Senate debates

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Higher Education: Student Services and Amenities Fee

6:44 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is a new shame in politics and I am guilty as charged of the shame—that is, to have been politically active when younger. I am very proud to have been a Young Liberal as a student and still recall being signed up to the Griffith University Liberal Club by Brad Woods back in 1992 when I was a new uni student.

Around this time of year, many new uni students head into campuses right across Australia to commence their studies for the year. For them, it is an exciting and nervous time as they plot out their subjects and become immersed in student life. University orientation week, or o-week, energises campuses and energises students with an explosion of activity. There are meet-and-greets, sports, music, student clubs vying for membership and of course launch parties for the year. Special mention for the best launch party anywhere in the world must go to the Queensland University of Technology student guild, which held the world largest toga party at the Riverstage in Brisbane last Thursday night.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I went to toga parties.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You went to toga parties at university?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

That is bringing back memories.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Good memories, I hope. The toga party in Brisbane was an epic success with 8,000 students in their parent's best bedsheets enjoying music and fireworks by the Brisbane River. To Jack McGuire, Will Taylor and the EPIC team, well done. And thank you for your invitation to attend. As much as I would have loved to attend, I sadly could not find a toga. Quite frankly, being surrounded by 8,000 merry, semi-clothed uni students would have been rather a distraction and career limiting.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Not very sanitary either.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Several thousand years ago perhaps.

During my time as a senator and before, I have had many opportunities to visit campuses across Queensland and met students on the ground.    In particular, as a former president of the Griffith University Liberal Club, I had the immense pleasure of working with the resident freedom lovers on campus, the Liberal National clubs. During their o-week this year, the Queensland Liberal National clubs at the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, James Cook University, the University of the Sunshine Coast and Bond University all achieved increased membership. They had fantastic stalls and great engagement from students, as they promoted the values of liberty of the individual, free markets, small government and low taxes. I commend the Liberal National clubs for their work.

One of the key issues the Liberal National clubs are fighting for is the abolition of the $286 tax on university students, known as the student services and amenities fee or SSAF. My views on the SSAF are well known. I am a firm believer in freedom of association, including the right not to associate and support full voluntary student unionism at universities. The SSAF is a Labor-Greens Trojan Horse on the way to compulsory student unionism. Some people might quibble that $286 is not a lot of money; $286 is a lot amount of money for university students, especially when it is appropriated without choice, denying students the ability to spend their money on what they believe to be important to them.

Let me provide a breakdown of what a typical university student could buy with $286—and this may reflect some of my interests when I was at university. It is two weeks of rent; 524 packets of noodles; 1,310 pens; 149 cans of Red Bull energy drink; 81.87 litres of beer; or 5.7 litres of Bundaberg Rum. Labor and the Greens like to jump up and down, huffing and puffing about student poverty. They like to pontificate about the rights of individuals to associate and have their voices heard, particularly when it applies to their trade union paymasters.

One might think that taxing university students $286 a year and diverting those funds to organisations and services that students may not want and do not use would outrage senators opposite.    But you would be wrong. The SSAF represents an attack on the fundamental freedom of association. Yet Labor, the Greens and their comrades in the National Union of Students feel no hesitation in pilfering from students to fund their own leftist propaganda machine. Let us be clear, that is exactly what the SSAF does.

Technically, there may be prohibitions on spending SSAF funds for political purposes, but there are always ways for a Labor politician to dodgy the books. They start them young. Last year, at the University of Melbourne, we saw allegations that the student union used SSAF funds to help stage a launch by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, and Senator Carr for Labor's scare campaign against the government's most excellent higher education reforms—a shameful example of partisan politics being played with student money. But that is nothing compared to the shenanigans that have been exposed in the National Union of Students.

The National Union of Student, funded by student union affiliation fees, almost entirely appropriated through the SSAF, is in a very dismal, dire and dodgy financial situation—not too dissimilar to how the Labor Party left the Australian budget when they lost office in 2013. Young or old, Labor politicians certainly know how to do debt and deficit well. They may train them young but they never learn.

An audit report leaked in December last year revealed that the NUS had sustained deficits of $192,000 in 2011-12; $78,000 in 2012-13; and $95,000 in 2013-14—$366,000 over three years. These shocking losses are due to the waste and mismanagement of successive Labor student office bearers. I note that the executive did not advertise this fact when they appeared before a Senate select committee recently. Now they have squandered all of that student money, the NUS executive has no idea how to fix the mess it has made. The parallels to their federal counterparts are eerily familiar. Former president of the NUS Deanna Taylor stated that the NUS is unlikely to exist within a few years if its finances cannot be rectified—and that would be a shame. Former general secretary Isabelle Kingshott was far more forthright, saying that the NUS is up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

In the wake of these findings, the NUS has scrambled to cut its costs and tried to persuade the 20 out of the 39 Australian student unions still affiliated to the organisation to maintain their affiliation fees at current levels. This crisis has also exposed the worst of the Left's hypocrisy. At its most recent national conference, the NUS removed funding for its national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, international students and disabilities officers. Then, this year, the new NUS executive have started off on a junket around the country. They have travelled to Canberra, Brisbane, Hobart, Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Armidale and Newcastle on an extravagant, student-funded junket. Rather than representing students as claimed, executive members—all active in the Labor Party—have taken the opportunity to engage in partisan campaign events against the coalition and to have a holiday at students' expense. This shameful behaviour only further highlights the moral deficiency in taxing students and limiting their freedom through the SSAF.

In my first speech, I made a commitment to introduce a private senator's bill to abolish SSAF. Since that time, I have consulted with my colleagues and other stakeholders and will continue to do so on the best way to achieve that. I know that I am not allowed to use props—and I will not, Mr Deputy President—but I have a draft bill here.

Senator Smith interjecting

Senator Smith, I will not do that. I do not want to infringe the standing orders. In the coming sitting weeks, once the consultation on the draft bill is finished, I intend to give notice to introduce a bill with the aim of abolishing the Labor-Greens SSAF and re-establishing voluntary student unionism as implemented by the Howard government. I thank the Senate Procedure Office for their drafting assistance to date and for providing advice on how to progress this matter. I commend the work of my fellow freedom lovers in the Young Liberal Movement and the Australian Liberal Students' Federation to restore voluntary student unionism and welcome their continued calls for the abolition of the SSAF. Freedom of association and liberty of the individual are not abstracts. Freedom and liberty are core definitions—indeed, the pillars of a free society. While SSAF exists, students neither have freedom nor liberty.