Simon BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (12:56): The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 does feel a little like a back-to-the-future scenario. We debated a very similar bill in the previous parliament and the parliament before that debated the matter of voluntary student unionism and an end to the compulsion of student union activities for students right around Australia. But here we are again, as the government and the Greens together seek once more to reintroduce an element of compulsion to Australia’s students, to reintroduce an element which has previously been used and manipulated for political purposes around the country, purely ultimately to keep their constituencies happy and for their own potential political gain and benefit.
This legislation offends me on two very important key principles which, as a Liberal, I hold very dear to my heart. The first of these is the principle of freedom of association, the principle that individuals should be free to associate with whichever associations they wish to and, equally, to not associate with the associations with which they do not wish to associate. Secondly, there is the notion that we should operate in a society where, wherever possible, unless there is a public good or public benefit to the contrary, the user pays for the services they want without there being a public subsidy for those services. These are core, sensible, fundamental Liberal principles -that nobody should be coerced into belonging to an association or body to which they do not wish to belong and that nobody should be forced to pay or subsidise services they have no wish to use, unless in either of those instances there is an overwhelming public good or public benefit to force such activity.
In this instance I can see no overwhelming case of public good or public benefit for these principles to be betrayed in the way that this legislation seeks to do so. The legislation before us will take us back to a situation where students around Australia will be compelled to pay a compulsory fee, administered ultimately by organisations that they may not wish to be a member of, a compulsory fee that will be used to underwrite and subsidise services that they may have no wish to use. There is no justification that those opposite have given at any time as to what the overwhelming public good or public interest is for the reintroduction of this type of compulsory fee for student unions or student services around Australia. Of course, this is another example, albeit one that now dates back a little bit, of the Labor government saying one thing in the lead-up to an election and doing quite that e opposite when they appear in government after managing to secure seats on the government benches. Before the previous Labor government of Mr Rudd was elected back in May 2007, the then shadow minister for education and training, made it very clear that it was not the intention of the government to go down this path. Mr Stephen Smith told the Australian people on 22 May 2007, while reassuring those who were worried that there might be a return to some type of compulsory fee:
… 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.
They were the words that the Labor Party took to the 2007 election. I repeat the shadow minster’s very statement:
So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.
And what are we debating here today? A compulsory amenities fee-exactly the opposite of what the Labor Party promised from opposition that they would do. It does ring some bells. Of course, we have seen an example of this that has repercussions around the country at present. I refer to what Ms Gillard said at the last election about there being no carbon tax under a government she leads. We should have known, because the Labor Party has form on this. They have form with Mr Smith having promised one thing from opposition and then in government, in the last term and now again in this term, attempting to do quite the opposite.
I was a little sceptical of Mr Smith’s promise and I must say that after the Labor Party formed government, and in the first full year that they were in office in 2008, I used the Senate estimates process to try and tease out whether the government actually intended to honour the words of Mr Smith about the promise that they would not contemplate introducing a compulsory amenities fee. So I pursued the matter through the Senate estimates with Ms Paul from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and challenged her as to what the position of the government was. I posed the question to Ms Paul whether if a HECS-style loan scheme for union fees were introduced there would there be a voluntary fee. Ms Paul’s answer was:
by then the member for Adelaide, Ms Ellis, was the minister responsible-
in her media release-
Se nator Farrell interjecting-
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Farrell never misses an opportunity to praise his factional colleagues from South Australia and, of course, I would want to acknowledge the interjection to again ensure that his recognition of Ms Ellis is there on the record as he always puts it. Ms Paul’s answer was:
The minister in her media release said that there would not be a return to compulsory student fees.
So it was not just in opposition that the Labor Party ruled out compulsory student fees; the member for Adelaide, Kate Ellis, also ruled out at that time, as the Minister for Youth, a return to compulsory student fees. Yet what has she voted for on multiple occasions since then? The member for Adelaide has voted for a return to compulsory student fees. That has been on multiple occasions since those words. This legislation is another classic example of the Labor Party saying one thing and then doing completely the opposite. For that they should stand repeatedly condemned in the eyes of the Australian public.
I have some experience of paying compulsory student fees. I wish that I did not but I have had some experience of doing it as both an undergraduate and a mature-age masters student working on a full-time basis. Those are two very different situations: an undergraduate student working part time-the type of person that those opposite might claim would fully utilise the services-and then as a masters student working full time and having very little opportunity to utilise any services. In both instances I found absolutely no value for money and no benefit flowing to me as a student, and I think the overwhelming majority of students found themselves in exactly the same situation. Between my two periods of study and my two periods of paying compulsory fees I ran as a candidate for election to the other place and I found myself in the slightly ironic situation, whilst running as a candidate, that the National Union of Students-a body that had been funded by my student fees when I was first at university and a body that was again funded by my student fees when I returned to university following my unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the other place-actually campaigned against me. They used my own money, money that I had been forced to pay, to campaign against me. In fact, I arrived at the campaign office one day to find a new brochure had arrived in letterboxes across the country with the headline: ‘Don’t let Simon Birmingham and John Howard take away our future’. And what a future it was that Mr Howard was actually able to provide to the students of Australia: essentially full employment, a vastly strong and growing economy, rising real wages and the provision of enormous opportunities for the students of Australia. But, no, the National Union of Students thought that it was quite appropriate to use money acquired under compulsion from students around Australia, including me, to campaign for the election of a Labor government against me and, I suspect, against you as well in that election, Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett. It was a quite ironic situation that I found myself in and this was a key example of the type of abuse of students’ money that we saw rampant when we last had this type of compulsory student fee in place. Ultimately, if those opposite get their way it will be the type of abuse that we see rampant once again as student fees are collected on a compulsory basis. Whether under this existing legislation or under future attempts to water it down even further by those opposite, we will eventually see it siphoned off into the types of political campaigns that can be used against those of us on this side for the benefit of those on that side regardless of whether that is what the students paying those fees actually want.
