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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5051

Senator BIRMINGHAM (5:52 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It is a pleasure to speak after Senator Abetz on this issue. Senator Abetz has a long and distinguished track record of opposing compulsion in the payment of student fees. He once again today set out a clear position, which I hope the Senate and Australian parliament will heed and take note of. On behalf of all those who have followed Senator Abetz in his fight on campuses against student fees over the years, I want to pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in this regard.

There are few principles as fundamentally important as that of freedom of association for any true free and democratic society. Freedom of association must stand as one of those core tenets that we hold dear, not just on this side of the house as Liberals but any person who is committed to a true parliamentary democracy and to a true democratic arrangement in a country like Australia. That is why we must be very cautious about any move that brings in compulsion and does so unnecessarily, particularly a compulsion of association in any way, shape or form. Unfortunately, this bill, despite its toned-down sounding name like so many bills nowadays, moves towards a form of compulsion through compulsory student unionism. It is simply dressed up under a bland title and has a few claimed safeguards that in the end will prove to be ineffective. We will see, once again, the funnelling of students’ hard-earned money for purposes that the bulk of them would not wish to see their money spent on.

There are many reasons. particularly the principled ones that I just introduced my comments with, as to why this bill should be opposed. As Senator Abetz indicated, this is, as much as anything else, a clear and fundamental breach of promise by the government. The government went to the last election and was very clear in its comments. The then shadow minister for education and training, Stephen Smith, was quite explicit on 22 May 2007 when he said:

I’m not considering a compulsory HECS-style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

What do we have before us today? Lo and behold, we have a compulsory amenities fee. That is right—a compulsory amenities fee! So much for the voluntary approach; so much for the government’s word on this matter when they went to the people. Like so many other issues they said what they had to say to get themselves elected and have simply backed down and backflipped since then. That was not the only time the government made that promise. Indeed, since the election government officials have even tried to say this would still be a voluntary approach. As they worked out their way to backflip on their promise they continued to pretend this would all be about the voluntary approach. In Senate estimates on 20 February 2008 I posed a question to Ms Paul from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations:

So, Ms Paul, if a HECS-style loan scheme for union fees was introduced, that would be a voluntary fee?

Ms Paul’s answer was:

The minister in her media release said that there would not be a return to compulsory student fees.

Even after they were elected, even after they had bluffed their way into government by misleading the public, government officials were still fronting up and saying there would not be a return to compulsory student fees. We had this sham of a consultation process that the then Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth undertook. She skirted around different campuses in Australia and met with a whole bunch of predetermined organisations, who, I am sure, she knew wanted the reintroduction of compulsory student fees. And lo and behold, we have a review that suddenly says that, yes, we should have the reintroduction of compulsory student fees. What a surprise! It was one of those Yes, Minister style episodes where the minister sets up a review knowing full well what the outcome she wants is. And, of course, it is all structured to achieve that outcome. We are not going to be fooled with this sham of a review, nor are we going to be fooled by the code words used in the legislation, in the explanatory memorandum or in the speeches that are coming from the other side that this is somehow like a services fee of council type origins. Senator Abetz made the point very clearly that this is more like making people join their local ratepayers association than making them actually pay their council rates.

All of us pay money in different forms of taxes to a whole variety of organisations—to local government, state government and federal government—under the guise of many different taxes, levies, charges et cetera. Frankly, way too much of it is wasted at every level. Student unions and student organisations are no different in that sense. We know that they will manage to waste money just as effectively as so many other areas of government sadly do. However, there is a difference and that is that students going to universities already pay for their essential services. Do you know why they go to universities? They go to universities for an education, for a qualification. They go to universities to get the essentials, which would be the teaching and the learning, and for the facilities that go with that of libraries, computers and the strong research environs. These are the things that our universities must and should be investing in. They are the essentials and they are what students pay for day in and day out through the fees they already pay. They do not need to be paying additional fees for services that for each student may well be—and quite often and usually are—non-essential.

Aside from the facts that they may not individually need those services and do not need to be forced to pay those fees, universities do not exist in isolation. Last time I checked, no university existed somewhere out there in the outback deserts of South Australia or the Northern Territory. There was no university detached from a city or town and having no services around it. University campuses exist in cities and towns and there are services all around those communities. The non-essential services of those communities can and do build up to respond to the demands of the campuses that exist in those cities and towns. That is the nature of the economy. If there is a need for catering services, catering services will be provided. If there is a need for child care, childcare services will be provided—indeed, with all of the support that the federal government provides, notwithstanding some of the questions about the likely rises in childcare fees that we see. That is a different, but very important, matter for the government to tackle. So universities are surrounded by all of the resources necessary to provide all of the types of services that the government claims need to be provided through the funding of compulsory fees. What rubbish! All the things that provide those services to students already exist.

Also, we hope universities are full of rather bright people who, if they want to organise a sporting club, some type of social activity or any type of communal event, service or amenity, have the wit and capacity to do so as a collective. That is what I would think and hope we have in our universities—people who themselves can achieve these things if they want to or need to. They do not need a government imposing a compulsory fee and a compulsory structure that will only serve to take money out of students’ pockets to fund things that they did not want in the first place.

