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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3204

Mr CIOBO (12:22 PM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to present, as yet another member of the coalition, our complete opposition to Labor’s ‘no ticket, no start’ policy on university campuses across Australia. Having had the privilege of attending both public and private tertiary institutions, I look upon these kinds of initiatives with great interest. I compare and contrast the various experiences I had at both Bond University as an undergraduate and the Queensland University of Technology as a postgraduate student with respect to the services offered and my observations of their worth to the beneficiaries of these amounts of money. It is not understating the fact to say that for the coalition this issue remains a shibboleth. We fundamentally believe in freedom of choice. This fundamental principle cannot be expressed any more clearly.

It is an indictment of the Labor Party that the legislation that is before this chamber, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, removes the right of freedom of choice from young Australians who are attending tertiary institutions. That is a given. You will not have members of the Labor Party—at least I hope you will not—even argue that point. It is a given that this bill removes the choice that young Australians have of whether or not to pay a subscription to a student union—or, in the case of this specific bill, a yet-to-be-identified beneficiary within the university institution itself—or whether or not to use the services that may or may not be supplied as a result of the payment of this money.

The only arguments that come forward from those opposite are that this legislation should be supported for either one of two reasons. The first is that the government knows best. That is a paraphrase but that is basically the argument. Labor members say: ‘Government knows best; all students should have to pay this fee because it goes towards the supply of student services across campuses. It doesn’t matter whether those services are utilised; it doesn’t matter whether the supply of those services is in response to student demand; we just know what students want and so we’re going to supply services and we are going to demand payment.’ So they completely remove the link between supply and demand. They completely remove the link between meeting the demands of students and just insert themselves and say: ‘This fee will be compulsory and these services will be supplied and no discussion will be entered into.’

The other argument that is put forward is that this is akin to some kind of local government rate—that it is all about supplying essential services that all students would want to use, and if they do not use them they must be thick. It is like a rate that a council would levy on ratepayers. Again, the difference is that, unlike councils and councillors, which are accountable to parliament through the minister, under this legislation that is not the case. We hear glib promises from members opposite who say: ‘Oh, no; don’t listen to the coalition; they’re still caught up in the arguments of the past about whether or not this is about compulsory unionism. This harmless piece of legislation is just about making sure that essential student services are supplied with money. It’s not about student unions.’ That is what we hear from Labor members opposite, but the reality is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck. What we have in this bill in this chamber is a very, very deliberate decision to again provide funding to student unions, albeit directly or indirectly, that will ensure that those who are the principal beneficiaries of a compulsory no ticket, no start student union system—that is, the Australian Labor Party—get what they require and pay back their debts to a student union movement, like the National Union of Students, that has provided so much funding and logistical support to the Labor Party for so many years.

It is no surprise that the minister with overarching responsibility for this fiendish piece of legislation in front of us is none other than the Deputy Prime Minister, a woman who sits on the management committee of the Socialist Forum and who has such incredibly strong links to the union movement and its socialist roots. She is putting forward this policy. Most concerning is the fact that this policy is a breach of Labor’s election commitment, because we know that the former Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, in response to a journalist’s question at a doorstop in May 2007, said:

No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

So that was Labor’s policy: they were not even contemplating a compulsory amenities fee. They know in their hearts that there is absolutely nothing wrong with providing students with choice about student services. There is nothing wrong with expecting that the provision of student services should be responsive to demand. That was the fundamental principle that led to the introduction of voluntary student unionism under the Howard government. That was the delivery of an important commitment that the coalition has to every young Australian that says: ‘We believe you have a right to choose how you spend your money.’ Most importantly, it sends a message to the student unions and those who seek to supply services to students: ‘Provide what is in demand and it will be commercial.’

If students want to join a sports club, why should a sports club on a university campus sit distinct from and separate to every other sports club in the community? Why is that the case? No rationale has ever been put forward by members opposite about why, for example, a university cricket club should benefit from direct and compulsory student funds and yet the local community cricket club should not. There is no argument put forward about why, for example, a childcare centre on a university campus deserves direct funds from compulsory student contributions when there are so many other community based and private childcare centres that operate at a profitable level. There is no argument put forward by members opposite about why, for example, student unions should compulsorily acquire funds off students to pay for overtly political campaigns that other students have no interest in being a part of or for the provision of services to such small numbers of students that there is a massive cross-subsidy by those who never use that service. Why do we not impose that across the community as a whole? The reality is that we do not, and for some reason the Labor Party has this ideological commitment to student unions—because they know that they are the logistical support required for and major contributors to the Labor Party.

So commitments or apparent commitments that the Labor Party makes in this chamber in this debate that this money is not going to be used for student campaigns or student unions are nothing but hollow words. What we know from the legislation that is before the House is that the only person who will take the decision about whether or not money is being used effectively is the minister. The only person who will take the decision about whether students’ money is being misused is the minister. I cannot for the life of me imagine too many instances where that management committee member of the Socialist Forum, the Deputy Prime Minister, would actually take the decision to impose some kind of penalty on a student union that might be misusing compulsorily acquired funds. I cannot imagine too many instances where the matter will even come up, because, again, under the legislation that is before the House there is no framework to impose a penalty and no framework for the reporting of the money that might be used or, rather, misused.

You have to wonder what it is that the Labor Party find so offensive about the principle, ‘We believe that students should only pay for the services they choose to use.’ What is it about freedom of choice that is so offensive to members opposite? The only assurance the minister has made is that the legislation will prohibit money being spent for political purposes. That is the only assurance that has been given. The only political activities that are expressly prohibited by the legislation are providing support to political parties and support for election to a Commonwealth, state, territory or local government body. That is it. That is the sum total of the assurance that has been provided. So there are still a raft of opportunities for political activities, including, for example, funding campaigns against legislation, policies and, potentially, political parties and providing funding for the direct support of trade unions or any other organisation that is not registered as a political party. All of that still lies at the feet of student unions who can spend that money.