This is sometimes likened by those who advocate it as being a tax, a tax for the public good. They say it is somehow like paying your council rates. On previous occasions in this debate-and sadly I missed his contribution last night-Senator Abetz has drawn a very good analogy. Senator Abetz, like many on this side, has been a champion of the opportunities for association provided by voluntary student unionism. He has likened this proposal to making people join their local ratepayers association rather than making them pay their council rates. That is what this essentially does-it is not actually akin to paying council rates, where there is a demonstrable community benefit of ensuring that footpaths and roads and rubbish collection and core services are provided; it is about extraneous services that are not core to the student experience, to the studying experience, and funds are often funnelled off into lobbying and other activities that really should be undertaken purely through voluntary commitment.
Students going to university already pay large sums of money-either upfront or through deferred payments. They contribute those large sums of money and, in return, they already receive the core services required from the university. They receive lectures, tutorials and the facilities at the university in which those activities occur. They receive the complete academic experience. They are still asked to dig deep into their pockets to buy textbooks and other materials that are necessary, and this type of extra impost, this type of fee, just hurts their capacity to pay for all of those essential services. The Labor Party and the Greens want a compulsory fee that is layered on top of all of the existing fees and just makes it so much harder for people to pay for the essential services required to get a university education. And they are essential.
As we do throughout the rest of society, in any other workplace in the country or any other place around Australia, we should let the market provide the non-essential services at universities that are not directly related to the provision of education and the learning experience related to that education. That is what happens if you put thousands of workers together on the one work site. If they need a cafeteria, if they need restaurants, if they need bars, if they need sporting fields, if they need childcare facilities-if they need or want any of those sorts of things-if there is a market and a demand there for it, somebody comes in and provides the service. Presumably they provide it at a commercial rate of return, and that is what happens. It is perfectly reasonable and acceptable for it to happen everywhere else around Australia, so why on earth is it not acceptable for it happen on university campuses?
Frankly, on university campuses we should be encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurialism, actually encouraging people to see the opportunities for business investment, the opportunities that exist for those who want to drive innovation and business in campus life and as part of the campus culture. That is what we should expect to see and that is what we should be encouraging in our universities. But, no, this is all about further centralisation. We will see students’ money collected on a compulsory basis, funnelled off to a central body that will determine through a central structure what services are necessary, how they are built, how they are run and who pays for them et cetera, rather than letting that entrepreneurial spirit be fostered and providing in a market responsive way the services that are truly necessary.
There are other arguments put that perhaps extend beyond even those non-essential services, such as childcare facilities or eating facilities. There is talk about the opportunities for clubs and associations in social activities and sporting activities and the like. I hope that we have in our universities people of capacity, people of ability, so that if they wish, and there are sufficient numbers of them who wish, to participate in a voluntary sporting activity or in a voluntary social activity they can organise themselves to do so without needing a compulsory fee to underwrite their activities. I would hope that the calibre of individuals we have involved in our universities and studying at our universities is such that they are able to put in place the framework and the institutions they want. I do not just hope that is the case-I am confident that is the case, because it happens at universities right around Australia already. Whether it is the sporting groups or the political groups-whichever ones they may be-we already see them right around Australia. We already see young people, and people of all ages, organising themselves into the groups and activities they want without this compulsory fee.
We were told, when voluntary student unionism was suggested by the Howard government some years ago, that campus culture would die, that all these services and facilities would evaporate. Essentially, if you had listened to the doom and gloom from those opposite, there would not have been a club for anybody to join, there would not have been a bar for anybody to drink at, there would not have been a cafeteria for anybody to eat at, there would not be a sports field for anybody to kick a footy on-the whole lot would just have evaporated under VSU. That had not happened last time I looked at a university campus. On most there is still a bar for people to drink at if they want to, there is still a cafeteria for people to eat at if they want to, or often multiple cafeterias and eating options, there is still a rampant and lively clubs culture full of voluntary activities and opportunities, and there are still sporting facilities that are used by local clubs and others outside of the university as well. All of this is still happening-it is all happening right now and happening in an environment where students are not forced to part with their money.
I have had numerous representations on this occasion and on previous occasions when this matter has been debated in this place. I particularly want to highlight representations I have had from students in South Australia, and especially from Liberal students in South Australia. I have received a letter from Jack Batty, the President of Liberals on Campus, a group of Liberal students operating across South Australian universities, which highlights very clearly their concerns. Mr Batty says:
Students should not be forced to pay for services that they do not want or cannot use. If services offered on campus are good enough, they will earn the support of students without any compulsion. This new tax will hurt those who can least afford to pay it. Students already struggle to pay for textbooks, study materials and transport. Poor students will suffer most as work pressures mean they have less time to spend on campus enjoying subsidised activity.
… … …
Services provided by student unions are largely superfluous and open to political abuse. This Bill provides little by way of enforcement mechanisms to prevent the misuse of our money.
Mr Batty has put it quite wisely and quite succinctly in that representation. He has made it clear that their view is that the money will be open to misuse and that it will see those who can least afford to pay it having to pay a compulsory fee-a fee that at best goes to underwrite services that should be able to be provided without such a compulsory fee in place.
I return to emphasise the two key points that I made: the belief that where possible the user should pay for the services they want and the activities they engage in; and, most fundamentally, no Australian should be compelled to be associated with an entity they do not wish to be associated with. Unfortunately, this bill fails both of those tests and I sincerely hope it is defeated.