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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5068

Senator HUMPHRIES (8:04 PM) —I want to make a contribution to this debate as well. I have heard senators opposite in recent days proclaiming very proudly, with a certain coo in their voice, how much the government is delivering on its promises. They talk about delivering on the things they said they would do—Fair Work Australia and other measures—and proclaim the pride with which they are living up to the promises they made to the Australian people at the 2007 election. In some ways, however, the real test of a government’s faith with the community that elected it should not be how many promises it keeps but how many it breaks. With the introduction of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 this government has broken, in spectacular fashion, a promise it solemnly made to the Australian people in 2007.

Let us go back to the circumstances of that promise. Senator McGauran has touched on that already in his remarks. Mr Smith, the then shadow education minister, was asked whether there was an intention by the then federal opposition to bring forward legislation to reintroduce compulsory student unionism. The shadow minister made it very clear that there was no such intention. Why did Mr Smith make that commitment at that time, I wonder. What was his motivation in making such a commitment? He made reference to the pressure under which students were operating at that time. That of course came on top of a long campaign that the Australian Labor Party had run about the size of the HECS debts that students were facing and the other pressures on Australian students.

Now wind forward to August 2009. What has changed between now and then about the environment that students find themselves in? The answer is, of course, very little indeed. In fact, if anything the environment that students face dealing with the pressure of working and studying for a degree is even more onerous than it was at that time. Students still have very substantial HECS debts; students have to deal with the added complication of it being more difficult to access Youth Allowance, thanks to the so-called reforms of this government; and students will now as well have to face the prospect of a $250 annual payment for the privilege of attending an Australian university and studying at that university. That indicates the depth of this government’s betrayal of students, because nothing has changed to plausibly alter the environment in which that promise was made by Stephen Smith in the middle of 2007.

We can only conclude that the promise made at that time was a cynical ploy to hide the fact that the then government-in-waiting knew that it would be unpopular to promise the Australian community that it would restore compulsory student unionism, knowing that most students had embraced and welcomed the fact that under the Howard government they were no longer compelled to pay fees for services that in many cases they never used or they used to an extent that did not justify the size of the fees they were paying. They knew that. They knew the students did not want to pay those fees. They knew that students were very happy to have the choice available to them to decide whether or not they would purchase those services and belong to the unions. The cynical exercise we had from this government, when in opposition, saying, ‘We will not reimpose those fees because we know they are unpopular,’ and then, by subterfuge, imposing them once they got back into government is just breathtaking. So, I do not want to hear members opposite telling us how well they have kept their promises, because in this respect they have betrayed in spectacular style the spirit of honour of the promises they made to the Australian people.

This legislation enables the imposition of a fee of $250 per year on about one million Australian tertiary students irrespective of their ability to pay and irrespective of their interest in or ability to access the services that the fees pay for. As previous speakers in this debate have indicated, it disconnects the payment of the fee to a role in student organisations and a capacity to influence the way in which they are spent. Also, it amounts to a new tax on those people who choose to take up a university education. It imposes a new tax at a time when there is enormous pressure on Australian families and there is absolutely a need to try to relieve the pressure that students have to study and work under. This government has decided to increase the burden on students for reasons that can only be to do with some kind of pact that the government has made with those student organisations that have so generously supported the Australian Labor Party and this government in the past. It is a tawdry deal to pay back a debt that was created by virtue of the election of this government in 2007.

At the heart of this legislation is the principle that this government does not trust the judgment of students. At the heart of the legislation is the idea that the government should make a decision on behalf of students as to what is in those students’ best interests when it comes to the purchase of services in relation to their university education. This is ironic because we accept into our universities the most talented and brightest people in that age cohort. They are the people who will become the doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists, the lawyers, the engineers, the foresters and the teachers of our society. They are the people we want to lead our society in the future. They are the people we expect, on a day to day basis as professionals a few years hence from the beginning of their university degrees, to be the leaders of our society in so many different ways—in a professional sense and in a more broad social sense. We will trust these people to make important decisions about our welfare as our doctors, as our lawyers, as the engineers of our roads, bridges and aircraft, as our accountants or in any other of a variety of ways. We expect these people to exercise great judgment on behalf of the whole community, but we say to these same people: ‘Sorry, you do not know what is best for you. You cannot make your own decision about whether or not you should belong to a student union. You do not have the capacity to discern whether a service provided by an organisation on your campus is or is not worth paying for.’ That is the contemptible attitude that this government has towards the opinions and judgment of Australian students.

If I have mischaracterised this in some way perhaps the government can enlighten me. Why do we need to tell students that they must pay this fee for student services? Why can’t the best and brightest of our society discern what is in their best interests when they go onto a campus and decide what course they want to do and how they want to balance study and work? Why can’t they make that decision about what is in their best interests? Why can’t they discern what services a particular organisation provides and then decide whether or not to purchase them? Clearly, they can, but it is not in the interests of this government to give them that choice.

