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Voluntary Student Unionism: Senator Boswell’s Speech

This is the speech given by the Nationals Leader in the Senate, Ron Boswell.

The Senate is debating the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005. The Nationals have long-supported the abolition of student union fees, believing that no-one should be forced to join a union or that their money should go to people or events that they do not support. The Nationals’ policy is to support the abolition of compulsory student union fees while also looking after the educational and other needs of students, particularly in regional areas.

This legislation gives effect to the abolition of the fees, while The Nationals have argued strongly for and secured a funding package of some $80 million that will contribute to non-educational university amenities and services. We went to the Prime Minister and to the Minister for Education, Dr Nelson, and put our case in the strongest possible terms. The funding package would not be there today if it were not for the National Party. I believe it answers our policy resolution on VSU as much as is possible at this time. I am aware that there is a proposed amendment from my colleague Senator Joyce, which will be moved in the committee stage but which is not supported by the government.

It is necessary to canvass the issues raised in the second reading stage in order to outline why I support the bill before us. It is tempting to cross the floor to applause from vested interests. In my younger days I may even have given in to the temptation. It is hard to resist the bright lights and popular talk shows of the media. It is hard to resist the magnet of a high profile. Every person in the Senate today has that same opportunity. Fourteen years in opposition teaches you that the only way you will win and hold onto government is to have a tight and sustainable coalition. And if you are not in government, you have nothing to offer your constituents. However, if I were to vote against the government at any stage of this bill, as a party leader in the Senate there is no doubt that I would put the coalition under tremendous pressure.

The Nationals come to Canberra with a distinct policy focus and we argue for that in the party rooms and forums available to us. We benefit from access to ministers and have voices in the cabinet room. There are two alternative approaches from then on: either you abide by the coalition party room decision and go out and sell the joint decision or you take it upon yourself to publicly disagree. There are pros and cons with each strategy, as most senators understand. You can sell yourself for going against the government or you can go with the team approach that secures government and holds you there.

It was The Nationals’ voice in the coalition that got the package for university funding. There would not have been any such funding had The Nationals not gone in and fought hard for it. Not only that; as with all legislation we will monitor the situation of noneducational services at universities closely. If the package is not enough or is not working out properly, The Nationals will be the first to negotiate with the minister for a better deal. This is what is on the table today and we have to go forwards, not backwards. We have to be a coalition to have government and to have ministers that we can go to.

It is no secret The Nationals have had concerns about facilities at regional universities. I do not think we could have expressed those concerns more vigorously than we have at every opportunity in the forums available to us. We have pushed the cause of these students as far as we are able. There comes a point in a coalition relationship where both sides have moved to accommodate each other and can go no further. Then it is up to the coalition as a whole to step together, not to draw apart in conflict. That is why this coalition government has been so successful. There has to be give and take. Individually we attract a wider pool of voters than we could if we were amalgamated. We then bring them together under a coalition. We bring government to all those people.

Unfortunately, the same situation does not always exist at state level, which is why we have so many state Labor governments. It would be dangerous to try the state version of coalition in Canberra because that would put huge pressure on the federal coalition. There is a view from some in Queensland to support an amendment to this bill, even though none was put forward by our colleagues in the lower house. It is possible that any such amendment could be the straw that would put considerable pressure on the coalition camel’s back if I gave my support to it as a Senate leader. I will not put a successful coalition government in jeopardy because the implications of that would be far worse for The Nationals’ constituents than the applause that may come from supporting an amendment not sanctioned by The Nationals party room or the joint party room.

The condemnation that would fall on The Nationals if we were to undermine this government would pull down our electoral prospects to a position from which we would never recover. To my critics waiting in the wings, I say that I do not have the luxury of a populist stand on this.

Senator Lundy interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Brandis)—Order! Senator Lundy, Senator Boswell will be heard in silence.

Senator BOSWELL—I have negotiated sincerely and with great effort to bring about a compromise that satisfies both coalition partners. My record across many industries and issues shows that I will always go into bat if there is a hole or an oversight in government policy or a need for government action. The bill should be supported. There are always ways to deal with any shortcomings if and when they arise. It is far better to be in government to be able to address issues as they arise than to be locked in opposition with no way to deliver for your constituents.

My stance on this bill is all about supporting the coalition as the best structure to deliver good government for Australia. It is about making sure that students who are external or part time do not pay for services they never use, so straightaway they are better off by hundreds of dollars. It is all about saving money for many of The Nationals’ constituents who struggle to send their kids to uni. The football fields will still be there tomorrow and there will still be students playing on them, but they will be about $600 better off. Sure, everyone has a wish list when they come down here and enter the party rooms. I believe that I have achieved a great deal for The Nationals’ constituents because of the coalition.

I am enormously proud of this government. Over the last decade we have turned the nation from a shipwreck into an aircraft carrier. We have not just weathered the storms of international economic crisis; we have prospered as a nation. We have created employment and wealth and given our children a future. Those achievements are directly due to the fact that we have held this coalition together.

At the last federal election I was fully involved in The Nationals’ Queensland Senate campaign and worked tremendously hard to win that seat for The Nationals and Senator Joyce. That has meant much to the coalition. Together with Senator Joyce, The Nationals-Liberal coalition has some wonderful achievements to look back on this year with the passage of major legislation. It must be recognised that it is not easy for National senators to get elected. We have to distinguish ourselves from other candidates, yet not jeopardise the coalition. There is a fine balance required. I relish my job because I can deliver for many industry groups, from sugar and fishing, and tobacco growers, wheat growers, graziers, miners, ethanol producers, banana growers, pork producers and ginger and pineapple growers to super-yachts and small business. I can go directly to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and ministers for action. I can deliver road funding, mobile phones and the internet to remote Australia. I travel from Normanton and Boulia in the most far-flung regions of my great state of Queensland and help them with tourism and development projects and infrastructure. I can be a voice for social conservative voters and influence the political agenda on issues such as abortion, RU486, stem cell research, euthanasia, pornography and so on.

Senator Lundy—Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order on relevance. Senator Boswell has completely gone off the track. He is not addressing the bill that is about to sell out students around Australia and I ask you to draw his attention to the bill.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT—There is no point of order. Senator Boswell’s remarks are relevant to the debate on the second reading of the bill.

Senator BOSWELL—It is tempting to cross the floor on occasions and rev up my short-term personal vote. In these days of cynicism against politicians and political institutions, it would be popular too. But the day we allow populism to triumph in our parliaments is the day the ship of state sinks. There are those who wait for me to support the government on the existing bill so that they can pull me down. But I would rather go out fighting for good coalition government than leave on my knees to populism.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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