Voluntary Student Unions Bill: Speech By Senator Kerry Nettle

This is the speech on the voluntary student unions bill by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle.

Voluntary student unions bill speech by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle.

Senator NETTLE (New South Wales) (3.59 pm)—There we go. There is the deal. At four o’clock on a Friday Senator Sell-Out comes in here to tell us that he has sold out students across this country.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Brandis)—Order, Senator Nettle! Senators will address other senators by their names, not by offensive nicknames. Senator Nettle, withdraw that, please.

Senator Conroy—Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Withdraw what?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—There is no point of order. I have called Senator Nettle to order.

Senator Conroy—I am asking what phrase you’re asking to be withdrawn.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—I am sorry, Senator Conroy; there is no point of order. I am calling Senator Nettle to order. Senator Nettle, Senator Fielding will be addressed by his name. Senator Nettle, you have the call. You will address Senator Fielding and all other senators by their names.

Senator NETTLE—Yes. Senator Fielding has sold out Australian students at universities across this country—not just students who are studying now but generations of students who will come through Australian universities and who will not be able to access the services that senators in this chamber accessed while they were at university. Students will not be able to access services like child care, for example. They will not be able to enjoy the fulfilment of campus life or have the opportunity to have full knowledge and experience of university. Senator Fielding has sold out students who choose to involve themselves in a whole range of different clubs on campus. That includes students who choose to involve themselves in Christian clubs on campus, and we all know that there are many of those. Senator Fielding has sold out those students and their Christian clubs here in the Senate at four o’clock on a Friday. He made the deal with the Prime Minister this morning and then he came in here at four o’clock and said: ‘I’m going to sell out all those students. I don’t care about those students.’

What about the mature age student who wrote to me who studies at the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle? She is studying mathematics and fine arts. She is a single mother with four children alive and one child deceased. Her youngest child is disabled. She wrote to me about the great benefit that the compulsory student amenity fee has provided for her. She said: If this fee is made voluntary few students would pay it. This would mean a great deal less support … for students like me. She talked about how she wishes to start a degree in teaching next year and about how it requires a compulsory practical component. She wrote to me about her student association, which provides the on- and offcampus insurance that will allow her to do the practical component of her course. The practical component of her course is being put in jeopardy by Senator Fielding here this afternoon. This mature age student with four children, one of whom is disabled, who relies on the services at her campus, will not be able to access the
child-care services that she currently accesses at her university. I have received a raft of these letters. I have visited 23 campuses around this country, talking with students about the impact of voluntary student unionism. I have also met with the managers of student unions, who are right now making decisions about which services they will have to cut, thanks to Senator Fielding.

Government senators interjecting—

Senator NETTLE—How many child-care centres will be cut out of Australian universities, thanks to Senator Fielding? How many services will be stripped from students, which will mean that they will not be able to continue with their study, thanks to Senator Fielding?

Government senators interjecting—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—Order! Government senators will come to order. Senator Nettle should be listened to silence.

Senator NETTLE—It is worth reminding the chamber, especially members of the opposition who are here and who I know are extremely disappointed with the outcome we have today, that Senator Fielding is in this chamber because of the Australian Labor Party. Senator Conroy has been over here trying to find out what is going on with Senator Fielding. Senator Conroy, it was your party in Victoria that gave preferences to Senator Fielding, which allowed him to come in here today, at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and sell out Australian university students now and into the future. It is worth acknowledging that that is why Senator Fielding is here today and that is why he is able to sell out the university students of today and the future.

What does Senator Fielding say to the students who write to me? Another student from the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle wrote to me to say that he saves every year for enough money to be able to go with his touch footy team to play at the University Games. He wrote to me about how much money he saves up every year to go on those trips, to be able to spend money in the regional centres where his touch footy games are played for the university. This is being ripped away from him, thanks to this government and Senator Fielding. I applaud the two young women students from Macquarie University who were at a hockey game recently which the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Minister Nelson, attended. I applaud those two young girls, who are members of the Macquarie University hockey team. They held up a sign which said: ‘My hockey team will not be playing next year because of this man.’

Senator Ronaldson—Pay the fee, get the service.

Senator NETTLE—That sign was pointed at Minister Nelson.

Senator Ronaldson—Pay the fee, get the service. What’s wrong with you?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—Order, Senator Ronaldson!

Senator NETTLE—Perhaps they should hold up another sign which says that their hockey team will not be able to play in future hockey games with a whole range of other universities not just because of Minister Nelson but also because of Senator Fielding, who got in here on the preferences of the Australian Labor Party.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells—Whose preferences did you get in on?

