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Voluntary Student Unions Bill: Speech By Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja

This is the speech by Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja on the voluntary student unions bill.

Speech by Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja on the voluntary student unions bill.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (South Australia) (3.21pm)—As the only person from the Democrats who will get onto the speakers list today, I rise on behalf of the Australian Democrats to make it very clear that we strongly oppose this legislation and the process that we have observed today in this place. Today is Freaky Friday in the Senate. On Freaky Friday we have talked for an hour or so on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development involving Mongolia and spent 3½ hours on a non-controversial, bipartisan supported bill involving the establishment of Carnegie Mellon and a change to the ESOS Act. That is 3½ hours of valuable, taxpayer-funded Senate time. Earlier this week, 2½ hours was good enough for antiterrorism, which is arguably the most significant piece of legislation in this parliament’s history, let alone in the last almost decade of this coalition government.

Welcome to Freaky Friday, where we do not care about democracy. Democracy, schemocracy! We do not care about informing people about what deals may or may not have been brokered in this place. We do not care if people get to speak. We do not care if people know what we are voting on. In fact, we do not even care if we get to put our amendments separately, because democracy in this place is dead. It does not matter that the standing orders still apply or that we have process, because I have seen every convention—or every convention with which I was familiar in this place, anyway—abused in this place in the last two weeks. But this takes the cake. How ironic that we are debating a bill that deals with issues of democracy, control of student affairs and the use of dollars at university campuses that are usually otherwise organised through the university and its student associations, university unions and guilds. How ironic that we are talking today about pulling the rug out from under those very support services, amenities and representative, sporting and other services provided on campuses, and we are doing it in minimal time! We have 1½ hours for debate, if you are lucky enough to get onto the speakers list in this new-found democratic place, and half an hour for the committee stage in case you want to talk about the amendments that at least two senators have moved to this bill. Half an hour for amendments—what a joke!

Senator Wong is right. What is the deal? My gosh, Freaky Friday has now turned into a television program! What is the deal? How did Senator Fielding’s meeting with the Prime Minister go this morning? I ask only because I am genuinely interested. I hope that it was fun and a nice exchange of views. I would not mind knowing, just for the record, whether a deal was struck. I do not want to pre-empt anything Senator Fielding might add in this place—or Senator Joyce, as the case may be. Just tell us! One thing I will say is that all of us have done deals in this place. All of our political parties have been party to deals with each other. But you will not find the Democrats having done a deal without negotiation, consultation and making it transparent. People may not have liked the deals we have done. I might not even have liked some of the deals we have done. But we know about them and we tell the Senate with less than five minutes to midnight. This abuse of Senate process this week is as embarrassing as it is dictatorial. The upper house is being abused and eroded in a shameful way. This is not house of review; this is a joke. It seems to me that there are smug and contrite faces on the other side. I am always very wary of reflecting on people personally, but I tell you what—the hubris in this place is just coming off people. It is palpable. What arrogance—we spent the morning in a farcical debate about Mongolia and Carnegie Mellon because people wanted to make a deal behind closed doors. Now we are debating the deal and we do not even know what it is. Does that suggest that maybe we are in for a shock? Maybe the numbers really are in the balance. Maybe we are going to have a considered debate and people can make up their minds on the floor. They can observe, assess and debate the amendments and then make a considered decision. Of course we won’t, because you cannot do it in 1½ hours of debate and half an hour of committee stage.

The bill is so significant. This bill has at least $600 million worth of consequences for student organisations, sporting facilities, people’s jobs and also for those students who might not even actually be on campus—that is, aspiring students. This has huge consequences—generational consequences. It has consequences for regional, remote and rural areas. It has consequences for campuses. It has consequences for the universities. It has consequences for communities. We are dealing with it in a token 1½ hours—less than the amount of time for a non-controversial, crossparty-supported bill dealing with Mongolia. This is extraordinary.

Let us talk about this legislation. The likely effects of this bill have been well documented in a committee report. They are broad-ranging and devastating. We are talking about emasculating student services that have served our universities well for decades. I ask: what was it about the university experiences of members that was so bad, so chronic and so traumatising that so many of them in this place have come armed with this vendetta? They want to get their hands on university student organisations and completely destroy them. What was it? What happened?

