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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2450

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (9:14 AM) —As I was saying—I think about a week ago, when I was interrupted by question time—the Howard government’s 1999 legislation sought to amend the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 in order to make voluntary student unionism a condition of Commonwealth grants to higher education institutions. I ask the House: what is voluntary about this? It was compulsory to be voluntary! Where was the choice given to universities? The Labor Party respects university autonomy; the Liberal Party does not.

The effects of Howard government legislation on students were both adverse and severe. Take the example of La Trobe University. Its Students Representative Council has advised me that in 2006, the last full year of the compulsory general service fee, the university collected just over $7 million from it. In 2007, the university provided a total of $3.3 million—so less than half of this—for the provision of student services on campus. As a consequence of this change, the La Trobe University student dental service, also used by students at RMIT Bundoora, was closed. The free legal service was taken over by the university and its operation changed. The SRC had also offered a free tax service for students—this was closed. The SRC had operated a second-hand bookstore for many years, which sold textbooks to students at well below the price of a new text—this was closed. Clubs and societies funding was cut by 25 per cent, student magazine funding was cut by 70 per cent and representation funding was cut by 80 per cent. I have no doubt that that cut in student advocacy was exactly what the Howard government, the previous government, wanted to achieve.

As student organisations represent a source of criticism from time to time, the Liberal government had determined that they must be crippled and crushed. That is what voluntary student unionism was all about; it was not about some benign view of giving students a choice. By contrast, the National Union of Students and other student bodies had been highly critical of the previous federal Labor government over HECS and other issues. Nevertheless, the Labor Party—and this is one of the conspicuous differences between us and those opposite—is big enough to take criticism and big enough to tolerate dissent, and we did not try to kill off student unions.

Liberal Party paternalism toward young people that says, ‘We know what is best for you; you cannot manage your own affairs’—that kind of arrogance and authoritarianism—shows a dislike of the pluralism and tolerance which, in the Labor Party’s view, makes us a richer, more diverse and more successful community.

I am delighted to be given the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and to support it through the House. I hope that it makes its way through the Senate and becomes legislation as soon as possible.