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Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Page: 3013

Mr SECKER (7:51 PM) —I think it is quite interesting that I have had my name on the Notice Paper for about eight days now, waiting to get up and speak on this bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It is almost as if the government have been trying to hide this legislation behind ETS and IR legislation. I thought this Main Committee chamber was about non-controversial legislation. This legislation is far from being non-controversial, as anyone who reads the speeches will note.

I note that the member for Werriwa spoke earlier in this debate. I think he is a pretty good guy, and I told him today that if I had a chance to speak on this bill I would say he is a good guy, because I think he is. He suggested that we talk about and hark back to our own university experiences. I went to university as a mature age student, starting in 1990 at Flinders University. The first thing that happened to me was that I was told that the student fee was not compulsory, which was fine, but the problem was that I could do all the work and sit the exams but I would not get the results. Their argument was that it was not compulsory but I had to pay it or I could do all that work and not receive the results. That is hardly a voluntary set-up. It is like saying that you can have a car and drive it but you are not allowed to put any petrol in it. That is how voluntary it was.

I was still running a farm when I was at university; in fact, I was involved in local government as well. I used to go to the university two days a week. I used to drive down in the morning and get there at 9 o’clock. I would go to lectures and tutorials and finish up at 6 o’clock at night. I did my economics and politics degree on two days of the week, because I could not afford to take up all the other facilities that were there. In fact, I think I went to the uni bar on the day I started and on the day I finished, and in between I did not go at all, because I did not have the time to spend at the uni bar. I went home and played sport in my local town. In what I might call my home town of Keith, we give a bit of petrol money to the uni students to come back and play football for their local team rather than playing with the university sports team. That was very good for the Keith Football Club, and I am proud to say that they won the premiership last year, and the B grade and the senior colts won it the year before, so they have done pretty well out of doing that.

Now, though, I live in Murray Bridge, which is about 80 kilometres, or nearly an hour, away from the University of Adelaide or Flinders University. Those people themselves often come back and play at their local club. So they are not getting the benefits of being involved in university clubs. In fact, a lot of those students who are now studying at either of those universities or any of the other facilities they have got are encouraged to come back and play sport in their local town, because country towns rely on sport. It is a very strong part of their culture.

So that is my experience and that is the experience of many of the students in my electorate. In fact, there is no-one in my electorate who lives within, I think, about 60 kilometres of a university and, often, in many cases, they live up to 400 kilometres away from a university. In fact, in some places it is closer to go to the University of Melbourne than it is to the University of Adelaide.

So the problem I have is that this legislation gives the Rudd Labor government the authority to slug students with a regressive tax of up to $250 each year from 1 July 2009, regardless of their income or their ability and willingness to use the services that the fees will contribute to, with no say in how that money will be used. In 2005, it was the Howard government that lifted a huge financial burden from students by making student union membership voluntary and empowering students to choose which services mattered to them. This choice makes for student unions providing better services—that is, ones popular with real students, not student union leaders.

I am reminded of a story I was told when I went to university: that you could make up your own club, get some funding, buy a keg and have a really good party. Well, I am not sure that that is really what student union fees should be going towards. And the list of different organisations you could be involved with was quite outstanding. In fact, when this legislation came up in the parliament in 2005, I listed a whole heap of these loony groups that were getting funding from the compulsory fee that they had at the time. Since then, students have exercised their freedom to not become members of student unions, and have saved on average $318 a year—in some cases, up to $600 a year.

This bill is a broken promise by Labor. Prior to and following the election the Labor Party promised they would not be restoring compulsory fees, whether they be paid upfront or as part of a deferred payment scheme. That promise has been broken. It is a myth that student services have been decimated since the introduction of voluntary student unionism. Services popular with students remain in operation and are available to students. This legislation removes that choice, forcing students to pay $250 for services they may not want or be able to afford. The $250 tax will remove the incentive for student unions to provide the services real students demand. It will increase student debt, the last thing they need amidst this financial crisis.

Recently in this place I spoke about the real costs for students from rural and remote Australia in my electorate who wish to attend university. Their nearest university could be Adelaide or Melbourne, hundreds of kilometres away from the family home. These are students who have excelled in year 12 results but for whom research reports the annual cost of studying at university is between $15,000 and $20,000 per year on top of the $6,000 start-up costs. These are not university fees; they are just the annual costs of keeping a young student in Adelaide or Melbourne to study at university. They are costs which students whose parents live in metropolitan cities do not face. The fees imposed by this bill actually force students to pay for services they might not use. Many students will actually go to university without wanting or needing to use a lot of the services that these fees allegedly provide, as in my case. The compulsory $250 fee is a major blow to young students in Australia already living on shoestring budgets. The fee might mean the difference between one of the students in my electorate being able to afford to travel hundreds of kilometres home for Easter, for example.

In a website poll which I looked at today, in response to the question: ‘Do you oppose the reintroduction of compulsory student unionism?’ 80 per cent voted yes. Let me quote a young university student who recently said of the fee which was abolished: ‘Complete waste of money. I wanted to be no part of them but I wasn’t allowed to go to university unless I became a member.’ Another said: ‘Forced into joining a union to be able to educate myself,’ in disgust.

