Federal Council Edition of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation “Protégé” Magazine – July 2008
Well it seems Peter Garrett was right after all.
Desperate to get themselves into government after many years in opposition, Labor said anything and everything to win last year’s election. In the process they “me too’d” almost all of the Coalition’s policy.
Faced with a jibe about this from a Sydney radio presenter, Peter Garrett scoffed and announced that all the me-tooism didn’t matter because, as he put it, “Once we get in, we’ll just change it all.”
Now, just seven months after Labor’s election win, we are seeing the true face of Labor. It is a Labor Party that is grappling with promises it can’t keep and promises it never intended to keep.
The Coalition and Australian families are still waiting for Labor to deliver on its promise to cut petrol and grocery prices. We are looking forward to less expensive trips to the supermarket and the bowser. And Australian school students are still waiting for the delivery of their own laptops.
But of concern to all students should be the firm promise made by Labor in the lead-up to last year’s election that they would not seek to re-introduce compulsory student unionism. It is a promise they now seem set to break.
In 2005 the Coalition finally abolished this blight on freedom of association the nation’s last bastion of compulsory unionism.
We did so because we believe that individuals should be free to choose which organisations and causes they support and which they do not. It is a fundamental freedom to which each and every Australian is entitled.
It is also something that, prior to VSU, every Australian university student was denied. And it is a freedom that campus organisations, universities and state parliaments have viewed, and in some cases continue to view, as a technicality to be satisfied rather than a principle to be embraced.
For too long university administrators and student organisaitons had been able to behave like glorified shop stewards imposing on students a slightly more sophisticated incarnation of “no ticket, no start.”
Students that did not pay their compulsory up-front fee were denied library services, access to university computer systems and email, access to enrolment records, examination results and academic transcripts, and were denied the ability to graduate until they paid up. It was an arrangement that the likes of Joe McDonald and Kevin Reynolds would look upon with envy.
And voluntary student unionism means that students are now no longer forced to hand over hundreds of dollars in up-front fees. How many times had we heard the cries of Labor admonishing us at various times for increasing student debt or allowing higher HECS fees?
Yet these same people were equally happy to see students slapped with an up-front fee before they were even allowed to set foot in class. It is rank hypocrisy of the most breathtaking kind. We Liberals are rightly proud to have freed university students and their families from this burden.
The debate over VSU saw some diabolic predictions, none of which have materialised.
For example, Senator Nettle rose in the Senate in December 2005 to claim that students were “having their throats and voices ripped out.” Last time I checked, the National Union of Students was still holding rallies, distributing pamphlets, maintaining a website, speaking to the media and writing position papers. It seems their throats are firmly intact. And the NUS is managing to conduct their activities without compulsorily acquired fees.
Others claimed that VSU would mark the death of student life on campus. This too has proved to be nothing more than hyperbole. As I have said before on a number of occasions, if you put a few thousand 18 to 23 year old frisky, curious and energetic students together, you’re going to have a vigorous campus life. The existence of a compulsory fee is not the essential prerequisite to young students enjoying campus life together.
Other claims about VSU were insulting to students.
For example, Professor Peter Coaldrake, Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology told a Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee hearing into this legislation that “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.”
It is the cry of central planners everywhere.
We trust students to choose their university, their course and their subjects. Yet opponents of VSU argue that students can’t be trusted to decide whether membership of a student organisation is worthwhile and in their interests.
Particularly illustrative of the misguided attitude of VSU opponents was Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of Swinburne University in Melbourne, who told the Senate inquiry:
This is a rather condescending comment, I am afraid, but when you have a group of 18- to 22-year-olds the reality is that their focus is very short term. They are interested in the here and now…The reality is that, particularly with what is predominantly a group of relatively young people, they are interested in the here and now and are not looking in terms of the long term as to what they might need to invest in, even in the next couple of years.
University students are adults. Young adults – but adults nonetheless. They should be left to make their own decisions about what is in their best interests.
