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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5064

Senator McGAURAN (7:45 PM) —I accept, indeed I even respect, Senator Xenophon’s approach to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 bill, in an attempt to put forward amendments to clean up the government’s true intent. The true intent is to return compulsory student unionism to universities. I will leave it to the shadows to study and scrutinise the amendments, as you invited us to, Senator Xenophon; I will leave it to more authoritative persons to speak to you about that, but as I heard them—and you have been around a long time—you were seeking nothing short of Labor Party commitments. I did not think there was anything written into the legislation for what you were seeking. You sought commitments, but there was a commitment at the election to not even introduce this legislation—to maintain the VSU, voluntary student unionism, as passed in 2004 by the previous government. That was a commitment and it was overturned, as so many of Labor’s election commitments are overturned.

So, Senator Xenophon, I warn you—I feel I must because even you need jolting from time to time—do not fall for commitments. You need more than a commitment, because the intent of this legislation is clear. Every one of my colleagues that stood up—and there has been a long list of speakers—came to the same point. We have debated the fundamental principle in this bill, and that is: should there be freedom of association or compulsory association? That is the guts, if you like, of this bill. We have debated it. We have set out our beliefs—there is no secret to them. Not one speaker from the other side—and I have been listening intently, boring and laborious as many of them have been, and most reading off the same script—has come to the fundamental principle of this bill: freedom of association versus compulsory association.

That is a pretty basic principle in our society. It has a cascading effect in just about everything we do. If you cannot get it right at the universities, if you enforce association at universities, if you deny individual choice at universities, what else does that mean? Well, of course, for the Labor Party, it is a basic cornerstone belief. They would like to see it—if they thought they could get away with it with the adults—in the union movement itself.

So I come to this debate, like all of my colleagues, to reject it out of hand. The $250 per year, amounting to over $1,000 for a degree, is nothing short of compulsory payment—all dressed up, of course, in new terminology, such as ‘amenity fee’. We are to believe that, under the cover of this legislation, it will be raised, collected and controlled by the university administrations. The university vice-chancellors would have us believe that they will responsibly administer the tens of millions of dollars that the universities will raise, that they will allocate it to sporting clubs and other campus activities as they see fit, whilst maintaining an audit control over it all. That is what they would have us believe. The truth is that that will not happen. It has never happened in the past—why would it change?

It is quite clear where the vice-chancellors stand on this matter of principle. There is no misunderstanding what vice-chancellors have said before, at every Senate committee, the most recent one in 2009. At the committee when we had our own VSU legislation, in 2004, we had vice-chancellor after vice-chancellor come before us saying that compulsory student unionism is necessary. The vice-chancellors have always had a bent for compulsory student unionism, and have always allowed the union to run amok because there have been no checks and balances. As the vice-chancellors would put it: ‘That’s university life, isn’t it?’

Where were they, what were they saying, when the Melbourne university travel club collapsed twice and students lost their money? What were the vice-chancellors saying when hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent in the 2004 campaign? I just happen to have with me the third party return of electoral expenditure of the National Union of Students, just to verify my claim, and the claim of so many others, that they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in electioneering campaigns against the coalition, with a political bias to have Labor elected into government. The address of the National Union of Students might interest people: suite 64 Trades Hall, Victoria Street, Carlton—right in the depths of Trades Hall, free rent, no doubt, so they can be even further cultivated by the union movement. This is what they spent in the 2004 election : broadcasting electoral advertisements, $77,371; publishing electoral advertisements, $40,758.20; production of campaign materials, $49,199; and direct mailing, $87,979. That was just the 2004 election.

The track record of university administrations in overseeing the good governance of student unions is, quite frankly, negligent. Did we ever hear university administrations call for responsible and accountable expenditure of union funds? What we heard from the university administrators was, as I said before, ‘Well, that’s all just part of university life.’ My colleague here, Senator Fifield, might remember because he sat on the committee in 2004. In that committee hearing there was a vice-chancellor famously quoted that compulsory student unionism was required because the students were too immature to make their own choices. I also note that in the current report the student union is quite concerned that the administration will not be fair on them and that they ought to be independent. The University of Sydney Union said:

We would like the Government to ensure that Universities refrain from micromanagement of these funds to avoid a culture of bureaucracy …

I bet they would. But they have not got too much trouble. The vice-chancellors will pretty much do that and, if they do not, we know the intent of the legislation. It says in the committee report by the majority of government senators that the intent of the government is that students should be formally involved in all decision making. Drop the facade on the other side, with whatever speakers you have left. This is an overturning of VSU and a return to compulsory student unionism.

You have been trying to grapple with the rationale of it all, trying to cover it all up, but it all comes back to just that: the old ideological debate. What you promised in the election, you have not kept. My colleagues have properly quoted the then shadow minister for education, Mr Stephen Smith. I was just going to comment on his current performances as foreign minister. Who would want to be foreign minister with that Prime Minister? When asked a question, ‘Are you considering a compulsory amenities fee on students?’ he said:

No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, 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.

Could the breaking of that promise and the dishonesty in this legislation be any clearer? Probably everything Mr Garrett said during the election—that you were going to change everything once you got in—was right. He was right; you have, and this is a classic example. We on this side never doubted that you would revisit this issue. We know that this is an icon issue for the Labor Party, particularly from the deep Left of the Labor Party. We know that this is where the Left’s beliefs hit the road and what their very ideology is built on.

