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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 4985

Senator KROGER (1:22 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amend-ment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This attempt by the Rudd government to restore compulsory student union fees should not be allowed. It is a restriction on the freedom of Australia’s one million university students and, may I say, typical of many bills introduced into this parliament by this government. It is not in the interests of students and does not truly consider the needs of universities. The debate, as we have heard, is not a new one. For decades there has been debate on and around university campuses concerning student union fees. We in the Liberal Party strongly believe in freedom. In fact, freedom of association is a fundamental belief of our party. Freedom of association is integral to forming the next generation. It is the role of government to guide this formation, not to dictate orders from an ivory tower far away from the realities of university life. Sadly, the latter is exactly what the government hopes to do.

On Thursday, 21 August 2008, part-time Minister for Education Julia Gillard said that the government was considering how it should tackle the problem of declining student services but that compulsory union fees were not on the agenda. She said:

The Rudd Government is committed to ensuring that university students have access to vital campus services, including child care, health care, counselling and sporting facilities ...

But she said:

We are not considering a return to compulsory student union fees.

Only three months later, on 3 November, Minister for Youth Kate Ellis announced that the Rudd government would introduce a bill to charge university students a compulsory fee, to a maximum of $250. The bill was then introduced in the other place on 11 February this year. I have news for the part-time education minister: if it looks like compulsory student unionism and if it smells like it, chances are it is compulsory student unionism. Time and time again the gov-ernment has denied that this is a return to compulsory student unionism. If that is the case, then just what is it?

This new tax which is being imposed on students is entirely in breach of the ALP’s promises before the election. The tax would raise about $200 million across 38 Australian universities. The way in which the Rudd government has approached this bill calls to mind the way in which Draco codified the laws of Athens in 621. The ALP even went to the election saying that they had no intention of introducing this tax, and now they want to force legislation through which is not supported by the vast majority of students—solely, I would suggest, for ideological reasons. Since the Prime Minister’s first Monthly essay, it has been interesting to observe which political ideology he will sign up to next. Mr Rudd went from being a Christian democrat to a fiscal conservative seemingly overnight. What could possibly be next? The students of Australian universities are quickly recognising Mr Rudd as a modern-day socialist. Through this policy, the Labor government pontificates on the policy of shared responsibility, so students could be excused for thinking along these lines.

The government, in typical ‘all spin and no substance’ form, tried to sugar-coat this policy. The compulsory fee could be paid using a HECS style arrangement. Its spend-ing would be managed by universities, in consultation with students, and the funds would be used to support so-called ‘vital campus services, including child care, health care, counselling and sporting facilities’. Let us not mince words here. What the gov-ernment is proposing is a compulsory tax on students. The amount is $250 and the con-sequences are beyond the obvious. This proposal is a blatant return to the bad old days of compulsory student unionism. This is a new tax on Australia’s one million university students, who would be hit whether or not they wanted the services to be funded, as Senator Ryan has so clearly articulated. What about those students who are studying off campus or who study online at significant distances from campuses? What about those students who will not use services such as child care or counselling? Why should they have to subsidise these services for other people while not seeing a dime of value for themselves? This is a new tax on students and it is forcing people to subsidise services that they just do not want or need. The principal point in this debate must be the concerns and interests of students.

There is nothing in the legislation to stop the compulsorily acquired money from being channelled into the Labor student club or used to fund the legal defence of violent student protesters, like those charged in Melbourne during the G20 talks in 2006. In fact, there is no system for monitoring whether the money is spent in accordance with any guidelines. It is naive to believe that the fee would not be used for political purposes, contrary to government advice. The only activities expressly prohibited are direct donations to political parties and funding for election to a Commonwealth, state or territory body. This still leaves a large range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policies or for direct elections to the student union. Sadly, it is a possibility that ordinary students could subsidise the political careers of elite student activists. How do we know that this is the case? Because it has happened before. Minister Ellis and Minister Gillard have both held significant positions in the leftist NUS. I suggest that their own political careers were possibly helped by the compulsory acquisition of student union fees from unsuspecting students.

The NUS Education Officer, Stefie Hinchy, made comments which I consider worth noting. She said:

We have no problem with that if it just means student organisations can’t give money to political parties or external political organisations.

