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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5039

Senator CASH (4:50 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 for the following purposes: to allow higher education providers to impose an annual capped compulsory student services and amenities fee of $250 from 1 July 2009, and to establish the Higher Education Loan Program to enable eligible students to access a loan for the fee and for a range of associated issues. One might say, when looking at that purpose, that it is fairly innocuous at first glance. However, having studied the bill and listened to the Labor rhetoric surrounding the bill, two questions immediately come to mind. The first is: when is a tax not a tax? That is when it is introduced by the Labor Party. And the second is: when is a promise not a promise? Once again, when it is made by the Labor Party, particularly in the context of the 2007 election.

At the 2007 election the Labor Party told the people of Australia a number of things. One of the things that it told the people of Australia was that it would not—I repeat: would not—introduce what it likes to refer as an amenities fee but what is a compulsory student tax by any other name. What did the then shadow minister for education and now Minister for Foreign Affairs say?

I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach.

Then he went on to reconfirm:

So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

That was in May 2007, five months prior to the election being called. What was it? It was a clear and unambiguous Labor promise not to introduce a compulsory amenities fee. This, of course, has been the Labor Party’s position for many, many years now. If we go back to 2003 what do we have? The now Minister for Finance and Deregulation referring to the disincentive effect of individual economic burdens—that is, amenities fees and compulsory student taxes—being imposed on university students. What did he say back then?

People from poorer backgrounds, people from country Australia and people less able to finance their own education and to take risks for their future will be deterred.

But it does not stop there. In August 2008, 12 months ago, we had the Deputy Prime Minister saying to the people of Australia:

We promised before the election that we would not return to compulsory student unionism …

What do we have, once again, with this legislation? Labor is again proving to the people of Australia that it is prepared to tell them one thing to win an election but, when it comes time to actually introducing the legislation, it does something entirely different. The statements that I have referred to are quite simply broken promises on the part of the Labor Party to the people of Australia. Why? Because Mr Tanner, Mr Smith and the Deputy Prime Minister, despite their very strong on-the-record statements, have now voted along with the rest of the Labor Party to impose this insidious and inequitable tax on students. The funny thing is that the Labor Party actually recognises that this is a financial burden on students, so much so that it has been forced to create an additional loan facility in the HECS system so that students can actually afford to pay the tax. To quote the then Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport in her speech in reply in the second reading debate on this bill:

To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, any university introducing the fee must also provide eligible students with the option of taking a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program …

What the minister is actually saying to the students they are about to tax is: ‘Actually, it is a financial barrier and we recognise that you actually have to go into further debt to pay this tax, so will set up a system whereby you can take a loan to pay off the debt that we are making you incur.’ The list goes on when it comes to Labor rhetoric. Back in 2003 the member for Wills said:

But there is good news, because Labor will not support any measures to increase fees for Australian students and their families.

There is no good news in this bill. It is a tax slug on students of $250. Despite what all of the Labor members promised in the past, all of them voted to place this additional tax burden on students. The Labor Party can describe it any way it likes—as a compulsory fee or an amenities fee—but when it comes down to it, it is a tax on students, nothing more, nothing less. It is more spin over substance. The spin, of course, started long ago prior to the 2007 election. What we had then was the Labor Party standing up and feeding to the people of Australia the line that it was not going to impose on students a compulsory amenities fee. But the facts now evidenced in writing by this bill—it is in the legislation before us—is that the Labor Party, despite its promise, always intended to slug students with a $250 tax. This bill represents just another broken promise by the Labor Party.

One of the most disappointing statements I have read in a long time is Kevin Rudd labelling the level of student debt in this country ‘a national disgrace’. Yet he is the one who has let one of his ministers off the leash to actually impose this tax on students. Then again, you expect nothing less from the Prime Minister of Australia because, after all, he told the people of Australia he was an economic conservative.

The coalition oppose this bill for a number of reasons, one of them being that we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services which they just will not be able to use. Changing demographics and culture mean that students today basically just do not have the time, the inclination or even the opportunity to use the services offered. The Bradley review commissioned by the government said at page 49:

In 2006 nearly 71 per cent of full-time domestic undergraduate students reported working during semester. On average these students were working about 15 hours per week. One in six of the full-time undergraduate students who was working during the semester were working more than 20 hours per week.

Despite the findings of the Bradley review, this government still refuses to see reason. What we are presented with in this legislation is a situation whereby every one of the one million Australian students will be forced to pay $250 regardless of their ability to pay and regardless of their ability to actually utilise the services the fees will be financing. But that is not the most insidious part of this bill. Perhaps the most insidious part of this legislation is that it is compulsory student unionism by stealth. Taxing students is bad enough, but to take away their freedom not to join an association is an absolute disgrace.

Regardless of what those on the other side say, when you bother to sit down and analyse this legislation you will see that this bill in effect attempts to reintroduce a compulsory fee, which would in turn fund the activities of student unions. In introducing this legislation into the other place, the Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport, Kate Ellis, in her second reading speech, said, ‘This bill is not compulsory student unionism.’ This is wherein the problem lies. The Labor Party have a history of saying one thing on this matter and then doing the complete opposite. The people of Australia, the students of Australia, should therefore be very concerned when the relevant minister says, ‘This bill is not compulsory student unionism.’ Based on the Labor Party’s history in this matter, and having regard to the tricky and devious way they use semantics to shroud their real intentions, it is very likely that, if nothing else, this bill represents a Clayton’s form of compulsory student unionism.

