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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2776

Mr RANDALL (5:47 PM) —I am pleased to join with my coalition colleagues in speaking, not surprisingly, against the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill seeks to introduce a compulsory levy on university students capped at $250 a year from 1 July 2009. Frankly, the purpose of this bill is to introduce compulsory student unionism by stealth by denying students their fundamental right to freedom of choice on campus. It will mean that students, irrespective of their wishes, will be forced to fund a student union they may fundamentally disagree with and pay for services that they may never use. This bill seeks to introduce a style of voluntary student representation, VSR, with the ability for payments to be deferred in a HECS type arrangement. However, as we can see from the experience in Victoria and more recently under the Gallop-Carpenter government in Western Australia, the VSR system has a number of fundamental flaws.

On the history of VSU, coming from Western Australia I have seen firsthand the benefits of voluntary student unionism as it was introduced by the Court government in 1994. Their legislation provided true choice to students by allowing them the right to decide whether or not to join or fund their student union, with no academic benefit being denied because a student was not a member of the student association. We believe in choice in most areas, unlike the other side. I was proud to be a part of the Howard government that introduced legislation to implement VSU across Australian campuses in 2005. That legislation was extremely similar to that introduced by the Court government and has ensured that students’ rights to freedom of association and choice are upheld on campus.

There is a fundamental right of choice. VSR as introduced in both WA and Victoria required the payment of a compulsory student service fee but allowed membership of the student union to be voluntary. This is not a real choice. Any form of compulsory fee on campus forces students to financially support political activities that they may not be comfortable with and fund activities that they may never use. It is my firm belief that students—and neither student unions nor the government—are in the best position to decide which services they wish to use on campus and determine their financial priorities. They are in the best position to determine whether they should fund their student unions, and by implementing this compulsory fee the government is denying them that fundamental right to choose.

Proponents of compulsory student unionism or voluntary student representation commonly argue that the declining membership numbers in our student guilds are evidence of the negative impact of VSU, arguing that the guild is an important element of the social and cultural experience of attending university. We have just heard this ad nauseam from the member for Newcastle, giving many little anecdotes along the way about which, if we were able to stand there and debate each point, I am sure we would have an interesting dialogue.

However, I believe this reflects the importance of keeping VSU. While it is obvious that student guilds have a role to play at universities, they are not for everyone, and in a VSU environment students are able to exercise their right not to fund student unionism. I suspect the member for Braddon, who has just arrived, will essentially disagree with everything I am saying in a passionate way and speak with all the fervour that we have heard him speak with in recent times.

Students are themselves weighing up the pros and cons of membership and deciding that membership does not give them value for money. In an article written by Hal Colebatch, a regular writer for the Australian, on 11 March headed ‘Daylight robbery’ the by-line says:

Compulsory student charges are a left-wing racket to create cadres …

In the article Mr Colebatch quite rightly points out that the fee is economically constraining. He says:

Some are supported by spouses or parents, some scrabble desperately for study time while juggling employment commitments.

I will refer to more of that article a bit later, but it is just not the nirvana that the other side would have you believe—that you just pay your $250 and you get this magnificent service that everyone is going to enjoy. A lot of people, particularly mature-age students, only attend the university briefly because they have another life to lead. They do not sit around in the guild bar or use the guild facilities and the sporting and other clubs that are provided. They are there for an education and they seldom get use from the union fees they pay.

Mr Melham interjecting

Mr RANDALL —Of course, you would expect the left-wing ideology now being espoused by the member for Banks that it is only the rich kids. Most of my friends who went to university were not rich kids. I was never rich. I did not come from a well-off family, and all I can say is that, to get through university, we had day jobs and night jobs. In fact, Senator Johnston was telling me last night when we coming over here that when he went to the University of Western Australia to study law, he used to drive his taxi from 12 midnight to six in the morning and then he would go off—

Government members interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—I think the House can settle down!

Mr RANDALL —He would then go and study after he had had a short rest after his knock-off time at six in the morning. That is how he got through university, because he did not come from a family of wealth or privilege, as those on the other side would have you believe of anybody who goes to university and objects to this compulsory fee.

Where does the money go? I touched on it earlier. It is important to note that under VSR students are forced to fund activities that they may personally object to or do not even want. Under the bill, the services which may be funded by the compulsory levied fee will be outlined in the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, which will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after this bill has been passed. So you are going to find out what these services and guidelines are after the bill goes through this place. How about that? The unbelievable thing is that you are being asked to sign a $250 cheque for something as yet unknown.

Mr Melham —And you get a disallowance.

Mr RANDALL —Madam Deputy Speaker, I appeal to your good control of this chamber to deal with the member for Banks.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Madam Deputy Speaker will intervene to encourage both sides to stop encouraging each other to have a conversation. We are listening to the member speak.

Mr RANDALL —I might be strident in my views, but it does not mean that the member for Banks is allowed to disrupt what has been a beautiful delivery.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Canning will not encourage him again but will return to the speech.

Mr Melham —You’re filibustering here, Don, and you know it.

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —That is enough now, please. The member for Canning has the call.

Mr RANDALL —I am sure the member for Braddon appreciates me referring to him by his seat. By not providing this information—

Mr Sidebottom —Yes, he’s definitely filibustering now.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Canning has the call.

