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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2184

Mr RAMSEY (12:34 PM) —by leave—I rise as deputy chair of the committee that prepared this report to the House. It may come as no great surprise to the House that the coalition members elected to oppose this legislation have delivered a dissenting report. As the chair pointed out, it was a new experience for the committee under the new standing rules of the parliament for the legislation to be referred from the Selection Committee for us to review before it was placed before the House. The way it was rushed upon us came as a bit of a surprise. The coalition members believe that this inquiry was held with undue haste and that we have not had an opportunity to examine the full intent of the evidence and, in fact, feel as though some of those people who have contributed evidence were not given the opportunity to deliver the evidence face to face.

In particular, I draw your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, to standing order 143(b), which says that:

… a determination may be made by the Selection Committee as provided by standing order 222 to refer a bill to a committee for an advisory report.

Then standing order 222(a)(iii) says that:

… select bills that the committee regards as controversial or as requiring further consultation or debate for referral to the relevant standing or joint committee in accordance with standing order 143.

The standing orders are not prescriptive, but it would appear to me that the intent is that the committee should undertake some degree of scrutiny of the submissions.

Instead, the government used its majority on the committee to effectively guillotine the inquiry. We had seven days to receive submissions. In the end we received 36, but only 29 of those were lodged by closing time. Then we had less than a week to consider those submissions, with no chance to meet in person and no chance to enter into any one-on-one, face-to-face interviews. We believe that there was considerable interest shown in this inquiry, as evidenced by the number of submissions—and we may well have received more had we had more time—and so we decry the lack of process. It would seem that if we are to have any inquiries at all, they should be more diligent than this.

To come to the point of the submissions: there were 36 in total, placed predominantly into two groups. The first—the universities and union sector—encompassed 26 submissions, all but one of which supported the bill. I must point out that they were mostly dusted off submissions that had been delivered to the Senate inquiry in 2009. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but they had an opportunity to present those submissions personally. Tellingly, of the group of 26 from the universities and union sector, almost all stand to gain financially from this legislation.

The six submissions in the second group were all opposed to the legislation and they all came from individuals. I point out that these individuals had no opportunity to present in person. Tellingly again, these are the people who will pay the bill. Those who will pay the bill have a completely different attitude to those who will receive the money. That is enough for us in the coalition to at least have great concerns whether the student population is indeed in favour of this compulsory levy at all.

It is not just a little amount of money. It is anticipated that this new tax will raise $143 million a year from struggling students. It is not just tintacks money; it is a substantial amount of money. In fact, one of the students who contacted us, and I think he spoke for many students who study externally, said, ‘It is not my intention to ever attend the UNE campus in Armidale.’ It does make you wonder why on earth this student should be charged a compulsory fee for a service that he will never wish, and is never likely, to access. As he said, he is never even likely to visit the campus. There are many students throughout Australia who are studying under external arrangements and most of them would probably concur with that evidence.

We also make the point that the bill sends a message to students that students are incapable of being able to determine what is in their best interests and that it is retrograde, condescending and fundamentally insulting to students that we think we know far better than them how to spend their money.

I also refer to the dissenting senators report in 2009, which drew particular attention to the clear Labor Party commitment prior to the 2007 election rejecting a compulsory amenities fee. This policy appears to have changed sometime before the 2010 election. Certainly the Labor Party made no issue of it during the election campaign. Most students in Australian universities at the moment are blissfully unaware of what awaits them next year should this legislation be passed.

We also believe that it is highly likely that the funds raised will be used for political campaigns outside the student unions’ direct interests and are, in fact, a return to compulsory student unionism. I understand the legislation does have bars on direct contributions to political campaigns, but we would be stretching credibility to think that some of these funds will not be used in campaigns that have a political intent.

In the end, we reject the majority view of the committee, and my recommendation to the House is that it rejects the legislation. But I would concur with the chair when she thanked the secretariat—Glenn Worthington and Becky Walker in particular. They were placed under a lot of pressure because of the time constraints, obviously to get all of the material together to convene the meeting, which was held by teleconference, and to deliver the report in what I think is an unrealistic time frame.