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Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill

Third Reading

Wednesday 28 September 2011 Hansard source (external site)

RoyHon HEATHER ROY (ACT) Link to this

I move, That the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill be now read a third time. It gives me great pleasure to lead the debate on this third reading of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Voluntary student membership has been a test of patience. Many thought this day might not come at all in this parliamentary term; others hoped that it would not. Around 0.1 percent of New Zealand’s 400,000 or so tertiary students protested against the bill earlier this week, and a handful protested today on Parliament’s lawn. I encourage Kiwis to be actively involved in democracy, because freedom of speech and freedom of action are important rights that should not be denied. There is a certain irony that these rights have been used to oppose another fundamental civil right: freedom of association for students. But, none the less, I staunchly defend these students’ right to do so.

Opposition to issues is frequently noisy, although support is often silent. This post of support from a Canterbury University student appeared on my Facebook page yesterday. I quote: “I feel strongly about the freedom to choose and I know many others that feel the same. Please also remember to hear the silent voices of us that do support you. We don’t need to make a huge ruckus out of it because we’re sensible people supporting a sensible bill.”

Voluntary student membership means that students, from 1 January 2012, will no longer be compelled to join a student union before they are allowed to study at a tertiary education institution. They will instead be free to choose whether they join an organisation that, as an incorporated society, has the same legal status as the Automobile Association or the SPCA. We do not force motorists to join the Automobile Association before they can own a car, or force pet owners to join the SPCA. Students unions were originally voluntary organisations, and this bill returns student unionism to its roots. Over recent decades they have become increasingly politicised, when their core functions are meant to be representation of their student body—not just a select few—advocacy, and the provision of some services. The university and polytechnic councils provide other services, such as health and welfare services.

There has been much talk during the course of the debate surrounding voluntary student membership about huge opposition from students, with the figure of 98 percent being frequently quoted by the bill’s opponents. Let us be very clear about this figure. It refers to submissions opposing the bill at the Education and Science Committee. That was essentially a copy and paste campaign, like a petition conducted by student politicians en masse. By comparison, a Stuff poll last October had almost 5,000 votes and showed 72 percent was in favour of voluntary membership.

Misappropriation of students association funds has become a significant problem in the past few decades. The fraud has ranged from the farcical $6,000 spent by a Victoria University of Wellington Students Association executive member on phoning a psychic hotline, through to the large-scale embezzlement on several occasions at Whitireia Community Polytechnic totalling around $750,000. These all-too-regular examples of fraud prove the need for action. Compulsory membership has created an environment conducive to financial mismanagement. Students unions are governed and managed by young people who often lack the necessary management skills and experience to run a multimillion-dollar business, and there is a captive market of students who cannot vote with their feet if their funds are mismanaged. Voluntary membership means that associations will have to attract membership in order to gain funds, then provide the representation and the services that students want in order to keep them.

There has also been much talk in this debate about Australia’s experience of voluntary membership or voluntary student unionism—VSU, as it is known across the Tasman. Those opposing this bill have conveniently ignored the students unions that have not only survived but thrived under voluntary membership. The University of Western Australia stands out as an example for the rest. Amid the doomsday predictions promulgated by the left, it retained 60 percent—six, zero percent—of its members under voluntary student unionism and has continued to provide valued services to its members.

Looking to the future in New Zealand, my intention was never to destroy students associations, as some claim, but to give students the free choice of belonging or not. I hope these associations will put as much effort into planning for their future as they have put into planning their protests. I hope to see students associations actively promote the benefits of membership by using quality communication with students to find out what they want, preferably using modern communications, which students already do themselves; by conducting quality market research on the services that students actually value and are prepared to join an association for; and by offering affordable membership fees. I hope the associations will explore innovative incentives to join, such as discounts for members at students association bookshops and at cafes, and negotiated discounts with local retailers. Most important, I hope that they will focus advocacy on the issues that almost all students agree on, such as increasing the quality of education, and increasing the accountability of tertiary institutions to students. When students see an organisation providing representation and services that they value, they are much more likely to join it.

