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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3266

Mr SLIPPER (12:12 PM) —As always, it is good to see you in the chair, Deputy Speaker Secker. It will come as no surprise to honourable members that I also intend to vote against this bill. Every so often in parliament we find a piece of legislation which goes back to the Dark Ages, the bad old days. Every so often, despite the fact that the government likes to claim that it is packed with economic conservatives, who are presumably people not of an extremist left-wing persuasion, we find legislation like the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 creeping onto the parliamentary agenda.

I consider there to be two major problems with this particular bill as far as students are concerned. Firstly, there is a $250 imposition placed on students, which is to be indexed. They are forced to pay this as the price of getting an education and education providers are compelled to charge it. It imposes a further economic burden on young people who are struggling to get through tertiary institutions. Secondly, it removes what I believe is a basic element of Australian society—that is, free choice. Whatever the government says about this legislation not turning back the clock and bringing back compulsory student unionism, what we find is a compulsory fee being imposed on young Australians which they can ill afford and which they do not have the right to reject if they do not want to pay.

With respect to universities today, particularly many of those in Queensland, we find that they have a certain percentage of students enrolled actually attending on campus. But in many cases, given the internet and external studies, these universities have large numbers of students who never enter the university campus and as such would not be able to use the facilities provided by this $250 impost. That surely is completely unfair. It is antidemocratic to force people to contribute towards facilities that in many cases they will never see. Universities might be based in a particular state but often have interstate outposts, interstate satellite campuses or offices or lecture theatres, and students who could be some thousands of kilometres away from the primary campus where all of this money will be spent will clearly simply be subsidising facilities that someone else is able to use.

Also, with respect to student unions and university sports clubs, if they provide the services that students want then obviously students would be prepared to vote with their feet and actually pay the fee. I have not got a problem if someone chooses to join a student union or a student association. I certainly do not have a problem if someone chooses to join a university sporting club and chooses to use the facilities provided by the university. But I have a very strong objection to students being conscripted into making this payment and into paying for facilities that they choose not to use. Many students do not want to live their entire lives around the university and consequently when they do play sport tend to join community based sporting organisations. When they do, like everyone else they pay a fee. This $250 charge will compel them to subsidise the facilities on campus and then they will have to pay again if they choose to join a community association.

It is interesting that the bill will require higher education providers to comply with the new Student Services, Amenities Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. These guidelines will bring about obligations on the university to meet the requirements relating to so-called student representation and advocacy, and effectively that means that student elections, student offices and salaries will be supported by this $250 payment. As with the fees guidelines, the student representation and advocacy guidelines will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. So we do not have those regulations currently before the chamber, yet we are asked to vote for this piece of draconian legislation, which is absolutely appalling, without actually seeing what the guidelines are going to be.

I am very pleased to have been a member of a party in the conservative government which brought in the historic voluntary student unionism legislation. As a former patron of the Queensland Young Liberal Movement, I know that there was very strong opposition, both within the Young Liberal Movement and within the Australian Liberal Students Federation, to compulsory student unionism. I find it somewhat bizarre that, on the one hand, very few people say that people should compulsorily be forced to join a union and yet, on the other hand, people who would agree that compulsory trade unionism is inappropriate see compulsory student unionism, under the guise of this $250 fee, as morally and socially acceptable. What the former government did was not to stop student associations from doing what they want to do but simply to force them to compete in the marketplace to attract members if students actually thought that those organisations were worth joining and that the services provided by those organisations were in fact worth accessing.

It was interesting to see that the Australian Labor Party in opposition opposed the Liberal-National voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005. It is a piece of history, Mr Deputy Speaker, but of course you will recall that the National Union of Students continued its longstanding practice in opposing conservative politics and spent a quarter of a million dollars of students’ money against the Howard government. We are told that the minister has assured us that the legislation would prohibit money being spent for political purposes. How on earth could this be the truth? The only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to a local council or to the state parliament or to the Australian parliament. It does leave open a whole range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policies, potentially against political parties, or for direct support of trade unions or any other organisation not registered as a political party. There are lots of organisations out there that are heavily political in character, heavily political in action, heavily political in direction, which are not technically political parties. So what we are finding is that this $250 fee, to be indexed, will in fact be a backdoor method of assisting left-wing political causes and indirectly the Australian Labor Party.

There are no departmental guidelines with respect to monitoring. One would think that, if the Deputy Prime Minister is guaranteeing to us that this money is not going to be used for political processes, there would indeed be someone in the department to make sure that organisations do not misuse the money. But there is not. As the honourable member who spoke before me mentioned, the Deputy Prime Minister is quite a busy person, and I really cannot see her having the time to be able to do this. It could well be up to individual students who might want to whistle-blow on the student organisations to warn people that money is being used inappropriately.

There are two elements to this bill. The first element is the element of compulsion. It is wrong, in 2009, that students should be forced to pay $250—to be indexed—to support services that they may choose not to use. That is antidemocratic, it is inappropriate, it is despicable, and I think that the government ought to seriously reconsider this particular matter. The second aspect is—and Labor members in the debates in this place in previous times have said that students are finding it difficult to survive and do not need any further imposition of charges—that students, who might be thousands of kilometres away from the campus in question, could be conscripted, and will be conscripted, into making this payment if they want to be a student. I think this is absolutely appalling. It is completely disgusting, and it is one of those matters that the Australian people will take note of at the next election.

In 2009, it is wrong to impose extra charges on students at university. And it is wrong to force them to make this payment when they might not be using the services provided. They might be vehemently opposed to the left-wing policies or the particular causes that the beneficiary student organisations might be promoting. This is undoubtedly one of the very worst pieces of legislation that I have ever seen introduced to the Australian parliament. and I will be very pleased to take the opportunity of voting against this legislation when it is undoubtedly put to a vote in the House.