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Thursday, 26 February 2009
Page: 1993

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (1:54 PM) —When the Victorian Kennett government moved to introduce voluntary student unionism, it was opposed by a glittering array of artists and entertainers—Barry Humphries, Magda Szubanski, David Williamson, Peter Rowsthorn, Rob Sitch, Mick Molloy, John Clarke, Max Gillies, Noel Ferrier, Deborah Conway and many more—who pointed out how important student arts activities had been in their own formative years. So why had the Kennett government moved to introduce voluntary student unionism in 1994, and why did the Howard government follow suit in 1999? The answer is that the people who developed the legislation were failed former Liberal student politicians, and legislation was the third go they had at it.

First, they tackled it in the courts. They tried to have universities prohibited from charging compulsory fees and compulsory memberships of student unions or associations. They were unsuccessful. Secondly, they tried to have students on the campuses of universities and other post-secondary education institutions vote for VSU. It is indeed a reasonable proposition that, if a majority of students want this outcome, they can move in this direction. However, they failed to attract support amongst the student community to do that. So they turned to parliament to impose voluntary student unionism on universities and student communities, regardless of whether or not they wanted it. Back in the 1990s one of these Liberal advocates, Mr Charles Richardson, said:

Nobody wants to abolish the caf. Nobody wants to close down the toilets in the union building or whatever. Those services will survive under a voluntary union. They will be better provided. They will be targeted more effectively at the students.

I can remember a couple of my fellow students who might have targeted themselves more effectively at the urinals, but the reverse idea is plain absurd. Perhaps Mr Richardson was in favour of user-pays toilets, where you pay at the door. That system did indeed exist 50 or 100 years ago, but I believe that the fact that we do not have to pay when we visit public toilets these days represents social progress.

Mr Richardson also rebutted concerns about freeriding by saying that it was possible to limit most of the union services to people who had paid. He said, ‘You could reserve the union to members only like private clubs do.’ This attitude is a dead giveaway. It is all too typical of a Liberal Party which just hates it when education is accessible to everybody, a Liberal Party which is still hung up on exclusivity, a Liberal Party which never got over Gough Whitlam opening up tertiary education to all young Australians on merit, and a Liberal Party which in office made tertiary education more expensive and less accessible for young people in my electorate of Wills and right around Australia.

Student unionism is not anything like compulsory unionism in an industrial relations setting. University students and post-secondary education students are not employees seeking to negotiate with employers. It is a totally different kind of association, more akin to paying rates or taxes. Of course, we could have voluntary payment of rates or voluntary payments of taxes, but if we made the payment of rates or taxes optional then no-one would pay them. We would have to pay someone to construct the street outside our house, someone to construct the footpath and so on. We could hire private bodyguards to keep us safe, or at least a private investigator to recover our belongings if they are stolen. If you go back far enough in history, things indeed used to work like that. But there are severe problems with the idea of voluntary payments. We do not have the time to do all these things ourselves, such as hire road makers, footpath makers or private investigators. We do not have the time to check their credentials or to sue them if they stuff things up. And even if my section of a road is perfect, perhaps the neighbour next door is too lazy, too poor, does not drive a car, does not want to put in his section or may want to do it in gravel instead. I do not want a patchwork quilt for a road; I want a road I can use.

I have found, and whole communities have found, that it makes a lot more sense to pool our resources and have someone else look after those things so that we can get on with our lives and the things that are important to us. That is how taxes developed and that is how student unionism developed. Student unionism goes back to before the turn of the century. It has a history which members of the Liberal Party have not appreciated. It came into being to serve student communities because there was a need for the services the unions provide and because they represented better value for time and money than if individual students had to do all those things themselves.

In 1994, in the Victorian legislation, we could see the consequence of ideological obsession getting in the way of good policy. We ended up with legislation under which overseas students could achieve representation but local students could not. Students could run their own TV or radio services, but not newspapers. Student cultural activities were all right, but not student political ones. It reminded me of Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down. It was the same with the Howard government. During the Howard government period close to $170 million was ripped out of university funding—$170 million. This resulted in the decline and, in some cases, the complete closure of vital health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member for Wills will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.