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Voluntary Student Unions Bill: Speech By Senator Penny Wong

This is the speech by ALP Senator Penny Wong on the voluntary student unions bill.

Speech by ALP Senator Penny Wong on the voluntary student unions bill.

Senator WONG (South Australia) (3.01 pm)—What do we see here today? We see this government, in its arrogance, continuing to treat this chamber like its own private club. You may as well make this chamber an extension of the coalition party room, because that is how you are treating it. What we are seeing today is the government moving a guillotine on a highly controversial bill and then rorting the speakers list so that they still get to speak while senators on the opposition side are cut off. That is what we are seeing from this government.

And what have we seen today, fellow senators? We have seen the government engaging in a very new tactic for a last day of sitting: a government filibuster on its own legislation, just to allow the political manoeuvring over in the backrooms. What a confirmation that is that you treat the Senate as your own private club. Well, it is not your own private club. This is a chamber of the parliament of Australia and it deserves a modicum of respect, even for a government as drunk on power and as arrogant as this government has become in the short time it has had the Senate majority. This is being treated as nothing more than a meeting of the coalition—although, actually, it is probably a meeting of only the Liberal Party, because it looks like either the Nationals have rolled over or the government has done a deal with Senator Fielding.

Let us just look at what has happened here today. We spent just under 3½ hours debating noncontroversial legislation that the opposition was supporting—3½ hours on a bill that the opposition said we would pass quickly and efficiently last night. We also spent nearly an hour—three-quarters of an hour—debating whether or not the European bank would do development work in Mongolia. I have nothing against Mongolia; I am sure it is very important work that the European bank does. But, really, one would have thought the parliament of this country could have spent a reasonable time discussing important legislation like the bill that is before us, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, which has been guillotined. One would have thought that the Senate might have had the opportunity to debate more appropriately some of the legislation that we have been debating this week, or this VSU legislation we are on now, which the government wants to guillotine through. We will get half an hour for the committee stage, which is when we are supposed to examine the bill in detail.

We had just under four hours in committee on the Welfare to Work legislation. The industrial relations legislation was also guillotined, and we had 337 government amendments lobbed on the table, giving the opposition and minor party senators about seven seconds per amendment to consider it before we came into the chamber. So they guillotined terrorism, truncating that debate; they guillotined Welfare to Work to make sure there was insufficient debate there; they guillotined IR; and now they are guillotining VSU. Those are four highly controversial and important pieces of legislation that deserve proper scrutiny. People did not even know what they were voting on in the case of many of those amendments. We had hundreds of amendments voted on in a few minutes at the end of the guillotine.

Today they filibustered in the morning, talking about Mongolia and a bill that the opposition agreed with and agreed to facilitate, so that they had time to do their deal. That is what the Senate has been reduced to under this government: a filibuster in the morning and then, when it suits them, a guillotine and a gag in the afternoon. Somehow I do not think there was a conversion on the road to democracy. I do not think that occurred in the middle of the day. What has most likely occurred is a deal: either Senator Joyce has changed his mind or, if he is holding firm, Senator Fielding has changed his mind.

The opposition parties are here debating the bill and we do not know what the deal is. Senator Ludwig, in the previous, procedural debate, actually indicated that—that we do not know what we are dealing with— and I heard interjections from the other side: ‘Well, you’ll know soon enough.’ What arrogance! You are so drunk on power. You are so out of touch. You just sit there and sneer and say, ‘Well, you’ll know what it is soon.’ This is the parliament of Australia. If you are going to force legislation through, the least you can do is front up and tell us what the deal is. What sort of grubby political deal has been done to get this through? Have you held your people or not? Either Senator Joyce is doing the right thing and holding firm, in which case we are seeing the Liberal Party walking over the National Party again, driving the Nationals into oblivion, saying, ‘We’re not dealing with you, we’re dealing with Senator Fielding,’ or Senator Joyce is backing down.

The other alternative, as I said, is that Senator Fielding has made an agreement. I do not know what I can say about that, because I do not know if there has been an agreement or not. I hope that Senator Fielding sticks to his word. He is quoted publicly as saying that a compulsory service fee in relation to student unionism is reasonable, if it is set at the right level. In the article about Senator Fielding in the Herald-Sun on 23 July the fifth point under the heading ‘The 10 commandments’ was that VSU ‘should be retained as it exists in Victoria’.

