PM – Monday, 5 December , 2005 18:22:00
Reporter: Peta Donald
MARK COLVIN: Several major pieces of legislation, from the Federal Government’s
anti-terror laws, to its welfare to work package, are on track to sail through the Senate
by the end of this week. But it’s not looking so easy for legislation that would make it voluntary for students to join a university union. A significant number of Coalition senators are still uneasy about the impact on campus life.
Now the Education Minister Brendan Nelson has come up with a possible way around the impasse, with a plan to give all university students a vote on whether they want voluntary student unionism.
He argues he may not need legislation to hold such a ballot, and it could achieve the same result, but it’s enraged students, the universities, and some on the Government’sbackbench.
From Canberra Peta Donald reports.
PETA DONALD: If Australia’s 600,000 university students were given a vote on whether they’d like not to have to pay hundreds of dollars of student union fees each year, the Greens Senator Kerry Nettle can guess what the result would be.
KERRY NETTLE: If you ask taxpayers to vote on whether or not they wanted to pay
taxes, we know what people would say.
PETA DONALD: So that’s a ‘no’ from the students. Under Dr Nelson’s plan, the Australian Electoral Commission would conduct a compulsory ballot, with students given two choices: to vote for voluntary student unionism, or for universities to be allowed to charge amenity fees, to pay for services, but not political activities. The result would be binding for three or four years.
BRENDAN NELSON: We want to put power in the hands of students. We want students to be free to make their own choices about their own money and their own destiny, and the current legislation in the Parliament will deliver that. But if for some reason that legislation is not passed, then it’s my responsibility to look at other alternatives that give students real choice.
PETA DONALD: The Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce isn’t impressed, arguing it’s unfair for students now to vote away the services and sporting facilities that will be available to students in the future.
BARNABY JOYCE: And you should also be going around to primary schools, and the kindergartens, because this bill will not only affect the facilities of universities now, but it will especially affect the facilities of the universities down the track.
PETA DONALD: And Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield is against the idea too.
MITCH FIFIELD: I think the campus referendum proposal is flawed, expensive, and unnecessary. The students don’t need an Australian Electoral Commission referendum. They just need this legislation that’s currently in the Parliament to be passed so that they’re no longer compelled to pay a student union fees against their will. The choice should be made by the student, and not by the campus.
PETA DONALD: So you would urge Brendan Nelson just to drop this idea?
MITCH FIFIELD: I don’t think that there would be support in the party room for this proposal. I appreciate that Brendan is trying to find a way through, but this isn’t the answer.
PETA DONALD: The Education Minister Brendan Nelson is indeed trying to find a way through, because unlike Mitch Fifield, there are several Coalition Senators with deep reservations about the Voluntary Student Unionism Bill and the loss of services that could result on regional campuses in particular. Unless it’s amended, Barnaby Joyce is threatening to vote against the bill. Dr Nelson though, wants it passed in its current form, and says if it looks like being blocked it’s his responsibility to find an alternative way to give students choice.
BRENDAN NELSON: We all went to the election supporting this policy for the 2004 election. In fact this policy was in the Parliament at the time of the election, but if for some reason the Government senators feel they’re not able or willing to support this legislation, and it is not passed, then I think this is another area of policy that we could look at. In other words, it’s a more circuitous way of trying to deliver the same outcome.
PETA DONALD: Labor’s Education Spokeswoman Jenny Macklin says the idea of a campus ballot is at odds with the bill that’s listed for debate in the House of Representatives tonight.
JENNY MACKLIN: It is totally contradictory to say that such a ballot should take place when he has legislation in the Parliament right now due for debate tonight that makes it illegal to charge such a fee. So Brendan Nelson, who is the Minister responsible, has to figure out what on earth he’s going to do.
PETA DONALD: Like the Opposition, the universities are pushing for the option to be allowed to charge amenity fees, and John Mullarvey from the Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee is worried the Government could withhold university grants if they don’t go along with Dr Nelson’s plans.
JOHN MULLARVEY: That is certainly an option that would be open to a minister.
PETA DONALD: Does that concern you?
JOHN MULLARVEY: It would be an issue of concern to the Vice-Chancellors, because we would believe that that’s probably not an appropriate condition to place upon university grants, which are there for the teaching and research purposes of universities, not to undertake elections for what we see as an irrelevant issue.
PETA DONALD: It’s the student politicians that stand to lose under all of these proposals. Whatever option gets up, there’ll be no money set aside for political activities on campus. Felix Eldridge is from the National Union of Students.
FELIX ELDRIDGE: The third option, which Brendan Nelson and everyone knows students support and the community supports, which is the current arrangements, is just not going to be there on the ballot paper. In the real world that’s a rigged election.
MARK COLVIN: Felix Eldridge from the National Union of Students, ending Peta Donald’s report.