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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1642

Mr MELHAM (7:28 PM) —I rise to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I want to commend the Minister for Youth and Sport for her championing of this bill in terms of our processes and within this parliament. It is the right thing to do. It is repairing a lot of damage that was done by the previous government, damage that I will come to shortly. I am disappointed that the opposition are not supporting this bill, but I am not surprised.

I think it is important that I tell a story to the House. It is a very interesting story and it relates to the time that I first met the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Wentworth, Mr Turnbull. I studied at Sydney university from 1974 to 1976 in economics—that is the main campus—and from 1977 to 1978 I was at the law school. I was not a student politician, though there were plenty of them there—and I will go through some of them; a number of them are in this House. The current Leader of the Opposition was on the union board. There was a student representative council, which the member for Warringah pursued in terms of his student political career. The Leader of the Opposition was a member of the University of Sydney Union board, which was also elected by the students. One of the other members was a good friend of mine, the former state leader of the opposition, Kerry Chikarovski. She is someone who can verify the story that I am about to tell.

The University of Sydney Union wanted to increase the fees. We paid an entrance fee and we also paid an annual fee, and it was a fixed fee. The proposal that came forward from the University of Sydney Union board, of which the current Leader of the Opposition was a leading member and leading advocate of the proposal, was that the entrance fee should be indexed to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings and the annual fee should also be indexed to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. The annual fee dealt with food and other facilities in relation to the university. I was a member of the Sydney university Labor club. I did not hold a position other than returning officer, which I regarded as the most important position of the organisation! It was our view that the entrance fee was over the top. We took the view that, in terms of services, it was appropriate to increase the annual fee to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings because it went directly to students’ ongoing facilities within the university. We opposed the increase of the entrance fee to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings because the then union board wanted to use that to build an edifice in the Wentworth Building on City Road, similar to the University of New South Wales. It has subsequently been fixed. It was an interesting process. The rules of the union said that you needed a two-thirds majority at the first meeting and a simple majority at a subsequent meeting. A two-thirds majority was obtained for both propositions at the first meeting, but when it came to the second meeting only the annual fee was allowed to be increased to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. The current Leader of the Opposition tried to argue that, even though the proposition for the entrance fee was defeated at the second meeting, they could continue to call subsequent meetings until a simple majority carried the proposition. He abandoned that pretty quickly. At times he can be a bit of a kite-flyer.

The reason for the story is that he recognised then, as he should recognise now, that there should be these sorts of fees for student facilities, that indexing them is not a bad thing because it maintains the real earnings for the organisation and their ability to spend, and that there is nothing wrong with the proposition that that fee should apply across the university population. It is only through that that you will get the revenue to be able to deliver the adequate services. So the current Leader of the Opposition took a position as a student occupying a position at university which directly contradicts the position that the opposition is now taking in relation to this instance. That is the reason I relay the story. It helps to have a little history here to see whether people are being consistent over time. The reason we opposed the entrance fee indexation was that we thought we did not need edifices, that it was sufficient at the time.

In relation to the alternative Leader of the Opposition, the member for Higgins, I notice that he is listed to speak in the debate on this bill at a later hour. I do not know what he will say. I wait with anticipation. I appreciate the fact that it is the first time he has spoken on a substantive bill since the election of the new parliament, apart from the valedictory, which was a wonderful valedictory—

Mr Anthony Smith —What about on your spending package?

Mr MELHAM —If he has spoken on that then I apologise to the honourable member. I did not notice it. But I am glad that he is speaking on this bill, which is the main point because I would like to know what he says. I have in front of me a media release dated 23 March 1999 from the then member for Dobell, the Hon. Michael Lee, in relation to this. The press release says:

When he was President of the Monash Association of Students, in 1978, Mr Costello wrote an article for the student newspaper, Lot’s Wife, in which he strongly and explicitly supported universal union fees.

The press release goes on to quote Mr Costello as follows:

‘The funding, and therefore provision of the various student services, would be impossible unless there were some requirements to pay a contribution towards them the facilities of student unions are only practical on the basis of compulsory contributions ...’

The press release then says:

Mr Costello went on to equate compulsory student union fees with compulsory taxes and to warn against the danger of ‘Government legislation to stop student unions on a permanent basis.’

I am interested as to whether that earlier iteration is maintained by him this evening. What is happening here is that people are bringing the baggage from their student union days into this debate. There is an ideological divide. The Left do not control all the campuses on universities nor do the Right. It is interesting that the member for Higgins was chairman of the Monash Association of Students; the member for Warringah was president of Sydney university SRC; the member for North Sydney was also president of Sydney university SRC, 1986 to 1987; the Deputy Prime Minister was president of the Australian Union of Students in 1983; the member for Sydney held the women’s officer position at the University of Technology, Sydney; and Mr Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, was president of Melbourne university SRC. I also note that the Minister for Sport was the general secretary of Flinders University SRC in 2000. That all comes from the article in the Australian, which I will take as accurate. I would suggest that that should give each of those members—irrespective of what side of the House they sit on—the knowledge and understanding of what services are actually provided by student unions on campuses.

My experience was that the services at Sydney university were first rate. You could use some and not the others. But in order to make them viable—in order to make the eating facilities at the Wentworth Building or the Holme Building or elsewhere viable—the student union needed to get money in. I am not necessarily defending some of the causes which those unions voted money towards. Some of them I do not agree with; some of them I do. At the end of the day, the way to deal with them is not to bleed those services and, in effect, kill them off through a death of a thousand cuts; it is actually to remove the relevant office holders through an election within the university’s democratic processes. That is why at Sydney university we had changes in the Students Representative Council from the Labor club, or people to the left of the Labor Party, to those associated with the member for Warringah or the member for North Sydney. It was done that way. If you went too far, people organised against you—rather than a government coming down in a crushing way.

