Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


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

Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.

6:22 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I did flag in my speech on the second reading of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill that I needed to withdraw two of the amendments I have circulated, and I formally do so. The government has made clear that it has adopted in its guidelines the issues in amendments (1) and (2). That is great. Those amendments went to the accountability of expenditure and the reporting on consultations. I am extremely pleased to see that the government has adopted those and we do not need to proceed with the amendments.

I still have standing on sheet 6183 amendments (3), (4) and (5) that I would like to proceed with. Amendments (4) and (5) are dependent on amendment (3), and I now move amendment (3):

(3)   Schedule 1, item 6, page 7 (lines 12 to 14), subsection 19-67(3) TO BE OPPOSED.

This amendment goes to the heart of my major concerns relating to this bill and, while I put it clearly on the record that the Greens want to see this legislation passed, we want to see student services restored on university campuses, we are concerned that there is an explicit reference in the bill that says that this money cannot be given over to student organisations directly. We firmly believe that if students are going to be charged a fee they should be able to administer how it is spent. That means ensuring that we give it to representative bodies that can make sure it is spent on the services they need, that it is spent in relation to their various different representative structures. I do not think we need to debate this for very long. I assume that the opposition will oppose this amendment but I would like to think that the government would at least entertain the idea.

6:25 pm

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

As Senator Hanson-Young has foreshadowed, the opposition will oppose this amendment. She is prescient in her comments. I understand her argument is that at least to some degree student organisations should be funded. Throughout this entire debate one of the issues that my colleagues in the opposition have been concerned about is the capacity for student politicians to spend student money on various causes. One of the reasons I became involved in student politics, a long time ago, was that student money was spent on causes that I absolutely loathed. I have no objection to people spending their own money how they wish—I do not have any problem with it at all, and I mean that. If people want to spend their money on any particular cause, my view is that it is fine if it is within the law. But when as a student my money was being spent to fund the PLO in the early 1980s, I did not like that. I did not like the idea of my money being used to fund a terrorist organisation. For that reason I joined the Liberal club. Of course I could have joined the Labor club, but they were not quite so strong on this issue. Sadly, they were divided on my campus—half of them thought funding the PLO was a good idea and the other half thought it was not a bad idea. This is the nub of the problem.

None of us on the coalition side have any problem with people protesting or supporting any particular organisation, but we fundamentally object to the expenditure of student money for causes which most students would absolutely object to. The funding of terrorist organisations like the PLO—and other causes; today it could be Hamas—is something we would object to and for that reason the opposition opposes Greens amendment (3).

6:27 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I strongly support the very eloquent and insightful contribution by my colleague Senator Mason. This is a bad piece of legislation. This is a piece of legislation that seeks to impose a tax on students. It is a piece of legislation that seeks to remove from students their freedom of association. It is an attack on personal freedom. The Greens amendment before us would make a bad tax even worse—as if this legislation is not bad enough, the Greens want to make it worse. Yesterday, as we were debating this legislation, Senator Hanson-Young was perhaps a bit disturbed that her name was going to be attached to the legislation as it stands. Her party, the Greens, will be ensuring passage of this bad tax, this broken promise, from the Labor government.

I draw the attention of the Senate to some evidence that was provided to the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, which inquired into this a very bad tax that removes students' personal freedom of association. The committee's findings state:

The committee, however, remains concerned that the bill provides inadequate protection against political activity.

Of course, the Greens amendment is trying to make a bad situation even worse. When asked whether he could rule out any money collected through the legislation going to the National Union of Students, the Chief Executive Officer of Universities Australia stated that he 'cannot guarantee that a single dollar would not go to the National Union of Students'. As highlighted in the submissions, student unions are highly political. I will quote here from the very eloquent submission put forward by the Australian Liberal Students' Federation—pages 7 to 8, for those who are interested:

Office-bearer positions on student unions are almost without exception won by student politicians who are able to mobilise their activist support bases. However, the vast majority of students are apathetic to political causes and do not participate in university elections.

It is extremely rare for more than 10% of students to vote in student elections, even at the most politically active universities. At Melbourne and Sydney Universities, two of the most politically-oriented in Australia, voter turnout can be 5% or less.