Senator NETTLE—There are university students whom we all met with—perhaps not many that Senator Fielding has met with—

Government senators interjecting—

Senator NETTLE—Senator Fielding talked today about the number of students who had been in his office. I am not sure how many of those students Senator Fielding actually met, but there are students now and there will be students into the future who will have none of the opportunities and choices that Senator Abetz and Senator Mason got to enjoy at university. They will not have those same services. I am very interested to hear what Senator Fielding has to say about the compulsory payment of taxation in our community.

Government senators interjecting—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—Order! There are too many interjections and there is too much audible conversation. Would everybody please do Senator Nettle the courtesy of listening to her in silence.

Senator NETTLE-Senator Fielding came in here today and said, ‘I don’t think that students should have to pay for these services.’ I wonder what Senator Fielding thinks about people in our community who have to pay for the roads that they drive on and the child-care centres that their local councils run out of their council rates. I wonder what Senator Fielding has to say about the football fields that are provided and maintained out of funding that is given to local councils. I wonder what Senator Fielding has to say about all these sorts of services that can only be provided to the high quality that they are provided to if everyone chips in. This goes to the very question of whether people should be contributing to services for everyone to use.

This is why the Australian Greens support not just universal student services on campuses that are run and controlled by students but also universal public services in our community—public services like health and education. The government are only to able to provide those services because everyone chips in. Maybe some people do not use the child-care centre, perhaps not right now. Perhaps in a few years they will; perhaps their parents used it. But the services are only there because everyone has chipped in. Those services will not be there in the future at Australian universities, thanks to this government and Senator Fielding coming in here and selling out university students in Australia and university students into the future.

We have heard examples of what has happened at universities in Western Australia. They have simply not been able to provide the same level of services. When you say to somebody, ‘Do you want to pay taxes?’ funnily enough, most people will say, ‘No.’ So when you say to students, ‘Do you want to pay for these things?’ funnily enough, they do not all say yes. That is why we have compulsory taxation in this country, and that is why we should have a system where everyone in that community contributes like they do in the broader community—contributes to ensure that those services are there.

Let me give another example. A postgraduate student who studies at Flinders University in Adelaide has written to me. This student goes through the services that are provided at that postgraduate organisation and compares the costs that students pay currently for those services with the costs of similar services that are available in the local community. For example, at the child-care centre that exists at Flinders University, students are charged $60 per semester for one child and $5 for each additional child. Let me say that again for all those mothers who are thinking about how much they pay for their child care: if you are a postgraduate student at Flinders University you pay $60 per semester for one child and $5 for each additional child. By comparison, the closest child-care facility to Flinders University charges $235 per week for one child only. This is the choice that this government wants to give mature age university students with children who need to access child-care services. Would you like the choice of paying $235 per week to have your child in the local child-care centre, or would you like the choice of paying $60 per semester for your child to go to those services? That choice will not be there if this legislation goes ahead, because that university will not be able to provide the same kinds of subsidies to enable university students to send their children to that child-care centre for just $60 per semester. The choice will not be there.

This legislation is not about choice. This legislation is about taking away student choice; it is about taking away student voices. Here we are in here, right at the end of the year, 9 December, at a quarter past four and all the students are doing their exams, have gone away on holidays or are out there feverishly working to earn enough money to pay their way through university next year. They are not able to be here making sure that their voices and concerns are heard in the debate. So it is left to us to read out these letters and examples that we have received or heard from the students we have visited around the country, because it is the students who are being sold out today. It is the students who are having their throats and voices ripped out, ensuring that they do not get to have a say about what happens on their campus.

Senator Abetz over there got to have a say about what happened on his campus when he was at university, and Senator Mason over there got to have a say about what happened on his campus when he was at university, but this government and Senator Fielding want to make sure that students in the future do not get to have a say about what happens with the money that they contribute to ensure services are there for all students on their campus. The government and Senator Fielding want to make sure about that, and they will do it in this way and a whole raft of other ways—taking students off university councils or whatever it may be. They will find every avenue available to them to ensure that future students do not get the opportunities that members of this government have had—taking away that voice from students; taking away the opportunity for students to come together and put together a whole range of activities, whether it is newspapers, newsletters, student activities or setting up clubs.

This government is taking away those opportunities for students. We have heard from people in the community who have enjoyed the same experiences that senators here have enjoyed talk about how much being involved in those activities benefited them. This chamber and the House of Representatives are absolutely full of people who have experiences from being involved in a representative democracy on their student campus, learning about whatever it might be: debating— I am sure in the case of Senator Mason—being involved in activities, making decisions and being representatives. They learnt those skills and learnt those ropes as students, and they want to deny future students the opportunity to be involved in those activities. They want to take away from students the choice of being involved in those activities as part of their extracurricular activities. That is how many people have made their way into this chamber and into the House of Representatives—by being involved in those activities and learning about democracy and representation. This government and Senator Fielding want to take all those life experiences away from future Australian university
students.

