06/09/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene -Labor fails ‘new’ policy test

06/09/2005 - 22:00


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With Labor leader Kim Beazley registering poor polling ratings it’s little wonder discomfort is showing across Labor ranks.

Last week Mr Beazley slipped to a record low 38 per cent, down from 55 per cent in April, according to a Sydney pollster.

News from Canberra is that he’s to deliver several keynote policy speeches over coming months.

According to The Australian’s Canberra-based Dennis Shanahan, Mr Beazley is preparing “to unveil three major policy proposals in a pragmatic change on policy and strategy, dumping ideology and cutting old links with vocal interest groups”. We can take this attempt at a new leaf as fact, since Mr Shanahan has for years had a good pipeline into Mr Beazley’s offices.

Moreover, Mr Beazley’s major weakness as leader – now and previously – is his seeming inability to generate imaginative and far-sighted policies.

It was Paul Keating who quipped that his government had four dinosaurs – Qantas, Australia Post, the ABC and Kim Beazley – “with the fourth dinosaur in charge of the other three”.

In the 2001 election Mr Beazley surfaced with just one program, which on first inspection looked innovative and was to be marketed under the banner Knowledge Nation.

But it was, in fact, a complex network of interlocking bureaucratic and administrative committees, agencies and qangos, so the Liberals promptly dubbed it The Spaghetti Pack, after which few took it seriously.

What’s clear is that, this time around, the Labor leader must surface with the real thing – truly novel and imaginative policies.

If not, restless Labor MPs will  begin the search for a new leader.

“I am trying to promote the concept of rights, rights Australians have, in any legislation we do,” Mr Beazley told Mr Shanahan.

State Scene sees that as an admirable commitment.

But is it hollow rhetoric or are we finally to get the real thing, what Mr Shanahan so aptly described as “a pragmatic change on policy and strategy, dumping ideology and cutting old links with vocal interest groups”?

Interestingly, we can test Mr Beazley in this regard because the day before committing himself to promoting “the concept of rights” his deputy, Jenny Macklin, announced Labor had accepted the Coalition’s decision to outlaw compulsory student unionism on Australia’s tertiary campuses.

However, she went on to say Labor would press for retention of compulsory annual dues by students for something called ‘services and amenities’.

In other words, despite talk of dumping ideology and claims to promote the “concept of rights”, students will continue to be forced to bankroll non-academic causes as a condition of enrolment for a largely taxpayer-funded education.

In a joint statement Ms Macklin and Mr Beazley said: “You can voluntarily decide whether or not you join your student union, but everyone should contribute to the cost of university life – the sporting facilities, the clubs and societies.”

Now, that’s Orwellian double-speak if ever State Scene heard it.

What Labor’s new policy prescribes is that students will no longer have to actually join student unions but will continue being forced to pay dues that will go to “facilities, clubs and societies” overseen by such unions.

In other words, nothing materially changes; spades will now be called digging utensils.

Those with long memories may recall how Sir Charles Court’s Government, in 1977, promised to make membership of student unions voluntary by outlawing compulsion.

“Students should be won, not drafted,” the 1977 promise said.

But when it came to honouring this, highly-paid vice-chancellors, state educational bureaucrats and student union activists smooth-talked then education minister Peter Jones into retaining compulsory annual dues for so-called “facilities, clubs and societies”, which is precisely what the Beazley-Macklin duo proposes.

What happened on WA’s campuses when the 1978 academic year’s enrolments opened was that students found they had to pay the same dollar amount as the previous year’s student union dues but the due was renamed a ‘services and amenities fee’. Spades thus became digging utensils. To rub salt into this dishonouring manoeuvre, 1978 campus course enrolment forms had two tiny boxes printed on them – one to tick if you wished to join a union, another if you didn’t want to join.

This ‘tick-a-box-but-no-change’ ploy so angered some that they resolved to fight on to ensure the 1976 promise was honoured, with some lobbying for nearly 20 years within WA’s Liberal Party to ensure it eventuated.

As things transpired, they won.

But the sweet taste of victory didn’t come until 1993 when Liberal MLC Norman Moore was education minister.

The pioneering Moore University Acts amendments meant WA students finally enjoyed voluntary student unionism.

But the Gallop Government reversed this in February 2001, so WA students now have the compul-sory Beazley-Macklin system.

Under the Moore voluntary approach some students joined unions, while others didn’t.

But students from 1993 until 2001 could not have their enrolments for a taxpayer-funded education rejected by campus administrators as presently applies and would survive under the Beazley-Macklin formula.

Clearly one has to be highly imaginative to interpret the Beazley-Macklin retention of compulsion plan as “dumping ideology and cutting old links with vocal interest group”, to use Mr Shanahan’s words.

All Mr Beazley has done is recycle the 1978 WA ‘tick-a-box-but-no-change’ approach, which WA had between 1978 and 1993 and again since 2001.

The allegedly revamped policy of long-standing ideological compul-sionists Mr Beazley and Ms Macklin is a ‘heads I win tails you lose’ ploy, not one that sets out to “promote the concept of rights”, as Mr Beazley says he wishes to see done.

Student clubs and societies Australia wide should operate on the principle and practice of voluntary association as they did in WA when the Moore amendments applied from 1993 to 2001.

Anyone wanting to join campus-based butterfly collecting or polo clubs should be able to do so volun-tarily. Those not wanting to join them shouldn’t be forced to under threat of having their enrolment for academic courses refused.

Remember, campuses have huge captive daily markets for cafeterias and other retailing outlets, occupancy of which is generally tendered out to specialist catering and other enterprises that pay hefty rents to locate on campuses where hordes of students pass daily.

Rather than having to pay compulsory annual union dues for a so-called “services and amenities fee”, students should, at the end of each academic year, receive a dividend for having attended university and patronised such campus-based businesses that generate rents from the merchants.

That’s how co-operatives, based on the principle and practice of voluntary association, operate.

Why isn’t Mr Beazley promoting that idea, especially since the political left has a long and proud history of association with the co-operative movement?

If so-called campus “services and amenities” were effectively managed, annual dividends would be forthcoming to all students who would have an incentive to greatly patronise campus-based businesses.

Anyone wanting to join sporting or cultural groups should pay for that like everyone does.

Such activities have nothing to do with gaining a tertiary education that’s largely taxpayer funded.

Mr Beazley’s resorting to WA’s 1978 ‘tick-a-box-but-no-change’ formula simply recycles Labor’s long-standing ideological attachment to compulsion under a new guise, meaning he’s off to a bad start in his alleged bid to revamp Labor.


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