Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010; In Committee

12:52 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | Hansard source

We have just seen the gagging of a very important debate. This is a debate that has been fought over for about 35 years. It is a critical debate for the welfare of Australian students. What is really appalling is that the critical questions on the enforcement mechanisms of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 have still not been answered. I know the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare is doing her best, but the questions about how this bill will be enforced by universities and by the department responsible have not been answered. There has not even been an attempt to answer these questions, and the Australian Greens have facilitated this gag. They did it because—I think it was Senator Brandis the other day who said this—those with an authoritarian shape of mind will do anything to close down debate.

This bill has not been thought through. I asked questions when we kicked off this morning about, in effect, the peace, order and good government of the legislation. The phrase was the 'welfare of students'. That is a very, very broad phrase. The minister was unable to tell the chamber whether that phrase would prohibit the use of money by student organisations for political causes. She could not or would not tell us. We have been asking that question now for days and yet there has been no answer. Senator Williams asked a good question—and, not that I am a good lawyer, in a sense the argument is one about the fruit of a tainted tree or the tainted fruit of a tree—which was this: 'A student operation subsidised by student money makes a profit. How then is that money to be used?' Is that covered by the legislation? In other words, can the profits of a student cafe or bar be used for political purposes? There was no answer to Senator Williams's question. It is a critical question because in effect money can be laundered through student organisations for political purposes. That is a disgrace. That is what I object to about this bill. Clearly, it is an open debate that we are having and there are strong opinions on both sides, but what I really object to is the failure of the government to answer these fundamental questions.

What about the enforcement mechanisms? How will universities enforce this legislation? Specifically, what enforcement mechanisms and penalties are available to universities to enforce this legislation? Guess what: we do not know of any. We do not know what enforcement mechanisms are available to universities—we do not have a clue. This still has not been answered. After days of debate, these fundamental questions about the utility of this bill have not been answered.

It would seem from the debate thus far—and the government is right—that you could not have money spent, for example, on bumper stickers that said 'Vote Labor'. The government is right: that would be a political purpose and would be inappropriate. It could not say 'Vote Liberal'—that is also true. But what would happen if the bumper sticker said 'Put Liberals last'. Under the bill I think that would be all right. What would happen if student money was used to support the carbon tax? Would that be money well spent? We still do not know, and that is why we oppose the authoritarian shape of mind that promotes this sort of legislation. We have no idea. So it is okay to say 'Don't vote Liberal' or 'Don't vote for the coalition', but you cannot under any circumstances say 'Vote Labor' or 'Vote Liberal'. We understand that, but it does not inhibit the scope of the legislation.

We oppose this bill and I will be saying more, I might add, on the third reading. Suffice to say that the reason we take these issues so seriously is that many of us were involved in student politics—I certainly was a long time ago back in the early 1980s—and I will never forget that as a 17-year-old my money was paid to student organisations and then used for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That is how it was used back in the early 1980s. Somehow, that was okay; that was an expression of student will! There was never any expression of student will. Only five per cent of people ever voted at the ANU in the early 1980s. The Left got hold of the money and spent it on causes they believed in. The rest of the students—the 95 per cent—would never have supported the PLO. Yet, fundamentally, we still do not know whether this could happen again. We do not know whether, for example, money could be spent on overseas political causes or, indeed, any political issues. Those fundamental questions have not been answered. We do not know about enforcement mechanisms—we do not know how universities are going to enforce it and we do not even know what the department is going to do to monitor the situation. People might say: 'The coalition is hyperbolic about this. They are trying to filibuster the bill.' But do you know what I think? I think it is a very important issue. I think, as a matter of principle, the idea of forcing young Australians to potentially pay money for political causes that they do not believe in is outrageous. That is why we on this side have never, ever stopped in our opposition to forcing young Australians to pay for political causes they do not believe in. It is worse than that and I will say more on this during the third reading speech in a few minutes. Australian universities have changed. The demography of Australian universities has changed. It is not like it was just after World War II. Universities are no longer elite institutions. They are not even really mass institutions. They are nearly universal institutions. It is no longer like Brideshead Revisited. There are no echoes of that through universities I have worked in. Most students today are older, study part time and do not have the time or the inclination to pay for services the government and the Greens believe they should pay for. Most people at universities, most staff members among them, are working. They do not have the time or the inclination to use the services that the government and the Greens are forcing them to pay for. That is the disgrace of this bill.

