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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 6998


Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (14:47): My question is to Senator Birmingham, the Assistant Minister for Education and Training representing the Minister for Education and Training. Yesterday it was brought to my attention that the Queensland University of Technology proposes to impose a smoking ban across its entire campus plus a ban on the sale of cigarettes from QUT student guild convenience stores, depriving the student guild of revenue. How is this extension of the nanny state into our universities compatible with a liberal education fostering social tolerance and the promotional of student autonomy?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:48): I thank Senator Leyonhjelm for that question. I inform Senator Leyonhjelm at the outset that this is a decision of the Queensland University of Technology. I would trust and hope that, in the spirit of small government that Senator Leyonhjelm stands for, his question is not inferring that he would expect the government to intervene in such a decision of the Queensland University of Technology. I understand—and I thank Senator Leyonhjelm for a little forewarning on this—that in response to a university-wide survey undertaken several months ago, QUT staff indicated overwhelmingly that they would like their campuses to be smoke free, and that the university is responding to that sentiment.

Senator Ronaldson interjecting—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I hear the concerns of Senator Ronaldson, to my left. Obviously he will have to overcome the challenges should he visit QUT some time soon. The QUT Guild, which, as I understand, comprises elected student representatives, is of the same view as the staff of the university. However, I am advised that QUT itself has no intention or has not asked the guild not to sell cigarettes in its commercial outlets. As senators would be well aware, many public institutions, including a number of other universities, have moved in the direction of smoke-free campuses. This is their decision, but of course it is a responsible health decision in many instances. I understand that the Vice-Chancellor would be more than happy to welcome Senator Leyonhjelm to QUT to meet with staff and students to discuss their policy, if required. Obviously you will not be able to take Senator Ronaldson with you, Senator Leyonhjelm, given his concerns.

Universities are autonomous institutions, and this government would like to see them with even greater autonomy in terms of their administration, operations and activities. We are certainly not intending to interfere in the decisions of QUT in this regard.

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (14:50): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Fourteen of Australia's 43 public and private universities, including the ANU, have imposed smoking bans, and 17 of them have banned the sale of cigarettes by student union convenience stores. With the abolition of compulsory student union fees, student unions are meant to be self supporting. How is this going to happen if the student unions cannot make a profit?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:50): Firstly, I should note that from 1 January 2012 higher education providers were able to charge a student services and amenities fee for services and amenities of a non-academic nature, though I may not be too enthusiastic about some of those measures. I would also indicate that, as I said before, QUT say they have not banned their guild from selling cigarettes. I understand that it is a decision of the guild. I am informed by Senator McGrath that the president and secretary of the guild are apparently in the gallery today, so I am sure that they may be happy to discuss this with you further if required. I do not know whether other universities have sought to impose a ban on their student unions or guilds or whether these have been free decisions of the unions or guilds themselves. To suggest that student unions or guilds cannot make a profit is wrong. There are a wide range of goods and services that student unions can sell. Providing those services are services that students want to pay for and are willing to pay for, that seems a perfectly sensible activity for them to pursue. (Time expired)

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (14:52): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. If universities choose to restrict their own-source revenue and to increase their expenses, should the taxpayer supplement the budgets of universities? In addition to that, when the ANU banned smoking on campus, did it inform the government, as per the requirements of section 19 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:52): The government does not believe that a university imposing a smoking ban on their campus constitutes a restriction of their own-source revenue. This would be a decision in relation to their guilds or unions if they chose not to sell cigarettes, but I am not aware of any university itself that is actually selling cigarettes to generate income or revenue.

In relation to the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, I assume and presume the senator refers to section 19(1)(c) of the act, which requires a Commonwealth entity to notify the responsible minister as soon as practicable after the accountable authority makes a significant decision in relation to the entity or any of its subsidiaries. As I outlined earlier, the idea that a university should have to report to the federal government a decision to ban smoking on their campus is not something we believe would have to be notifiable. Nor of course do we think the idea that they should have to report is consistent with good liberal values. (Time expired)