Look at the cabinet ministers with university degrees: the Prime Minister, ministers Downer, Costello, Hill, Minchin, Abbott, Ruddock, Coonan, McGauran—the other McGauran—Vanstone, Nelson, Patterson and Andrews. What happened? I will tell you what happened. They went through university and most of them—and I will stand corrected quite happily if need be—got their university degrees on the public purse. Publicly funded and accessible education I will defend until I die. What is wrong with the people who got it, though? They are not prepared to defend it. In fact, they want to go one step further. They want to use misrepresentative phrases like ‘freedom of association’ to justify their wreaking of revenge on the student organisations. It was good enough for them, but it is not good enough for the next generation of students. It is not good enough for students today and it is not good enough for students tomorrow. What happened to them? What was so bad and tawdry about their university experiences? I hate to think.

This is part of a broader attack. We have all seen it. We have all seen the legislation come through in months and weeks and years. There have been HECS hikes, up-front fees, deregulation of the postgraduate sector and further fees and charges for overseas students. In fact, just this morning, without wishing to reflect on a vote of the Senate, we passed the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill—everyone would remember because we spent quite a bit of time on it; 3½ hours, I believe—which actually ensured that a compulsory student services fee was charged for overseas students. How ironic! We did not hear about freedom of association then—well, we did from Senator McGauran, but that is because of a mistake. He did not know what the bill was about.

So overseas students, domestic students, university autonomy. For the first time in history a minister has the greatest power ever to interfere in the courses run by a university. ‘What about the ARC?’ I hear you ask. What happened to that board? What are we going to do to that? The minister now has discretion to not fund decisions and recommendations by the ARC. Are we allowed to know why that is the case? Of course we are not. It is not publicly transparent. It is not available. It is not accountable. It is not on record. It is not tabled. It is not even in the annual report. There is a long list of attacks on the university sector, but this one is a beauty. This is the one that not only enables the government to wreak revenge and have their ideological political direction— whatever that may be—but also singlehandedly undermines the services provided by those universities.

It also takes away their voice. This is the other part of this debate: representation, advocacy, counselling and welfare—all these important areas are lost. I understand that there are many people in this place and their families that may not need assistance. They may have enough money to get them through. That is okay, but most students do not. Most communities do not. Most of the committees that are going to be hit hardest by this bill are those who happen to be poorer or, indeed, live in regional, rural or remote areas—a fact that I think is acknowledged by some on the other side. So we are talking about stifling dissent. Are we in this place really so scared of students in their organisations feeding into the democratic process, even protesting against what we do with this place? Are we really so scared that we are going to completely destroy their opportunity to organise at all? Student affairs should be student controlled. It is the basic premise, a basic message, and one with which I agree. I am not fooled by terminology such as ‘freedom of association’ nor am I fooled by the notion that a fee that is charged in a universal fashion on a university campus is akin to trade union membership, because it is not. The court cases and the legal research prove it. This fee is more akin to council rates, the kinds of rates that we contribute to a community, as we do as members of a community. Our rates are paid to the council for the services and the amenities that they provide.

Mr Acting Deputy President, I appeal to you and others on this note: when we talk about communities, universities are just that—or at least they used to be. They are not just machines producing academic qualifications with a degree at the end. They are a holistic experience. I know that I have lost this debate but I still feel as though it has to be put on record because it means so much. It is not just an Australian tradition or an Oxbridge tradition; it is a tradition around the world. People are encouraged to expand their cultural, social, political, sporting and, yes, even religious horizons. That is what university is about. Otherwise we would all stay home and get qualifications by other means.

Mr Acting Deputy President, do not misunderstand. I do not doubt the worth of any kind of education. Lifelong learning is a passion and it is one we all feel strongly about. I have no doubt about it. I do not suggest for a moment that vocational education and training has any less worth—of course it has not. Education in itself is the key to empowerment, equality, enlightenment and democracy, so of course we all subscribe to the notion of lifelong learning, and one aspect of that is the university experience. It is different from TAFE. It is different from school. It is different from WEA. They all have their place but university as an experience is what we are talking about today, and it is the experience that we have single-handedly, or at least consistently over time in this place, destroyed. We keep forgetting that some people cannot afford to go to university. They cannot afford to go to TAFE either where upfront, full fees apply—and before anyone interjects that I have got a problem with TAFE or the voc ed sector, please do not misunderstand that. There are people out there who were able to access universities as a consequence of the abolition of tertiary fees in the 1970s under Whitlam. That is a fact. There is research that tells us that fees and charges remain a financial disincentive and a psychological one for students entering into and participating in higher education. When you combine that with a lack of student income support—and let us face it, it is woeful and anyone who read the latest Senate inquiry into that will acknowledge the below poverty line levels of supplementary income for students particularly those from regional campuses—it is just not good enough. So when you combine fees and charges and debts the size of your parents’ or your own mortgage, it starts to add up.

