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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1653


Mr ROBERT (8:17 PM) —What a pleasure it is to follow the member for Deakin, who so eloquently finished his presentation speech before the House by saying that the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 seeks to right a significant wrong. I suggest that we could expect that from a former full-time union official. This bill seeks to dress up compulsory student unionism in the raiment of higher education legislation amendment.


Mr Perrett —Wasn’t Brendan Nelson a union official?


Mr ROBERT —My father once told me that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The member for Moreton should take that on board, because you cannot tart up voluntary or compulsory student unionism in the clothing of higher education legislation and not expect the Australian people to see through it for what it is—a cynical attempt at putting back dollars and cents into the Labor student union mould. Everyone, apart from Young Labor, thinks this is a rotten idea. Every student union type movement on our campuses, apart from Young Labor, thinks this is an appalling piece of policy. It is not hard to work out who benefits from such a policy piece—you simply look at who wants it. I look across the House at the member for Moreton and others, former full-time union officials, and I wonder why they agree with their counterparts, Young Labor. Considering that the Young Labor movement in the election before last gave something like a quarter of a million dollars to the Labor campaign, it is not hard to see who benefits.


Mr Perrett interjecting


Mr ROBERT —The member for Moreton will forgive me if I find his outbursts and his urges ridiculous, patently useless and not worth listening to—as I would from all union officials who would back such a piece of legislation.

The purpose of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is to allow higher education providers to impose a compulsory levy on students from 1 July 2009, capped at $250 per year. There are, of course, other measures included in the bill: allowing students to defer payments of the compulsory fee by accessing a HECS style loan; including tertiary centres into the regime that govern higher education providers’ access; and expanding the VET-FEE HELP. The services which may be funded by this compulsory levy—or should we say a student tax—will apparently be outlined in the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, which will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. So the government walks into this House to say: ‘Every uni student must pay up to $250. It is not compulsory unionism yet it looks like it, smells like it and feels like it. It will be used for amenities, but we are not going to tell you what those amenities are until after the bill passes.’ The government can forgive me for being a touch cynical about the bill and, indeed, its measures.

The bill will require higher education providers to comply with these new Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. They will impose obligations on the providers to comply with requirements relating to—apparently—student representation and advocacy. My view is that it is effectively funding student elections, union officers and salaries. As with the fee guidelines above, the student representation and advocacy guidelines will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument. Guess when? After the bill has been passed. The idea of saying to students, ‘There is an amount of money that you must pay, and it is for a range of services that we are not going to tell you about until after the bill has been passed,’ is absolutely and utterly atrocious. Could you imagine if a car salesman said: ‘Here is the car. I want you to buy it but I am not going to tell you what optional extras go with it until after you pay the money.’ Or indeed, ‘Here is a bank loan,’ or: ‘Here is a job. We are not going to tell you the benefits, the services, the terms or the fees until after you sign on the dotted line.’ And the member for Moreton, in all his verbosity in the House, thinks that is appropriate. Well, sir, go to your constituents and outline it like that; say, ‘Do you think this is fair?’ I can guarantee you their response will be one, the same and sound—and it will be ‘no’. I gather, by your silence, that you acquiesce in this matter.

Labor has indeed broken its promise. That is not surprising; it is getting particularly good at that. It did not include the introduction of a higher education amenity fee in the policies it took to the last election. Indeed, let me read through some of the statements that the current Labor frontbench made prior to the election. Let us start with one of the more senior ministers, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was then the shadow minister for education. I will quote it especially for the member for Moreton, at the back, because he seems to be hard of hearing. He 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.

Surprise, surprise, Minister for Foreign Affairs: look what has materialised here in the House. The member for Wills, on 14 October 2003, during the debate on the Higher Education Support Bill, 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; …

Won’t he be suitably embarrassed? As the member for Moreton leaves the House, not wanting to stay around and hear the rest of the indictment of the Labor frontbench, I will quote the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, the member for Melbourne, who in the same debate, on 14 October 2003, said:

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.

Clearly, the Labor frontbench have forgotten these statements and simply moved on in the same old Labor mould—that is, ‘We want to get compulsory student unionism back in.’

The Howard government got rid of compulsory student unionism with the VSU legislation in 2005. Students, on average, have saved $246 per annum, and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved, on average, $318. This has enabled students to spend their money—heaven forbid!—on services and things that they want. Labor vehemently opposed our student union legislation in 2005. In 2004, the National Union of Students continued its longstanding practice of opposing the conservative side of politics and spent a quarter of a million dollars against the Howard government. The Labor Party has long been a beneficiary of dollars and cents support from student unions.

This fee is slugging students a maximum $250. University students often work long hours and exist on a shoestring budget. This is another fee that is hitting them. Students should not be forced to pay for services or amenities they do not want, many of which are already offered by universities. And what of the over 130,000 external students? I speak as one who studied part-time for many years and was continually flogged an amount of money for student union fees for services I did not use. Apparently I was to take heart that the student unions’ range of services, which included boozy pub crawls, were an effective use of the money that I paid as an external student. Many university students choose to be part of sporting clubs, associations and a range of activities off campus for which they pay a fee. Why should they subsidise services that universities should be paying for? If universities are short of dollars and cents they should be speaking to the appropriate minister, not flogging students for an amount of money.

This type of student payment was tried back in the early 1990s by the Victorian government and proved to be an abject failure. Student unions used the profits from certain activities effectively to subsidise activities for which direct funding was disallowed. The minister assures us that the legislation will prohibit money being spent for political purposes, yet there seems to be a hollow ring to that assurance. The only activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to Commonwealth, state or local government bodies. This still leaves a large range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policy, potentially against political parties, and the ability to support trade unions or other organisations not registered as a party. There are no departmental guidelines or monitoring to ensure compliance. Ostensibly, it will be up to individual students to put their hands in the air and say something is wrong. Even then, it is up to the minister as to whether any penalty will be imposed. Forgive my cynicism, but I cannot see a Labor minister imposing a penalty on a student union body affiliated with Young Labor for fracturing a line or two. I could be wrong and I am happy to stand corrected.

The compulsory fees will be indexed each year to CPI, which effectively increases the burden. And it is still unclear what obligations will be placed on higher education providers regarding student representation and advocacy. The draft guidelines already impose obligations on education providers effectively to fund resources and infrastructure for student unions. This is clearly a broken promise. The obligations imposed on providers to support student unions go far beyond what the previous government legislated and far beyond what Labor promised during the election. It is appalling that they have broken faith with the Australian community. Labor did not put their hands in the air before the election and say, ‘We are going to slug university students.’ Labor did not say to those university students, all standing there in their Kevin 07 T-shirts: ‘You know what? We loved the T-shirt but we are going to hammer you for $250 each. We are not going to tell you about it but we are going to legislate to bring it in because, frankly, we need to fund the Young Labor movement in universities.’ The bill is not supported. There is no way the bill can be supported. It is a cynical, hollow attempt to sneak in compulsory student unionism by the back door, yet—surprise, surprise—as the unions kick in the back door, the real defenders of free speech are here to ensure it does not occur.

Debate interrupted.