Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


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

Debate resumed on the motion:

That this bill be now read a second time.

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.

5:19 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. This bill is nothing more than an attempt by the Labor Party to roll back a good Howard government policy so that it can curry favour with left-leaning student unions.

We know what happens when the Labor Party, handcuffed to the Greens, attempt to roll back good policy from the Howard era. We see it with their lack of border security and in many other facets of the way in which the Australian public has to live its life.

This issue of student services and amenities fees, also called student union fees, has been before this parliament on many occasions, most recently with a similar bill in 2009, which was defeated in the Senate in August of that year. The second bill lapsed at the end of the 42nd Parliament. My friend and colleague Senator Brett Mason tells me that this has been coming backwards and forwards since the 1970s. It is a bit like going back to the future.

The student union fee push is not only driven by leftist activists but is also aided and abetted by like-minded university administrators, who see the great bulk of students as a lucrative source of funding for the services that once upon a time were provided by the universities themselves.

This bill will force students to pay for services they may not want. These are services that some cannot use and many do not want to pay for. We on this side do not believe students should be forced to pay for services that they would not or cannot use.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

There goes taxation.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Feeney, we are all about having a fair taxation system, not one that looks back at the past and tries to solve the problems for the future.

Under this bill, Australian students will be forced to pay $250 per year regardless of their ability to pay or their ability or willingness to use the services that these fees will be financing. Over a standard three-year degree, this equates to $750—a large sum of money for a student, which could be better spent by the students themselves on course materials, textbooks and transport to and from university.

In total, this tax will amount to $250 million. It is essentially a new tax on students, who are already struggling under tough economic conditions, having to pay for textbooks, course materials, transport, food, accommodation and so on. Also lurking in there, if the Labor Party and the Greens have their way, is the carbon tax. So all this while paying for course materials and living off two-minute noodles and cereal. Having to fork out another $250 seems somewhat bizarre. This is another broken promise by the Labor Party, which said before the 2007 election that it would not reintroduce compulsory student fees—another policy backflip. This is just another way for Labor to force up the cost of living for Australians.

University life is no longer what it was back in the seventies. Students no longer have the time, inclination or opportunity to use the services provided. So under the guise of a student amenities fee, all students will be helping to fund student services that only a few may use and some of it will be used to support budding student politicians.

Many students now study part time while working full time and study full time while working part time. Students can also study externally or online. There are many different ways to study. Students today go to university to get a degree to improve their skills and qualifications to improve their job prospects. Students do not have time to lounge around on campus like they had in the past. They have jobs to go to and, for mature-age students, quite often families to look after. I declare an interest here. My wife is studying commerce part time at Adelaide university and works full time. While she is looking after the children and me part time there is not a lot of time to get active in a student union movement. My daughter, also at Adelaide university, is following in her father's footsteps and studying a degree in wine marketing, all this while working part time. They are just not interested in joining a student union.

We have moved on, though Labor appears to be stuck. Students today want choice. They do not want to be forced to pay for services they do not want and did not ask for. They want the choice to spend their hard-earned money as they see fit. Freedom of association, including freedom not to join an association, remains one of the core beliefs of the coalition. We allow workers to exercise freedom in the workforce. You no longer have to belong to a union and, as such, workforce union participation is down to 18 per cent around Australia. Australians have moved on from compulsion and we should continue to allow Australian students to do so.

We must not forget that for many young students gaining a tertiary education is a delicate balancing act. I know many students who study full time and work long hours in order to support themselves. They work in supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, cafes and service stations. They are working hard to gain a tertiary qualification, something which we have been encouraging young Australians to do for many years. So instead of penalising them we should give them a choice.

There are 130,000 students who study externally. They will never have an opportunity to use the services Labor are going to force them to pay for. And the services that are offered are often better delivered by other businesses. In Adelaide, two of our three biggest university campuses are located in the city. Why would students want to use the services offered at the university when there is such a wide range of choice offered by businesses in the local vicinity? The cafes, shops and eateries offer a greater range of foods which are usually higher quality at lower prices. Who would want to eat some week-old, stale sandwich at the uni cafe when you can get something freshly made just across the road? Similarly, printing services like copying and binding can be done cheaper at other commercial premises and the services look professionally done.

