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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3182

Mr LINDSAY (10:33 AM) —I am disappointed that my good friend the member for Moreton did not take my interjection. He was asking many questions during his contribution today on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, but the question I want to ask him is a question that the government has not asked: what do the students think about this?

Mr Perrett —I told you. You should have listened to my speech!

Mr LINDSAY —I was not here all the time. What do the students think about this? I can tell you, Member for Moreton, that the overwhelming majority of students do not want to pay this fee, this compulsory tax. As evidence of that, I have three independent former students with me in the parliament this morning, Dillon, Christina and Amelia, who are young Australian scientists and part of Science Meets Parliament, which we all know about. When I talked to them, they were certainly unhappy at having to pay a compulsory fee.

What is happening with this fee is worse than that. Why doesn’t it surprise me that it just means more debt for students? The Labor Party went to the last election saying: ‘We are economic conservatives. We are more conservative than the Howard government.’ Within a year and a bit, the Labor Party has already spent the surplus of the Howard government and gone into massive debt for our kids to pay off, for these young people in the parliament today to pay in future years. We will all benefit; our kids will pay the debt. To think that we are now heading towards $200,000 million worth of debt in the country is extraordinary.

Think about the Queensland Labor government and what they have done to our state, my state. Think about what they have done.

Mr Hayes interjecting

Mr LINDSAY —Think about this, Member for Werriwa. They have now racked up $74 billion of debt. I remind you that the Howard government took 10 years, with the resources of the Commonwealth of Australia, to pay off $96 billion. How on earth is the Queensland government ever going to pay off $74 billion, with its resources? The answer is: it will not. Queensland will be in debt forever, and that is the legacy of the Australian Labor Party in our state. That is an awful legacy to leave our kids. ‘We’ll have a party today and let somebody else pay it off tomorrow.’ We need to take tough decisions in this country—it is a difficult time—but the answer is not more debt; the answer is to pay off your debt, to clear your debt. Most prudent households are doing exactly that at this time.

I will get back to the bill. Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism under the Howard government, students have saved, on average, $246 a year. In times of economic uncertainty, when students face increasing conflict balancing paid work and study, the imposition of an additional tax serves only to increase their financial strain. This bill does not consider the individual wishes of the student—and that is the point I was making earlier. If you do a poll on any campus, you will find that 85 per cent of students do not want to pay this fee. This bill does not prevent the use of students’ money on extremist political causes. This is a broken promise to the tertiary students of Australia. We in the Liberal Party are opposed to this bill.

The Prime Minister calls the level of student debt a national disgrace, yet he intends to increase the debt. How hypocritical is that? He intends to increase it, regardless of the students’ financial capacity and regardless of the services they individually use. They in fact may never use any of the services, but they are forced to pay. The government has broken its promise to students. In May 2007 Stephen Smith, the then shadow minister for education, stated explicitly that he was not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee for students, including any HECS arrangements. I know that will make my Labor colleagues uncomfortable today, but it is the truth of the matter. There was a commitment that there would not be a compulsory amenities fee and there would not be any HECS arrangements. Yet that is what this bill proposes.

Labor have broken their promise to one million university students. They decry student debt on the one hand and increase it on the other. The bill takes away from students the freedom of choice given by the voluntary student unionism legislation of the Howard government. As a nation we are entering a time of financial uncertainty and instability. Any measure to increase student debt during such times, through a compulsory levy measure, is a disgrace. Universities are vibrant places, where the use of services and participation in campus life greatly enhance the experience of students. The experience, however, is in no way dependent on the payment of an additional compulsory fee. Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism, students have been able to use their financial resources in areas most applicable to them. They have the choice. This user-pays system provides the best option for students and gives them that freedom of choice.

