Voluntary student unionism bill passes Australian House of Representatives, enters Senate

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The bill on voluntary student unionism, as proposed earlier by the Federal Government education minister Brendan Nelson passed the House of Representatives on December 7 and is now to be debated in the Senate. The Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-Front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, commonly known as "voluntary student unionism" or VSU, will have the effect of removing the automatic joining of university students into their respective unions, and the consequent abolition of the payment of union fees. These fees go towards amenities and services provided the student unions. The Federal Australian Labor Party Opposition, which had originally opposed the introduction of VSU, changed its policy which originally supported automatic unionism of students and compulsory fees, to a stance supporting only retainment of amenity and services fees.

The bill was read a second time on December 6, with Opposition members such as Brendan O'Connor highlighting the perceived Government ideological reasons for the pursuit of this bill, stating that the minister "wants to be seen as an ideological warrior", and also explains the reason for the Opposition's shift in policy -- that "it takes the student political dimension, which seems to be the obsession of the government, out of the equation, and focuses on the services". One Government member, Peter Lindsay, had noted in response to this, stating that when VSU was introduced in Western Australia "the world did not end, the services continued to be provided...In fact, more services were provided because the student associiations had to be responsive to the needs of the students so they could get students, of their own free will, to decide to pay a student association fee".

A heated exchange followed between the next speaker Kelvin Thomson, Lindsay, and the deputy Speaker Robert Baldwin, over a comment "Why should students have to pay for outsiders to use a sporting facility? Why? The member for Wills [Kelvin Thomson] cannot explain that." which Thompson said "provoked" him. Thomson's speech further criticised Brendan Nelson's proposal for a "campus-by-campus ballot", noting "the great deal of opposition everywhere it has been put", the Financial Review description as a plan which "pleases no-one". Alby Schultz, from the Government, had remarked on the "Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee inquiry suggested that...some student unions were badly run and gave poor service to the majority of students", and that the money gathered from students "sell[ed] a political agenda which many of the students-and I would say the majority of students-would not subscribe to personally or ideologically", citing examples of the National Union of Students support for the Baxter detention center protest earlier this year.

Further Government and Opposition members continued the debate until 9 pm in the evening of December 6, where debate was adjourned for the day.

On December 7 the Leader of the House Tony Abbott moved a guillotine on this debate, where either at 12 noon or at the conclusion of the second reading debate, whichever comes first, the question should be put, and one hour be allotted for consideration in detail and conclusion of other stages of the bill. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Jenny Macklin in response called the movement of the bill "unadulterated ideology...from this power-drunk government". In the second reading debate, Brendan Nelson provided summary remarks after the two preceding speakers, stating that "that students should be free to choose what services they will purchase with their money and what organisations they will join", and that the compulsory payment "is a flat tax. The students from the poorest families pay exactly the same as those from the wealthiest, and we think that this is one of the few anachronisms which remain to be addressed".

In the consideration in detail stage, an amendment proposed by the independent Tony Windsor aimed to confine the use of fees for academic and recreational purposes only, which failed as there were fewer than five in support for the amendment. Opposition amendments were moved by Macklin after that to achieve the Oppositions views on VSU, but a Government member Sophie Panopoulos termed the amendments "a fraud" and "taxation without representation". The Opposition amendments failed due to Government numbers.

The bill subsequently passed the House of Representatives 78 to 58, and the Senate December 7 received the bill on the same day, and due to standing orders, will be debated at the next period of sittings, which will be early next year.


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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
  • Australian House of Representatives Hansard, dates December 6 through December 7 inclusive.