We have heard from many people who have enjoyed these experiences regarding what will be taken away. Let me share with the Senate a letter I received from an associate professor at the University of Melbourne who wrote to me about the theatre board at the University of Melbourne. She said: The Theatre Board’s role at the University is to encourage the widest possible participation in theatrical activity from students across the University, not only aspiring performers directors and writers, but lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects and economists—even budding politicians—whose confidence, teamwork and public presentation are immeasurably enhanced by their extracurricular experiences in theatre. Student theatre has an extraordinary history at the University of Melbourne and has been instrumental in shaping Melbourne’s and Australia’s cultural life. The Melbourne Theatre Company grew out of the Union Theatre. Student theatre also had a significant role in the development of many other theatre companies and movements, including La Mama, the Australian Performing Group, Whistling in the Theatre, Chamber Made Opera, law and Architecture reviews, the D-Generation and the broader comedy scene in Melbourne and Australia.

Innumerable people who have been influential in shaping Australia’s cultural history developed their skills in student theatre at Melbourne, including performers … Barry Humphries … Norman Kaye, Zoe Caldwell … Joan Harris,
Max Gillies, Cate Blanchett … Steve Vizard and Rod Quantock, directors John Summer … and George Fairfax; and writers, Ray Lawlor, Jack Hibberd … Benefactors Richard Pratt and the late Sir Rupert Hamer developed their love of the arts through student theatre as did many public intellectuals, including Germaine Greer.

Senator Wong—Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I apologise to Senator Nettle for the interruption, but I wonder if coalition senators could do us the courtesy of having their meetings outside the
chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT—There is no point of order. I have already called senators’ attention to the level of audible conversation. I did not think it was particularly distracting at that point, but perhaps Senator Wong’s advice might be taken.

Senator Bob Brown—It is very rude.

Senator NETTLE—I was just speaking about all of the people who got to enjoy the experiences that this government and Senator Fielding this afternoon are moving to deny Australian university students. Things like the Monty Python team came out of student theatre. These are the sorts of things that this government and Senator Fielding are denying future students the opportunity to be involved in.

Recently, I visited a gallery called the Watt Space Gallery. It is in Newcastle and is funded by the student union there. Over the last six years nearly 4,000 students have exhibited their artwork at that gallery. They have had nearly 200,000 people visit the gallery and nearly $300,000 of student artwork has been sold. It has been around since 1989 and has developed a national and regional reputation as a premier student art gallery. Students learn the skills of running and curating exhibitions and promoting shows, and many of them go on to be successful artists or run galleries in regional Australia or around the world. Without the funding and infrastructure provided by the University of Newcastle union, the future of Watt Space in Newcastle is bleak. Other senators have asked me how I know. I know because I talked with the university administration and the people who run these services about what is already planned to be taken away from them. So 4,000 students at Newcastle university will not get the same opportunity to exhibit their artwork in that place. I know that because 75 per cent of the funding of these organisations is provided by a student fee, where everyone chips in; everyone pays their bit. It is not just the fine arts students who are able to exhibit their work at student theatres. The day I visited, a first-year accounting student was putting up on the walls her first-ever exhibition, which was of traditional Chinese calligraphy. All students have the opportunity to be involved in those sorts of activities. That is what students there now and future students are being denied by these moves of this government.

We saw what happened when VSU—voluntary student unionism—was brought in at other universities. The services crumbled. They do not all disappear overnight; we all acknowledge that. But, because we have had conversations with people, we all know that right now university union administrators are making decisions about which services they will have to cut for next year. That is how we know, Senator Humphries— and others who have been interjecting. We talk with the
managers of these unions, we sit down with them, they show us their budgets and they discuss with us how they will have to take away job opportunities for people in their regional centres.

I went to Southern Cross University in Lismore and heard about the 170 people who work in that regional town—a regional town that really needs employment opportunities—who will not be able to continue to do that work. That whole community is going to suffer. The bus company that drives the international students to their places and the whole town of Lismore will suffer as a result of the moves being taken right here by this government and Senator Fielding. You should never deny not just students but also regional towns those opportunities. It is not about paying off regional towns, like in the funding package Senator Boswell was talking about. What about the regional students who travel to Sydney university or Melbourne university? Do they get any money from the funding package Senator Boswell was talking about? No, I suspect they do not, because this government is not concerned about students. Government members have had their turn, they have had their experience, and they want to deny other students that opportunity. (Time expired)

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