In providing services and amenities, one example in the past has been child care, yet most uni students are young. The main beneficiary of childcare services are older, mature-age students—yet another instance of young students just out of school not benefitting from a service but subsidising it for a minority with more clout on campus.

Let's look at what Adelaide University Union membership currently gets you. There are discounts for eating out—10 per cent off at a flash restaurant that also serves gelati—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What is a flash restaurant?

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a gelataria. It is an ice-cream restaurant—hardly essential. The discounts on campus include free beer-service training—no doubt a useful life skill, but is it something students should be forced to subsidise? I do not think so. While students are out and about, they can get 10 per cent off at pet city and 15 per cent off limousine rental, 25 per cent off a tandem skydive and 10 per cent off at a herbal supply shop—hardly essential items. Should we really be forcing all students to subsidise a minority to hire limos and eat at gelatarias?

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

And skydive.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And skydive! I do not think so. Labor might have a leg to stand on if students actually wanted to pay this $250 fee, but 59 per cent of students voted against compulsory fees in a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The who? I've never heard of them. Are they a party?

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Be very careful: if you continue to push this, you may well go the way of the dodo and the Democrats. Students themselves do not want to pay—

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

You just quoted their poll and now you're saying they're like the dodo.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, there were 59 per cent of them—and polls, as we know, do have some relevance in this place.

Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Australian students do not want to pay student fees. Why won't the government listen to the majority of students, who do not want to pay compulsory fees, rather than the vocal minority of Labor and Greens student activists?

In a letter from Jack Batty, the President of Liberals on Campus, Adelaide, I received a message that they too oppose this bill. They, unlike what is being proposed, have voluntary entry. They stand for a principle and look to attract people in the battle of ideas and ideals. That is how they seek their membership. Senator Birmingham has already spoken of this letter, but I think it is important to reiterate it. It is important that the voice of an actual representative student body is heard in the debate in this place. They do not want compulsory unionism. They said:

Liberals on Campus has serious concerns about how this money will be spent. Services provided by student unions are largely superfluous and open to political abuse. This bill provides little by way of enforcement mechanisms to prevent the misuse of our money.

'Superfluous and open to political abuse'—the system proposed in this bill is open to political abuse and lacks real enforcement mechanisms. While the bill prohibits universities or any third parties that might receive money from spending it in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing to prevent that money being spent on political campaigns, political causes or quasi-political organisations per se, whether or not students whose money is being spent agree with those causes or purposes. This is what we on this side of the chamber are concerned about.

Even though the bill may prohibit direct support for political parties and candidates, how will this be policed and enforced? Neither the bill nor the guidelines provide any credible enforcement or sanction mechanism. It is all very well for the government to maintain that this bill is about student services and amenities. That is what the title of the bill might state, but its thrust is more about Labor, backed by the Greens, empowering student union power brokers to indulge in their pet political campaigns. Student unions have been a fertile training ground for Labor and the Greens, but at the expense of students who are at university to study for their degrees. The money from their fees should not be diverted to Left frolics that are of no concern to them. If the Lefties want to protest then they should pay for it themselves, not siphon off the money contributed in student fees to finance their activities.

This is desperate legislation from Labor in a sad attempt to restore their flagging fortunes. Like the carbon tax, this student services and amenities bill is another broken pre-election promise by Labor not to do any such thing. The broken promises of the 2010 election ring in this chamber all the time. Either the new paradigm is being used as an excuse to trash Labor's own promises, or the Greens' tail has control of the Labor dog—and the wider electorate can see it wagging to the detriment of good public policy.

