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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3153

Mr CHEESEMAN (7:11 PM) —Yet again I rise to speak on a bill that makes me proud; another real Labor bill about human empowerment and greater democracy; another Labor bill about fostering ideas and developing our future leaders; another Labor bill that promotes depth in our culture; another Labor bill that helps people, which will help our society; and, yes, another bill that overturns the nasty legacy of the ideological zealots and killjoys on the other side.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is about putting life back into student life. It is also about re-establishing a culture that fosters leaders, ideas, initiative and, importantly, engagement. This bill will be important in re-establishing basic campus facilities such as child care, food services, sporting options, campus culture and entertainment, but there is also a principled and inspirational side to it, which I believe is most important and which I will concentrate on. I want to say something about this first of all.

Students have often inspired the world. They have in the past and they still do today. It is very important that the basic student representative organisations in universities in Australia are restored. It is important that the spirit of on-campus student engagement is restored. Whilst this legislation does prohibit fees being spent by a higher education provider on supporting a political party or candidate, it allows much better student representation and student empowerment. I would like briefly to remind members of just a few of the inspirational achievements of students through history.

Of course, students played a major role in attacking the once rigid class system where it was most in evidence—in those bastions of class in the 1800s, the universities. Students changed educational structures and ideologies in that era through activism and they are still doing it today. Students made education more accessible, more truthful and more productive. But students also changed things beyond education and they changed them across the globe.

Let us look quickly at some of the important moments in history. In American history students played a great role in the antislavery campaigns of the 1800s and early 1900s. Of course, students have played an ongoing role in the emancipation of women. They were involved from the early days and are still involved in working through issues of equality for women and girls right up to today. In South America, starting in Argentina in 1917, students campaigned for important democratic principles, particularly around access to education issues. This led to other such movements right across South America. In the early 1900s, thousands of students in the US were involved in urban social work in the settlement house movement. Students have been historically very important in promoting religious and cultural tolerance and diversity around the world. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. With religious and cultural issues being core sources of war between nations and peoples across the world, students play a very important role in bringing peace to this planet. Students have a very positive and inspirational effect on that area.

Many here would remember the 1968 American student protests and marches, which were antiwar, pro free speech and pro civil rights. Whilst I condemn the exuberance of some who participated in those protests which led to violence, the intention and the effect of the great majority of students who protested peacefully led to important breakthroughs later on. Students laid the foundations for a lot of what we enjoy today.

Students of course played a key part in the emancipation of black and coloured South Africans and helped found modern South Africa. Often very young South African students fought very hard for basic democratic and human rights; some of course paid with their lives. In Australia, it was students who were at the forefront of the great social movements that led to the end of our involvement in Vietnam, that mindless war born of fear and intolerance. I would also like to acknowledge the part being played today by the National Union of Students and the Deakin University Student Association in their campaigns to improve access to education and campus services.

Many of our so-called rights today are a part of the legacy of student activism. We would not take this for granted and we should not take this for granted, and we should most certainly acknowledge it here today. There have been many great achievements won by the student movement in Australia and around the world over time and I have only just scratched the surface of the history of some of them. We are indebted to the energy of students and student movements. This bill is about rebuilding student representation in Australia.

I now want to cover the history of the legislation before the House today. I have some pointed comments to make about the history of this bill and the motivations of members on the other side and the actions they have taken on this issue in recent years. I believe these actions have been most unfortunate, bordering on vandalistic. This bill is about overturning a very nasty piece of legislation. We know why the former government abolished student fees. They did it because they perceived that it was to their political advantage. It is as simple as that. The Liberals believed universities were a hot bed of political recruitment for Labor and that Labor were using campuses to recruit support. The Liberals wrapped this view up in a bit of voluntary fees ideology and rammed it through our parliament. I believe that was most foolish. It was a nasty piece of legislation.

The legislation on student fees passed by the former government was based partly on ideology and partly on fear. They feared political debate. They feared student involvement. They feared they were losing the battle of ideas. The guts of it were that the Liberals cooked up the legislation because they were losing the battle of ideas and the battle for involvement on Australian campuses. Rather than participate in the battle of ideas, they decided on the coward’s way out. They decided to scuttle the forums. They decided to scuttle the institutions. They decided to carve the heart out of university services and university life. That is what they did and that is why they did it.

