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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 4988

Senator CORMANN (1:37 PM) —What does the Rudd government have against young people? We have this broken promise on student taxes, we have the unfair changes to the Youth Allowance, we had the tax hike last week, prosecuted over the last year, on alcopops and, of course, we have the mountains of debt which the young people of Australia will have to repay for decades. The young people of Australia are the losers under this government. I say to the young people across Australia, if they do not want to pay this unfair student tax, if they do not want to be subject to the unfair tax measures that are prosecuted by this government: vote Liberal at the next election.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is yet another broken promise. I, along with my colleagues, will quote some of the comments that were made in the lead-up to the last election by the then shadow minister for education, Stephen Smith. On 22 May 2007 a journalist asked him during a doorstop if he was considering a compulsory amenities fee on students. Mr Smith answered:

No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

Of course, we know that Peter Garrett put a footnote into the contract that the then Rudd opposition entered into with the Australian people. The footnote said, ‘Once we get in we just change it all.’ This is yet another example of the ‘once we get in we just change it all’ footnote and young people across Australia, the students across Australia, are being asked to pay a student tax which the government, before the election, said they would never consider.

Students should not be forced to pay for services and amenities which they never use. Of course they should not. I would like to reflect on the experience that we have had in my home state of Western Australia, where the former Court government introduced voluntary student unionism in 1993. We had full voluntary student unionism in Western Australia between 1993 and 2001, and all of the student unions and guilds continued to exist and operate during that period. They did not disappear. They did not collapse or dissolve. On the contrary, they refined their operations and became more effective at giving students value for money. They were forced to respond to real student needs. And when VSU was reintroduced by the Howard government in 2005, the student guilds in Western Australia were the best placed in the country to deal with it. It led to the University of Western Australia Student Guild having the highest sign-up rate in the country because they were providing a valued service. By comparison, other student unions did not do as well because they were relying on the compulsory fee, they had lost touch with what services the students needed and they were not making a sufficiently valued contribution to university life. If you need a compulsory fee in order to fund your services, if you cannot attract enough students to access your services and pay a fee towards that service, then maybe you need to reconsider whether your service is sufficiently valued and actually needed.

We all know how compulsory fees have been abused in the past to fund the political activities of the Left. I was listening to Senator Crossin very carefully before. I was in my office and I rushed in here straight away. She said that the Howard government’s VSU legislation cut the legs out from student unions that so effectively stood up for students’ rights against the Howard government. Why should any student be forced to pay for that? If a student wants to join a campaign or join a union to run a campaign against the Howard government or against any other government, or against a policy measure of the previous, this or any future government, of course they should be free to do so. They should pay their fee, join the union, help fundraise, organise campaigns and be active participants in the democratic debate. But they should not be forced by their government to join a union that stands for something they do not agree with.

The criticism from Senator Crossin earlier in the second reading debate was exactly that: it somehow suggested that the Howard government’s motivation in introducing voluntary student unionism was to silence the critics. The reality is this: the voluntary student union legislation did not abolish student unions and it did not stop students from freely associating. That point was made by some of my colleagues before. One of the arguments put forward is that the fees envisaged in this piece of legislation will ensure that students have access to vital student services. Who determines whether a particular service is vital or not? Who makes that decision? It should be the student who accesses the service. The VSU legislation did not ban the collection of fees by student union associations; what it did do was give students choice. Students deserve that choice.

Why should students be forced to fund the political activities of organisations they do not agree with? I do not think that anybody has provided a proper and satisfactory response to that. The point is made that students lose access to important sporting and other social services without an amenities fee. Students have a right to choose what is important to them. It should not be assumed that a minority view of what is needed by students reflects the preference of all students. This is all about an ideological agenda of the Labor Party. The Rudd Labor government wants to force all students across Australia to fund the activities of its mates in a particular section of student politics. We should not stand for this. We should not support this. The Senate should stand up to stop this student tax. We should defeat this legislation.