the Labor Party in coming to office at the recent federal election has said, ‘No, let’s turn back the clock, let’s return to the status quo, let’s compel students to pay for something that they don’t want and may not use. Let’s help out those student union friends of ours who are struggling to adapt to the 21st century. Let’s go back to creating a nice cushy cash flow with no accountability and no consequences.’

This bill is a new tax on students. It is a disgraceful return effectively to compulsory unionism. It represents a shameful broken promise. It is poorly drafted and will cause the government far more headaches than it has actually realised. And it treats adult students with utter contempt. It is only a very thinly veiled attempt to reinvigorate student unions, guilds—call them what you like. We in the coalition say no to new taxes, leave students alone and treat them with some basic respect. Student unions can survive and thrive if they are accountable to their membership, if they respond to the needs and wishes of their members. But this bill and these guidelines will not only return to the bad old days of effective compulsory student unionism but they go even further by imposing these draconian obligations on tertiary education providers. I urge the House to oppose this bill. It is regressive, it is a huge cost impost on students, and I hope I do not see it come to light.