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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 912

Senator ABETZ (5.00 p.m.) —Clause 15 of the State Grants (General Purposes) Bill 1994 should be expunged from this bill. It has no place whatsoever in a bill which purports on the face of it to say that it is giving money to the states by way of grants for general purposes. In other words, it is saying that it is appropriate for states to determine their own fiscal and financial future and determine their own priorities for spending.

  Tucked away in the middle of this legislation is clause 15, which is entitled `Higher education funding condition'. What that does is basically guarantee compulsory funding by the taxpayer to student unions irrespective of their service delivery, irrespective of how good they are and irrespective of whether they represent the wishes and aspirations of the students that they allegedly serve.

  We hear all the time from the government that, just because people believe in voluntary student unionism, they are somehow anti-student union or anti-student organisation. What that implies is that, if we give the students the choice as to whether or not they want to be members of such organisations, they would desert them in droves. That is, of course, a very poor and sad reflection on the leadership of student unions and student associations around the country and is also indicative of the fact that the students—usually being the more intelligent sector of the community, having attained tertiary education—have made a decision for themselves that the student unions and the student organisations do not represent their best interests.

  The compulsory aspect of the unions is most iniquitous. What it does is force students to contribute to absolutely scurrilous causes with which they may vehemently disagree. Indeed, in the Perth Sunday Times on 3 July 1994—only two months ago—there was a substantial article which was entitled `Christian students lash Uni magazine'. It referred to the Edith Cowan University student newspaper Harambee. That newspaper had been undertaking on that campus a sustained campaign against Christian students and Christian beliefs. The article states:

  The references included sexual remarks about sacred aspects of their faith and Mary.

In particular, Catholic students took great exception to this newspaper. The article continues:

  Foul words have been printed about Christianity. . . . . . . . . .

  The Catholic Archbishop of Perth, the Most Reverend Barry Hickey, said the cover was the violist, most offensive caricature of Christ `he had ever seen'.

One wonders what the reaction of members of the Labor Party would have been if we were to insert some religion or some organisation other than the Christian faith or the Catholic faith. Undoubtedly, they would get up, beat their self-righteous breasts and accuse the student newspaper of being outrageous. But if it attacks what 80 per cent of the population basically accept as their faith, it is okay.

  What these Christian and Catholic students objected to was the fact that, as a pre-condition to their obtaining an education, they had to contribute to the student guild which funded such absolute religious obscenities. I defy the minister, I defy the government and, indeed, I defy the Australian Democrats and the Greens, who support this clause in the bill, to explain why it ought to be made a precondition to the students at Edith Cowan University to get an education that they be required to fund such a contribution as that in their student newspaper. The archbishop further said:

I understand this addition—

of the newspaper Harambee

is but one of many that have consistently ridiculed Christian beliefs and practices.

Why should a student be required to compulsorily fund an organisation which seeks to belittle the very heart and essence of that person's existence—namely, his faith? Why should students have that belittled and then have to contribute to that belittling process by way of a compulsory fund, a fund that has to be contributed to because, if they do not, they are denied an education? This is coming from the Australian Democrats and the Australian Labor Party, which go round this country saying how they are somehow the harbingers of human rights and individual rights and concerned about the right of individuals to pursue their own wellbeing.

  Student unions grew up in an era many years ago when students basically had to distance themselves from the community at large. It was a bit like entering holy orders. Students got out of the community at large, and their whole life was based around the university. Their study, their social life, their sporting life—all of it was centred on the university; whereas today, with greater mobility, communications and the like, students now find that they are playing sports with outside groups and organisations funding the sports, but also have to contribute by way of a compulsory fee to, let us say, the university football club, which they may find themselves playing against that very next Saturday or Sunday. It is absolutely ludicrous.

  It is similarly the case for social activities. There is no longer any need to say that students have to contribute funds to enable the enjoyment of a social life on campus. Why should they be forced to enjoy a social life on campus if they do not want to? Surely, if students want to enjoy their social life as, let us say, these Catholic students at Edith Cowan University want to enjoy their social life or their free time by pursuing different pursuits, they ought to be entitled to do that.

