Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill — Third Reading
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Hon HEATHER ROY (ACT) : 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.