The legacy of the former government was almost the death of student life. When the previous mean and tricky government were thrown out by the people of Australia, one of their clear legacies was ghost campuses—where once Australian university campuses were thriving places full of life and fun, they came to resemble dark, old factories that had been long closed. University campuses were gutted of services. Sports clubs were decimated. Debating societies fell apart. Cultural organisations could go longer be funded. Music events dried up. Drama groups had no funding. Political clubs were seen as evil. This was all because the Liberals feared they were losing the battle of ideas on campuses. The motives were shocking and the legacy a tragedy. That is why the former government did that to student representative organisations. They smashed their budgets and they therefore could no longer deliver many important services. They did it deliberately knowing that they were paralysing student representative organisations. This legislation is about turning that around.

This bill will amend the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation and deliver a balanced, measured and practical solution to rebuilding student services and amenities. It is about restoring independence, democratic representation and advocacy in the higher education sector. This must be very threatening for those on the other side. Shock, horror! Students will have representative organisations that can organise. Students will go back into their campuses and hear a bit of music and see the theatre again—which, of course, is absolutely wonderful. They might even get a bit of choice at the cafe. They might even have people hanging out, talking about ideas. How could the Liberals take that from students? The member for Higgins spoke on this bill in recent times. In doing some research on this bill and on the history of battles about ideas on campuses, I found a very interesting document, a document headed ‘Social Democrats’. It talks about some of the Social Democrats who, in very broad terms, in the 1970s supported the idea of Australian workers working together and that culture also taking place on university campuses. I noted with great interest and enthusiasm that the current member for Higgins, the Hon. Peter Costello, is in fact in the photo accompanying the article. I seek leave to table that article. I think it is an important part of our history.

Leave granted.

Mr CHEESEMAN —I thank the opposition for their cooperation. That is what the former government did to student organisations, and it is very disappointing to see that the member for Higgins, despite his views in the 1970s, continues to attempt to take away the opportunity for students to organise and to work hard to improve their social circumstances on campuses. This is very important legislation. Around $170 million has been stripped out of university funding because of the previous government. This has resulted in a decline and, in some instances, closure of vital health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services—all very important for enabling students to enjoy their time at university and to be able to access vital services in meeting their needs. There have also been indirect costs, with many universities redirecting funds out of research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut.

As usual, Labor is introducing legislation that is best practice. For the first time, we are introducing national access to service benchmarks relating to the provision of information on and access to services such as welfare and counselling services in line with the current requirements for overseas students. For the first time, we are introducing national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that students have an independent voice on campus. A set of guidelines will be developed outlining a range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. This will include things like child care, health care, and sports and fitness clubs. Importantly, to make sure that the fee is not a financial barrier, eligible students will have the option of taking out a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program. The government does expect the views of students will be considered in determining whether to charge a fee and at what level it should be set, and the government does expect universities will consult with their student body on the types of student services and amenities that the fee will support. There are important measures in this bill, such as the VET FEE-HELP measure, and these have been covered adequately by others speakers.

I want to wind up my speech by pointing out some of the hypocrisy of the other side and to point to a bit of history. Those on the other side who sought to ban student unionism either might have conveniently forgotten this bit of history or are not aware of it. The Liberals move to ban student unionism and to get rid of student services is crass. Let us be honest: universities, in many cases, are how and why many people in this place are here today. The ideas we have in many cases were spawned or developed at university through courses we undertook at university, debates we had and friends we met. In many cases, the people we met at university are the contacts that helped us on the path to this parliament. In so many cases, on this side and the other, this is true.

The man who would be opposition leader, if they begged him, met many of his contacts at university. How many members on the other side went to university? They are nearly all lawyers, so most of them of course did. Almost all of the opposition members went to university and enjoyed the services and the lifestyle, met their political contacts and participated in debates and probably in clubs and societies. When they became MPs and legislated to close down these services, that was absolute ideological madness. It was cowardly, because they were losing the battle of ideas on campus. It was bad for Australia. And it is not just that: I believe that the founding father of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, would roll in his grave if he saw such things. Sir Robert was of course a great student representative, having been president of the University of Melbourne’s SRC and active in the Christian movement on campus. Of course, it was way back in 1925 that the very first Liberal Club was established at the University of Melbourne. It was in all likelihood established in a cafe or a venue paid for by student fees. I would almost bet on that.

Debate interrupted.