Labor has had a long history of grooming its young activists by supporting them to gain key positions in student unions—although in South Australia both the Greens and the Australian Democrats have also used this technique to their own advantage. So many senators, and members in the other place, started their political careers by learning how to do the numbers in a student union before graduating to the trade unions or becoming staffers and then moving on to a federal career. Natasha Stott Despoja, our very own Sarah Hanson-Young in this chamber, and Kate Ellis in the other place are just three student union activists who come to mind as having built their political careers through their student union activities.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Edwards, can I just remind you that you have to refer to senators and members by their proper titles.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I apologise; I thought I had. I will correct myself: 'Senator Hanson-Young and the member for Adelaide, Kate Ellis'.

What this bill is really about is the Labor-Greens' desire to get their hands on more money from students, under the guise of amenities and services, so as to divert it for other purposes. The extra funds will also assist in grooming the next generation of student leaders, who can see the examples of those who used the same methods before them. Instead of going into services and amenities, the additional money will be very handy in boosting the popularity of the very student leaders who have control of the funding.

In Roman times there were bread and circuses to keep the support of the masses. Two thousand or so years later, the Left has refined this technique to try to fritter away the money grabbed from students, either through campaigns of its own or by measures to ensure the re-election of the leaders themselves. We on this side oppose this nonsense Labor bill.

I thank the Acting Deputy President for guiding me in this speech.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Edwards.

5:37 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 and to go to the heart of section 19-37, subsection (2), of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The existing act provides that:

A higher education provider must not require a person enrolled with, or seeking to enrol with, the provider to pay to the provider or any other entity an amount for the provision to students of an amenity, facility or service that is not of an academic nature, unless the person has chosen to use the amenity, facility or service.

The new subsection—subsection (4)—provides an exception to subsection (2) and allows an education provider to require the payment of a student services and amenities fee.

Why are we here debating this today when we have had numerous promises that we would not see the reintroduction of a mandatory fee? I would like to address this bill in three areas: matters of principle, some particulars of the bill and the potential of the students at our universities and what they can achieve despite the actions of government.

First is the principle of personal responsibility. I would like to read you a quote from 16 September this year:

And for a long period of time, our great movement believed that one size should fit all in service provision, that those seeking choice were undermining collective aspirations.

Now we understand that desire for choice is rightly strengthening not abating.

In this age we need to pursue our historic mission while also embracing choice and creating ways to give individuals more control.

Australians want to make their own choices and control their own lives.

Now, who would that be? It sounds like somebody from the conservative side of politics, but no—it was the current Prime Minister, addressing the Chifley Research Centre.

On one hand we have what they say—that Australians want more choice and that we should be giving them more choice and more control of their lives. But it is really important in many debates, both in this place and in the broader Australian community, to not just listen to what is said but to look at what is done. So we are here now debating this bill which is about removing choice. With one hand, the Prime Minister stands up and says we want to give people more choice. With the other hand, the government takes away choice.

That brings me to the second principle: integrity. A number of government members of parliament, particularly the then education minister, in May 2007 made very specific statements that the government would not introduce a compulsory amenities fee. That sounds remarkably like 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' Yet here we are, debating a carbon tax. Here we are debating a compulsory amenity fee. Do not trust what is said; look at what is done.

Another principle is equity—the principle of a fair go. Students at universities now come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some students come from professions and are upskilling. One of the brief interludes I had after leaving the other place was doing some lecturing for the University of South Australia in a course for defence engineers or people in the defence industry who wanted to work in defence. All these people had to find time out of their family and work commitments to come to university so that they could improve their qualifications to work within the defence industry. None of these people had time to actually get involved with the whole range of things that these service fees are supposed to provide for. Yet we are levying that charge on them. How is that fair? How is that equitable? They are working, so the argument could be that they can afford it.

How about country students? We know that for the last couple of years there has been a deal of debate in this place about the impact of changes brought in by the Labor government around youth allowance for country young people. It even got to the point, in 2010, where my colleague Senator Nash put forward an amendment to the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill that created a potential constitutional crisis, because the issue was that real—we needed to support rural students. It was reported in February 2007 that rural and regional students were deferring university at almost twice the rate of their city cousins because of the lack of support and the lack of funding to support themselves at uni. Thankfully, by the end of February a $20 million Rural Tertiary Hardship fund was set up, and then the Review of Student Income Support Reforms was announced by the government.

