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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3269

Mr HAWKE (12:32 PM) —I rise today, as the youngest member of the Liberal party room here in this parliament, to stand shoulder to shoulder with my Liberal colleagues in defiance of what is a retrograde piece of legislation for young people in this country. The title of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 ought to read ‘Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Taxation) Bill’, because what this government is seeking to do is to impose a tax on every student seeking to better themselves at universities around Australia.

Much was made prior to the election of the Rudd government’s appeal to young people and how those from younger demographics would be voting in record numbers for Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and this new government. Since the election, what we have seen from this government is a blatant attack on young people in this country. This bill today represents an impediment to young people in Australia getting ahead by furthering their education. What we have seen since the election are the ideas that young people in Australia are somehow now binge drinkers, and that they cannot be trusted to use the internet responsibly and we need to put a government filter on all of the internet. And now, of course, we want to put a further barrier, a further impediment, in the way of young people seeking a better education by taxing them on the right to go to university.

This is in direct breach of what the Rudd government promised prior to the election. Stephen Smith stated in 2007 that it was not appropriate for Labor, and Labor would not be able, to go back to the pre-voluntary student unionism world. What happened in this country in the life of the last government was that, for the first time, the last bastion of compulsory unionism for young people in Australia, where the government compelled a person to join an organisation against their will, was erased; it was removed. Once that was removed, what did we see in campuses around Australia? We saw the continuation of high educational standards and of services to students, and record low rates of young people on campus choosing to join a union themselves.

What that reflects is that the choice of young Australians is not to join a union that they do not want to be a member of. They do not believe they are getting a service that is worth the value of the fee for joining that union. We have heard bizarre claims from members opposite today: that somehow this is about providing child care, when most university students do not access child care; or that this is about providing cheaper food, when the reality is that, on most campuses around this country, most food outlets would be desperate to get onto campus to provide their food and their services. For example, if you could not turn a profit providing food at the University of Sydney, with 30,000 students every day, then perhaps you ought not to be in business. So the claim that this is about services is a bizarre and false claim.

Let us be very clear. What this legislation before the House is about is a return to the oligarchy that Labor seeks to impose upon Australia—the oligarchy of left-wing thought, the oligarchy of left-wing union control of campuses. What demonstrates this more than anything else is the turnout in student union elections all across Australia. There is no campus where this exceeds more than 10 per cent of students. Ten per cent—that is the highest rate of engagement of students on campus. At my own university, Sydney university, it is as low as five per cent of students who seek to vote in a student election. Why? Because they want nothing to do with student politicians or student politics. There is no value to them in voting for or getting a service out of a student union. They can choose their own food. They are quite capable of deciding whether they want to go to a restaurant and have Thai food for lunch or whether they might like to have a pie or a sandwich. It is entirely within their control.

For this government to tell us that the legislation before us today is somehow about student services is a totally false proposition, because the federal government and other levels of government already provide good quality childcare facilities all around Australia. If this had something to do simply with rural or regional campuses then perhaps this legislation should have just addressed a regional or rural campus situation where there is a need. We know that there is no need for this bill, for this tax on students to charge every student in Australia $250 for the right to further their education.

It is the case that voluntary student unionism, since it was brought in by the Howard government, has been working. Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism, members of student unions have saved an average of $246 per annum. Those who have not chosen to be members of unions have saved even more—$318. Any member in this House who says this is just some sort of nominal fee or a small amount should go and talk to a first-year student. I remember distinctly that every year when I had to stump up the $300 for union membership was a very difficult time. You had to work hard to get that money, and it was a significant imposition at that age and at that time. It remains so today.

The government’s claim to be responsible economic managers, handing out money for students—those who paid tax in the last financial year—to spend, is also a furphy, because they will be handing out the $900 with one hand but ripping $250 out with the other. It is a flawed system, and it is a flawed proposition that this is somehow going to benefit the majority of students.