There are many people to thank and acknowledge in this journey, which spans at least 20 years. The battle started with the Freedom on Campus Network and has progressively been carried forward by Prebble’s Rebels, ACT on Campus, the Young Nats, Student Choice, and my ACT Party colleagues present and past. I would also like to thank the select committee members, so able chaired by Allan Peachey, and the select committee staff who dealt with the large number of submissions and submitters. I also thank all submitters, both those supporting and those opposed to the bill. As a result of their contributions several changes were made to the bill, which have made it much better. To the officials from the Ministry of Education and Parliamentary Counsel Office I give my grateful thanks for their expertise, their sage advice, and, most notably, their cheerful patience throughout a process that ended up being much longer than was ever intended. To Sir Roger Douglas, I thank him for his Midas touch—I do not know anyone luckier at having bills drawn from the ballot—and for shepherding voluntary student membership through the select committee process. My grateful and sincere thanks go to the staff in my office who have researched, advised, and written on, and agonised over, this issue, and who have become very good at understanding parliamentary process, because of their absolute belief and commitment to freedom.

It is harder to say it any better than Andrew Little, in his final address as president of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union. I quote: “I believe voluntary unionism—true freedom of association—gives the union movement much greater strength and much greater moral authority.” The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of association and freedom of non-association. Finally, students, like all other members of society, will enjoy this fundamental right.

My final thanks go to the National caucus and to United Future for their support of voluntary student membership. Freedoms are hard won and very easily eroded. Parliament’s gift to students today is freedom of association. Please, please be sure to use it wisely.

PeacheyALLAN PEACHEY (National—Tāmaki) Link to this

As the member who chaired the Education and Science Committee hearings into the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill I want to acknowledge the role played by select committee members from all sides of the House. It was a positive engagement and we engaged very, very well with the submitters, as well. It was a long process, at times a demanding one, but everybody performed very, very well, and I believe that, if nothing else, this process was a tribute to the way the parliamentary system can and should work. I should acknowledge the work of the member Heather Roy. This is a big day for her in her parliamentary career. I think it is regrettable that she is leaving Parliament. She has certainly, with the assistance of her colleagues, earned this success.

At the end of the day it should surprise nobody that National is supporting this bill. The National Party is a party that believes in choice and personal responsibility. It is those two concepts that I want to concentrate on for a few minutes. The first one is choice.

Throughout all of the hearings, in subsequent public statements, and in a lot of things that I have heard the Labour Party say, Labour members have talked about compulsory students association membership enhancing choice. I hope that, finally, one of the Labour speakers might be able to explain that to me, because I am really struggling with the concept that forcing young people into being denied a right that all other New Zealand citizens have—freedom of association—can in any way enhance the choices of young people. I just cannot figure that one out, I am afraid.

It seems to me that choice comes down to the opportunity not to be required by law to join an organisation simply because we attend an institution, and not to have to go through an elaborate and often frustrating process to get an exemption from that. That just does not seem to me to be choice, and it does not, in my view, pay tribute to the ability of youngsters embarking on tertiary education. Whether to join a students union is a choice that they are capable of making themselves. They do not need legislation passed by this Parliament to force them into joining something. That should be their choice, and this legislation gives them that choice.

My second point is about personal responsibility. A lot of people who support this bill contacted members like me. They did not make submissions to the select committee, but they made their views known. I found myself balancing out two things.

The first was the fact that people said to me—and I am bound to say that it is a view for which I have a lot of respect—that they would take responsibility for themselves. They said that if they got into trouble with the university, or if they wanted to appeal something, they would take responsibility for that. If they had a health issue, they would take responsibility for that. Let us face it: if these young people are capable of studying at tertiary level, they are capable of exercising that sort of choice for themselves.

Then there was the other point of view, which basically said that, no, people might get into trouble, and the committee was presented with a number of interesting stories about some people who did need the help of the students associations. But then we ask ourselves whether every student in New Zealand, except for those who go to Auckland University, should have to fund what may be a bit of an insurance scheme. I found myself asking why some people were at university if they did not have the capability to take personal responsibility and keep their lives in order.

I found myself balancing up those two things, and constantly referring back to my previous career and the young people I knew who were going off to university. Frankly, my view, very strongly, was that they should not be going off to university if they were not able to exercise personal responsibility for themselves.