This bill takes away that sort of freedom. According to its provisions, there is no necessary correlation between what the students pay and what services they use. Section 19-37 5A of the bill defines a student services and amenities fee as an amount paid ‘regardless of whether the person chooses to use any of those amenities and services’. Pay up whether you use it or not. That is hardly the real world. What would happen if we ran our households like that, if you had to pay for something that you were not going to use? It is an extraordinary measure. Coercing students into a payment irrespective of the services they use is fundamentally inequitable. I am pleased to see that the member for Leichhardt has joined us. I am hoping that he will support the students of James Cook University in our respective electorates in relation to their absolute abhorrence of this particular bill. I will be interested to see whether the member for Leichhardt is able to agree with me. If he is not, I am sure that the students of James Cook University will note that and mark him down accordingly.

Coercing students into the payment irrespective of the services they use is inequitable. Where voluntary student unionism gives students a choice as to which services and activities they contribute to and are involved in, this bill takes it away. The bill would have an inequitable and unfair effect on students and would take away the freedom of choice brought about by voluntary student unionism. A mandated fee does not consider the difference between individual students such as the amount of time they spend on campus. An undergraduate student engaged in full-time study may spend a great deal of time on the university campus every week using and participating in a number of services and activities. In contrast, a mature-age part-time student who works during the day and therefore attends classes mainly at night will in all likelihood use far fewer university facilities and services. To an even greater extent a distance education student may only have the opportunity to use university campus services, which would be funded by the compulsory levy, on one or two occasions through a semester. Charging all three student segments the same flat services fee, surely, the Labor Party would have to agree, causes great inequality.

Students are being kept in the dark by the Rudd government. Students have not been told which services would receive the collected tax. The services which will be eligible for funding will be outlined in guidelines after the bill passes. We do not know until the bill passes what services they are. This gives students no opportunity to examine the types of services they will be forced to financially support before the bill passes. The notion that this government could impose a tax on students without first informing them of how it will be spent is outrageous. It ignores students, and this is the point that I started with when I began this contribution. The government has not asked students what they think about it. If part of the collected levy is to be used for associations or activities that are not located on campus or are not substantially used by students, the students deserve to know. The government intends to take away the choice a student currently has in deciding which services and activities to financially support on a user-pays basis. By not informing them what they would be mandated to support, the government is betraying students, leaving them uninformed about where their money will be spent. Students have not been told what will be covered under the student services and amenities fee guidelines. Students have not been told what the government will be making them pay for and whether they will in any way benefit.

The introduction of a mandatory amenities fee does not guarantee that every service and activity offered at universities will be funded. Where does that leave the student who pays the $250 a year and then has to pay for all the activities they personally wish to be involved in but which are not given the extra funding? It leaves them out of pocket twice over. The issue is not that the students should not pay to be involved in a specific group such as a sporting group; the issue is that the student is already $250 worse off when they decide the sporting group is of interest to them.

How can the government claim to be concerned with student poverty and levels of student debt when, through this bill, they are introducing an additional financial burden on students? The proposed service levy ignores the personal choices of individual students. Since the introduction of VSU, there have been claims of student services collapsing and of student unions and student associations on the brink of ruin. Well, it has not happened at James Cook University. The student services have continued. In fact, the students have been much happier with the flexible arrangement that was given to them under the former government. Now the iron and taxing fist of the Labor Party will again descend on students at my university in Townsville.

Some services that once were funded by compulsory student union fees are now frequently supported by the university itself, by government funding or by private sector support. Other services which have always received such support have similarly not collapsed. Indeed, the Australian Liberal Students Federation have indicated to me that they are aware of several student unions which have gone so far as to deliberately run a budget deficit in order to claim voluntary student unionism is irresponsible. Such practices show one of the ways in which a number of student unions do not operate in the best interests of their students, preferring their own political agenda to providing real support for the students they purport to represent.

I speak about James Cook University because it is in my patch. It is interesting that, under the previous arrangement, when there was a compulsory student services fee, the refectory there ran at an enormous loss, despite getting all of the support from the compulsory fee—an enormous loss! And, when the compulsory fee was wiped out, guess what? The refectory ran on a commercial basis, its prices came down, and it made a profit! How could the government be now trying to reimpose a fee that results in that kind of operation of the student refectory? Higher costs, more debt, bigger taxes—what surprises me about the Labor Party?