What we can now see—and I have been given some briefing notes in relation to this bill—is the impact of the legislation that was passed by the former government. We are told that the previous government’s approach stripped $170 million from campuses. The dental services in places like La Trobe University and Southern Cross University were closed down completely. The University of Technology in Sydney, La Trobe University and James Cook University closed their legal services. In the case of UTS, it not only affected students but also the local community, who had also been able to access that service. The emergency loan scheme once offered at the University of Sydney was closed. At least three universities shut down their Centrelink advice services. Nine universities shut down their student legal and taxation advice services. Childcare fees at La Trobe University rose by $800 a year. Direct funding for sporting clubs was cut by 40 per cent. There are now 12,000 fewer students participating in sport at university, which is a 17 per cent reduction since 2005. In relation to sport, there are obviously other matters that the government and others have submitted on, including people involved with the Olympics movement.

The university that I have the closest involvement with is the University of Western Sydney, and the Milperra campus is in my electorate. It is a university that has campuses in a number of electorates in Western Sydney. I am also involved as Vice-President of Revesby Workers Club, which is a very large licensed club in the area, and we have 34,000 members and 36 sporting and other organisations under our umbrella. One of them is our Little Athletics club, which has 300 members. On Friday nights, they and their parents use the university oval at Milperra. We as a club have poured in tens and tens of thousands of dollars as part of our partnership to use that service. But I have seen a deterioration in the other sporting facilities on the same site. The athletics club erected some lights and recently had to repair them. No disrespect to the university—but they do not have the resources to maintain the facility. A number of organisations are no longer training on the oval or using the oval, so there is less community involvement. These are the direct consequences of taking away a cash pool that the student movement and the university can use to provide facilities across the spectrum.

As I said, I am happy to concede to members of the opposition that, at times in the past, some of these organisations have engaged in inappropriate activity. But I say to them that their solution is not the right way to deal with it. Indeed, in terms of the bill before the House, there is a limitation on what the money can be used for. A set of guidelines has been developed which outlines the range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. If that needs to be modified over time as a result of examples that come before it, I think the government should look at that. But there is also a situation where, frankly, the university in many respects is going to be the one that administers it.

I think the minister has done a terrific job. Some might criticise it, but this is not a simple area; it is not black or white. I take offence that sometimes what is being said here is that student unions should keep their mouths shut on political matters. That is an argument that is used in terms of prisoners: ‘Don’t worry about human rights in prisons. If someone is a prisoner—bad luck. It does not matter what is done to them in the jail.’ When it comes to students: ‘Students should be seen and not heard on political matters.’

A number of people in this place got their political education at university. Post university, some have changed the politics they had at university—on both sides. I found that I was not particularly interested in a lot of these organisations at university. They did nothing for me. I did discover the Labor Party, through Gough Whitlam and the 1974 election—which is why I joined the Labor club at university—but involvement was limited. The Labor club is a separate club to the student union; it did not rely on money, but we were involved. That is also where I met the member for Warringah. I have known about his form dating back to the early seventies, and he has not changed. He is a remarkable creature to study.

Mr Anthony Smith —Have you changed?

Mr MELHAM —I have changed for the better; I have changed for the worse. There is no change one way or the other. At the end of the day, the record speaks for itself. I tell you what, Madam Deputy Speaker: what my history does show is what you see is what you get. That is why I described earlier how I met the Leader of the Opposition. I quite like him. I have always liked him because in our relationship we have had our differences of opinion and we have been on the same side in a number of issues but there has always been respect and courtesy, which is what this is about. What I say to members of the opposition is: it is not about trying to punish people because they are on the opposite side; there has to be a set of principles here where you allow people to practise within certain parameters. Where this bill overcomes a lot of the problems in relation to student unions of the earlier days that those on the opposition benches complain of is that they are not going to be able to engage in those activities. But what we need to do is reinvigorate student activism or involvement, even if it is of only a select few.

Some of the members in this place do not have very representative branch structures, yet they are members of a federal parliament. There might be 140,000 people in your electorate, but when it comes to branch structures there are not many that have more than 1,000—or more than 500. Some might argue you have no right to open your mouth here when it comes to people who select you in the first instance, because you are representative of a narrow clique of people but you are then judged. So I think that the former government made a mistake. I spoke at the time and I said that they made a mistake, and, frankly, the material that has come in since the former government made the change shows that mistakes were made. I say to the House and to the opposition: do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us go forward with a situation that will help reinvigorate these campuses, which are cash-strapped and cannot provide services unless a bill in this form passes through this chamber and the next chamber.

What I find interesting is people fighting old battles from when they were involved in the student union. I think you are entitled to draw on that evidence. You are entitled to draw on the material, and if the situation is such that you can say, ‘These services weren’t provided and these inappropriate services were’ then there is a way around that. It seems to me that one of your arguments is that you do not like compulsion. Well, let’s not pay taxes; let’s not have driving licences before you can drive a car; let’s not request that people do jury service; let’s not have compulsory voting. You see, compulsion is built into our society at a number of levels and it should be built in at this level, but it should be in a way that has a structure that is accountable, that can be viewed by government from time to time to ensure that it is meeting the principles that we as a parliament lay down.

I commend the bill to the House. I think it is a bill worthy of support and I again commend the minister on bringing the bill forward in its current form. I know not everyone is happy with it but I think it is a good balance.