T he resulting consequence is student unions being run by student politicians, elected by a small proportion of students, who spend the wider student body’s money promoting partisan political causes …

I do not have any problem with student unions promoting partisan political causes as long as the government of Australia does not force every single student across Australia to pay for it. This is what this is about.

I draw the Senate's attention to some very insightful evidence by Miss Sasha Uher, who was then the President of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation. This is what she is said to the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes:

I do not dispute the right of student unions to exist. I do not even dispute the right of student unions to be highly political if they want to be, provided that membership and financial support of that union is voluntary. If students know what their union is doing and they have the choice to support those activities then it is their right to join. For example, I joined my student union this year because under VSU it has remodelled itself into an organisation that actually provides benefits to students. I am involved in clubs and societies, so it is worthwhile for me to join my union.

This is voluntary student unionism at work. This is voluntary student unionism working as it should—that is, that organisations that want to attract members to their cause should be able to convince them to join that cause of their own free will and accord, not because the Australian Labor government, supported by the Greens, forces them to pay a tax, a compulsory levy, which is there to fund activities which are not supported by those forced to pay the levy.

This is really basic stuff. This is an issue of fundamental personal freedom. I say to students across Australians: the Labor-Greens alliance in this Senate wants to take your personal freedoms away from you. They want to tax you and they want to force you again to fund causes that you do not support. Because Senator Hanson-Young thinks that the Labor legislation does not go far enough in removing personal freedoms, because Senator Hanson-Young thinks that the legislation does not go far enough in making sure that the money that is collected from students compulsorily goes into the pockets of those that will use it for political causes, Senator Hanson-Young, with this amendment, wants to put beyond doubt that the students' money collected from them against their will can be channelled into political activities that those students do not support. With all due respect, this is quite a disgraceful situation. Students should be free to decide what causes they support financially or through their membership. They should not be channelled into financially supporting certain causes courtesy of a federal government mandate. That is not how democracy works.

It is very clear that the Greens are able to spread the rhetoric on democracy—on openness and transparency, for that matter—and on government scrutiny, but when it comes to walking the walk rather than just talking the talk and living by the word of proper democracy, freedom, scrutiny, openness and transparency the Greens again and again have been found wanting.

This bill is bad enough as it is. This bill should be voted down in the form that it is in. The amendment that has been put forward by Senator Hanson-Young on behalf of the Greens would make a bad tax even worse, which is why I very strongly support the comments made by my valued friend and colleague Senator Mason on behalf of the coalition. The Senate should join the coalition in voting this amendment down. It is a bad amendment, a terrible amendment and an amendment that will further disenfranchise students from right across Australia. It is going to reduce their personal freedom and it is going to facilitate channelling the money they are forced to pay into causes they do not support.

With those few remarks, I am hopeful that Senator Hanson-Young might take on board some of those comments that we have made. Maybe Senator Hanson-Young should reflect on the intrinsic truth of what it is that the coalition is putting in this chamber, and that is that students across Australia do not want to pay this tax. Students across Australia want to be able to choose which associations they can join. Students across Australia do not want their money to fund activities by some student union which they do not support. This legislation combined with the Greens amendment will deliver exactly that, and that is why the Senate should oppose it.

6:36 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business and Fair Competition) Share this | | Hansard source

This amendment goes to the core of what the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 is about and betrays the true agenda not only of the Greens but of the Labor Party. This amendment removes a very paper-thin protection for students—what, in essence, is almost a worthless protection for students. It removes it by saying that, as well as collecting a compulsory fee, as well as collecting a fee for services that students may not want to use or be able to use—if they are external students I do not know how they are going to get to Melbourne uni to use the pool, but they will pay the fee—we can go back to the bad old days when the universities were closed shops. We can go back to the days when the vice-chancellors would levy fees of hundreds and hundreds of dollars in poll tax form to subsidise preferred groups on campus.

I remember one vice-chancellor at Melbourne uni who had a particular thing for the debating society, which had a number of overseas trips per year. It was quite important that all the students who did not or could not participate in that had to subsidise it. I spoke last night about the ski lodges. It is obviously important that the university be able to pass over money to preferred sporting clubs or institutions in order to fund those facilities, according to the government. But this amendment from Senator Hanson-Young goes back to the bad old days when you had to pay it to a student union.