Some people have said to me that compulsory student fees are warranted because people, at least those who are studying full-time or coming onto campus regularly—and of course that does not include many tens of thousands of Australian students these days, but let us put that argument to one side for a moment—are likely to want to use those services and, because there is a need for all students to be involved in the organisations concerned to make them work well, they need to belong to them. It is argued that they are more effective when everybody belongs to those organisations, or at least puts their dollars into their operation. The argument could well be put that if I lived in the particular part of my community in which there was a sports club—a golf club, or a tennis club or something of that kind—and I get a letter in the mail saying: ‘This facility is very important to the people who choose to use it. You live in this community and therefore you too should pay to belong to this organisation or to get the benefit of that service.’ At the end of the day, what is the difference between those two scenarios? We do not compel people to belong to organisations in our community; we do not compel them to belong to a bowling club, or a sports club, or the P&C or any organisation in our community. Even in the workplace in this day and age, membership of the trade union is not compulsory, to the best of my knowledge. So why alone, among all the ways in which people might live in contemporary society, do we expect them, in effect, to belong to one particular organisation, that being a student union?

I appreciate that the government has disconnected membership of the organisation from payment of the fee to that organisation, but that is a subterfuge. It is a device to get around the fact that it is effectively forcing people to belong to student organisations. Why do we expect that to happen in the case only of university campuses and nowhere else in our society? It is simply not logical. I have some knowledge of these matters; I am not speaking in a vacuum of experience. I myself was president of a student organisation—I was the president of the students association at Australia’s premier university, the Australian National University—and I had great pleasure attempting to connect the organisation to which I belonged to the students who went to that university. I thought it was a substantial achievement—and indeed it was, comparatively speaking, in those days—to get student elections happening where one in every five students would cast a vote. By the standards of university elections in those days, and I think even more so today, that was quite an achievement.

But I acknowledged that the biggest obstacle I faced in attempting to run a good student organisation which delivered services that students on my campus wanted was the fact that there was such a serious disconnection between those people who, under compulsion, paid the fees to the university for the purpose of payment to the student organisations and the involvement of those students in those organisations in making decisions about how they spent that money. There was a constant problem of students being uninterested—even disinterested—in the activities of those organisations and being unable or unwilling to connect with the process of working out what they wanted because, no matter what they wanted, they would still have to pay the compulsory fee. There was no sense of market mechanisms and no responses expected from those who paid the dollars. Student organisations did as they pleased because they could behave in any way imaginable and they would still receive the same amount of money from the students who were compelled to belong to them. That undermined and destroyed enormous amounts of innovation and reform in student organisations for decades. They had no impulse from their constituencies—their marketplace, if you like—to which they had to respond when designing and running their services.

That has changed in some parts of Australia. We have heard about the experience of the University of Western Australia. It changed after 2005, when the voluntary student unionism legislation of the Howard government was passed. Although the student unions themselves have complained bitterly about those new circumstances, I think it is in fact easy to discern that substantial improvements have been made in the way that student unions have been run and have responded to the needs of their membership. The fact is that student campuses are very different to the sorts of places that they were back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when I was on campus. There are many more students these days who are external, who study part time, who cannot or in a practical sense are not able to use student services on campus and who just do not get value from money from the sorts of fees that you have to pay to belong to a full-time organisation. Indeed, many students do not view life on a university campus in the way that they did back in, say, the 1970s. The experience of being at a university, being an undergrad and doing all the things on campus and so forth is a relevant concept for fewer and fewer students. That should mean that the nature of student organisations and the services they provide should change. But they will not change if we do not build in a mechanism to allow what students want and what they get from their student organisations to be linked.

I have no doubt that most students do not support the legislation which this government is putting through the parliament at the moment. I have no doubt at all that when students moved away from paying student union fees after the passage of the 2005 legislation they were acting in a conscious, well-informed and rational way. They were saying, ‘I am making a decision about what I can afford and what I think is necessary for my welfare and the quality of my degree by saying that I will not join this particular organisation.’ The Australian Democrats conducted a survey some time ago in which they found that 59 per cent of students were against compulsory fees. That was reflected in the fact that in recent years something like five per cent of students only ever take part in elections on campus for student organisations. The only way to fix that lack of identification with the work of student unions is to require those unions to appeal to their members, to say to their members: ‘Here’s what we offer. Here is what we want to do with your money. If you belong to us we will deliver these services to you.’ They should do this in the same way that any organisation any of us in this place belong to does in order to win our support and our dollars. It is extremely sad and very damaging for the quality of student services that, with this legislation, the government will again cut that nexus between the requirements and expectations of students and the money that they pay to student organisations.

Let me conclude by saying that universities in this day and age are expected to be institutions of freedom—freedom of thought and freedom of action. Yet what we see with this legislation is the singling out of Australian university students and saying to them that they are almost unique in our society as being people to whom we will say, ‘You do not have the freedom to decide whether you belong to or financially support particular organisations connected with an activity with which you are involved, in this case your education. You can choose to belong to a social club, to your union when you go to work, to a sporting organisation, to a political party or to a P&C council at your local school. You can choose to belong to any of those organisations, but you cannot, in effect, choose to belong to a student union. At least you cannot choose not to put your money into that organisation.’ That is a very, very strange paradigm that this government puts forward.

The misuse of funds by unions—and Senator McGauran made reference to that in his remarks—is certainly a serious issue and one that I think will be a much more serious problem in the future with the passage of this legislation. But the bigger issue is the breaking of the nexus between student money and the way in which it is spent. I predict that we will see a great deal more of this in the future and all of us will have reason to regret the way in which student unions spend their money because we will have made the decision, if this legislation is passed, to break that nexus. I appeal to the Senate not to pass this legislation because it is simply fundamentally wrong and in particular because it is bad for student unionism. It is bad for the quality of the services provided by student organisations to their own members.