Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4.30 p.m.)-The incorporated speech read as follows-
On three occasions the Coalition has introduced legislation to end the practice of universities charging fees for compulsory membership of student unions, guilds and associations. It was defeated in 1999. It was defeated in 2001.
The changed composition of the Senate offers some prospect that this-the third attempt-will be successful. I hope it is.
At the heart of this bill is a commitment to uphold the right to self-determination, to uphold the right to freedom of association.
To guarantee that no student can be compelled to join any organisation against their will. To ensure that no student can be compelled to pay a fee for services they may not want.
This bill is necessary because, to date, campus organisations, universities and state parliaments have denied these rights to students or at best viewed freedom of association as a technicality to be satisfied rather than a principle to be embraced.
There has been much discussion in this parliament over recent weeks about the necessity to circumscribe certain civil liberties. These discussions have taken place in the context of the anti-terror legislation.
As a parliament, we have reluctantly placed limitations on freedom of association in specific circumstances.
We have done so as a parliament to do all we can to protect life. Compulsory student unionism is a restriction on freedom of association.
The only rationale is to make life easier for the administrators of campus services. To save them the bother of having to be responsive to students and justify their services. Public safety is a reason to restrict freedom of association. The convenience of union administrators is not.
This bill is in no way anti-student, anti-union, or anti-campus life.
To the contrary, this bill respects students. This bill trusts students. This bill empowers students. This bill recognises that university students are clever adults able to exercise their own judgement in their own interests.
The view has been put that the inability to compel fees, to compel membership will destroy student life. As though student life can only exist as a result of a compulsory fee. As though fun will only happen if it is compulsory.
Those opposite must have a very pessimistic view of today’s youth. I don’t know if youth have changed since my days at uni.
I’ve said it before Mr Acting Deputy President, but if you put a couple of thousand 18 to 23 year old frisky, curious, energetic students together, you’re going to have a vigorous campus life. You can compel a fee, but you can not compel engagement in campus life. It is an inquiring mind and a curious disposition that determines the quality of campus life and engagement.
Kim Beazley referred to this legislation yesterday as “revenge of the nerds”. This is a particularly undergraduate use of language by the Opposition Leader.
But since Mr Beazley has introduced this category, I should point out that the only people on campus who fall into it are those who lack the capacity through reason, advocacy or good service to convince people to voluntarily join them in an activity or organisation.
The only people in Mr Beazley’s category are those who can not persuade people to join their organisation, who have to make it mandatory.
If we can trust students to choose their university, to choose their degree and to choose their courses. We can trust them to decide whether to not to join a student union or association.
The onus should be on student organisations to convince potential members of the benefits of the services they provide.
I am optimistic student organisations will be able to. But more than that, the onus should be on the service providers to justify their services. They should be doing it anyway. When there is the power to compel, there is no imperative to respond to student wishes.
If students value the services provided by student unions as much as student unions claim, then they have nothing to fear. Students will pay and join.
Students will rise to the challenge of running organisations on a voluntary basis.
Organisations throughout the community operate on the basis of mutual support for agreed objectives.
Students should have the same rights on campus as they do off campus-that of choosing the interests and recreations they wish to pursue.
On this side of the chamber we have faith in the ability of students to determine their own needs.
Not all do.
I cite Professor Peter Coaldrake, Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology who said at a Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee hearing into this legislation:
“I am not sure that students at any particular point, particularly early on in their studies, are likely to make-I hesitate to use the term-‘rational’ choices in that respect.”
This is the cry of central planners everywhere.
Students know better than universities how their own funds should be spent.
Those who argue the counter case contend that student fees are analogous to tax. The example of local government rates is cited.
I don’t accept that universities are some sort of fourth tier of government.
It is the role of state and federal governments to provide a social safety net-not universities. This safety net is provided for all in the community-the old and the young, for workers and students alike.
The tax analogy ignores the differing capacity to pay. Not only are the same union fees paid regardless of the value to the student, the fees are paid regardless of the income or other circumstances of the student.
The compulsory fee is akin to a poll tax.
Members of the community can choose to pay for non-government services. Students should have that right.