During the hearings and in all the meetings I had with student leaders, I came to respect highly the presidents and co-presidents of the students associations. Often the arguments that they put to me were reasonable and fair. I did not always agree with them, and clearly they were motivated to protect compulsory unionism. I expected that, and I would like to say to those young people, first of all, that I enjoyed our contact. It took me back to a previous life that I thoroughly enjoyed. But it also brought home to me something else, and it was that those young people, by and large, were of such ability that I believe they are more than capable of running a voluntary student union that will be capable of providing the services that a significant number of students will be prepared to buy into.

There is another message in all of this for students. They are now being given the choice to exercise personal responsibility, and the choice to ask themselves a basic question: if they join a student union, will the student union provide them with the services and support they might need, or will they back themselves to exercise their personal responsibility in a different way and take care of themselves?

I pay tribute to the ability of those young people, and I repeat that I enjoyed my contact with them. I realise that for them this will be a disappointing day, but I hope that students will also see this as an opportunity, because students are being granted, at last, freedom of association, which has not been denied to other New Zealanders for a long, long time.

I repeat the comment I made earlier. I would like a member of the Labour Party to explain how compulsion enhances choice. And I say to student leaders that they should not have expectations that Labour will somehow overturn this legislation or repeal it, because that will not happen. It is unrealistic to think that it will. It is just not possible for a party that has committed itself to voluntary unionism in every other aspect of life to deny that to students, but that is beside the point.

If, at the end of this debate, one of the Opposition members can explain to me how compulsion enhances choice, I will be delighted. Thank you.

ShearerDAVID SHEARER (Labour—Mt Albert) Link to this

I start by asking how we ended at this very unhappy point, because all the way along the line we had the opportunity to get a much better Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill than the one before us today. I think back to a few months ago when many of the National MPs and we were talking together about how we were able to put through legislation that not only would be better, and would provide an element of choice, but also would be able to endure the test of time, rather than be completely—what Mr Peachey just said was erroneous—overturned as soon as a Labour-led Government comes in. The interesting thing is that National MPs—and some of them are in the House today—were in agreement that this legislation would not go through in its present form. They also told the NZUSA, the New Zealand University Students’ Association, that the bill would not go through in this sitting period—that it would not go through, and instead we would have something different. On top of that, we have Michael Woodhouse in the House today who is actually on YouTube saying exactly that. So to say that National is not exactly committed to this legislation is a huge understatement.

The real reason we are here today is politics. It is the politics of the ACT Party needing to be propped up by National. That is why we are here. Heather Roy got rolled by Rodney Hide. Rodney Hide got rolled by Don Brash. Don Brash is probably rolling something as we speak. But the point is that the booby prize for all of this was that Heather Roy took over the voluntary student membership bill. She took over the voluntary student membership bill, and National had to get in behind ACT and pretend it actually wanted to get this bill through instead of what it really felt, which was, in fact, that it wanted a compromise along the lines of what we were producing and had actually put up.

This legislation is completely unnecessary—completely unnecessary. There has been a lot of talk about choice and the freedom of choice, which we heard from the previous two speakers. Let us look at the current legislation, at its choice. Students currently have the opportunity, if they can muster 10 percent of the student population, to have a referendum on students associations. They have the choice to be able to do that. We are taking away that choice with this legislation. We are removing that choice from those students. That is not about democracy, that is just about a piece of ideology being rammed through this Parliament, dressed up to look like a problem, and using this Parliament to put through legislation that denies students choice—it actually denies students choice, it takes away that choice. So do not come the “we need freedom and we need choice” thing with me. There is no party more committed to democracy and choice than Labour, but we do not want to sit here and be told that somehow we are giving people choice as a result of this odious legislation.

The other thing I raise is the total mischaracterisation by parties on the other side of the House that somehow a students association is a union. It might be called a union, but these are not employees. They are not workers. We have left compulsory worker unionism behind us. This is about students going along to an institution. They are not compelled to attend a tertiary institution; they are compelled to contribute to the relevant costs of that study. These are relevant costs—health care, counselling, and creche facilities. The types of things we are looking at are career advice, employment opportunities, sporting clubs, and cultural activities. These parts of the university are an essential element of our university system. These are the things that sustain students through their university careers. They are essential parts of the university system.