Well, of course there is no problem, even if this is the case. This does not mean that political activities could not be funded throughout university campuses. Further, Ms Hinchy went on to say that ‘advocacy on campus was a political issue’. It is obvious to see where the priorities of this organisation lie—and it is certainly not with the welfare of mainstream students. Byron Hodkinson, President of the Australian Liberal Students Federation, has correctly said:

Make no mistake, this is compulsory student unionism, no matter how Kate Ellis tries to dress it up. The fee is compulsory and will be passed on to student unions.

He said any suggestion the funds could not be spent on political activity was untrue, and he went on to say:

Under the legislation, my own organisation, or the ACTU or even socialist groups on campus could receive millions of dollars in student money.

I seriously question if student unions actually represent the views of the majority of students. I know this is not the case. They did not represent me when I was at university, or my friends, nor do they represent the interests of my son today.

The University of Melbourne Student Union recently stripped its clubs and societies budget of $18,000—24 per cent of the budget—in order to fund a $15,000 increase in its donation to the NUS. The RMIT Student Union asserts on its website that voluntary student unionism has led to its advocacy services being scaled back, yet it still finds money to produce an expensive radio program on 3CR every Saturday morning called Blazing Textbooks, a show that is promoted—I repeat, promoted—as advocating an ‘anti-capitalist perspective on current issues in education from around Australia and the world’.

One case which may be of interest to senators and, in particular, to members in the other place is that of Mathew Hilakari, a ministerial staffer for Alan Griffin, the member for Bruce and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Mr Hilakari is perhaps better known for his questionable conduct as President of the Monash Student Association just one year ago. Recently, a former colleague brought action against him in the anti-discrimination list of the VCAT. Mr Hilakari, without going through the actual complaint, perhaps wisely, agreed to a settlement, before a full hearing took place, for an amount rumoured to exceed $40,000. How is this of any relevance, you may ask, Madam Acting Deputy President? How can you judge all student unions based on one person’s questionable behaviour? Other than the fact that his boss, a government minister, has not taken any action, why should any of this matter? The answer of course lies in the fact that, as joint respondent, the Monash Student Association partly bore the cost of this expensive settlement. More importantly, it is believed that Mr Hilakari’s legal fees of around $20,000 were paid by none other than the Monash Students Association, MSA. In other words, it was students at Monash University who had to foot this bill. It is disgraceful that money of ordinary students can be used to protect people like Mr Hilakari. Even worse is the fact that the government now wants to give universities the right—I repeat, the right—to collect this money by force, as a condition of enrolment, from every student in the country.

Medical and counselling services are available in some form at nearly every university. Nearly all medical services offer bulk-billing, whilst counselling is typically free at universities.

Under this government, the future for our young people is grim. In addition to the costs associated with being a student, nothing is guaranteed except one thing: more taxes. I am not wanting to trivialise this issue, but this unjust proposal reminds me of the 1990s Australian comedy The Castle. In that movie the debate concerned the compulsory acquisition of land. Our debate today concerns the compulsory acquisition of students’ money. I am not suggesting that the coalition case is based on a vibe but, rather, on an innate sense of justice which guides all coalition policy. Cynical people may ask: why fight this debate? What is the political advantage of fighting for students? To those cynics I say that the Liberal Party is a party of principle. We have no hesitation in advocating causes which are fundamentally good. A voluntary student union fee is a good thing. It offers the freedom for students to choose if they want to belong or not.

The coalition is opposed to this legislation because it understands the change in needs of modern students. The reality of these challenging economic times means that a uni student does not simply study. More often than not, they have part-time work. Many students are in a position where they financially support their family’s increasingly tight budget. Modern students do not have the time nor the interest in engaging with numerous clubs or associations on university campuses. For them to have to pay a compulsory tax for activities that they would not benefit from is simply daylight robbery. It is not surprising that this legislation is perpetrated by the Labor government.

In conclusion, this bill will seriously disadvantage the vast majority of students. Students who do not use services should not be forced to subsidise those of other students. Students cannot afford this additional expense. It is just another unjust government tax. Napoleon Bonaparte summed up this worthy cause when he said:

Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.

The Liberal Party is a proud advocate of freedom and student rights. We will vote against this bill because it is unjust.