Labor’s fee will increase inequity amongst university students because it will be levied regardless of a student’s income. It is a regressive tax that will not accommodate low-income students or those from Indigenous or disadvantaged backgrounds, of which I have quite a few in my electorate. The tax will be levied regardless of whether students have the ability to use the services provided by the fee, meaning that students who study by distance education will get absolutely no bang for their buck. They cannot use the services because they are not anywhere near the university. The $250 fee introduced by this legislation is simply a return to the bad old days of compulsory unionism—the Rudd Labor government’s new plan to channel money to student unions.

Labor might well say that this will not end up in the hands of the student unions but I noticed the student union leaders licking their lips with glee at the prospect of this amenities charge. They clearly believe that they will end up with it. When this tax was announced last year, the then National Union of Students President Angus McFarland said he was delighted with the change and further stated that the student organisations are well placed to provide these services. My colleagues and I simply do not trust the Rudd Labor government when it says the money will not end up in the hands of unions or political groups. It is the height of arrogance for Labor to ask us to vote on the legislation without giving us the full details of how it will work.

I understand the power to decide where the universities can allocate the funds will lie with the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, herself a long-time pro-compulsory union fees campaigner and advocate. The minister’s discretion to decide how the money can be spent with no reference to parliament is extremely worrying, especially with her militant union background. Whilst Labor might say they rule out a return to compulsory student unionism, this bill is clearly a return to compulsory student unionism under the guise of an amenities charge. There is no guarantee that money will not simply be funnelled back to the student unions or into political activities. It is clearly about restoring the union power base on campus; not about restoring important services.

So while the Rudd government might run the line that students will not have to join a union, they will still have to pay fees that end up in union fees. Frankly, I do not see the difference. History shows what happens when student unions get hold of the money—it is spent on political campaigns and other activities of no benefit to students. At Melbourne University in 2008 the student union ripped $2,000 from the limited activities budget to fund a show called ‘From beards to badges: a history of the University of Melbourne Student Union’. In 2003 the Monash Student Association produced stickers that read ‘Bomb the White House’ and in 2007 that same union contributed $1,500 towards the defence of convicted and jailed G20 rioter Akin Sari. More recently the Melbourne Student Union funded the legal costs of a man accused of assaulting police officers and damaging a police station during a riot on Palm Island in Queensland. In 2008 the University of Melbourne Student Union slashed the budget of the clubs and societies in order to fund a $15,000 donation to the extreme left National Union of Students—an increase of 30 per cent. Even without amenities fees they are already channelling that money into political activities.

It is a myth that this bill will prevent student unions from spending money on political activity. They do now, even with their limited funds, and this will give them greater capacity to fund those political activities. The practical effect of the funding protocols for student services and representation is that money will be delivered to student organisations, leaving it open for unions to run rampant with student money. Student unions will still have the ability to waste compulsorily acquired student funds on extreme and non-representative political campaigns, just as they have in the past. The bill essentially is the Rudd Labor government taxing every student $250, regardless of whether they can afford to pay it. Two hundred and fifty dollars might not seem like a lot of money to Labor Party members, who received $37.6 million from unions in campaign funding during 2007-08. However, $250 to a rural student in my electorate—who has done well in year 12, who wants to study at university, and to do so is obliged to pay thousands of dollars a year to board in Adelaide or Melbourne or hundreds of dollars to spend Easter with their family—it is a lot. There is no legitimate argument as to why students should be forced to pay for services when they may not be able to afford to make use of it, or not wish to make use of it.

This is the same minister, in her so-called education revolution, who has decided that Sunrise Christian School, despite having five separate campuses across South Australia hundreds of kilometres apart—in fact one of them, Naracoorte, is in my electorate—will receive only one education revolution grant. So if a hall or gym is built on one of the campuses in Adelaide, it is hardly likely that the Naracoorte students will travel 300 kilometres to use that hall or gym. I challenge the Deputy Prime Minister, even with her limited geography skills and not knowing where Millicent North Primary School is, calling it ‘Milton North’, to explain how children at the Naracoorte campus will be able to use the facilities at Fullarton, for example, in Adelaide, more than 300 kilometres away.

Many parents of Sunrise Christian School have contacted me, rightly outraged at this inexplicable decision of the Rudd Labor government. Children attending the Naracoorte campus of Sunrise should not have to be disadvantaged because they will not be able to share in the so-called education revolution grants readily offered to other schools in the district. The maths is not difficult, Minister: five separate schools, five separate campuses, five separate SES ratings equal five separate grants. Unfortunately, because they are under the one name, they only get one.

Back to the bill before us. There is no legitimate argument as to why students should be forced to pay for services they may not be able to afford or make use of, doubly so for rural students who have distances to travel and might want to go back home and support their local sporting clubs where their families are rather than play for the university club. This is a regressive and unfair tax. It does not matter whether you earn $10 million a year or whether you earn $10 a year, you are still going to pay a $250 tax. Despite the government’s spin, their plan is mutton dressed up as lamb, and anyone in the country would know exactly what that means. Compulsory student unionism is coming back.