House debates

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009

Second Reading

7:48 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Casey, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to talk in this debate on this important bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, legislation that we will oppose for the reasons the member for Indi outlined at the commencement of this debate today. Can I say that I endorse absolutely everything the member for Indi said with respect to the coalition’s position.

I also welcome the opportunity to follow the member for Banks. Many of us here in this parliament know well the member for Banks. He is very passionate. He always puts his case very strongly. He relied on a whole range of his experiences. He cited things going back to the 1970s and 1980s. Having worked with him on a number of committees, the one thing I will say for the member for Banks is that, despite his differences on a whole range of political and philosophical issues with members of parliament like myself, he will not deliberately argue a point he does not agree with or deliberately mislead in any way. Whilst he was able to put his fingertips on a plethora of issues and he has instant recall of every issue going back to his days at Sydney university, which I admire, given that he is a bit older than me—I would not say I had an instant recall of everything back at the University of Melbourne—the one thing he was very careful about and very deliberately chose not to mention was the Labor Party’s position prior to the last election. He would not be comfortable addressing that issue.

This is a critical point. Before the last election, having opposed the Howard government and the views of people like myself that we should have voluntary student unionism, that we should trust every student to decide on their own whether they wished to join a union, having fought that fight, having articulated the Labor Party’s position—which is very consistent with what the member for Banks has had to say today—and having argued that case and lost that case in the Senate and in this House, the Labor Party then had a total backflip. The position that they put was that hand on heart they would not in any way, shape or form introduce a bill like this. As the member for Indi said, on 22 May the then shadow minister for education, Mr Smith, said:

One thing I can absolutely rule out is that I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, particularly a compulsory HECS style arrangement.

He went on to say:

I certainly do not have on my list an extension of HECS, either voluntary or compulsory, to fund these services. So I absolutely rule that out.

The position of that Mr Smith is the same as the position of this Mr Smith. The Labor Party said, ‘Despite what we have always said in the past, and despite how we have voted, we make an ironclad commitment to one million Australian university students that if we are elected to government we will not in any way, shape or form reintroduce compulsory unionism or even a compulsory union fee.’ The Labor Party gave an unequivocal guarantee at that time that, if they were elected to government, the House of Representatives would never consider what we are considering today.

One of two things brought that about. Let us think this through. One option is that the Labor Party, having strongly held views for all that time, and having opposed our legislation, then decided that they were wrong after all and our position was right—and they argued to the Australian people that there was not a cigarette paper between us. But, having won the election, they decided that they were wrong about changing their mind and reverted to their old position. That is ridiculous. This minister and members of the Labor Party opposite cannot stand and support the bill they have put forward in this parliament without acknowledging that they did not believe what they said to the Australian people before the election and that what we now have before us is a calculated broken promise. I would have more respect for them if that was acknowledged.

But the member for Banks was very careful not to address that fundamental issue. And for those opposite, there is no explanation. Do they really believe in all the passion we are seeing in this debate from the member for Banks and the members who will follow him? I will be interested to hear from the member for Deakin. He ran to the election promising that he would not support such a thing, but he is going to speak in support of it and vote on it. That is very interesting for the electors of Deakin. If that can happen on an issue like this for Australian students, it can happen on anything. But as they speak with their passion in support of this legislation, they confirm the total falsity of their claims prior to the last election and they confirm the complete hollowness of every other promise they made.

We strongly support freedom of association. We strongly believe that this legislation will not work. It is actually designed not to work. It is, with its compulsory fee, a Clayton’s form of compulsory unionism. We maintain that students have a right to choose whether to join a union and a right to choose what sorts of services they want to use. We stand up for the students who just want to get an education. We stand up for the thousands of external students who will be forced to pay this fee, this new tax, and for the part-time students who just want to attend a lecture after work. We also say that, if the services that are offered are good enough, students will happily join and happily pay. We have heard arguments about the need to subsidise catering on campus, but so many of our university campuses have for many years been surrounded by catering facilities. The University of Melbourne is a classic example. Nowhere else would there be more restaurants and cafes per square foot than there are near the University of Melbourne. The proof of the so-called success of this model can be seen in the queues of people leaving the campus at lunch hour to avoid the union-subsidised cafeteria!

Everywhere else in Australia, including in the electorates of La Trobe, Casey and Chisholm, there are small businesses operating catering services and restaurants. Madam Deputy Speaker, you would not get a better example than your own electorate of Chisholm. The argument that this cannot occur on a university campus and that there somehow has to be a subsidy is absolutely insulting. This legislation is before the House because the Labor Party, prior to the last election, made a decision that it was unpopular for them to stand up for their beliefs. The reason it is unpopular for them to stand up for their beliefs on this matter is that the minister and the members opposite do not care about the welfare of one million Australian students but they are obsessed about the welfare of some student union mates. That is the reality.

Before the last election, they had a choice. They could have said what they believed in but instead they said, ‘Let’s announce that we will do nothing, and’—in the famous words of the member for Kingsford Smith—‘if we get in we will change it all.’ That is what we are seeing here today. You will not see the member for Banks address that point. We will stand up strongly in this House and in the Senate for the right of students not to have to pay a $250 tax that those opposite promised they would not have to pay. We have seen all the hand-wringing from members of the Australian Labor Party over the years about how difficult Australian students find it to make ends meet. But then they introduce a $250 tax that will raise $250 million from Australian students, and they say they can put it on their HECS debt. The Labor Party say they are the party that is worried about student debt, but their first act on Australian campuses is to increase student debt. Why? Because they are more worried about the welfare of some student union leaders than the welfare of one million Australia students.

The member for Banks did not address that fundamental point. As I conclude, let me predict that the next speaker, the member for Deakin, will not address that fundamental point. I was thinking as I was preparing my remarks, ‘He might have a problem with this legislation: he might not think it goes far enough.’ But he is a newly elected member in this parliament who got elected on the Australian Labor Party’s policy platform. He will now stand up and, if he is candid, he will say, ‘What the Labor Party is now doing it pledged it would not do before the election when the students of Australia made up their mind.’


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