So, with one hand the Prime Minister says, 'Give them more choice', and with the other hand she takes it away. With one hand, the ALP government is providing income because they recognise that many students, particularly those from country areas, are doing it tough and struggle to support themselves at university. With the other hand, they take it away. How is that fair or equitable? Why should people who are at university, who are seeking to improve their lot in life and want just to study and not to take part in the broader range of activities, have to pay this fee so others can choose to participate in sport or other activities—subsidised drinks et cetera on the campus. There is this thing called choice. We can choose to pay for the services we wish to, and it is not a fair go to require other people to pay for services they are not using.

I have heard the analogy from a few of those opposite that it is like paying your council rates. But in paying your council rates you are paying for a service you know you will need—somebody to maintain your footpaths or somebody to collect your rubbish. But in this case you are paying for services you may not even be able to access. Many people now study externally. They never come near the campus. How is it fair or equitable for those people to have to pay this fee?

I now move onto the particulars of the bill. The bill talks about a number of things in the new subsection (4) that the education provider can spend the money on. The list is quite extensive and it includes things like providing food or drink to students on the campus, the supporting of sporting and recreational activities, caring for the children of students and providing legal services—all things that are good that I do not think anyone would complain about being provided.

It is interesting to note though if you take the time to have a look at the university websites. Being from South Australia I have looked at those for the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia. Some of those opposite would tell us that the current environment in higher education is like a desert with tumbleweeds blowing around and students living in poverty with no support. If you look at the list of services on the website of the University of Adelaide you will see that it lists student services to do with accommodation; careers services; childcare services; counselling services; a dental service; a disability service; an elite athlete support service; first-year students support services; international support services; language and cultural exchange programs; a laptop purchase program; a student grievance resolution processes; student insurance; travel and entertainment; a university health service; campus catering; educational welfare officers; fitness hubs; news and events; health, safety and wellbeing; student magazine; sports association and the list goes on. For those who wish to participate, life on campus is still active and viable.

More importantly, the opportunity for students to take a larger role in engaging in those things that they are passionate about actually develops the leadership and potential of our young people far more than the deadening hand of centralised control that this system will reintroduce. One of the items listed in the new subsection 4 goes to supporting an artistic activity by students. I draw the attention of the Senate to an organisation called AUMO, the Adelaide University Medical Orchestra. This was created after the VSU bill was introduced; so this is in an environment where none of these supports are supposedly there and the student life is supposedly dead, and yet these students have created an orchestra which is, in no uncertain words, outstanding. There are around 150 students involved. They have a stage band, a vocal ensemble and dance crews. They work with a number of partner agencies around Adelaide—the Royal Adelaide Hospital network, the Adelaide Medical Student Society and the Adelaide University Choral Society. They do not just come together to play music. I have been privileged to be able to go both of their major concerts so far in 2010 and 2011. They provide an outstanding opportunity not only for the students to play music but also for the creative potential of those students in both composition and arrangement. How do they do this? How do they get the venues? They use their initiative and they approach sponsors such as BEA Motors, Allans Music and Billy Hyde, and MDA National. Why do they sponsor AUMO? Because it is not just about music. Because of the passion of these young people, they also use the music and the proceeds raised from their concerts to support a number of medical charities and help develop the links between music and better health.

In 2010, the proceeds of their concert went to the Yalata community health project. That is an Indigenous community about 200 kilometres west of Ceduna. Dr Jill Benson from Adelaide University facilitates fantastic work from a range of health professionals and students to support that community. In 2011, the proceeds went to the Insight Global Health Group, providing mosquito nets to people in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia, and the Cambodia World Family. Importantly, they also have a program working with the Adelaide Womens and Childrens Hospital called the AUMO Effect where they look at using their musical skills and talents to assist in the recovery and healing of people.

