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Friday, 19 November 1993
Page: 3253

Senator ELLISON (10.41 a.m.) —On behalf of the coalition, I indicate that we propose to vote against the clause. This clause seeks to penalise Western Australia for introducing voluntary student unionism. That legislation is currently going through the state house in Western Australia. This clause will take from the grant allocated to that state the moneys the student unions will lose as a result of voluntary student unionism . For example, if the figure was $5 million, the funding to the state for higher education would be reduced by that amount. The money would then be given by the Commonwealth to those student unions, which I believe are referred to here as higher education institutions.

  I simply bring to the attention of the Senate, and particularly the Democrats and Senator Bell, that the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights states in article 20 that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and I highlight the word `association'. The tenet of the state legislation in Western Australia is that students should have the choice of whether to belong to their student union or not; it should not be compulsory.

  At the moment the union fee is paid in an amenities fee. Ever since I have been associated with this cause, there has been a great deal of feeling among students that they should have the choice of whether to pay this money or not. It goes automatically to their guild and, in turn, the guild provides services which students may or may not use. There may be students who wish not to use the services of the guild and therefore would not contribute any fee.

  It is perhaps a worthwhile to ask: if the guild provided services that were so good and beneficial, what would they have to fear from voluntary student unionism? Everyone would be willing to pay the guild fee; everyone would want to enjoy the services. But that is not the way it is. A lot of students are not happy with their guilds and the uses to which the guilds put their fees.

  The central element of the coalition's education policy platform, which was well publicised and released prior to the elections, both federal and state, was that legislation would be brought in to end compulsory guild membership. The government in Western Australia was elected on that platform. The people of Western Australia elected a Liberal government which had as part of its platform legislation to end compulsory guild membership. Here we have the federal government trying to interfere with a state government carrying out a promise on which it was elected. The Commonwealth is blatantly interfering with the state government. The Assistant Treasurer, Mr Gear, said in the second reading speech:

  The Western Australian state parliament recently legislated to interfere with the rights of institutions in that state to make their own decisions about imposing or collecting these fees.

The institutions do not have any rights; it is the members of the institutions who have the rights. That is where the government has it wrong. The government, in its collective approach to this, would like to give institutions all the rights in the world. Institutions should be about the last things in the world to get rights. It is the members, the little people, whom the government is supposed to represent, and these are the students. The students do not have the funds available. Most of them are not well endowed with funds to pay guild fees.

  I refer to an extract from a campaign broadsheet produced by the Cross Campus Guild Network headed `Minister set to silence students', circulated in August-September this year. It says that, should this measure be passed, the guild would still end up with the same amount of money because it would be funded by the federal government. It continues:

This would be a terrible outcome. Yes, the Guild would survive pretty much as it has done before, but its legitimacy would be crushed by the sudden huge drop in membership, and the loss of access to the governing bodies of the Universities.

It is saying that the guild would then be a government funded body; it would lose its legitimacy; it would not be there as a result of voluntary support of the students. It would be an empty shell because most students would not belong to the guild. The guild would just be an empty shell funded by the government. It would be a toothless tiger. It would be something it was never meant to be.

  I am a past guild councillor of the University of Western Australia, as Senator Chris Evans might well remember, and past chairman of the public affairs council. I can say that student guilds can do a lot of good things, I do not dispute that, but they become multimillion dollar businesses which in some cases overlook the concerns of the average student and sometimes direct their funds to political purposes which the students do not endorse. For example, in my day the guild of undergraduates gave money to the Frelimo group in Mozambique.

Senator Woodley —A good thing, too.

Senator ELLISON —At that stage the majority of the students were not in favour of it. We are talking about a democratic institution, where the majority should have the say, and they were not in favour of Frelimo getting those funds. A minority decided that; it was a case of the tail wagging the dog. Let us make these institutions voluntary. They can then rest on their laurels or otherwise and, depending on how good they are, their membership will tell the story. To date, they do not have to perform because they know that they will get the money. I find it absolutely abhorrent that a student is told, `You will join this union, otherwise you cannot enrol'. I have had personal experience—going back to Senator Chris Evans's day and my day in the dim mists of time—

Senator Chris Evans —I think I am a bit younger.

Senator ELLISON —A bit younger by one or two years. Senator Evans, I think when we get to our age it does not make much difference. A fellow called Greg Shepherd refused to pay his student fees and the university refused to enrol him. The university said, `You cannot enrol'. I understand that that it is still happening today. If you refuse to pay a fee, you cannot enrol in the university.

  We are not in Nazi Germany, where students were told, `You will think this way', `You will do this' and `You will do that and do it to the beat of a drum'. It is 1993 and we are in a democratic, free Australia, where students should have the freedom of choice to join their student guilds and unions.

  It really is a poor lesson to students, who perhaps are the future rulers of the country, for the Commonwealth government to be showing them how it will sidestep a democratically elected government in Western Australia through clause 20, thereby sidestepping the voluntary student union legislation in Western Australia.

  I remind the Democrats particularly of the UN convention I mentioned—I know how dear these conventions are to the Democrats—and in particular the article that stated that it is a basic human right to have voluntary association.