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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5043

Senator BERNARDI (5:10 PM) —In opening my comments on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 I might indicate to the Senate and particularly to the speakers following that I intend to be mercifully brief. Given the hoarseness of my voice, I am intent on preserving it for debates at a later hour. So, having flagged that, I hope the following speakers will be ready.

I would like to cut to the chase. The primary purpose of this bill is to charge students $250 more every year they are at university; it is to charge them $250 more every year for services that they may not want, need nor ever access. There are, it is estimated, 130,000 external students who will be required to pay $250 more, every year of their university education, for facilities and services that they cannot access because they are external students.

It beggars belief that this can be described in any other way than compulsory unionism—because that is precisely what it is. It is a return to the dark old days where everyone had to pay for the indulgence of the unions on campus. It is an indulgence that students simply cannot afford any longer. It is an indulgence that the coalition and the Howard government removed because students did not want it. They could not afford it and it was of no meaningful benefit to campus life.

How can I say that? Well, I spend a fair bit of time on university campuses talking to young people about their future directions, hopefully trying to explain to them the benefits of our democratic system and why they should get involved in it. When I say ‘hopefully’ I mean that I hope that they get some benefit out of it. I have asked students on the Left, the Right and in the middle of the political spectrum and I have asked people who have no political affiliation at all whether campus life has suffered since they have not been forced to pay a student fee. The answer has always been: ‘No, it hasn’t. If we want to participate in a particular endeavour, if we want to join a club or a society, we are asked to pay a participation fee.’ It seems eminently sensible and fair. It seems to have worked particularly well.

Of course, there will be people that will say that my interpretation of this is incorrect. They would say that because they are the people who support compulsory student unionism and compulsory student amenities fees—which is just compulsory unionism dressed up under another name. I am yet to hear a university student say, ‘I’m not going to attend university because they do not have the social and creative outlets that I want there.’ A university is meant to be a place of higher learning. It is meant to be a place where you broaden your experiences and you learn to become an independent adult operating in the world. It is not necessarily a place just for slush funds to divert money in support of non-conservative governments or to support left-wing student unionists. That is not what it is about. Sure, we accept that there is a hotbed of socialism in some of our universities, which many of us reject, but we should not be paying for them to pursue their left-wing tendencies. That is just commonsense. Of course the leftists amongst us have a different point of view.

What is of concern? A number of things are of concern, but one concern that I would like to specifically raise is that this is an imposition on students not just immediately but also later. Students, who are already struggling financially, have to tack this fee, which they cannot reject, onto their HECS. This flies in the face of the promises that were made by the Labor Party before they were in government. Like so many other promises that were misleading or have subsequently been denied, this is one that is going to have an impact on people’s lives for many, many years. I say that because in my office I have had the pleasure of working with a number of graduates from some of our university systems—clearly the ones that did not get infected with a dose of leftist politics. They have come along and worked, and each of them has talked to me about how difficult it is to pay back their HECS fees. They say, ‘Gee, we’d like to get a better start.’

I am one of the people that actually supported HECS when I was at university. It was introduced when I was at university and I supported it, and I still think it is a very important system for us. But to add an additional imposition is really beyond the pale, given how tough so many students are doing it. If you choose not to pay this money up-front, it will go onto your HECS debt and accumulate interest costs, and you will repay it when you graduate and you earn some money.

The question you have to ask is: what are students actually getting for that? What are they getting for incurring more long-term debt—debt that they will have to repay? The answer is: not much more than what they are getting now. So I have considered why Mr Rudd and the minister would be pursuing this if not only for ideological reasons. The conclusion I have to come to is that they probably want to claw back some of the cash that they splashed around earlier this year. On one hand, they are giving students $900, $1,800, $2,700 or however much money they can get according to their circumstances, and on the other hand they are saying, ‘Now you’ve got to give it back to us.’ This is called ‘churn’ in any language, and it is what this Labor government seem to be specialists in. They bask in the adoration they get for giving out free cash and then they try and take it back through sleazy, underhanded methods like this.

It is a great concern in an economy that is still in decline and where we have university students who are continuing to struggle—as they do, quite frankly, and have done for many, many years, but there are particular new pressures on them now. There is the declining availability of employment, the increasing household cost pressures and, of course, the increasing day-to-day living costs. And now there are, thanks to the Rudd Labor government, increasing costs attached to their education. This is an up-front bill that every student will have to pay. If they do not pay for it up-front, they will be paying for it every year for years after.

Frankly, this bill beggars belief in that it suspends common sense. Common sense would suggest that, where someone wants to use a facility or a service, they should pay a cost towards the requirements or the provision of that service. I think that would be reasonable to any normal, regular-thinking adult. But somehow it has been lost in the drafting of this bill. The Labor Party wants you to pay for services whether you use them or not. That is okay in some areas—we all pay through taxes for our defence forces and for our police, because we all get a community benefit from that. But I was always at a loss when I was at university as to the purpose of the Days of Our Lives club, which was funded by the university union, or some of the political organisations on campus, which were funded by the university union. There were a great many questions raised which still have not been answered.

Sure, the sporting organisations that made and continue to make such a big contribution to campus life were funded by the university fees. But, interestingly, in South Australia, the people I have spoken to are still participating in the Adelaide university rowing club, the Adelaide University Football Club and all manner of sporting organisation that go on around campus. Has there been a change in the way these services are delivered? Possibly, yes. Are they still in existence? The answer is yes. If they are popular, if people want to go to them, use them and participate in them, they continue to thrive. If people do not want to use them, why are you propping them up and putting that burden on every other student, whether they want to use it or not? These are the simple questions that the Labor Party have thus far been unable to answer.

I can see Senator Wortley gesturing that she is concerned about my throat. Senator Wortley, you know, some things are worth taking a bit of personal pain for to get the point across, and I have a great deal more to say about many other bills! But I will spare you any further pain and torture from your end, Senator Wortley.

In conclusion, I am concerned because this is compulsory unionism—I think that much is clear. It breaks very clearly the election promises made by the Rudd Labor government. How they can stand up and say with a straight face, ‘No, it doesn’t break our election commitments,’ is beyond me and, I am sure, beyond the pale for most sensible Australians. But it also attacks the very heart of people choosing what to do with their money. I do not actually believe in more taxes. I do not believe in government mandating that students have to participate in a particular thing or pay a particular levy for services that they may not ever use. Surely we live in a country where people can make the best possible choices about what to do with their money—particularly students, with the limited amount of funds available to them. Clearly the government does not think so, but I, and I know the coalition, think that in this instance, and in many other instances, the government has got it wrong.