Labor’s position on VSU was unclear for some time. Labor opposed the legislation when it passed through the Parliament, but questions arose about whether Labor would seek to re-introduce compulsory student unionism should it win government. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 May last year finally prompted Labor to commit to a firm policy on VSU.
The article began: “Labor has dumped its commitment to universal student unionism and will preserve the Howard Government’s ban on universities collecting compulsory upfront fees if it wins the election. Labor sources now acknowledge it would be political suicide to reimpose compulsory annual fees of about $500 per student. The Opposition education spokesman, Stephen Smith, has told students and their service providers that Labor will not try to reimpose the old system.”
However the article also said that: “Instead, Labor is considering HECS-style loans to students…”
Whilst I was encouraged to read that Labor would not seek to reimpose compulsory fees, I was alarmed at the suggestion that Labor was considering HECS style loans. Such an arrangement is still a compulsion to pay, just on a deferred rather than up-front basis.
However the then Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, quickly allayed these fears when he gave firm commitments on behalf of Labor that they would not change the fundamentals of VSU. That is, they would not require students to join student unions and, crucially, they would not seek to re-introduce a compulsory fee, either on an up-front or deferred basis.
Mr Smith rushed out to do a doorstop and end the speculation over Labor’s policy. The transcript reads in part:
JOURNALIST: So on the funding side, have you canvassed, or are you
contemplating some sort of loan or deferred payment?
SMITH: No, absolutely not. One thing I can absolutely rule out is that I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, particularly a compulsory HECS style arrangement….I certainly do not have on my list an extension of HECS, either voluntary or compulsory, to fund these services. So I absolutely rule that out.
And then later in the doorstop:
JOURNALIST: Are you considering a compulsory amenities fee on students?
SMITH: No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.
These comments from Mr Smith were welcome and no doubt Labor’s policy was a factor in the votes of thousands of university students led to believe that the Coalition and Labor had an identical policy in relation to compulsory fees.
But since the election the new Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, is behaving suspiciously like she is softening up Australia’s students for an almighty broken promise.
On 17 February the Minister released a “discussion paper,” allegedly on ways to improve student services. The Minister simultaneously announced that she would be embarking on a listening tour to meet the so-called stakeholders.
I wonder how many real students the Minister actually spoke with? I suspect she spoke with few, if any. Instead her time would have been taken up with Vice Chancellors and student unionists, many of them card-carrying Labor Party members. I doubt what these people had to say, with their vested interest in compulsory fees, would surprise anyone.
It was nevertheless encouraging to see the Minister state in her press release of 17 February announcing the discussion paper and the listening tour, that “…we recognise we cannot return to the compulsory student unionism arrangements of the past.”
In other words, we can’t have a return to compulsory membership nor compulsory fees of any kind, up front or deferred.
But then the Minister appeared to be taking a step backward on this commitment when she told The Adelaide Advertiser in an article that appeared on 18 February that “Most people have now acknowledged that VSU has been a disaster.”
I happen to agree with the Minister on this point. VSU has been a disaster for certain parties.
VSU has been a disaster for some terrorism supporters who now no longer get the financial backing of left wing student unions.
VSU has been a disaster for the Southern Iraqi Oil Workers Union, a union that supports the anti-Coalition insurgency in Iraq and which received money from the Monash Student Association.
VSU has been a disaster for the office-bearers of the National Union of Students, who until VSU had built an empire of largesse and junkets, crying poor for students whilst simultaneously ripping money out of their pockets.
VSU has been a disaster for the Australian Labor Party, who benefited from a $250,000 pro-Labor campaign in 2004, money taken straight from unsuspecting students.
VSU has been a total disaster for these groups and many others whose causes are so repugnant and so irrelevant to ordinary students that the only way they can attract support is to compel it.
And VSU has been a disaster for student unions that insist on foisting on students a brand of political activism that they reject and a suite of services they neither want nor need.