This shows that life on a university campus, far from being struck down by the lack of a compulsory fee, actually empowers people who are passionate about the activity they wish to be involved with to create something that is bigger than any of the individual students—something that has great creativity and is of great benefit to the community around them—because they have taken individual responsibility and they have individual interest and passion to make this work.

So from a range of aspects—looking at the principle, looking at the particulars of the bill and particularly looking at the passion of the young people and the potential that that develops—I do not believe Australia will be well served by moving towards the big brother approach, the nanny state approach, again of having centralised control and compulsion for people to contribute to something rather than having the free choice that the prime minister herself spoke about only this month. To quote Sir Robert Menzies:

… what we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism.

All this is, by having the collectivist approach of compulsion and taking away individual choice, is the latest expression of socialism by this government. I remind people listening to this debate that they should not just listen to the words spoken here, whether it was those of the then education minister Mr Smith or whether it those of the current prime minister. They promised that there would be no compulsory student amenity fee. The prime minister said only this month that we must be looking for ways to empower the individual and give more choice. I would ask you to look at what is done. Here we are again, with two broken promises, contradicting a principle that was espoused just this month. As a result of a range of reasons around principle, the particulars of the bill and because it will damage the potential of our young people in the future, I will not be supporting this bill.

5:51 pm

Photo of Judith AdamsJudith Adams (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to speak to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. As someone who attended university externally from a rural area years ago, I found I had to pay a fee for amenities that I was never able to actually use and I found that very difficult. This takes me back to when I was an external student. I look at some of my former colleagues' children who are now struggling, coming from a rural area and trying to do external studies, and I believe it is really rather cruel to bring this fee back. There is no way that they are going to be able to access the amenities on the campus.

One thing that I am not happy about is that this fee, when the bill is passed, will be administered by the universities. Under the guidelines, the university will have to meet with the democratically elected student representatives and I wonder how many of these people there will be to go through what they want to do with the fee. Also, the universities have to publish and identify the priorities for the fee. Student organisations have to meet with the higher education provider to consider where the fee revenue can best be spent. The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, said students 'have a clear interest in how their fees are being spent'.

I have consulted widely with a number of students. Some are part time at university and others are completely external—as I said, I come from a rural area—and they are very disappointed. Those who are studying part time have to travel to Perth, in this instance, from the country, paying for petrol and accommodation for the short time they are there and then having to travel home again. They wonder how they will pay the additional $250 fee in 2011, and then it goes up to $264 in 2012—I do not have that figure in front of me but the opportunity is there to raise the fee.

Having visited a number of universities and looked at the amenities, my concern is that each time I have been there—I do not know whether it was because I was there—these amenities were not being used fully. In one instance I looked at an amenities room to see what was available and there were no students there at all, and this was a very large university. I really do wonder if this fee is a good move. However, once again, as my colleagues have said, it is a broken promise from the 2007 election when Minister Smith said at that stage that a compulsory fee would not be charged again. Lo and behold, look at what we have before us now.

As you are aware, the coalition oppose this bill because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they would not or could not use. Under the bill, every one of one million Australian students will be forced to pay their $250 a year, regardless of their ability to pay and their ability or willingness to use the services that their fees will finance. I believe, as my colleagues have stated, this is a new tax on those of our society who in many cases can least afford to pay. Students are already struggling under the current tough economic conditions and this bill means $250 less for textbooks, study material, transport or at least $250 more on their HECS debt.

This bill, as I said, represents a broken promise by the Labor Party, which made a commitment before the 2007 election not to reintroduce compulsory student union fees. The changing demographics of students, even in the last 10 years, means universities today are not as elite as they were. It was really difficult to get into a university then. It is amazing now how many more students can go to university. A number are studying part time, externally, and working or attending university in the evenings due to competing work and family commitments. Many more take advantage of greater flexibility and competition, as well as the opportunities that new communications technologies bring to external study. There are about 130,000 students currently studying externally and these students will never have the opportunity to use the services they are forced to pay for. That is highly unfair.