What did compulsory student unionism give us the last time we had it? That, sadly, was not all that long ago. It took a long time to get rid of compulsory student unionism. What did it give us the last time we had it? Firstly, it gave us plentiful waste. I want to talk about services and amenities, as the bill is nebulously named. In 2004, the budget for the Monash University union had an amenities fee—note we have a bill about amenities now—of $428. Two hundred and thirty-eight dollars of that, comfortably more than half, went to administration. That would be the nebulous term for funnelling money to attend NUS conferences and all sorts of other ridiculous outlets. Thirty dollars went to building services. Just $22 went to sport—something that many people like to talk about—so only a small portion went to sport. Thirteen dollars went to clubs and societies, $5.40 went to childcare services and a fabulous 59c went to other student services. What a great use of students’ hard-earned money! So last time we had compulsory student unionism we very clearly had waste.

We also had the support of extremism. That same student association in 2007 contributed $1,500 towards the legal defence of convicted and jailed G20 rioter Akin Sari. It is also the same student organisation that produced stickers in 2003 that read ‘Bomb the White House’. What a responsible use of student money! More recently, the Melbourne university student union funded legal costs for a man accused of assaulting police officers and damaging a police station during a riot on Palm Island in Queensland. Whatever you think of that incident in Queensland, it is an outrageous and ridiculous use of students’ hard-earned money. So we have seen waste and we have seen extremism.

The other thing we see coming out of compulsory student unionism is blatant leftist partisanship—quite clearly partisanship that has run rampant. During the 2004 election, the National Union of Students spent—and remember this was all collected under compulsory levies on campuses across Australia—$75,000 on broadcasting electoral advertisements, $40,000 on a print campaign, $50,000 on how-to-vote posters and pamphlets and $90,000 on direct mail. That was more than a quarter of a million dollars collected in a compulsory manner from students around Australia.

I have a bit of personal experience of that. I do not want it to be suggested that I harbour a grudge in any way over this, but during that 2004 campaign I happened to be a candidate in a key marginal seat. Lo and behold, in the marginal seat in which I was running landed brochures funded and distributed by the National Union of Students. So that quarter of a million dollars of students’ money was lobbed into the letterboxes of the electorate I was running in, with the message: ‘Don’t let Simon Birmingham and John Howard take away our future.’ What a lovely message that was to receive in the letterboxes of the constituents of Hindmarsh! Of course, what a future the Howard government was providing—one of near full employment and growing wages. A great future was being provided and yet the NUS wanted to run a campaign arguing: ‘Don’t let Simon Birmingham and John Howard take away our future.’

The irony of the situation was that not only had I previously been a student paying compulsory student fees but also the following year, having lost that seat, I fronted up and re-enrolled at uni to undertake an MBA—and found myself paying compulsory student fees that were being funnelled off to the same National Union of Students that had campaigned against me just the year before. The irony of it all! I was refilling their coffers from the campaign they had run against me. But did I have a choice in the matter? No, no choice whatsoever.

What do those postgrad students actually get for their compulsory fees? We can talk about all different types of students, but let’s focus on those many postgraduate students who often work full time, squeezing their studies into the hours that they can—either during their working day or after hours—and dashing in and out of campus. Frankly I have to say that, when I returned to campus, I could see little more value for money than perhaps the discounted can of Coke that I got in the vending machine down the corridor from where my lectures were held. Honestly, I would rather have not had to part with the few hundred dollars to get a discounted can of Coke, because I was never going to drink that much Coke. I could never have managed to achieve a return on the money that I was paying—nor could most of those mature age students and postgrad students, nor the many undergrad students who also work very hard along the way to earn an income to support their studies.

Last time we had compulsory student unionism we got waste, we got extremism and we got partisanship. What awaits us if this proposal passes? I have no doubt it will end up being more of the same—more of the same where we will quite likely see students, all students, having to fork out money. If the maximum fee is levied, they will find themselves—if they are working hard in a part-time job somewhere—potentially having to work another 17½ hours to pay off the levy that they are being slugged. They will find themselves having to work an extra few days just to pay the levy that they are being slugged. That is what awaits us if this goes through.

Never mind those who will never access the resources or the services; they will have to pay it too. It will be utilised by a small minority who wish to take up the opportunity to engage themselves in campus life. Good luck to them, but let them fund it themselves and organise it themselves. The system in place has been, and is, working. There has been no enormous collapse of student life out there. Our universities are still functioning quite happily and quite normally. We see students still engaged in activities as they were before. Yes, sometimes, perhaps those who are seeking out those activities might have to pay a little bit more for it themselves because they are not being subsidised by others. But is that such a bad thing?

What we do not see any more is that political waste of money and that partisanship from student unions across the country that served to so damage the reputation of their own institutions. That is what it did. It hurt them and it ensured there was a strong desire and a strong kickback against it. Nobody likes to see their money used for purposes that they do not actually get any benefit from, but people get particularly annoyed when they see their hard earned money being used for things that they totally oppose. That especially includes the political campaigning.

I wanted to close with a quote from the representative from the University of Queensland Union who appeared before the Senate inquiry into this. He made it clear that the system is working. He said, in short:

…instead of shrivelling and dying, as was predicted by those with vested interests, we have actually increased the services that we offer and are flourishing under a VSU environment… More importantly, it is also in the interests of students, because they have the opportunity to enjoy a vibrant campus culture as well as representation without the need to be slugged $250 for it.

I say ‘hear, hear!’ to those remarks. They demonstrate well and truly that the system in place is working, has the potential to deliver for students and gives them the freedom that they deserve. I would urge the Senate to remember that fundamental principle—the importance of freedom of association—and, when it considers this bill, to vote for freedom of association and defeat this bill on its merits.