There are those of us who have thought, at times, that Labor’s apparent support for voluntary student unionism after so many years of strident opposition was too good to be true. I’m afraid that it is becoming increasingly clear that this is the case.
At Senate Estimates in June, Senator Kim Carr, representing Minister Ellis, let the cat well and truly out of the bag. Under heavy questioning from Senator Simon Birmingham, Senator Carr repeatedly refused to rule out a return to compulsory fees, saying only that “there are no plans to reinstate compulsory student unionism.”
So there we have it. Labor are planning to break their promise to students and re-introduce compulsory fees. They intend to break a promise that was made not only by the previous Education spokesman before the election, but one reiterated by Minister Ellis on a number of occasions since then.
In an attempt to spin this back flip in a positive light, Labor say they will ban the use of compulsorily acquired money for political purposes and will allow students to opt out of joining unions, but still pay an amount equivalent to the union fee. This is akin to the model implemented by the Kennett Government colloquially known as ‘VSU-lite.’
One problem it doesn’t work.
Experience has shown that student unions are adept at employing creative accounting to circumvent any restrictions placed on the expenditure of compulsorily acquired fees. For example, the Melbourne University Student Union manipulated its “Amenities & Services” budget and its “Trading” budget to transfer compulsorily acquired funds from one to the other, thereby allowing them to be used on political activities.
Even if such restrictions could work, this is still a deeply flawed model. In a free society, citizens should not be compelled to purchase goods and services they don’t want.
I have heard the argument that, as a service provider, a student union is much like a local council. Residents of a council area do not have the luxury of voluntary rates, so the argument goes. I do not accept this analogy.
Taxation, be it levied by federal, state or local governments, is imposed by properly constituted governments which are elected in a robust democratic fashion. They are placed under heavy scrutiny by the media, interest groups and independent statutory authorities. And taxation takes account of citizens’ capacity to pay.
In contrast, student union elections attract little interest from students. The unions themselves are subject to very little scrutiny. Many do not even publish their budgets and financial statements. Their meetings are closed to the public and the minutes secret. Compulsory fees are equivalent to a poll tax. They are levied at the same rate on everyone, regardless of capacity to pay.
It is not the role of student unions or universities to behave like some fourth tier of government. Federal, state and local governments provide a social safety net for the whole community.
On the issue of university sport, I find it difficult to understand why university sporting clubs are the only clubs in the country that expect to be funded by compulsorily acquired fees. In the wider community there exist thousands of such clubs. All of them operate on voluntary fees and perhaps some government funding, but mostly they rely on the great Australian spirit of volunteerism. Why should university sporting clubs be treated any differently?
Those community sporting clubs are successful in attracting voluntary participation because they provide something that people want and are willing to support with their time and their money. There is a lesson in this for student unions.
When a student union claims it cannot survive without compulsory fees it is an admission of failure. It is a confession that what they are offering is not attractive enough to elicit voluntary support, therefore that support must be compelled.
Instead student unions need to change their attitudes and begin to present themselves as offering what students want, not what unions think students ought to want. The smart student unions will survive, because they will offer students the facilities and services they want at a price they are willing to pay.
This isn’t a revolutionary concept. It is what drives our market economy and those of every other developed country around the world.
Voluntary student unionism is about a straightforward concept an individual’s right to choose. It empowers students to make their own choices about what sort of university experience they want, rather than forcing them to subsidise the choices of others. It relieves students of the burden of an up-front fee, or indeed a further addition to their HECS debt. It forces student unions to be relevant and provide what students actually want. But most of all, it enshrines their right to freedom of association a right that Labor is willing to deny them.
Voluntary student unionism was a small but landmark reform to higher education. Its significance comes not from the magnitude of its impact. Its significance is its foundation in principle.
That is why it ought to be supported and that is why we Liberals will fight to defend it. Labor need to guarantee that they will not break their pre-election promise to students. They must promise that the prophecy of Garrett will not come true.