Today's students see their higher education more as a way to gain credentials rather than to chalk up the so-called 'university experience' on their personal development CV. Just as people go to work to work and not to socialise, often students go to universities to gain an education and not to while away their free time on extra-curricular activities. Generation Y, which accounts for the bulk of university students at the moment, is less collectivist and less committed to institutionalised civil society, and whether inside or outside the walls of the university they would much rather and more readily join a group on Facebook than a group at their university. They are still interested in sports, hobbies and activities but they are far more inclined to organise and customise their own free time than to rely on others such as student unions to do it for them.

Students generally, unlike student politicians, are not interested in student unions or the services that student unions provide. In a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats,59 per cent of students voted against compulsory fees. That was a little while ago, of course, but at that time at most only five per cent of students ever voted in student union elections. That brings me back to my worry about the university collecting these fees and then having to consult with democratically elected student office bearers. If only five per cent of students ever vote in student union elections, how can one say that those elected are actually representative of all the students at the university? So there are a number of flaws here just due to the changing demographic—the change in how students regard their time at university.

I will not go through the services listed in the bill—my colleagues have already covered them. People outside university who need help go to Centrelink or Legal Aid or to organisations like Lifeline. Students do not want to be treated any differently. Outside university they certainly would not expect that everyone in their suburb would be forced to pay a levy or a tax so that they could undertake beer appreciation or enjoy rugby union. I am a rugby union supporter but I am very aware that rugby union at universities is certainly not now supported anywhere near as much as it was when my two sons were at university. In the end, if club services offered on campus are deemed valuable, they will earn the patronage of students without any compulsion. With those few comments, I confirm once again that this bill will not be supported by the coalition.

6:01 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

On 27 February 2007, when the first semester of that academic year began, it coincided with the first semester in which Australia's university students had been liberated from compulsory student unionism. On that occasion I took the opportunity to describe the fight for voluntary student unionism as:

… one of the great recent battles in the history of freedom in Australia.

For five years now, Australian students have been the beneficiaries of the success of the Liberal side of politics in that battle for freedom. For the last five years, Australia's university students have been able to attend university, have been able to attend their academic studies and have been able to partake in the full range of student activity on campus unburdened by the debt and the cost of compulsory student unionism and also unburdened of the insult of being told that they were obliged to join unions and campus associations against their will.

Those five years of freedom in Australian universities were won during the Howard government and they proved so popular with Australian students that, when he went to the 2007 election, no less than Mr Kevin Rudd, then the Leader of the Opposition, was forced to acknowledge that it was untenable for the Labor Party to reintroduce compulsory unionism on campus. And so the Australian Labor Party, as Senator Adams has pointed out, was actually elected to office four years ago on the strength of a promise not to abolish voluntary student unionism, not to reimpose upon university students the shackle of compulsory student union fees, not to subject them to the insult of being told they would join an organisation whether they wished to or not.

What has happened now? Just as one of the first fruits of the Howard government's control of the Senate after 1 July 2005 was the freeing of Australia's university campuses, so the first dead fruit of the Labor-Greens control of the Senate after 1 July 2011 is to reimpose compulsion on Australia's university students, to force them, against their will, to pay costs for services they do not want to use—because some bureaucrat and some ideologue and some student activists of the Left decides it would be a good idea to make them do so.

This is a great defeat in the history of freedom in Australia just as the Howard government's liberation of university students six years ago was a great victory in the battle for freedom—for intellectual freedom, for freedom of association and for the cultural freedom that says to university students, 'You will decide what you do with your days on campus and nobody will tell you what to do; you will decide for yourself.' But we will not be deterred. There are so many on my side of politics whose formative experience in politics, whose awakening of political consciousness, coincided with experiencing the dead hand of compulsion at universities. So we will not give up.