Times have changed. The world has moved on. It is not like when all students were teenagers living on campus and able to use all the facilities—the gymnasiums and creches and, indeed, student organisations. What has happened—Professor Bradley in her report makes this so evident and so very clear—is that most students today, three-quarters of them, work part time. They do not have the time or the opportunity to make use of the services that this lot believe should be paid for by students. What is more, the vast majority of students today are mature-age students. This came as a surprise to me, because things have clearly changed in the 30 years since I was an undergraduate. About two-thirds of students at Australian universities are mature age; they are over 21. That is an enormous change from 30 years ago. It is a huge demographic change in the make-up of the Australian undergraduate population. Even though there are more women, more disadvantaged kids and more people working part time, this lot believe that people should be forced to pay for what the inner-city left-wing activists believe should be the priorities of Australian students. That is what we find so offensive.

The Labor Party say they speak for the disadvantaged. They always claim: 'The coalition do not care about disadvantaged students. The coalition do not speak for kids from the western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne, or for Indigenous students or indeed for rural or regional students.' The Labor Party say, 'We care.' No, they do not. I can tell you now that the people that benefit from the expenditure of this money will be those people able to take advantage of it, and that will not be the people that work part time. Those kids who are disadvantaged will be working at the local pizza store or the local laundrette, or they will be working as a brickie's labourer or a truck driver. They will not be sitting in student unions collecting their pay cheques and spending money on fashionable left-wing activist causes. They will be working. Apparently the Labor Party speak for Indigenous students. Those kids will be out working. They will not be sitting on university campuses lolling in the bright afterglow of a 21st century Brideshead Revisited. That is not going to happen. The world has changed under the foot of the Left in this country and they do not quite get it.

In a few years 40 per cent of young Australians will be going to university. That is two out of five. The vast majority of them, three-quarters of them, will be working. Two-thirds of them will be studying part time and an increasing number will be studying externally using modern technology. How are they going to take advantage of the great facilities they are going to be forced to pay for? The Labor Party do not care about that. They argue that they speak for the underprivileged. It is the coalition that speak for those students that work part time, the vast majority of whom cannot take advantage of the services that they are expected to pay for. The coalition speak for young Australians that have to work. We speak for them, not this lot. They do not speak for them. The government are forcing kids that have to work or indeed study part time to pay the bill. We speak for those kids that work when they go to uni and we speak for part-time students. We speak for those kids that have no alternative except to work to put themselves through university. What is this lot doing about that? Absolutely nothing. What about kids from rural and regional Australia that have no alternative except to pay their own way? This lot know they do not have access to those services. Australian universities and their make-up have changed under the foot of the Australian Labor Party.

This is an issue I know many people find arcane and perhaps even slightly overbearing at times. But this is such an important issue to the coalition. I want to make this point and I will make it again shortly. This is such a critical issue because none of us on this side of the chamber believe that any student, any young Australian, should have money compulsorily exacted from them and used for purposes they cannot or will not use. As Senator Cormann, Senator Humphries, Senator Fifield and many of my friends have said in the course of this debate, 'We have no problem—students can spend their money on any political cause they want.' None of us have any objection to that. But they will not spend the money of young Australians on political causes we find distasteful or, in my case, as you will remember, Temporary Chairman, abhorrent. Any of us that went to university over the last 20 or 30 years are so attuned to the potential horrors of this legislation that we cannot allow this bill to go through without a fight. Let me say this, because the government have not answered the legitimate questions that coalition senators have raised: we will be doing everything to monitor how this legislation is implemented and how it is monitored.


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