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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 872

Senator PETER RAE(11.38) —In defence of the Australian National University Council, Senator Harradine's reference to it is a slight exaggeration . I have been concerned about the attempt by any government to impose on the university rules and requirements in relation to what should happen, but because it is by the strength of statute made by this Parliament that the university is able to exist and to assert various requirements, including the requirement for the payment of fees, it is our function to discuss the issue. The Berzins case took a tremendous amount of time at the university. An appeal procedure was created. I was a member of the appeals committee that dealt with the case. It has a longer history than Senator Harradine suggested.

Senator Harradine —I know the history very well indeed, Senator, because I know Berzins and have his file. If you want to have a debate on it we can have it at some other time.

Senator PETER RAE —I was trying not to. I was just trying to say that eventually steps were taken by the university which were a lot fairer that those initially taken by some of the hotheads who wanted to take the very strict attitude to which Senator Haradine referred. Eventually, a series of appeals meetings was held for people who had conscientious objections. Over a period of some years that system has been developed. I think the Minister was wrong in saying that there has been a continuous attitude from 1978 onwards.

Senator Harradine —That is right. It was only forced upon them then.

Senator PETER RAE —The membership of the Council changes from year to year, as does the majority in the Council. I can remember that I could not get a seconder to a motion I moved at one Council meeting. Eventually it was carried unanimously. That took me about six years. That is the sort of change that takes place on the university Council. A tremendous amount of time and effort has been put into the question of voluntary student membership. The voluntary nature of membership is the current proposal of the university Council. I would not wish it to be taken that some of the sins of 1978 or so are the sins of the current Council. I think lessons were learned as a result of some actions which in my view were unjustifiable at the time but which were ultimately correct.

Senator Harradine —Don't you think the 1979 legislation helped?

Senator Ryan —The Council opposed the legislation in 1979.

Senator PETER RAE —By a majority.

Senator Ryan —Peter, the Council opposed it.

Senator PETER RAE —Yes, by a majority. The Council objected to the legislation. It eventually spent a great deal of time working out how it was going to implement it. The reasons for the objection varied. Some of them were objections in principle and some objections in practice. Some objections were about the practicalities of the implementation of the legislation. It was not so simple. Let us not spend too long on this; I just want to try to defend the Council from being accused of being the most monstrous body that ever existed, which is the impression one could get listening to some honourable senators from both sides of the chamber.

Senator Ryan —We haven't attacked the Council.

Senator PETER RAE —I thought that the Government had done so by suggesting, for instance, that the Council had requested the Government to take this action. The Council has not made that request of the Government. It has said that, assuming the Government was going to do such and such, forward planning required it to involve itself in consideration of the consequences and how best it could go about it. This is where Senator Macklin was a little astray in his comments about the Council. The Council merely considered how, if the legislation were implemented, it could practically carry out its responsibilities for having a general services fee management structure which retained certain features, including voluntary membership of student bodies. That was the sort of work that was being done. A lot of work and a lot of time was spent on it.

I merely assert that the Council, while taking different majority attitudes at different times as the majority has changed, has been an extremely responsible body which has endeavoured to work within the rules imposed by the government of the day in the best interests of academic and student freedom and in the best interests of the development of an academic institution. Increasingly, as academic institutions have become beholden to government for their funding, they have become beholden to government for their regulation. I find this a matter for concern every time an Australian National University Bill comes before the Parliament. I find it unfortunate that the Parliament is telling a university what it must do; on the other hand, I accept that when the taxpayers of Australia are paying out $125m in round figures, plus student allowances and the like, they obviously have an interest in what happens at that university. I would wish to defend the University Council from some of the comments that have been made. The last time it took a positive attitude was in 1978 when it objected basically to government intervention. This time around it accepted that the Government was going to intervene and therefore it tried to take the steps which would be most appropriate in the event of that intervention.