We do know that voluntary membership of unions and associations breeds better accountability and efficiency. One of the great concerns I have with this legislation is: will it be monitored? Will it be enforced? The guidelines that the minister will set up will be expansive, of course. They will be added to over time. Who will monitor, and how will they monitor, each of these student associations and their activities and whether they are meeting those guidelines? None of that is addressed within this legislation.

We know that this is a secret code to student unions. This is a secret code to university student activists, that small, narrow band of Australian young people. The code says: ‘You are back in business. We will tax every student so that this money can be returned to the small oligarchy of young people who seek to engage in politics, who will tell us what to think, what to do and how to act’—and of course will damage us with their opinions every single day.

We have seen that voluntary membership of unions has led to such low rates of membership—like the University of Canberra, with a simple five per cent take-up of union membership. There is a clear rejection by every young person on every campus in this country of unions and the benefits that they provide. In 2004, before VSU, we had amenities fees. We had many campuses, in particular in Victoria, which had an amenities fee. We are supposed to believe that this is about providing services. The amenities fee in 2004 at Monash University, for example, was $428. Of this, $238 was for administrative costs; $30 was for building services; $13 was for clubs and societies; $22 was for sport; $5.40 was for childcare subsidies; 59c was for unspecified student services; and the list goes on. That list tells us that this is not about the child care; this is not about sport. The bulk of this money, the bulk of this tax on students across Australia, is to be used to fund political activity on campus. That is one of the things that will be clear within the minister’s guidelines that will be announced after this legislation: you will be able to fund and promote political activity on campus.

I also want to address a point that many people have taken up around Australia about sporting teams and the fact that people who are seeking to get a better education ought to pay somehow for people to further their sports education. This has been one of the greatest inequities on Australian campuses for many, many years—that people get charged a sports union fee, as when I went to university, regardless of whether they are interested in sport or not, regardless of whether they go to a gym or not. Regardless of whether they ever played a sport, they were charged a compulsory sporting fee.

We have heard much in this debate that this has something to do with sporting teams. I do not believe that poor students who are struggling to get to university, to work hard and to further their education ought to be taxed to send money to the likes of elite rugby at the University of Sydney. Coming from this side of the House, I would have thought that Labor members opposite would have something to say about that system, where taxes are imposed on everybody regardless of their demographics, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to be sent to elite sport and elite activity. Taking that money away from people to give to sporting groups produced great inequity.

When you look at the other parts of this bill, you see that this is going to be a regressive tax on students—up to $250 annually, as we know, indexed to inflation. The government have thought of everything in relation to this, because they would not want to miss getting more money out of young people without that indexation. In relation to young people everywhere, they seek to ensure that this group of people who are just starting out in their lives, seeking to further their education, pay as much as they can make them pay. I have no doubt that, if they could get away with it, compulsory unionism would be back.

This tax that is being imposed on students around Australia is being imposed on anyone, regardless of an individual’s capacity to pay. In other legislation that we have seen in this place that the government are introducing, they make much of means testing. They are proposing to means test the Medicare safety net. But will this student tax be means tested? Of course it will not be means tested. They do not care whether you are a poor student or whether you are a wealthy student; they just want your money. They need your money because without it they cannot sustain their political activity. They could not all sit here in parliament having used students’ money for decades—without their choice—to become political activists. Many of them could not sit here today without their student union backgrounds. They could not sit here if they had not compulsorily taxed young people over many decades. They are proposing today to reintroduce a tax on any student, regardless of their socioeconomic background, with no means testing, with no regard for the wealth or status of that young person.

That flies in the face of the whole narrative of this Rudd government. We have heard much about the ‘Robin Hood’ Rudd government, the government that is taking from the rich and giving to the poor. That is the narrative they are attempting to build about themselves. They have no qualms about stripping $250 off any young person. Whether you are from Penrith, from Parramatta or from any other socioeconomic demographic in this country, they will treat you equally if you are a young person. If you are being taxed in other ways, in income tax or in consideration for the Medicare safety net, they will take your means into account, but if you are a young person they believe in equal treatment. According to this government, we should tax you all equally and take the money from you regardless of your circumstances. We know what this is about.