I am surprised we have not heard from Senator Hanson-Young. After all her interjections, we have not heard that old falsehood of universal membership, that newspeak concept. We do not talk about compulsory unionism; we talk about universal membership. Whatever you call it, it basically makes people join an organisation that is inherently political, regardless of their own personal views and regardless of their own rights of conscience. I say this because the proponents of compulsory unionism, or universal membership, have for many years said, 'But there was always a right of conscientious objection.' And there was in some constitutions.

I remember sitting on the student council of the then Melbourne University Student Union in 1992, and someone did apply for conscientious objection. They objected to various political activities of the student union. It was a guild structure. They objected to money being spent on various things. I think one of them was a Middle Eastern political activist campaign—clearly of relevance to most students at Melbourne uni! But do you know what the irony was, Madam Temporary Chairman? Upon application, the student council got to judge. If I recall correctly, there were 17 votes on the student council and I was one of fewer than five who voted for that person to be granted the right to conscientious objection. While the student union said that anyone could conscientiously object, this person tried. They came before the committee and various members of the Left Alliance—one of the various forebears of the Greens, who we see in this place now—would actually say: 'No, we don't believe that you should be able to exercise the right of conscientious objection. We don't believe you have a right not to join. We believe in universal membership.'

I tell you what: I have more respect for those people than I do for the proponents of this amendment, because they were honest. This amendment tries to hide what is compulsory student unionism in its most basic form—compulsory student unionism that the Supreme Court of Victoria threw out in Clark v University of Melbourne No. 1 and No. 2 in 1977 and 1978. As I mentioned last night, Robert Clark, who is now the Attorney-General of Victoria, fought that battle on behalf of students. For decades afterwards, the results of that case limited the political activities of student unions. This amendment attempts not only to remove many of the protections that developed under the previous government's policy of voluntary student unionism but also to remove the protections that came out of that case.

What is the rationale for this? We never hear a rationale. We heard from Senator Hanson-Young at one point in an interjection that we should have student control of student affairs. I can honestly say that we on this side of the chamber would all agree with you. We would love students to have control of student affairs. We just think individual students should be able to exercise the judgment that we expect of people at university, people who are adults in a legal sense—after all, they are enrolled at a university, sometimes in a professional degree. They can choose whether to join the Army and they can choose whatever else they want to do in society, but they cannot choose whether or not they join a student union. So this charade of a slogan, 'student control of student affairs', goes to the heart of what this Greens amendment is about.

We have heard the 'fourth level of government' argument so often from the proponents of universal membership, or compulsory student unionism, over many years. One thing I do not hear from the Greens is why on earth we do not have compulsory voting at universities. If you are going to make all the students pay and you are big supporters of compulsory voting in state, local and Commonwealth elections, why don't you support compulsory voting in student elections? What the Greens, the Labor Party and the proponents of this are afraid of is that the majority of students might exercise their right to determine how their money is spent. At the moment students are exercising their right to choose how their money is spent by keeping it in their pockets or joining up, as the case may be. But Senator Hanson-Young does not want that to continue.

She also does not like the idea that the great majority of students are disengaged from the affairs of student politicians. They are more concerned with their degrees and their social activities, which might not necessarily be on a university campus. It might be hard to believe. Senator Mason referred to himself as a former student politician. Senator Brandis outlined that I had been. Senator Mason, we might have had social lives off campus. We did not need the student union to tell us we had a social life. But, according to Senator Hanson-Young, the Labor Party and the proponents of this amendment, we have to have the student union tell us whether we have a social life. It is called a student organisation, but it is a student union.

What we also have in this amendment is yet another way to avoid the sham-like protections that exist in this flimsy bill. The government will claim that there is protection against political activity, but apparently you can print stickers that tell people not to vote for someone—you just cannot tell people to vote for someone. There can be political activity as long as it does not promote the election of someone to a state, territory or Commonwealth parliament or a local council. So we know the protections are not there, but this strips away even some of the basic ones.