  This clause in this legislation is simply, once again, a reward to the student unions for having funded and bankrolled the Labor Party at the last federal election. It is the same sort of deal that the maritime union was able to get from the government in recent days in return for the support it gave Labor at the last election. The maritime union got a very good handshake out of this maritime strike. I recommend to honourable senators the very fine article that my deputy leader, Peter Costello, wrote concerning that matter.

  Coming back to the student unions: it is quite clear that during the last federal election campaign they funded the federal Labor Party to an extent that cost the Liberal Party some marginal seats. In particular, as a Tasmanian I am very conscious of the fact that Warwick Smith, a very capable member of the federal parliament, lost his seat by a margin of 42 votes. I have no doubt that, but for the blatant and distorted political campaign being run by the compulsorily funded student union, Warwick Smith would still be a member of this federal parliament.

  The Labor Party is saying, `For services rendered, we will protect your fiefdom. We will protect your moneys. We will protect your empire and, no matter how unrepresentative you are, no matter how outrageous you are, we will guarantee your funding.'

Senator Campbell —They got what they deserved with Silvia Smith.

Senator ABETZ —Fortunately, the people of Bass are now relenting. I am sure that at the next election, if Warwick Smith puts himself forward, the people of Bass will re-elect him. Clearly the issue in this debate is that there is no basis for funding a student union if it cannot command the support both by membership and in monetary terms from the students. How does the federal government justify to the people of Australia that it will fund a student union which fails to attract the support of the members and the students whom it is allegedly in place to represent? All that the state governments have done around this country is to offer the students a choice. The minister, Senator McMullan, somehow sees that as an outrageous interference in the way universities conduct themselves. That, in effect, means that Senator McMullan and the government are willing to override the way states conduct themselves but not the way universities conduct themselves.

  I happen to know that each state government around this country is accountable to the people of that state every three or four years. I also happen to know that university councillors get appointed by their own fellows. They exist by way of appointment and recommendation and do not have to face the people of their state or indeed of the university at large. So the states are a lot more attuned to the wishes and aspirations of the people of the various states and the various communities that they represent. For example, if the people of Western Australia consider that voluntary student unionism is an outrage, then at the next state election they have the right to alter that government and to get a Labor government in which would reimpose compulsory student unionism.

Senator Campbell —They had that right in the Helena by-election.

Senator ABETZ —As Senator Ian Campbell reminds me, they had that right in the by-election in Western Australia which the Labor Party lost to the incumbent government. So the people of each state around the Commonwealth have the right to determine the social policies that best fit them. The federal government is now saying that, if the state government gives students the choice, the money that is denied to the student union by students voting with their money and saying, `We don't want to be part of that student union,' will be taken off the state grant and, as a result, the state government will get less money. What does that mean? That means less money for those states to spend on essential services such as police, health, education, roads and all the other important infrastructure areas that state governments seek to fund from ever diminishing moneys given to them by the federal government. They will now face an extra impost as a result of the Labor Party's blind commitment to funding its mates who supported it at the last federal election.

  It is not only a penalty on the state governments; it is also a penalty on the people of Australia because the money that is ultimately going to these student unions is money that has been raised by the Australian taxpayer. Basically Labor is saying, `The more unrepresentative your union, the more unrepresentative your student organisation, the fewer members you attract, the greater the subsidy you will receive.' If anything, I would have thought that the federal government ought to have said, `If you can attract 100 per cent membership or 90 per cent membership on a voluntary basis, because it shows that you are representing the broad aspirations of the students, then we might assist in providing some extra funds to your student union.' But, no, it does not say that.

  The incentive is there to be unrepresentative, to be undemocratic, to keep it with a small clique of students and to then bankroll them out of federal government funds—out of the Australian taxpayer's pocket. The reason for that is that the more unrepresentative the student union the more likely the money that the Labor government spends on those student unions will find its way back into the pockets of the Australian Labor Party and its re-election campaign. That is what clause 15 is all about and that is why we, as an opposition, oppose it so vehemently. We will divide on that issue because we consider it to be a fundamental principle.

  Question put:

  That the clause stand as printed.