Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (7.01 p.m.)-Since November this year we have seen the Labor Party breach many of their election commitments. Thousands of Australian schoolchildren are still waiting patiently for the laptops that Mr Rudd promised them. And now we find that Labor promised something else and have broken that promise. This time Labor have broken a key promise to students-this time university students.
Labor promised before the election not to reintroduce a compulsory amenities fee. This is what then shadow education minister, Stephen Smith, said, announcing Labor’s policy at a doorstop on 22 May 2007:
JOURNALIST: So on the funding side, have you canvassed, or are you contemplating some sort of loan or deferred payment-
that is, in relation to supporting an amenities fee-
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 he went on in the same 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.
Hand on heart: ‘I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.’ Labor’s policy could not have been more definitive: no compulsory amenities fee, no HECS style arrangement.
Yet last week, the Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, broke that election promise. She announced the government’s intention to introduce legislation to allow universities to charge a compulsory amenities fee for non-academic services. She also announced that access would be provided to a ‘HECS style loan’ for students to pay the new tax. That decision to apply a HECS style loan was basically an admission that students cannot afford this fee. If students could afford this fee, why would you have to establish a HECS style loan scheme? It is a perverse sort of logic. How do you help struggling students whose budgets are tight? You help them by slogging them with a new fee. And then in recognition of the fact that they cannot afford that fee, you establish a loans scheme for them to put them into debt so that they can afford this fee. It is truly bizarre logic.
The minister’s attempt to defend this broken promise was a little bit sneaky. When confronted with Labor’s commitment not to introduce a compulsory fee or a HECS style arrangement, she told the Age on Tuesday, 4 November that:
Stephen Smith stated that it wasn’t on the list of things that he was pursuing, to look at a fee, and that was absolutely true. Instead what we said was we’ll go and consult with people and we’ll come up with the most appropriate response.
In other words, ‘Our pre-election commitments aren’t promises at all, because if we talk to people and they tell us to do the opposite, that is what we’ll do.’ The mX newspaper in Brisbane, in your home state of Queensland, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, got it right when its headline called the government’s move a ‘Sneaky student backflip’.
But the substance of this debate is not to be found in election promises or whether student unions promote a left-wing cause or a right-wing cause. The important principle is one that is valued by the vast majority of Australians-Australians of all persuasions-and that is the principle of freedom of association; that no-one should be forced to support any organisation against their will. It is a principle that I would hope all senators in this chamber would actually embrace. But campus organisations, universities, state parliaments and the Rudd government instead view this freedom of association as merely some sort of technicality to be satisfied.
Labor are proposing a new tax of up to $250 per student. The government claim that this is not compulsory student unionism because the university, rather than the union, will collect the fee. This is a con. It is a sham. What is being advocated here is that students can choose not to be a union member but will have to pay a fee equivalent to the union membership-much of which will be passed on to student unions or held by the university and spent on services previously provided by the student union. It is still a ‘no fee, no start’ situation. It does not matter what you call this, how you dress it up or what clever name you devise for it; it is still compulsory student unionism.
The minister said that none of the money will be spent on broad political campaigning. But we cannot have any faith in Labor’s assurances. I think all senators would know that money is fungible, so every dollar that lands in the coffers of student unions, courtesy of this new Labor tax, frees up other student union revenue to be spent on political campaigns. There is absolutely nothing wrong with student unions engaging in political campaigning or donating to political causes if their membership and their funding base are entirely voluntary. That is what freedom of speech and freedom of association are all about. But such freedom also means the freedom to disassociate oneself from the words and actions of others. Labor’s proposal means that this will not be possible because all students will have to fund student unions whether they like it or not.
Labor has tried to justify this broken promise on the grounds that this new tax is needed to fund services for students. But whether it is child care, welfare, counselling or a sporting club, there is no need for students’ money to be compelled to replicate these services on campus. 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-for the aged and for students as well.
When it comes to students’ needs for particular services, students are quite capable of making judgements about these matters for themselves. They have the ability to decide for themselves whether they wish to support particular services or organisations. Yet the view of some in the university sector seems to be that students need to have these judgements made for them. One vice-chancellor, whose name I will not mention, who gave evidence to the Senate inquiry into the VSU legislation in 2005, stated the following in evidence:
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.
He went on to say:
… 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.
I disagree with him, but he was right on one thing: that was a very condescending attitude to students.
Why is it that some people in this chamber have the view that a university student can be trusted to choose their institution, they can be trusted to choose their degree and they can be trusted to choose their course but all of a sudden their critical faculties depart them when it comes to the decision as to whether or not to join a student union or association or whether or not they want to fund particular services. Students do not take a short-term outlook. They do make judgements about the long-term career path they might wish to take. They make long-term decisions about all sorts of things. And these same students are of an age where they are trusted to vote, to drive vehicles, to hold firearms licences and to serve in the military. They do not need university vice-chancellors, student unions or the Labor Party to make decisions on their behalf. They should be free to choose for themselves.
I know that some of my colleagues-maybe even some on this side of the chamber-are particularly concerned about the future of university sport. But everywhere else in the community sporting groups and sporting clubs survive on the basis of encouraging local participation and the support of individuals who wish to join those organisations. When a student union or student body cannot survive without a compulsory fee, it is an admission of failure. It is a confession that what they are offering is not attractive enough to elicit voluntary support and therefore that support must be compelled.
Smart student unions will survive, because they will offer the services that students want. They will package them in an attractive way- (Time expired)