Once you put the student political factions like those Senator Hanson-Young represents in this place in control of student union affairs, with the huge voter turnout that might be five per cent of students, that is when you get what I described last night. That is when you get services being subsidised like a cafeteria that might lose a quarter of a million dollars, as Melbourne uni did in the early 1990s. How you manage to lose a quarter of a million dollars on a closed campus like the University of Melbourne is unknown to most, but they managed to. The money would come out of the till and it would be used to pay the NUS affiliation fees. It would be used to pay student office-bearers' wages, which at the time were in the order of $20,000-plus, which was not an insignificant amount of money. This amendment will ensure that those people again seize control of student funds. The shop stewards of the universities, the vice-chancellors, have their interest in trying to buy peace, as they always have.

The logic of this does not stand up. The logic of this, which is that if you go to a university you have to pay for all the services, is the same logic that says that if you walk into a pub and someone has paid to play something on the jukebox you have to pay for your little share as well. After all, you are enjoying the music and you are in the pub, so there should be a juke box fee in every pub. The logic of the argument could actually be applied like that. We could also have the pool table levy, which would be very much like some of the sports union facilities that exist on our campus. But while you can at least listen to the juke box, if everyone at Melbourne uni tried to hit the pool hall or the ski lodge God knows they would not stand a chance of getting in. It is a bit like trying to play pool at the pub: you will pay, regardless of whether or not you actually get to use the facility, let alone whether or not you are interested. I am grateful that I live in the suburb next door to Collingwood. Otherwise the city of Yarra, commonly known as the People's Republic of Yarra where I come from, might charge us a fee to make us all support the Collingwood football club, just because we happen to live in the area.

There is no logic to the bill, and this amendment weakens the bill even further. It is nothing but pandering to the left-wing student base that the Greens draw their activists from. Any given issue that appears at university the Greens will jump on. We know that people join the Greens party, get disillusioned with the power games that happen and leave in their mid- to late-20s, unless they are one of the preferred few who get preselection. That is why the Greens are campaigning for this. It is the worst example of pandering to your base. It does them no credit, and this bill does the parliament no credit.

6:45 pm

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

Much as I have been enjoying all of the fun throughout a very lengthy second reading debate and what is becoming a lengthy committee stage discussion on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010, I should indicate that the government continues to support this subsection. Contrary to what some of the opposition have suggested about our views, the government has made it clear that it will not support a return to compulsory student unionism and that it will not support compulsory funding of student organisations. The intention of this amendment appears to allow the representation guidelines to be amended to require higher education providers to fund student organisations. This is inconsistent with the government's policy.

6:46 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a pretty bad bill, and the Greens amendment would make a bad bill even worse. It is bad enough that universities, under the government's proposed legislation, will have the capacity to charge a compulsory fee for non-academic services. If the Greens amendment, and this legislation, were ultimately successful, the Greens and the government would almost completely have turned back the clock to the period before 2005. I have absolutely no issue with student unions and student associations undertaking political activities. It can be far Left, it can be far Right; I do not care. What I do care about is how the funds are sourced. If the funds are voluntarily given, if the funds are freely handed across—great—everyone should feel free to knock themselves out. But if the fees are compulsorily acquired I have a big problem with their being used for political activities.

One of the arguments which is put forward, and is probably one that the Greens put forward, is that you need to have a compulsory fee to ensure a vigorous campus life, that in its absence the broader student experience is less intense—the experience is diluted—and that you need to have a compulsory fee to make sure that you have someone who can tell you how to have fun. I said in my speech in the second reading debate, and I think it bears repeating, that if you get together a few thousand young, frisky, curious, playful students and put them on one campus you are going to have a vibrant student life, you are going to have a lot of activity. You do not need a compulsory fee and you do not need a student union or association to tell young, curious, playful, energetic, frisky people how to have fun, how to fully embrace the student lifestyle.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you summing up the Young Liberals?

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

No, that is far from the experience of the Young Liberals, Senator Hanson-Young. But my understanding of human nature and of people is that, at the right age and the right place, they are going to experience life. I do not think there has been a diminution of student life and the student experience since the introduction of voluntary student unionism. What there has been is more money in the pockets of students so that they can choose how they want to have the student experience, how they want to purchase services and where they want to purchase those services, so that they are not compelled, in effect, to consume those services on campus. They can pick services that are close to home or close to their place of work. They have that choice. They have that money in their pocket. The individual is always in a better position to determine how to spend their hard-earned dollars than some organisation, be it a government, a student union or a student association.

Progress reported.