The moral argument about the right of students to choose has been won. Labor conceded this when they dropped their ‘in principle’ opposition to VSU.
I say ‘in principle’ opposition because their substantive opposition remains. The ALP are offering only a technical out.
The ALP policy is officially you don’t have to join a student union. There’s a catch under their plan-you still have to pay a compulsory fee for a range of services.
This is similar to what is known as the Victorian model. The legislation introduced in Victoria by the Kennett Government and since amended by the Bracks Government.
This model is colloquially known as VSU-lite.
It is true that Victorian students don’t have to join the student union. You can opt out. But if you opt out, there is no fee differential. Whether you belong to the union or not, you have to pay the same fee.
Under the Victorian legislation there is also a legislative bar on compulsorily acquired fees being used for political purposes.
One problem. It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because no accounting or auditing system can deal with the fact that money is fungible.
I draw the Senate’s attention to an article by Jason Frenkel in the Herald-Sun on 23 November 2005, headed ‘Student cash given to Iraqi union’.
The article alleges the Monash Student Association provided $1000 to Foraok Isma’al, a member of the Southern Oil Workers Union in Iraq. According to the article, the union supports the anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq.
According to the article, Monash Student Association chairman Nick Richardson admitted the Iraqi organisation could be engaged in violence aimed at coalition forces, but defended the donation, which he described as going to a “progressive organisation”.
I have written to the Attorney-General for advice on whether the Monash Student Association or its office bearers have potentially breached Australian law, by providing funds to an organisation which encourages the targeting of coalition forces, including members of the Australian Defence Force.
Even if compulsorily acquired student money could be quarantined from political activity, I for one could still not accept such a model.
In a free market, in a free society, people should not be compelled to buy products they don’t want.
A limited services fee in Victoria still results in an absurd situation.
I read from a letter addressed to university student Jessica Thompson from the first of August this year, from the Fees Unit, Monash University. The letter states, in relation to an outstanding compulsory amenities fee, that:
“If payment is not received by the 4 August 2005 your enrolment will be encumbered. This means that while your enrolment this semester is still valid, the following restrictions will be placed on you:
Loss of access to library borrowing and other services
Loss of access to Monash University’s computer systems, including internet and email
Loss of access to enrolment records, examination results, and academic transcripts
Unable to graduate until the debt is cleared”
This is just a slightly more sophisticated case of ‘no ticket, no start’.
This bill honours the Coalition parties’ commitment at the last election and gives effect to the clear will of the Coalition parties.
The majority report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee inquiry into the legislation recommended this bill be passed without amendment.
I would like to commend the members of the Government Education, Science and Training backbench committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, for their work on the form on this bill.
I also thank the committee, particularly its secretary Michael Ferguson, for their lateral thinking in proposing a transitional fund for sport and recreation on campus.
This is an example where the processes of the governing parties come up with a concept to address a community concern. I particularly acknowledge Senator Trood, a distinguished academic, for his quiet efforts on this plan and personal insights into the university sector.
I’d particularly like to thank Minister Nelson for the time he devoted to what is a small bill, but which contains a great and enduring liberal democratic principle.
I also thank Minister Nelson’s Senior Adviser Zoe McKenzie for her assistance.
I commend Senator Judith Troeth for her magnificent chairmanship of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee inquiry into this legislation.
I place on the record my thanks to the president of the Australian Liberal Students Federation Mr Julian Barendse and the Federation’s VSU Officer Rohan D’Souza for their advocacy on behalf of the rights of students.
I want to leave the final words in my speech to a student-Michael Josem, president of the Monash Student Union, who stated to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee’s hearing in Melbourne that:
“the abolition of high, compulsory up front and unfair amenities fees will force changes. It will force us to work harder to serve students. We’ll have to work smarter to deliver services that students choose to fund. No longer will we be able to continue, reliant on a compulsory fee. We’ll have to deliver services that students actually want. That’s challenging for many people. The status quo is comfortable. The mediocre is easy. The future, of change, progress and excellence, is unknown. We’ll have to be excellent-not merely adequate. Unsurprisingly, many people don ‘t like that.”
This is good legislation. It deserves to be supported.