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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5048

Senator ABETZ (5:33 PM) —The Senate is considering the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It should come as no surprise that the opposition has taken a very strong and principled stand in relation to this legislation, in particular as it relates to compulsory student unionism at our tertiary institutions. This has been a battle that students have been fighting in this country for well over a generation, for well over 30 years. The Howard government then legislated to abolish compulsory student union fees. So popular was the move that Mr Rudd, as Leader of the Opposition, promised to keep it. That is the reality. He then broke his election promise. Once again, what Mr Garrett said is coming home to be the truth. He said he had been verballed at the time. But, during the last election campaign, when trying to placate somebody, he said, ‘Don’t listen to what we say; look at what we are actually going to do when we get into government.’ This is another classic case of selling one message whilst in opposition and having a completely different intention once government is obtained. That is now quite clear in this area as well. A promise was made because Mr Rudd and the Australian Labor Party knew that compulsory student unionism was anathema to students. They objected to their right to a tertiary education being predicated on joining a student union. Students actually felt offended and patronised by that attitude pedalled so hard by the left wing and the vice-chancellors on campus.

I still recall, when we promoted this, at a time when the Senate was not minded to pass voluntary student unionism, that we had a Senate inquiry. I recall the chairman of the vice-chancellors association coming before the Senate committee. And he gave very powerful evidence of the importance of students being involved in sports, in societies, in reading the newspaper, in the cultural life of the cafeteria—and the list went on and on. One senator had the presence of mind to ask vice-chancellor: ‘To get your university degree, do you have to play sport?’ Answer: ‘No.’ ‘Do you have to be a member of a society?’ Answer: ‘No.’ ‘Do you have to be involved in an extracurricular activity to get your degree?’ Answer: ‘No.’ ‘Do you have to read the student newspaper to get your degree?’ Answer: ‘No.’ ‘Do you have to go to social functions to get your degree?’ Answer: ‘No.’ Do you have to go to the cafeteria to dine?’ Answer: ‘No.’ Everything was responded to in the negative. And, might I add, you did not have to vote at student elections. You did not have to get involved in any way, shape or form, to cut a long story short, in extracurricular activities on campus. So what was the only requirement that the vice-chancellor demanded at the end of the day? It was the payment of the fee. That is how hollow and intellectually dishonest the campaign had been for compulsory student unionism. This is the high-sounding story that the vice-chancellor tried to put on behalf of other vice-chancellors—the rhetoric of the importance of extracurricular activities—but there was no requirement. The only requirement was that you paid the fee. That exposed the hollowness of the argument.

I recall in my own instance, many years ago now at the University of Tasmania, being told that if I did not pay my student union fee my results would be withheld. I recall a dean’s-prize-winning first year science student at the University of Tasmania being told, ‘You will not be allowed to re-enrol for your second year unless you pay the compulsory student union fee.’ We hear all of these mighty stories about Labor’s commitment to skills training, up-skilling our workforce and encouraging people into the tertiary sector, but it is all predicated on paying a compulsory union fee. If he had not paid his compulsory union free, prize-winning student Daniel Muggeridge would have been denied his tertiary education and all the benefits that have flown to the Australian economy since. So this right to a tertiary education is no right, according to Labor. It is predicated on the payment of a compulsory fee. That is their main entry point in relation to tertiary education. I say that you cannot maintain that argument on principle in any way, shape or form.

We now see that in this legislation we are talking about a services and amenities fee. A rose by any other name still smells as sweet, and compulsory student unionism, dressed up as a services and amenities fee, still stinks. It does not matter how you try to dress it up; it is an infringement on individuals’ rights and liberties, especially the right to a tertiary education. To be denied the right to a tertiary education because you do not want to pay a student union fee, now dressed up as an amenities fee, is abhorrent to every instinct within me.

We were told that if voluntary student unionism were ever to be introduced there would be huge problems in the quality of the tertiary education that Australian students would obtain. Indeed, the hapless then vice-chancellor—not the current one but one or two ago—of the University of Tasmania made the assertion that one of the things that was attracting students from overseas to the University of Tasmania was student union services and that the compulsory student union fee was not objected to by the students in any way, shape or form—and they welcomed all the services. I asked certain people to do a study, and guess what? The number of overseas student enrolments in that time at the University of Tasmania actually declined in comparison to—and Senator Judith Adams would be interested in this—Western Australia, where the state government had in fact introduced voluntary student unionism under state legislation. In Western Australia there was a surge of overseas students participating in tertiary education. So if the argument is that somehow you get a lower form of education, why is it that where the market forces can be in play—not that people live in a particular state with mum and dad there and their friends there and therefore they do not want to move—when overseas students had a choice between Western Australia and Tasmania, the numbers declined in Tasmania, with compulsory student unionism, and increased in Western Australia. So that argument, on evidence, is thrown out and completely and utterly debunked.

