Page 1407 - Week 05 - Wednesday, 6 April 2005

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In 2003, the introduction of a like bill formed part of a post-budget package of bills that attempted conditionality of university funding based on the take-up of AWAs by university staff, along with the introduction of 25 per cent fee hikes and domestic full fee paying services. It was rejected then, but in one of the first examples of the use and abuse of majority control of both houses of federal parliament, we see the federal government bringing back into the legislative calendar this ideological objective—the attempted destruction of Australian student unions.

Student organisations in the ACT have a proud history of providing representation, organisational facilities and services to the student population of Canberra. It is this work that is currently under attack. We know that this legislation presents an attack on student unions, and the likely impact its passage will have on their operation is revealed by the Western Australian experience.

The federal government’s bill is similar to the one adopted by the Western Australian Liberal government in 1993. This is the full-blown version of anti-student union legislation. When it was introduced in Western Australia, university campuses experienced massive service and representational cuts. Welfare officer positions were reduced. Funding for clubs and societies was reduced. Campus publications were discontinued. Women’s rooms were closed. Student emergency loans were discontinued. Sexual assault referral services were discontinued. Housing services were discontinued. The list of cutbacks is far longer than the ones I have just mentioned and circumstances varied from campus to campus. Yet, across the board, the Western Australian experience of anti-student union legislation was one of the abolition of student support services, denial of structures of representation and the destruction of community on campus.

Abolition of these services, both welfare and representational, has a severe impact on our community. Not only does it deliver a crushing blow to the notion of community on campus, but also the work of student organisations in addressing serious issues of student welfare will fall more heavily on the broader community. In student unions there is an adage—student control of student affairs. I consider it a noble one.

The service delivery aspects of student unionism in Australia today developed importantly from the functions of political representation. In this case, the chicken and the egg problem is easy to solve. The provision of welfare services, from health and counselling services to childcare and accommodation to financial support in the form of emergency loans arose from the political mobilisation of students on Australian campuses. The students took control—and continue to do so—of their own affairs. In addition to making an important contribution to the cultural and social lives of their members and the broader community, they make an important contribution to the provision of quality services to their members.

This contribution should be rewarded and supported, not condemned on the basis of an ideological disposition. It is apparent that this is the basis of the bill. The services that student unions provide to Canberra are significant. The cultural and social contributions of their organs are similarly important to our community. The capacity and commitment of those involved in student unionism in the territory to representation of their members is also important.

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