I hope Senator Fielding is continuing to hold the same position. We were very disappointed that he indicated public opposition to the Welfare to Work changes but changed his mind. Obviously, that is his issue. I hope that on this matter he is going to stick to the position he indicated publicly. I would welcome it if he did. Let me be clear about the bill that is before us. We strongly oppose the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005. We oppose it and we defend the vital amenities, services and facilities provided on university campuses right across Australia which are under threat from this extreme legislation. Make no mistake, the bill before us will destroy vital campus services that support university students. Health services, child care, sporting infrastructure, counselling, clubs and societies, orientation activities, financial services, housing services and legal support services are all hanging in the balance. Yet we have seen no family impact statement and no assessment of what impact these laws will have on the capacity of many in our community to be supported at university. Senators’ actions today will determine whether around 4,200 Australians will face losing their jobs. Those who stand opposed to this bill are standing in support of those services, facilities and amenities that are clearly threatened. We stand alongside those students and workers who will suffer as collateral damage because of the Howard government’s ideological vendettas and desire to settle old political scores. Mr Beazley has accurately described this legislation as the revenge of the nerds. But VSU is simply a nightmare set to befall our university campuses, and senators in this place have the power to pull the plug and stop this destructive ideological crusade dead in its tracks. Labor has proposed a sensible compromise amendment to protect university student services while giving students the choice of whether or not they wish to belong to their student organisations. We stand here to support students, student services and student organisations. Under our amendment, a fee would be collected by universities for use on services for the benefit of students but compulsory membership of student organisations would be outlawed. Senator Joyce has circulated an amendment which is similar, in large part, to the amendment that has been moved by the Labor Party, and we encourage all those in this chamber to do whatever they can to rescue—to save—the vital services which are under threat from this extreme government and this extreme legislation.

The fact is, the education minister has been rushing, hoping and feverishly negotiating, trying to figure out just how much taxpayers’ money is enough to see the extreme views of a minority of Liberals extract payback from their student political foes. That is why we have all been held back here on a government filibuster. Surely Dr Nelson has better things to do than waste his time playing student politics. Sadly, it appears that is not the case. Sadly for university students across the country, Dr Nelson is resting his leadership hopes and shoring up votes for a future tilt at the deputy’s job, proving he is a member of the diehard ideological vanguard opposed to anything called a union. As was remarked in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year: With John Howard on the warpath, the only union that’s safe is the Australian Rugby Union.

Unfortunately, if this legislation is passed, not even rugby union is safe—at least it is certain no university teams will be.

This bill prohibits compulsory membership of student organisations and also precludes universities charging mandatory fees for non-academic amenities and services. Non-compliance will put at risk a university’s entire funding. So we see a sledgehammer approach again from this government. It will use all the levers of government to hammer through its extreme and ideologically driven agenda.

There is also a brand new penalty provision which will fine universities if they do not comply with the Howard government’s ideology. It is no coincidence that each and every Australian university recognises the benefits of students’ contributions to the communities in which they study, socialise and learn. There is no doubt that student organisations help keep students at universities by offering the necessary subsidies and services that cash-strapped universities simply cannot offer. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of that is child care. I think it is Flinders University in my home state of South Australia—and also the University of Adelaide, I believe—that offers subsidised child care on campus. That not only assists staff; it also assists single parents who want to go back to university to study in order to try and build a more secure future for themselves. These are the sorts of services that are under threat because those on the other side found it hard to win elections in student politics and have never forgotten it. They did not mind running and they did not mind holding office—when they won a position occasionally—but now they have the levers of government they want to impose their own extreme payback option on student unions.

This ideological vendetta of the Howard government ignores the valuable contribution that student organisations make to our community, both on campus and beyond. One very important way they do that is through sporting organisations. There has been a lot said about that. We have recently seen in the papers elite and high-profile sportspeople coming out against the government’s legislation. There are so many services which are potentially under threat—not only sport and child care but also advocacy services. The government completely ignores the help that individual students get from their student organisations. They are given help to appeal their grades. They get assistance if they have been treated unfairly or have been the victims of what might be described as common administrative glitches. This kind of persistent work—practical advocacy by student organisations for individual students and groups of students—happens every day in our universities. The associations go in to bat for these students, because student fees allow it and pay them to do so. This is one of the critical advocacy roles that will go if this bill becomes law, because it is hardly a service that can be run for a profit. If student organisations do not provide that service, the only other avenue left to students will be to resort to expensive legal representation, which, of course, the vast majority of students could not support.

We saw another example of the willingness of the minister to say and do anything on this issue when he told Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report: Well, the experience in Western Australia, where voluntary student unionism like this was introduced in 1994, was that these services not only survived; in many cases they actually flourished.

What an extraordinary statement. This minister will say and do anything to get this agenda enacted—right down to the downright misrepresentation that is in that quote. Student organisations were decimated under this type of legislation in Western Australia and student services were lost. The legislation damaged services at all Western Australian universities. The Murdoch University Guild was in such a bad financial position that its auditors could not sign off on its accounts and it survived on loans. The Edith Cowan University Guild went into liquidation and closed all of its services. I could go on. I recall that Senator Eggleston, I think, publicly expressed disquiet about this legislation. Clearly the minister does not even speak to some of the people who are on his own back bench and who might actually be open to the facts in this debate. Unfortunately, the experience in Western Australia is the fate that awaits every single student support service organisation—slow decay and then collapse.