Can anybody get up in this chamber and honestly say that, since the introduction of voluntary student unionism in Australia, the students that graduate are no longer as worthy as those who used to have to bear—unwillingly—the burden of compulsory student unionism? Has anybody actually made out that argument? Is there any evidence in any way, shape or form that says that there was a lower form of education as a result of the students not being compelled to pay a compulsory fee. Of course, no argument can be made out.

If universities were genuine about this argument they would not allow the correspondence courses that people can now undertake, where information is emailed backwards and forwards, where you have got video linkups and students do not actually have to appear on campus to get their university education. But, guess what? They have got to pay the compulsory fee. But they are not on campus to enjoy the benefit of it. How dare these universities allow these people to graduate without having been part and parcel of the wonderful fabric of extracurricular life on campus!

Because they are anxious to get more and more enrolments, the universities—and good on them—have now made study more available and more accessible through the internet, video conferencing and the like, meaning that many students do not even have to set foot on campus to get their university education and graduate. Once again the modern world has overtaken the nonsense arguments that have been put forward over the years in support of compulsory student unionism.

I will deal with a few other analogies that have been used from time to time. I remember it was put forward that paying a student union fee is a bit like being part of a local government regime where you have to pay your rates. No, that analogy is wrong. The analogy falls down because it would be the local government body saying, ‘You cannot live in our district unless you join up to the local ratepayers association.’ That is the analogy. Thank goodness that not a single local government institution in this country has come up with such a preposterous suggestion. But guess what? Our universities have. They say, ‘If you do not want to join the so-called representative body—the student union—we will deny you the right to get your results or to re-enrol in the following year.’

Others tell me that student unions deliver a great social benefit. I am willing to accept that at face value, but why can’t students decide that? There are many organisations in Australia that provide a great social benefit that we do not compel people to join, such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross. Indeed, even the Australian Labor Party has now accepted that compulsory trade unionism is no longer acceptable and that people ought to have the choice about that. I think there is a stronger argument—albeit a very, very weak one; you are coming from a very low base—to be made out for compulsory trade unionism than for compulsory student unionism and compulsory fees.

These university students are old enough and mature enough to be told that they can decide, within certain parameters, all sorts of things: what sort of course of study they want to undertake; where they want to live; who they associate with; what sort of car they might want to drive; what rental arrangements they want to enter into—

Senator Birmingham —That is something called freedom.

Senator ABETZ —Yes, Senator Birmingham, you are absolutely right. Students are seen as being mature enough for all these things apart from one: whether or not they want to contribute to the student body in a circumstance where students are—in general terms—free to make all other decisions, as, might I add, they should be.

I come back to where I started, and that is that this is a breach, yet again, of another Labor election promise. Mr Rudd was so desperate to go to the electorate at the last election and say: ‘Basically, I am a John Howard lite. Compulsory student unionism is not on the agenda with me. I’m really an economic conservative at heart. In relation to that, I don’t support compulsory student unionism’ and on you go. But Peter Garrett did let the cat out of the bag when, in an unguarded moment, he spoke the truth. He said, ‘Don’t listen to what we say; look to what we will actually do when we get into government.’ This is a classic case that bears out, in a bizarre way, the integrity of what Mr Garrett said. But the integrity of it showed that what he was saying at the time was, in fact—unfortunately—the truth. It is a very adverse reflection on this government that they are now going back on a very strong commitment that they gave before the last election on students and compulsory student unionism.

I hope and I trust that this Senate will have the courage to again refuse the repeal of this legislation—in other words, have the courage to give students the right of freedom of choice on campus. It is a bizarre thing when you reflect on it: universities ought to be the hotbed of diversity, of individual thought and of individual action. But here we are saying: ‘We won’t allow you through the gate of the university unless you are willing to be marked like sheep, all with your university union tag. We will put the tag of your student union membership in your ear. Sure, we have dressed it up as a services and amenities fee, which the university is going to collect and determine how it is going to be administered.’ Does anybody honestly believe that the student union body will not have a say in its administration and how that money is going to be spent? Of course not.

In the past, the vice-chancellors of this country, much to their great shame, acted as the most highly paid shop stewards in this country. They were the enforcers of compulsory student unionism. The student union had no power to enforce it; it was the vice-chancellors, acting as shop stewards, who forced the students to pay. If the union could not convince you to join, the vice-chancellors stepped in and said: ‘Sorry, sonny or girlie, no degree for you. Your results are withheld until you pay that fee.’ That has been a blot on our universities for generations now. I pay respect to the Court government in Western Australia, who removed it first. It took the courage of the Liberal Court government and then the Liberal Howard government to have that changed and have it removed. It was a blot that was removed without any diminution or denigration of the intellectual standards of our universities and without any denigration or diminution of the integrity of the degrees that were produced. Our students have not been disadvantaged on the world market where the quality of their degrees is concerned. This has been one of those terrible sweetheart deals where big institutions deal with a big student body and trample the rights of individual students. When it comes to those issues, we on this side will always stand unashamedly on the side of the individual students, and that is why we will be opposing these measures