What will happen with this legislation? We know exactly what will happen. With the exception of the University of Auckland—which I would argue is an exceptional case because of its size, but we will come to that in a minute—what will happen is that the fees going to students associations will dry up. They will dry up as they have in just about every other place where this measure has been tried, and when they dry up, all of those services that I have just mentioned will also dry up and be put at risk, as well. That is what will happen with this legislation. And what will happen then? Well, it will be no surprise, because the services are essential to the university and student life. It will be no surprise: the universities and polytechnics will pick up some of those services and they will charge the students for them. They will charge the students more than the students are paying now to the students association for the same services they were receiving before, and that is the nonsensical part of this legislation. That is the absolutely nonsensical part, because the students will end up paying, but they will not have a say. They will pay, but they will not get a say on how their services, and which services exactly, will be put up. That will be up to the university or the polytechnic. Those institutions will dictate what students will have, and the students, although they are paying for those services, will not get the say they once previously enjoyed when they belonged to a students association. So this legislation fails on so many counts. It fails on so many counts.

Then we have the extraordinary arrogance of the process. I have to say that 4,500 submissions came before the Education and Science Committee—4,500. Two percent of submissions were in favour of this legislation; 98 percent were in opposition. Ninety-eight percent opposed this legislation and they came from right around the country. They came from all of the students unions—yes, I guess you could say that is true. But they also came from all of the polytechnics and universities, bar one. The institutions themselves do not want this. They do not want to take on having to provide all of these services for students. They do not want to do that. The arrogance of this bill is to ignore that evidence. The arrogance is to ignore those submissions. The arrogance is not to listen to good evidence, not to listen to the institutions, not to listen to the students themselves about what they want. Instead we have a dodgy, shonky deal, which will not last, going through our Parliament, from a group of ACT MPs who will not even be here when this legislation comes into being. Is it not extraordinary that we have over on the other side of the House National MPs who do not agree with this legislation, and we have ACT MPs who will not even be here when this legislation comes into being? We are here in the second-to-last week of Parliament’s sitting in this session, voting on an incredibly unpopular waste of time, the voluntary student membership bill, and the party over there, with five members and sinking fast, will not even be here to see the fruits of their labour.

WoodhouseMICHAEL WOODHOUSE (National) Link to this

It is my pleasure to take a call in the third reading of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. This is the first time I have spoken on this bill in this House, but, of course, I have followed the debate quite closely, given how important it is to students in Dunedin. I have actually asked to speak in the third reading, given the calls to me by the New Zealand University Students’ Association to cross the floor to vote against this bill, on the basis of some comments apparently made by me and reported today. I give my thanks to my colleague Colin King for subbing out and allowing me to make a contribution and to clarify my position. I begin by addressing that call. There is not a hope in Hades of me crossing the floor and voting against this bill. I support this bill completely—no whipping, no shoehorning into voting for it. I said so last year, I said so earlier this year, including in an op-ed piece in the Otago Daily Times, and I will say it again: I support this bill. No amount of clever video editing by Labour apparatchiks or ranting press releases from the New Zealand University Students’ Association will change that. The video clip omitted my introductory support for voluntary student membership, it missed bits in the middle, and it did not add text to the top of the video when I was clearly saying things that did not suit the Labour view.

But there are a couple of things that do require clarification, and the first is my statement that it was highly unlikely that the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill would pass in this term of Parliament. I did say that, to Logan Edgar at the Otago University Students’ Association and to David Do of the New Zealand University Students’ Association. It is, however, complete nonsense to conclude from those comments, as Mr Edgar did, that this was a verbal assurance of National’s support for deferring the bill until after the election. If one was to ask members of this House—including Heather Roy, I suspect—whether they thought that this bill would pass in this term of Parliament, they would all have said that that was extremely unlikely. The reason for that was the outrageous filibustering by Labour on the Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Bill, at a cost of nearly half a million dollars per hour—half a million dollars per hour. Members’ day has been debased by that party, and those members should hang their heads in shame. This is a day for members’ bills—not that Labour has any—and it is an absolute shame that this day means so little to that party. The crocodile tears that Labour members have shed for the passage of this bill are in large part because they were simply outthought by Mrs Roy.