I have also heard many members put an argument in this place that says, ‘Of course this is just like imposing another level of government upon students—federal, state and local government is not enough government for Australia. What we need is another level of government, just for young people and students, because we simply do not have enough government in this country.’ I have to say that, after 31 years growing up in this country, a cry I hear often is that we have too little government in this country, that we need more government to provide more services just for young people, that a local, a state and a federal level is not enough to cater for the needs of Australians and that we need a fourth tier of government just for young people—and we will tax you for the benefit whether you want it or not!

If the government are real and serious about this legislation, why don’t they approach young people on campus? Why don’t they have a referendum, if they are seeking to impose a fourth level of government across campuses? Why don’t they go to every campus and say to the students, ‘Do you want to be taxed this $250?’ You know why they will not ask them, Madam Deputy Speaker. We know why students will never get the choice as to whether they have to pay this fee or not. They would overwhelmingly reject this fee; they would overwhelmingly say to the minister and to the government, ‘We do not need a fourth tier of government for students. We do not need your services. You can take your services and you can use them for yourselves.’ That is what they would say to this government, and this government knows it. There will be no attempt to seek the input of ordinary students on rural and regional campuses or on city campuses because every member of this House understands clearly what this is an attempt to do. This is purely about bringing back the political oligarchy of the Left that existed on campuses for so many decades under an enforced and compulsory system.

Nobody decries the right of people to actively engage in politics on campus as long as it is of their free will and is their choice to do so, but there is much political activity that will not be captured by the minister’s so-called guidelines in relation to this bill. The right to freedom of association will be lost once again once these guidelines are expanded and political activity starts to take place on campuses across Australia. If you look at the range of activities that are engaged in across campuses in Australia you will see some very interesting examples. In 2007, for example, the Monash Student Association contributed $1,500 towards the legal defence of convicted and jailed G20 rioter Akin Sari. This was the same organisation that produced stickers in 2003 that read: ‘Bomb the White House’. It was a student association choice to fund that defence. You might say that is fine. That would be fine if that association were voluntary. That would be fine if everybody were not being taxed to provide the money for that defence.

We know that there are many other examples. You could go on endlessly in this place with examples of the abuse of students and the abuse of students’ money while there was a system of compulsory unionism. In 2004, for example, the National Union of Students, using money appropriated, not for educational benefits, from every student in the country, spent a quarter of a million dollars campaigning against the Howard government. Again, there would be nothing wrong with using money that they had obtained voluntarily from students to campaign against the Howard government. But they used money that students were forced to hand over, regardless of their choice or means, to campaign against a government, and that is what this government wants to see a return to—a system where money can be appropriated from students regardless of means and turned into money and political benefit for this government. It is the consistent narrative of this government that politics comes first and good government and outcomes for students come second.

Ministerial discretion is a major concern in relation to this bill. I do not think it is a good system of government to allow the minister, who is so obviously partisan in this issue and who has no ability to separate her background from this legislation, to enable the guidelines, to add to the guidelines or to remove the guidelines. We ought in this place to be passing what is allowable and what is not allowable. The parliament ought to have the right to decide these things, not the minister. We know why the minister has been given the discretion: this is the backdoor conduit for the student unions. We know exactly what will happen: over time the student services list will increase and the list of allowable expenditures will be added to by the government. We know that money will be going to student services in ways that we cannot even imagine over here, and we know that in a decade we will have seen a lot of political activity funded by people who do not want to fund it. That is what we object to primarily in this bill.

The Howard government’s move to remove compulsory student unionism was a great advance for freedom in this country. The freedom to choose whether you want to join a union or not is a fundamental freedom that the Howard government stood up for. The government have decided they do not want to have a battle about freedom, because they will lose that battle. They have decided to impose a tax on every student in this country, regardless of their means, and are attempting to avoid a battle about whether a person should be a member of an association or not. (Time expired)