Compulsory student unionism is probably the last remnant of the Left’s decaying system of beliefs. Consider this as one of their foundation stones: they believe intensely that people ought to be forced to join unions. This is what they basically build the whole structure of the Left around. This is their idea of liberty and of human rights. There is only one reason that they seek to dictate membership: they are very well aware that these student unions are inevitably controlled and occupied by the Left. It is where the Left basically hatch their young. It is all on other people’s money, of course. It is where they learn to live on the abuse of other people’s money, which holds them in good stead for entering the Labor Party in years to come. They are always dealing with other people’s money and thinking about where they can get their hands on other people’s money.

For the Liberal party this is very much a touchstone issue too, as the list of speakers and their passion has verified. This is a touchstone belief for the conservative side of politics and our belief is really quite rational and quite pure in its form. It is based on the belief that the choice of the individual student—the choice of whether you join a union or whether you do not join a union—ought to be respected. It is a very pure piece of ideology. Our belief is about stopping the decades and decades of student unions’ corruption, incompetence and misappropriation and replacing it with accountability, choice and values.

It is $250 in the first year—and every year—and you can be sure that will go up. It should not be compulsory. Students should pay for the amenity that they seek to use. The amenity needs to operate effectively so as to attract the students. Frankly, this is a battle of ideology. It is a battle of ideology—and to the death. When we return to government, we will revisit this and we will overturn this—rest assured and mark those words. We are not letting go any more than the Left will let go of this issue. We are going to revisit the hatcheries of the Left—for the greater welfare of Australia, of course.

I have heard many of the previous speakers talk about the need to preserve the universities’ culture and lifestyle. The way to do this, of course, is through this legislation—to enforce compulsory unionism. The amenities are there to deepen the education and experience of students. If this could be achieved through the student unions then it may well be acceptable, even desirable, but it has never been and it will never be. It is fantasy land; it is dreamland. I am sorry, Senator Joyce; I heard your speech and it was commendable. But, while you were walking around idealising and developing your character at university, you were being robbed by the student unions. I am glad you got through university without noticing that they were robbing you blind all the time that you were there.

Take, for example, Monash University. Talking about Monash University, I see in the report of the Senate committee inquiry into this bill that the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University called the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation, and the principle of voluntary student unionism, a ‘disgrace’. No, it was worse, for those connoisseurs of the English language—he called it ‘outrageous’. That is the current Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, a man who will really stand up for the principles of human rights and liberty—he describes voluntary student unionism, the principle and the legislation, ‘outrageous’. Did that particular vice-chancellor notice that at his university, back in 2004—and probably every year prior to the voluntary student unionism legislation—students were paying compulsory fees of about $428 a year and more than half of that, $238, went to student union administration? It outlines where half of it went—$13 for clubs and societies, $22 for sports, $5.40 for child care, 28c for food and services; but the other half went to the student union, to their campaigning and to their national body, and probably overseas to all sorts of political organisations. Did that vice-chancellor notice that? Had any of the vice-chancellors noticed that? Are we to believe that things are going to change under this legislation? Hardly.

This idealising university life as though it were the fields of Eton, while the left just rip off the students, ought to be exposed. It is all about raw politics and money. That is what it is about for the student unions. That is what they want to get their hands on. They want to play politics with it—and, of course, they are aided and abetted by the government, because they know they will all grow up one day and come in here. It is full of them—that is where they learn to milk the purse; they do not stop when they come in here. This is an issue that goes to the highest levels. It is debated in the state parliament, it is debated in the federal parliament and it will continue to be debated. It is a base ideological debate for both sides of the parliament and we will not rest when we get into government. You can say it is your turn at the moment, should Senator Xenophon support you, but rest assured we will hang onto our principle and we will revisit this issue.

There was a clear reason, beyond the principle of compulsory unionism, why we set out to overturn the legislation when we were in government—because post-2004 it all worked. Everything the doomsayers said did not occur; there was not a mad collapse. What did collapse were certain unions here in the ACT that were completely out of control, but you did not see Western Australia or any of the Melbourne university unions collapse. You saw some amenities pared back because they were overindulged anyway, but you saw the value of the real amenities come forward. You saw them working—and so they do. So we are just returning to the bad old days.

I have heard the other speakers say that once the VSU legislation came in there was disaster—childcare centres shut down et cetera. But it did not occur. Look a lot closer than that. What did occur, which you are using as the rule, were certain exceptions. Anyway, talking about childcare centres and amenities: speak to the students. University childcare centres are no cheaper. There was the perfect example given of the University of Technology Sydney. This was given some years ago, but it would not have changed much. The Magic Pudding Child Care Centre was no cheaper than the private childcare centre down the road. What sort of subsidy is that? Walk into a student gymnasium. You will notice that the fee to join is not too cheap at all. So there is a bit of a fallacy here. I guess they are not too cheap because half of the fees used to go into union administration.

Like all my colleagues I call upon the Senate to reject this legislation. I particularly call upon Senator Xenophon not to accept any lousy commitment from the other side.