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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5072

Senator RONALDSON (8:24 PM) —I congratulate Senator Humphries on that speech. He very clearly articulated, as have so many of my colleagues during the day, why the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 should be defeated. I do not intend spending a lot of time tonight on this, given the hour. Over the last 18 months or so I have seen many glaring examples of this government’s political dishonesty. There is no more glaring example of political dishonesty than this bill. If you look back—and my colleagues have already quoted the now Minister for Foreign Affairs, the former shadow minister for education, Stephen Smith—you simply cannot account for this legislation in light of the foreign minister’s comments in 2007. I know it has been done ad nauseam, but I will repeat them as, quite frankly, it should have been done ad nauseam. He said:

So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

What could be clearer than those words? My colleagues have articulated a wide range of arguments in relation to why this bill should be defeated. I will go through some of those that are particularly important to me.

There is a group of 130,000 people who are studying externally and who will be exposed to this levy. There has been some reminiscing about former student days, and I am one of those ones who were lucky enough to have a free education. I cannot remember what it was—quite frankly, it was so long ago, regrettably—or whether I was on a Commonwealth scholarship for fees, but I know I did not pay for it. But university life has changed. When I first went to university, in perhaps 1971, if you had said to someone that there would be 130,000 students studying externally you would have been looked at as if you were stark raving mad, because that was not the way universities were run when I went to university. But the world has changed and fortunately there is now the ability for people to study externally. Fortunately there is now a group of people who would never have had the opportunity to study who can now do so. Whatever governments, in whatever guise, have added to that, all power to them. But those people should not bear the responsibility for a fee that they will not benefit from.

The other matter I want to raise particularly is in relation to the enforcement provisions and the very real, and I would say almost definite, opportunity for political abuse. As Senator Mason has said, while the bill prohibits universities or any third parties which might receive money from spending it in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing to prevent the money being spent on political campaigns, political causes or quasi-political organisations per se. I think it was Senator McGauran who quite rightly said that, when abuses of this fee under its old guise were so clearly obvious, why would anyone who took the remotest interest in this debate have any confidence that the university administrators were going to do any more to ensure the integrity of this process than they did under the old process? Every single person who went to university knew exactly how it was being abused, and it was a de facto reallocation of money for political purposes.

I know, as many senators know, that universities are under enormous pressure at the moment. I recognise that. I do not wish to place any more pressure on them, but the point I want to make is that the resources required to police the allocation of these funds will simply not be there. When there were a lot of people to police the allocation of these funds, it was not done, and it most certainly will not be done in the current economic climate. Senator Mason quite rightly said that, when this reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are going to require students to be the whistleblowers of a flawed system. What an appalling piece of public policy it is to force young people, students, to become the whistleblowers on what will undoubtedly be abuse of the process. Quite frankly, the foreign minister’s words are seen to be, with a bit of hindsight, absolute weasel words. What I would like to know is: what grubby deals were done when the weasel words were being used? And who was told, ‘We will fix this up despite what we have said publicly’? What deals were done and who were they done with?

I will finish on this note. In the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 August, a Labor source belled the cat in relation to this matter. I will read from a story by Phil Coorey, the chief political correspondent:

The Education Minister, Julia Gillard, has in recent days reinforced Labor’s election pledge that ‘there would not be a return to compulsory student unionism’.

But a Labor source said Ms Gillard was choosing her language carefully. Labor would not reintroduce a compulsory student union membership but the fee which accompanied the membership and funded services.

So what we now know from Labor sources back in 2008 is that this has been policy in the making for some time. I suspect this had been policy in making prior to the 2007 election. I equally suspect that the deals were done prior to the 2007 election to reintroduce this fee, which would in effect force students back into student unions. I find it extraordinary that a party that apparently pleads the case for freedom of association is so completely and utterly devoid of any integrity in relation to this debate that they will pick out, as Senator Humphries said, one group of people for whom they are prepared to sell their principles down the drain because of some deal that has undoubtedly been done.

I have not heard one skerrick of evidence from the minister, the minister representing the minister, those on the other side or anyone else. There is not one person who has convinced me that there will be any ability of the universities to police and sanction those who are abusing the system. There will undoubtedly be abuse, because you could drive a truck through the definitions of where this money can be allocated.

I find it personally objectionable that an 18-year-old student just out of school—inexperienced politically, socially and in every other way—is going to be left to whistle-blow on abuses of this system. I think that is utterly appalling. The Labor Party stand condemned for a dirty deal that was done in the past and they stand utterly condemned for their political dishonesty. I will finish as I started. I again quote from the then shadow minister for education and training, Stephen Smith, when he said back in 2007:

So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

Game, set and match.