I have to say that the real thinking behind this bill is perhaps summarised by David Barrow, the President of the National Union of Students. He said, when speaking about the proposed legislation and why he had a problem with it:

Unis get the fee, students get the services but student unions get screwed …

That is the comment of David Barrow, the President of the National Union of Students. Well, doesn’t that just demonstrate what a self-serving attitude student unions under the Labor Party have? Their concern is not about where the fees are going or how the fees are being spent; rather, their concern is about what role the student unions play in it. I have to say, I think that David Barrow perhaps misspeaks as well when he says that student unions get screwed, because under the legislation that is before the House today we actually do not know if student unions are going to, to use his words, get screwed or not. What we actually know is that the only people who are going to be penalised very directly as a result of this legislation are all students attending a tertiary institution in this country, who will be required to comply with this legislation and will be forced to pay up to $250 for the privilege of going to university—apparently for services which they probably will not even use. There is no link back to the demand of students; there is just some notion that some central power somewhere knows what it is that students want. It is particularly concerning that Labor just will not stand by the principle of freedom of choice.

We also know that this fee of $250 is going to be indexed to the CPI every year. So the financial burden on some of the most cash-strapped members of our society is in fact going to increase every single year. And this is happening at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing under the Labor government. We know we have a government that are throwing money left, right and centre at a problem that they have made worse through their policies. We know unemployment is accelerating at a rate far beyond the very conservative forecasts that the Labor Party put forward because they did not want to be seen to be a complete failure when it came to employment. And now, to make matters worse, the Labor Party are going to impose a $250 fee on every student, regardless of their ability to pay. Members opposite will argue that it is okay because it can be effectively deferred through a HECS scheme. So what they are basically saying is, ‘If you can’t afford to pay now, don’t worry—you will pay later and you will pay with interest.’ So that is Labor’s policy for those who are among the most cash-strapped members of our society.

This issue is a very straightforward one. I fail to understand why the Labor Party holds universities to be distinct from any other kind of collection of individuals in society. Why, for example, isn’t a TAFE college embraced in the same way as a university college by this government? A collection of students at a university is deemed to be an appropriate body to force students to pay up to $250 a year, to fund services that they may not even want. Yet, if you are a student who goes to a TAFE college, apparently you do not need services or are able to utilise community services. Bizarrely, those same services are available to students at a university campus and yet they do not have recourse to them. So, it is crystal clear to me that Labor’s very muddled thinking on this is largely an outcome that is seeking a rationalisation. We know that Labor is absolutely determined to ensure that students pay their student union fees and to get their pound of flesh out of students so that that money can go straight back into Labor Party coffers through the student union movement.

The clearest evidence of why, apart from freedom of choice, voluntary student unionism is a superior model is that we have seen that it works. We have seen bloated, lazy student unions that are not responsive to students’ needs see their membership fall. At the University of Canberra, for example, student union membership fell to around five per cent of the student population, because there you had a university student guild that was so concerned about itself and student campaigns that it offered very little value to students, and so membership of the student union collapsed. And yet, at the University of Western Australia, where the student union actually provided value—where the student union ensured that they were providing students with a reason for joining—membership sat at 60 per cent. So we know the VSU model works. It works because it rewards those student unions that provide the services that students want and it penalises those that do not.

The impact of student unionism can be clearly seen in a breakdown of student fees. At Monash University, for example, in 2004, before VSU was introduced, students were required to pay an amenities fee of $428 per annum—$428 slugged to students per annum under the no ticket, no start policies of the Labor government. It is interesting to get a breakdown of how that money was spent, because it is, after all, about student services. We know that about $30 was spent on building services, about $13 for clubs and societies, around $22 for sports groups, $5.40 for childcare subsidies and $5.40 for child care, 28c for food services and subsidies, 49c for student theatre and 59c for unspecified student services.

So the question is: where did the great bulk of the funding go? Four hundred and thirty-eight dollars was slugged from students—where does the bulk of that money go? Well, $238 went on administrative costs. The bulk of the money that was slugged from, in many instances, the most cash-strapped in our society was spent on administrative costs. That notion of administrative costs means the costs of the student union, the contributions the student union made to the Labor Party, of which members opposite are beneficiaries, and the costs that are covered by campaigns the student union runs. That is where over half of the money charged to students through the student union went to. It is an indictment upon a ‘no ticket, no start’ failed culture within the Labor Party that seeks to reward student unions and ensure that they have rivers of gold flowing to them out of the pockets of students who are forced to pay these fees, under legislation and under penalties of law, because this government is so ideologically transfixed with propping up this sector.

Again, you have to ask: what is wrong with freedom of choice? You also have to question why it would be compulsory for students who, for example, study by correspondence—those students who have never set foot on campus and are forced to cross-subsidise those students who are on campus. What about mature age students, those who are working full time and attending night classes? I myself was one at the Queensland University of Technology. I was working full time during the day and studying at night—again, forced to pay this horrendous fee to subsidise other students. That was not the case under VSU; you chose where you spent your money.

I am very proud to stand up for freedom of choice. I am very proud to say to universities and student unions: ‘Supply the services that students want and they will join you voluntarily.’ It works in every other aspect of the community. It works for community groups across suburbs all around Australia. There is no reason why fat, bloated, lazy student unions, which channel funds to the Labor Party, should be some kind of protected species and there is no reason why Labor should breach their election commitment to not introduce this compulsory fee, purely and simply to provide a kind of logistical support to Labor’s youth wing, which they are seeking to do through this legislation.