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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 69

Senator TIERNEY (2:07 PM) —My final question is also to the Special Minister of State, Senator Eric Abetz, representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Minister, does the Howard government support compulsory membership of industrial organisations? Does the government maintain its commitment to freedom of association and freedom of choice and is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Dr Tierney for his question and recognise his longstanding pursuit of the principle of freedom of association—a pursuit which I note undergraduate John Tierney took to heart when he was a university student organising demonstrations against the then Labor government in New South Wales I think way back in 1965, some 40 years ago. So Senator Tierney has a longstanding record on that very important principle.

I can confirm to the Senate that the government does not support compulsory membership of industrial organisations.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Shouting across the chamber is disorderly.

Senator ABETZ —This is because, as Senator Tierney has suggested, the Howard government is committed unequivocally to the principles of freedom of association and freedom of choice—principles which equally allow the people of Australia to either join an industrial organisation or not if they so choose.

It is based on those principles of freedom of association and freedom of choice that the government does not support compulsory membership of student unions at Australia’s universities. Unions at our university campuses are no different to those in our workplaces, as the student union leaders themselves proudly proclaim. When given the choice, 83 per cent of Australia’s private sector work force has chosen not to join a union. I am extremely proud that the government this morning introduced a bill into the other place to allow for voluntary student unionism. I know that my pride in this decision is mirrored by many of my Senate colleagues, not only Senator Tierney but also Senators Ellison, McGauran, Fifield, Ian Campbell, Barnett, Mason, Brandis and Johnston, and the list goes on. We are all longstanding passionate supporters, as is Senator Santoro from Queensland. As you know, Mr President, I was a strong and active critic of compulsory membership of student unions when I was at university and I still am. Financially struggling students should not be forced to cough up hundreds of dollars a year to fund the dubious political activities of student union leaders. Might I add that these are the only up-front fees students have to pay.

It is simple: if the students are intelligent enough to choose their university, if they are intelligent enough to choose their course and intelligent enough to choose the subjects they are going to take in that course, why on earth do those opposite think that the students are not intelligent enough to make a choice whether they think it is value for money to join or not to join a student union? That is all we as a government seek to do. As Senator Chris Ellison can attest, when voluntary student unionism was introduced in Western Australia the campus flourished, real activities for students were delivered and there was no detriment; in fact, there were very real positives delivered to the students at the time. We as a government are committed to choice, to giving the workers and students of this country freedom of choice as to whether or not they wish to join a union. I say to Senator Tierney that he has had a very proud record in this place as a senator in fighting for freedom of association and I salute his contribution. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Ludwig, I draw the attention of all senators to the excessive noise in the chamber today. I do not know whether it is because we have visitors from Finland or not, but I ask senators to come to order and conduct themselves in the appropriate manner.