Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010; Second Reading

5:11 pm

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am pleased to resume my remarks and express my concern about what is nothing but a tax on students. In fact, we should be calling it a student tax. What about those students who are studying off-campus or study online at significant distances from university campuses? What about those students who will not use services such as child care or counselling? Why should they have to subsidise these services for other people whilst not seeing a red cent of value for themselves? This is a new tax on students and it is forcing people to subsidise services that they do not want or need or choose to use.

The principal point in this debate must be the concerns and interests of the students themselves. There is nothing in the legislation to stop the compulsorily acquired money being channelled into any Labor student club or to fund the legal defence of violent student protestors like those charged in Melbourne during the G20 talks in 2006. In fact, there is no system for monitoring if the money was spent in accordance with any guidelines. It is naive, to say the least, that the fee would not be used for political purposes, contrary to the advice we have received from those on the opposite side of the chamber. The only activities expressly prohibited are direct donations to political parties and funding for elections, whether they be Commonwealth, state or territory bodies. But this, as we know, still leaves a large and diverse range of political activities, and I will mention some of them. There are political campaigns, political causes, whether the students agree with the money being spent or not. I am reminded of those members of the HSU who had their money spent in ways which they had not formally approved. Where is the accountability for the proposed quasi-political organisations who will be given millions of dollars of students' money?

In truth, there is no realistic chance of accountability, there is no sanction mechanism and there is no power for the university to enforce appropriate spending. The only certain thing is that the money at best will be misspent and at worst rorted.

Sadly, it is a possibility that ordinary students could subsidise the political careers of elite student activists. How do we know that this could be the case? We only have to look at history and see that this has happened before. Prime Minister Gillard, a former education minister, had a significant position in the leftist National Union of Students, a union that no doubt helped to launch her political career.

I seriously question if student unions actually represent the views of the majority of students, and those on the campuses around the states will attest to that. I know that this is not the case. They did not represent me when I was at university, they did not represent my friends when they were at university and they certainly do not represent my two sons, who today attend different universities.

I do not want to trivialise this issue, but I have to say that this unjust proposal reminds me of the 1990s Australian comedy film The Castle. In that movie the debate concerned the compulsory acquisition of land. Our debate today concerns the compulsory acquisition of students' money. Whilst I am not suggesting that the coalition's case is based on a vibe, I would suggest that our case is based on an innate sense of justice that guides all coalition policy.

Senator Feeney interjecting—

Cynical people, Senator Feeney, may say: 'Why do we fight this cause? What is the political advantage in fighting and standing up for the rights of students?' To those cynics—and I would not suggest that of you, Senator Feeney and Senator Sterle—I say that the Liberal Party is the party of principle. We have no hesitation in advocating causes that are fundamentally good.

A voluntary student union fee is a good thing. It offers the freedom for students to choose whether or not they want to belong. The coalition is opposed to this legislation because it understands the changing needs of modern students. The reality of these challenging economic times means that a university student does not simply study. More often than not they have part-time work and more often than not they have more than one part-time job; it might be two or three. So it is a matter of balancing and juggling demands for the students. Many students are in a position where they may be financially supporting their family's increasingly tight budget.

Today's students do not have time for nor the interest in engaging with numerous clubs or associations on university campuses. They have to be selective. For them to pay a compulsory tax for activities that they would not benefit from is simply daylight robbery. It is not surprising that this legislation is being so strongly prosecuted and agued against by those on the ground in the universities.

Senator Hanson-Young is on the record as saying, 'University can and should prepare students to be active and engaged citizens.' Senator Hanson-Young, I agree, but how can you achieve this noble pursuit by charging a compulsory tax? I would have thought that an active and engaged citizen—and I am quoting you, Senator—would have the right to choose associations and not be forced to compulsorily comply. This bill belongs in the wastebasket of history. It is a tax on those who need our support and it is an attempt to impose what I can only suggest is the leftist ideology that has been rejected by so many students.

This government seems to have only two principles that guide its public policy determination and formulation. They are: taxes and the influence the union movement has over the agenda of this government, which I have to say is secondary to the Greens, of course.

Students who do not use services should not be forced to subsidise those of other students. Students cannot afford this additional expense. It is just a student tax.


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