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about this bill. It provides universities with the option to implement a services fee from 1 July 2009, capped at $250 per year, to invest in quality support and advocacy services in consultation with the students at the higher education facility. Guidelines to limit what the funds may be spent on, a HECS style loan facility for students to fund the legislation and a clause preventing the funds being spent on political parties or election campaigns all seem to be reasonable provisions at first instance.

However, as with much of the legislation put forward by the Rudd Labor government, the devil is in the detail. On closer examination of this piece of legislation, the provisions fail even the most cursory test of impartiality and accountability. Take, for example, the student services and amenity fee guidelines. These are the guidelines which actually set out what the tax can be used to fund. The explanatory memorandum on this bill states that the guidelines are made by the minister under a section of the act. This effectively means that the Deputy Prime Minister, a committed advocate of compulsory student unionism and a former President of the National Union of Students, will be the sole decision maker of what student services and amenities these funds can be spent on. That is not impartiality. So much for parliamentary scrutiny of the actual detail of the legislation. In reality, Labor is really getting the parliament to agree with a broad head of power which has a broad scope and then, once the bill becomes an act, the Deputy Prime Minister, the committed advocate of compulsory student unionism, has the capacity to determine whatever guidelines she deems appropriate within the scope of the new act.

The second provision, a HECS style loan facility for students, does appear at first to be reasonable. Unfortunately for the students of Australia, this provision actually admits by omission that the new fees are predicted to require students to seek additional borrowings to cover this substantial new tax slug. Quite simply, if this tax slug—this so-called amenities fee—was not going to have an effect on students, you would not have to introduce a HECS style loan fee.

Finally, we come to the most cunning and perhaps the most insidious aspect of this legislation, new section 19(1), which in the words of the explanatory memorandum:

…prevents a provider from spending an amount paid to them to support a political party or the election of a person as a member of the legislature of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, or a local government body.

Once again, at face value, this statement seems to put to bed the common complaints about student guilds using compulsorily levied fees to fund political action—one might even say ‘sound policy’. It would be if it bore any relevance to the actual political actions that student unions take, a fact that the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Ellis know well. Student guilds or unions, for those who do not know how they behave, target individual issues and run politically motivated campaigns against parties or groups. Nothing in this legislation prevents them from still doing this. In fact, if we look at the revised student services and amenities fee guidelines from May 2009, there are some distinct areas of grey. It states:

Allowable uses of the fee in relation to services and amenities may include the categories listed below. In all cases the purposes would include but not be limited to ...

What does ‘but not be limited to’ mean? It states:

... but not be limited to the direct provision of the service or amenity.

Then we have a look at some of the prescribed items: ‘visual arts, performing arts and audio visual media’. It states:

Relating to support for student visual and performing arts and audio visual media activities.

What does that mean? I will tell you what it means. It means that this could include a full media campaign, including radio, television, newspaper and internet advertising, to push an agenda which the majority of students do not agree with. Certainly, some would argue that the campaign for compulsory student unionism would fall into that category. What is worse is that there appears to be nothing in this legislation preventing student unions from using the fees, for example, in an approved way under these guidelines—say, to fund the university cafeteria but then using the profits gained from running the cafeteria to fund activities explicitly disallowed by this legislation. Call it what you will—a form of political trickery, money-laundering and a loophole which the minister is completely aware of—but I highly doubt the Rudd government is going to change.

The coalition opposes this legislation. The Australian people and Australian students are not fools, despite the fact that the Rudd government treats them as if they are. They have in place before them a bill which Minister Ellis swears is not compulsory student unionism but which is entirely reliant on universities and student unions—both in favour of compulsory unionism. It is a bill which has guidelines that will be solely determined by a minister who is a committed advocate of compulsory student unionism. The legislation has, for all intents and purposes, a fee structure which, much like previous versions of similar legislation, looks exactly like compulsory student unionism.

This legislation is compulsory student unionism by another name. Perhaps that is why the Deputy Prime Minister, the cabinet minister responsible for education, did not bring the legislation on, herself, in the other place. Perhaps she would have had a hard time keeping a straight face when she said that this bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

Unlike those on the other side, the Liberal Party will continue to stand up for the rights of university students and expose the hypocrisy of the Rudd government, which is yet again breaking an election promise to the people of Australia. Freedom of association, including the freedom not to join an association, remains one of the Liberal Party’s core beliefs. The Liberal Party wants university students to succeed, because when our students succeed we as a country succeed in this competitive global environment. The last thing that students need in this economic environment is an additional financial burden being imposed on them.

It is acknowledged by those on the other side—it is acknowledged in this legislation—that this is an additional financial burden. I say to those on the other side, ‘Do not crucify our students to advance your own cheap political agenda.’ Unnecessarily taxing students is bad policy. It is bad for this country. The bill should be opposed.