Mr RANDALL —I will wait in the chamber for a while now. By not providing this information prior to the introduction of the bill, the Minister for Youth and Sport is seeking parliament’s approval for a measure without even telling us where the money is going to go. The Labor government is holding students in contempt by introducing a bill without being up front with the students and giving them the full facts before this even goes through this place. They are treating them like mushrooms, basically.

In regard to political activities, without having further detail provided it is impossible to know where the students’ money will be going. Some student guilds across the country do not have a particularly strong track record in using students’ money in an appropriate manner. There are numerous examples. For instance, in the past student unions have donated money to the PLO and the Communist Party of Malaya, as it was in those days. In 1999—I wish the member for Newcastle were still here—the University of Newcastle Students Union decided that only stalls displaying anti-VSU materials were allowed on orientation day.

The minister has given her assurance that the legislation will prohibit money being spent for political purposes. However, this is confined to the support of political parties or government bodies, leaving a wide variety of highly political activities such as those that I have previously mentioned still possible. The legislation potentially allows for the funding of campaigns against political parties and the direct funding of other organisations not registered as political parties, such as trade unions.

Even if these other activities were put in the disallowable instrument, this would not fix the problem, as was highlighted in Victoria when the distinction between allowed and non-allowed services became simply an accounting tool. Under VSU, student unions were able to effectively cross-subsidise activities for which direct funding was disallowed. It was concluded by the University of Melbourne Student Union that, in reality, the allowable matters on which compulsory funds could be spent would still allow for the full funding of everything except elections. Under VSU in Western Australia, and more recently when it was introduced across Australia, guilds continued to be involved in political activities, running a variety of campaigns and holding national days of action. The simple difference is that under VSU students who do not want to be involved in such issues are not forced to fund them and, in doing so, fund an organisation they may disagree with.

In addition to being used for political activities, funds may also be used for activities that students do not want or need or services that are better left to other organisations. It has been argued by some guilds that compulsory fees need to be introduced because of the declining number of services caused by VSU. However, evidence of simple reduction in services should not be taken as evidence of declining standards in student guilds. The services that will be maintained are those that students want and need and that are the reason they paid their membership fees in the first place. Whether it be half-price coffee, access to emergency loans or assistance with appeals, if that is what students want and are willing to join their student union to protect then they are services that will continue to be provided by members. I repeat: if they are the sorts of services they want, they can join the guild and get those services. They do not have to do so by coercion.

Additionally, this bill will force Australia’s over 1,300 external students to fund services that they will clearly never have an opportunity to use, as I have pointed out before. What middle-aged student wants to join the rugby club or the Australian rules football club? They might want to join as a social member, but, as much as I have played Australian rules football, I do not think that if I went as a mature age student I would be that competitive these days. Ultimately, compulsory funding models make student unions less accountable and force students to fund services they do not want. By guaranteeing a constant source of income, the Labor government is encouraging inefficiencies in student unions, a fact noted by a former president of the Australian National University Students Association, who stated:

… organisations which depend on the funds—

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

Mr RANDALL —I will start again because I am sure the member for Braddon did not hear.

… organisations which depend on the funds of people who are there, by virtue of compulsion, tend to become lethargic … It is almost invariably tied up with security in the source of funding—the knowledge that, no matter how badly they do, there will still be a pay cheque there for people who run the organisation ...

This was in a report to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, as a footnote.

Labor’s broken promise on this issue is almost unbelievable. It is yet another broken promise by the Labor government. The previous shadow minister for education, Stephen Smith, the member for Perth, said this in May 2007 when questioned:

... I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

So there he went, on the record. The Labor Party said this before the election but did something else afterwards.

Other members opposite, such as the member for Wills and the member for Melbourne concurred, stating that they would not be increasing the financial burden of our students. This bill does the complete opposite. It seeks to introduce a compulsory payment for non-academic services through the imposition of a deferred fee. Imposing an extra burden on the students at a time of economic uncertainty is surely not in the best interests of Australian students.

In conclusion, I say that the purpose of this bill is simply to introduce compulsory student unionism by stealth, by denying students their fundamental right to freedom of choice on campus. As I have said before, it is the students—not the government, universities nor student unions—who are in the best position to determine their financial priorities. This bill will deny students a real choice on campus and will force them to fund activities which they may not need or want. I will return to Hal Colebatch’s article. In his last paragraph he says:

The ALP and the Left would not have fought so hard against voluntary student membership and pushed so hard for compulsory fees to be restored if they did not believe that their ideological allies on campus would benefit very substantially and student guilds would revert to their former roles as cadre-generating institutions for the Left.

It is a very succinct point which I am sure those opposite will not agree with.

I am pleased to join with my colleagues in speaking against this bill. I want to dedicate my contribution on this bill to Jess Finlay and her colleagues, who have gone through the universities of Western Australia and fought hard for many years to see freedom of choice in universities and freedom of association. This bill is a reversion to the dark old days of compulsion, coercion and the ability to garnish favour with students on universities. I recall that there is a song—I wish I could remember its name—that starts, ‘throwing stones at the embassy’. I wish I could remember the rest of the title because it really explains what these activities are trying to generate in the universities of Australia.