This is an issue of tremendous importance to my side of politics for two particular reasons—first of all, the reason I have just touched on. As university students we saw for the first time with our own eyes the authoritarian cast of mind. We saw for the first time that habit of mind that says to others, 'Do what we tell you to do; don't do as you would choose to do,' and then seeks to legitimise, even glamorise, that authoritarian cast of mind with pious invocations of the general good. That was a formative experience for generation after generation of Liberals. It was a formative experience for Mr Tony Abbott, once the chairman of the Sydney University Students' Representative Council, and for other great Liberals of my generation, including Michael Kroger, Peter Costello and Senator Eric Abetz. Down the generations, other prominent Liberals who first came to political consciousness on the campuses have joined in that fight, including Mr Tony Smith, the member for Casey, at the University of Melbourne and Ms Sophie Mirabella, my shadow cabinet colleague. When some people who claimed to be supporters of VSU engaged in a little bit of convenient backsliding in the party room in 2005—I well remember it—Senator Mitch Fifield kept the fight going, as did Senator Mason and as did I, and Senator Scott Ryan's contribution should be acknowledged as well. They are but a few.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

It means so much to us because we have, since we were teenagers, lived with this belief and been shocked by the authoritarian cast of mind we first encountered on the campuses, represented today by people like you, Senator Hanson-Young, who certainly is unblushing in her apology for the authoritarian cast of mind.

There is a deeper reason. Voluntary student unionism for us is emblematic of the difference between the Liberal side of politics, which believes in freedom, choice and the rights of individuals, and the Labor side of politics, which derides the freedom of the individual and believes that the collective will of the temporary majority of the day can be imposed on an unwilling minority. We see that in this chamber all the time now that the Greens have seized the balance of power and are in cahoots with the Australian Labor Party.

Madam Acting Deputy President, you may think that this is all merely rhetoric, you may think that it is all merely high sentiment, but it is more than that. I will acknowledge that these issues, these values, these causes, mean a great deal to people like me, which is why we have fought, including against occasionally unsympathetic colleagues in the coalition, for these values. But it is more than just idealism that inspires us; it is the practical outcomes because, like every choice between 'an authoritarian government knows best' system and a system based on freedom of choice and freedom of the individual, it is the latter which always produces the best outcomes.

If I may, let me instance my own alma mater, the University of Queensland. The University of Queensland has the second largest student union in Australia. From the time voluntary student unionism was introduced five years ago, every year at every annual election for the office bearers and members of the Union Council of the University of Queensland, the forces of freedom have prevailed. At every election since 2007, the principal antagonists in those elections were a team of student activists known by the name 'Fresh' aligned to the Liberal side of politics, of course, and a team—it would be so appropriate if they were called 'Stale'—called 'Pulse' aligned to the Labor side of politics. Unfortunately, the Pulse team has barely been able to raise one because, in each of the last five years, the Fresh team, the Liberal team, the team that was associated with freedom of choice and the rights of the individual student, has been overwhelmingly successful. Furthermore, in each of those years the number of students who participated in the election has grown exponentially from about 2,500 in the last year of compulsory student unionism to 12,500, a fivefold increase in the course of the last six years.

One of the lies we were told by the apologists for compulsory student unionism was if we remove compulsion and introduce freedom people would not be interested, people would go away, the quality of the student experience would degenerate, the students would be the poorer for it and the level of involvement would fall off. On the contrary, at my own campus, at the University of Queensland, which Senator Mason knows very well as a former patron of the University of Queensland Liberal Club, far from the level of involvement and enthusiasm falling away, the level of participation has increased from a derisory 2,500 in 2006 to 12,500 this year, quite an extraordinary number by comparison with the usual turnout of student elections across the country.

As I said, this is the fifth year in a row—five out of five—since freedom was introduced at the University of Queensland Student Union, that the Fresh team were overwhelmingly endorsed by the student body.

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

Let freedom reign!

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Mason. Let freedom ring! They won 57 per cent of the primary vote. There were other candidates as well but of the two principal teams the Fresh team won 57 per cent of the entire field earlier this year. They won 12 of the 15 positions on the Union Council. They won every position on the union executive. They won every unpaid office bearer position. A more comprehensive slaughter of the forces of compulsion by the forces of freedom could scarcely be imagined. And this is the product of what we were told would be a degeneration into almost non-existence of student activity on campus as a result of voluntary student unionism. As always, in the contest between the authoritarian cast of mind and the belief in freedom, freedom triumphed.