The ALSF have provided information detailing specifically how the Melbourne University Student Union diverted $18,000 earmarked for its clubs and societies to pay an additional $15,000 to the National Union of Students, an organisation which, in the past, has made large donations to political causes. That cannot be denied. That a student would have no say in the direction of their frequently limited financial resources is abhorrent. In 2004, the NUS spent $250,000 campaigning against the re-election of the Howard government. How would you be if you were a student and your fees were compulsorily used to campaign against one political party or another? I think that that is wrong. The Howard government made that decision, and that is why we went for VSU and that is why we will be voting against this particular bill when it comes time to vote.

During a time when compulsory student unionism remained, students’ money was being used for this political purpose without their consent. There was no mechanism for any university student who disagreed with such political views to challenge the donation of money from their university to the NUS. The government claim that they can redress this with clause 19-38(1) of the bill, prohibiting the collected money being spent to support a political party or the election of someone to local, state or federal government. This clause, however, merely applies to student unions or organisations directly supporting political parties or election campaigns, as so flagrantly happened in 2004. There are many other ways in which student unions could spend the money collected from students on political purposes: campaigns against specific pieces of legislation or individuals, or donations to an external group, such as a trade union, to then be used for political purposes could still occur. Under this bill, the freedom of students to choose the political causes, if any, they support and donate to is being revoked. The notion that students could be forced to pay a contribution which may end up funding a political purpose that they are actively opposed to is disgraceful.

I was recently speaking to a student from the Australian National University who told me about an event in 2004 at which the student association at that university provided an effigy of John Howard for students to hit. This was an organised student association event. This was at a time before voluntary student unionism and thus a time before students could choose not to fund such a partisan political stunt. It was at a time when students had to pay hundreds of dollars a year in compulsory union fees which funded such events, regardless of their personal opinion. That is horrifying. I guess a similar situation would occur if the trade union levy on Labor members of parliament were used to support the Liberal Party, with no right to say, ‘I don’t want that money being used to support the Liberal Party.’ It would be the same thing in reverse. That is why we should not be allowing this bill to go through the parliament. For a student who wanted to stand up and protest about their money being spent on effigies, there was no recourse. This is the state that the Rudd government’s student services and amenity fees seeks to return to. The government will not even provide a detailed list of where the money collected from students would be spent. If students wish to hold such events they should be free to do so. They should not, however, be forced to make yearly payments to fund things that they may be individually opposed to.

It was a landmark occasion when the Howard government passed legislation ensuring VSU in 2005. I certainly voted for it; I was proud to stand up and vote for it. The students at James Cook University supported me overwhelmingly in voting for that legislation—and, by the way, in elections I always win the university booth as well, even though universities are traditionally perhaps not supportive of my side of politics. I am pleased that the students of James Cook University have the good sense to support a coalition candidate. The effects of this legislation have seen students save money. Students at James Cook have saved a minimum of $235 per annum. At the time, Labor strongly opposed voluntary student unionism. With organisations such as the NUS spending a quarter of a million dollars on campaigning against the Howard government, it is not hard to see why. The Labor Party significantly profited from the regime of compulsory student unionism on university campuses. It now seeks to return to receiving such support. Despite claiming the money will not be used to support political parties, this provision would apply only to direct payment to a party. There is no protection from the countless other ways that students’ funds could be used in this manner.

It is important to remember that services for students at university campuses have not collapsed; far from it, in fact. The allocation and source of their funding and their organisational structure may have altered but they remain in force and they remain viable and active. Medical and counselling services are still available at most universities. For example, the ANU provides a bulk-billing medical centre for students. A free counselling service is also available to students. Contrary to exaggerated claims that voluntary student unionism would strip such facilities of all funds, they remain available and accessible to students. When the government says its compulsory tax on students is necessary to reintroduce services, it ignores the fact they never disappeared in the first place.

Many university students suffer financial strain during the course of their studies. During this economic crisis I fear for the students being forced to pay this additional money and I fear for their future lives when they have to pay it back, with further debt around their neck. Now is not the time to be going into further debt. Now is not the time to saddle students with a future liability. I appeal to the Labor Party to not take this bill forward but to listen to the students and hear their views. Accordingly, I will vote against this legislation.