This agenda is political payback. Earlier in the year an article in the Australian reported that the President of the Australian Liberal Students Federation ‘helped education minister, Brendan Nelson, draft the legislation’. What more evidence do we need that this bill is about nothing more than petty vendettas that originate in student politics? Some of us, I hope, have grown beyond our experience in student politics and moved on to issues that, hopefully, might be of more concern to the broader community, but it appears that some on the other side are still in the same old paradigms and still fighting the same old wars they could not win at university.

Whilst the vanguard of the attack has been the current crop of Liberal students and their vociferous alumni gnashing their teeth on the government’s back bench, they have been lone soldiers. Quite frankly, the coalition of opposition to this legislation has been nothing short of extraordinary. Let us take stock of who has opposed the Howard government’s extreme VSU attack: student organisations, regional communities who use on campus facilities—

Senator McGauran—Vice-chancellors.

Senator WONG—vice-chancellors, university staff, campus chaplains—why don’t you interject on that, Senator McGauran?—sporting organisations, university staff, arts organisations, high-profile sportspeople and administrators, including prominent Olympians, high-profile performers and artists and, of course, members from all sides of this parliament. You cannot even convince your own backbench. There are a couple who are actually alive to what you are doing. They have all expressed their concerns about the impact of the government’s attack on university services.

Now is the time to take a stand. Let us back concerned words with firm action and take the 10 steps needed to save student services. The strength of opposition to this bill has forced the minister into humiliating delay after humiliating delay. There has been a humiliating filibuster today on non-controversial legislation, while in a frantic flurry of activity the government tried to get a deal with either Senator Joyce or Senator Fielding—or through their own party room. When VSU was originally discussed by the minister it was going to start in 2006, but when that could not happen it was pushed back to 2007. After the ideologues on the Liberal back bench convinced the minister that you could not let good sense get in the way of extreme ideology, the education minister came up with the brilliant idea of a mid-2006 starting date. Those opposite are desperate to take vengeance on those who beat them in elections for the working groups of the subcommittees of the boards of management of their university student associations during the seventies and eighties. That is why they want to impose an administrative nightmare on our universities. Hell hath no fury like a Liberal politician scorned. It is plainly obvious that this new mid year starting date is administratively unworkable. After amendment in the House, the punitive sections of the bill will not apply until 1 July 2006, unless you are a new student enrolling in a new course of study commencing after that date. But, presumably, if you are a student during first semester next year, it will still be possible that during second semester you will be required to pay your union fees to support the vital range of campus services. Is anyone else in the chamber confused? It is not surprising if we are. Certainly the universities are. This government has been in disarray on this piece of legislation. We have seen that disarray play out before us on the floor of the chamber: government members filibustered in the morning and then suddenly had a conversion and voted for a guillotine and a gag on this debate in the afternoon, after getting their riding instructions. This government has tried every trick in the book to get its way. Those who get on their feet and speak in this debate, including me and those from the opposition and minor parties who will get up after me, do not even know what the deal is. Unless someone has told us in the meantime, none of us even know what the proposition is. Is there an amendment to be moved? Is there some additional funding we do not know about? We have not had anything from the government on this. Perhaps there is a funding offer where senators are being offered millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money to massage this legislation past rightful and principled opposition.

The fact is nothing has been confirmed on the public record or in this chamber on what this deal might be. All we have is media speculation—reports that, in order to secure cash grants, universities would be asked to ‘clearly demonstrate a drop in the number of students paying a compulsory fee had affected the viability of sporting recreation facilities.’ What that would mean is that universities would have to wait for their facilities and services to decay before being able to access the funds. That is very logical. Let them run down, let them prove they have run down: then they can come back and ask for some money from the government. We have not been provided by this government with any proper assessment on the impact of this legislation—and certainly no assessment of its impact on families.

There is no legislative guarantee that any money that is on the table will be appropriately allocated. I hope in the discussions with the senators on the other side who have expressed concern about this that that has been made clear. Today senators are being asked to lay waste to our university campuses and their vital student services on the promise of a minister who, a little more than a decade ago, said that he had never voted Liberal in his life. There is consistency for you: he had never voted Liberal in his life! The only way to save student services and universities is to allow all universities to levy a compulsory fee for amenities and services. Labor’s amendment will save university student services. We stand opposed to this legislation, which will be terribly damaging to the services provided. We urge all senators to do the same. (Time expired)

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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