The second clarification is in relation to comments I made about whether the bill could be improved. Earlier this year I did say that had the bill been introduced in my name, I think it would have looked a little bit different, albeit the thrust of the bill would not have changed. At that time I thought a form of life membership should be considered. I thought that an opt-out was worth considering, and indeed that was touched on by the Education and Science Committee, with not joining requiring no explanation. I had one or two other ideas that were not material to the bill, but I was not on the select committee, so I kept in touch with my colleagues, who were informing me of progress in that respect.

But here is what I understand also to have occurred. The New Zealand University Students’ Association was approached by members of that association—that is, student presidents in 2010 supportive of a compromise position—who recommended that that position be put into the New Zealand University Students’ Association submission. The New Zealand University Students’ Association refused to consider that compromise. It remained defiant against the bill in any form and buried its head in the sand, pretending that the bill would go away. Well, it did not go away, and the offer of compromise recently made was a desperate attempt to remedy things when the association realised that the bill was likely to pass. It was too little, too late. It should have considered what its association members were saying—some of them, at least—more carefully when it was talked to last year.

Here is the kicker for me. At the same time that the New Zealand University Students’ Association was railing against voluntary student membership, it was fighting a rearguard action against some of its own members who were threatening to resign. Otago University Students’ Association and Otago Polytechnic Students’ Association, I understand, both served notice of their intention to resign from the New Zealand University Students’ Association. Otago University Students’ Association said as much in its written submission on the bill. So the New Zealand University Students’ Association is strongly opposed to choice for students, but its own constitution enables its members the choice of membership. That is a double standard if ever there was one. It still has not been explained—despite Mr Peachey further asking for it—how compulsion encourages choice.

The rates analogy is flawed. Rates are the equivalent of student fees. If I choose to go to a university, the cost is the student fees. If I choose to own a house in the city, the cost is the rates. The question not answered by anti - voluntary student membership proponents is this. If students associations are so important and they represent such good value for money, why the morbid fear that students will take flight when association membership is made optional? The students—our brightest young and our future leaders—are labelled as lacking the simple skill of deciding for themselves whether joining an association is appropriate for them. If they do, associations should be more worried about why students see such low value in membership than about maintaining compulsion, because at the end of the day this comes down to a simple principle of freedom of association. No New Zealanders should be compelled to join an organisation of this nature against their will. On this principle alone I support the change to voluntary student membership.

I will also touch on a couple of comments that I made in respect of that op-ed piece in the Otago Daily Times on some of the reasons why people do not want to be members of their students associations. One of them was high-profile financial misappropriations by students association executive members. I do not need to relitigate them, although I did hear Mrs Roy talk about them in earlier speeches. The fact is that the accountability mechanisms on students associations are not strong enough for there to be compulsion. Regardless of what happens in the future—whether Labour does have an opportunity to repeal this legislation or whether it stays—I think there have to be greater accountability mechanisms built into students association constitutions. At the end of the day I think this comes down to the question of freedom.

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Hon Member

What a blatant pitch.

WoodhouseMICHAEL WOODHOUSE Link to this

Never let a chance go by. Today’s quote is from the 14th century poet Dante, and it reads: “Mankind is at its best when it is most free. This will be clear if we grasp the principle of liberty. We must recall that the basic principle of liberty is freedom of choice, which saying many have on their lips but few in their minds.” I cannot really articulate it any better than that. Freedom is actually a scary concept for some. We have heard from members of this House who are worried and who want to hold on to compulsion much like a drunk holds on to a lamp post. But it is time I think to treat our university students like the adults that they are. We ask them to vote. We ask them to fight and die. We allow them certain other freedoms. Well, I think that they should have the freedom to choose whether to be members of their students associations.

I support freedom. I support voluntary student membership. I very strongly support this bill, and I commend it to the House.

Debate interrupted.