I want to use this opportunity on this very sad day, when the forces of academic freedom and the freedom of students to choose their own university experience are suffering this woeful setback from this shabby alliance between the Labor Party and the disgraceful Greens, to pay tribute to some of the people who at the University of Queensland campus have been instrumental in those achievements. Many of them are friends of mine. They are people like Josh Young, who won the presidency of the UQ Union in 2008; Brandon Carter, in 2009; Michael Zivcic, in 2010; Ben Gorrie, in 2011; the gentleman Colin Finke, who has just been elected president for the ensuing year, 2012; Brodie Thompson, who has just been elected as union secretary; Christian Hayes, who has just been elected as the editor of Semper Floreat, the University of Queensland union magazine, and was also, I am told, the campaign manager for the successful Fresh campaign in recent weeks. They are young people like Kiran Srinivasan; Kieran Shaw, who was elected union vice-president; John Stubbs, who was elected as a union councillor; and Elliott Johnston, who was elected as the Business, Economics and Law faculty representative. The list of the people on the campus of my old university who have accomplished this magnificent victory for the forces of freedom in the last five years could not be complete without mentioning Ben Riley, who was elected a student senator of the University of Queensland and was very active for many years in the University of Queensland Liberal Club and is currently the state president of the Young Liberal Movement, and Laney McLaren, who was a long-time vice-president of the University of Queensland Union. Those people in Brisbane, at the lovely campus of the University of Queensland on the bend of the Brisbane River at St Lucia, follow in the tradition of Michael Kroger, Peter Costello, Tony Abbott, Tony Smith, Sophie Mirabella, Brett Mason, Mitch Fifield, Scott Ryan and all of the others on the Liberal side of politics who have dedicated themselves as students to the cause of freedom.

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

And Gary Humphries.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Mason. How could I forget my friend and colleague Senator Gary Humphries, who was president of the ANU Liberal Club in the 1980s! There are many more others and I hope I may be forgiven over any of the oversights which I may have made.

Let me conclude by making this point. Freedom is indivisible. One of the great lessons we have learned since the Enlightenment, one of the great lessons of the West, is that you cannot have the authoritarian cast of mind for some purposes and the Liberal cast of mind for others. If you believe in freedom, you believe in intellectual freedom and you believe in freedom of association and you believe in academic freedom and you believe in civil liberty. You believe in them all because you believe in freedom, choice and the rights of the person as a core value. The person who tells you, 'We will have compulsion in the affairs of university students,' is the same person who, out of the other corner of their mouth, will be saying, 'We will not have academic freedom either.'

If you do not believe in freedom for one purpose, you do not believe in freedom for all purposes. So beware, as I have said throughout the course of these remarks, of the authoritarian cast of mind, incipient in student activists of the Left. The current Prime Minister began her career as an activist of the hard Left on university campuses and only gradually traded away her hard Left dogmatic beliefs for a kind of flimsy pragmatism. But she remained an authoritarian throughout, as is seen even today in her approach to the issue of asylum seekers.

The authoritarian cast of mind is of a piece, just as the liberal cast of mind is of a piece. Either you believe, in the pith and marrow of your bones, that a good society is a society in which everybody is enabled to be free and not imposed upon or bossed around or forced to do what it would choose not freely to do or you believe that human nature is at its best and most noble if people do have free choice. The great pioneers of and the great warriors for voluntary student unionism have carried the torch of freedom on university campuses in this country for 30 years and they have carried that torch of freedom much more loyally than left-wing academics, who mouth pieties about academic freedom but nevertheless impose the cultural values of the Left, have ever done. It is a setback for them and it is a setback for us today but they will live to fight and to prevail again.

6:21 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators who have contributed to this debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 to which I will not add anything further since it has been conducted in this Senate many, many times.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.