When you finally get to university, what support structures ensure all students, young or old—mature age as well as those who have just left school—and particularly those from lower socioeconomic groups, can participate in this university experience? What support structures are there to ensure that there is help with their child care, with their advocacy, with their welfare, and indeed with representation, with media, sporting activities, clubs of all kinds, subsidised catering, the bars and other activities? There is an extraordinary breadth of activities.

If we do not like those activities, if students on campus do not like those activities, they have input to the process of deciding the disbursement of those funds. I am not suggesting they are always perfect—of course they are not. It is like suggesting that all democratic institutions are perfect. D’oh! We are not exactly a perfect institution today on this Freaky Friday, Mr Acting Deputy President. In fact I think that our democratic structures could do with a little tightening up. Nearly every—indeed I stand corrected—every institution, every university in this country, now has a conscientious objection clause. For those people advocating freedom of association, there is your out. Nobody wishes to ensure that you belong to a union, guild or association that you find offensive or that is somehow contrary to your conscience, and nor should you. We are not talking about that; we are talking about the payment of a fee that is supported by the key representative groups and key organisations in the sector: the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations; the National Tertiary Education Union; the National Union of Students; the National Liaison Committee for International Students; and the AVCC, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee—not always the most radical group out there, with all due respect to some of the vice-chancellors on that committee, but they are united and they are united on this issue. When you have the vice-chancellors, the key administrators of universities in Australia today, saying, ‘This is bad law,’ then we should be listening and taking note. It is not only those organisations; it is individuals, high-profile and prominent Australians, ordinary Australians and people who have been involved in the arts, sport and a whole range of activities. They have all said how they feel about this bill. They have made it clear in full-page advertisements. How ironic. I have a copy of the second full-page advertisement this week that an organisation have felt compelled to take out because they just do not believe their government is listening in any other way.

I recall reading On Tuesday, once again, the John North/Law Council full-page advertisement. They were so desperate for a response to their originally private letter to the Prime Minister of this country, where they outlined their fundamental problems with human rights and civil liberties breaches in arguably the biggest piece of law we have dealt with in this place in a century. Look at the names of the people: Cate Blanchett, Barrie Kosky, Nadine Garner, Nell Scholfield, Joe Kennedy, and the list goes on.

Senator McGauran—Never heard of them.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA—They are all political enemies too, are they? Whoops. If you do not agree with the artists, the journalists, the writers and the sports heroes, it is just extraordinary. The government cannot deny the strength of ill-feeling towards this legislation, because most people in the community know what it is about. They know why this is being moved. They understand that this is vengeance and vendetta dressed up as some kind of support for freedom of association. How misleading. In recent days we heard about deals, discussions, negotiations and bribes, because that is what they are—$80 million here, $100 million there; ‘Whoops, I will raise you $120 million if you sell out students for today, sell out university experience and forget the aspiring graduates of tomorrow.’ Do we honestly think that $120 million is going to compensate for the job losses, lost services and lost amenities?

We have heard a lot about those things but, as has been made clear today, we do not know what the deal is. That is the deal: a blank sheet. We have nothing. I sincerely hope there is no deal, but I have to admit—I listened to our Prime Minister on television last night and again, I believe, on radio this morning—that the Prime Minister led us to believe that he was not going to pursue this legislation unless he felt he had some prospect of success. So I can only believe that he feels he has some prospect of success and that is why we spent this morning filibustering and debating bills that were non-controversial and unnecessary for that time frame of debate.

I will not necessarily get a chance to speak in the committee stage, given that we have only half an hour, so I say now that the amendments are an attempt to ameliorate the worst aspects of the bill. The ALP’s are better than Senator Joyce’s—for those of us who have read them, and I am sure that everyone is au fait with the amendments here—but they do not go far enough and I think that is acknowledged by the movers. At this point, I think we are all desperate to do something to ameliorate the impact of this legislation, such as it is. We are desperate to do something that recognises that maybe we are not in the best position to make these decisions. How dare our government talk about using taxpayer-funded dollars to compensate universities for the money that students would otherwise be paying. What about user pays? (Time expired)

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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