18/02/2003 - 21:00

State Scene - University union fee laws are out of date

18/02/2003 - 21:00


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HERE are the first three paragraphs from an article in a local newspaper (Western Suburbs Weekly) that reached letterboxes around February 4.

HERE are the first three paragraphs from an article in a local newspaper (Western Suburbs Weekly) that reached letterboxes around February 4.

 “The university year has not yet begun but already there is dissent among guild members over the newly introduced union fee,” the article began.

 “University of WA Student Guild president Myra Robinson has threatened to refer guild councillor Paul McCarthy to the guild discipline committee for making unauthorised comments about student unionism to the media and handing out unauthorised material on campus.

“The disciplinary committee can impose penalties including fines and expulsion from the university for disregarding the university by-law regarding council approval for publicity by guild councillors.”

You are forgiven for believing that we are perhaps considering a Dickensian era school rather than WA’s premier campus, a venue where freedom of thought and expression allegedly stand high.

Unfortunately freedom does not reign supreme in Crawley.

The newspaper says Mr McCarthy, a member of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (ALSF), which, incidentally, opposes compulsory student unionism, appeared on Paul Murray’s 6PR program but “was not representing the guild when he made his comments”.

 “Since Mr McCarthy could not comment to the media, ALSF president Lorraine van der Ende defended his actions and said Ms Robinson’s behaviour was “unacceptable in modern Australia”.

Ms Robinson contended: “It’s not about silencing people, it is about authorisation – there were more appropriate ways of Mr McCarthy to go about this”.

If she believes students denying other students the right to speak to media outlets and/or hand out literature to students is not silencing, she’s clearly not using that word in the way most Australians understand it.

 “It is about duties and responsibilities of being a councillor and if he can’t abide by them, he shouldn’t have run for council,” she continued.

Why cannot councillors advocate voluntary and not compulsory association, may I ask?

Are councillors only permitted to advocate compulsion?

Ms Robinson added that she had the backing of the university – meaning presumably from the vice-chancellery down – “for her handling of the situation”.

I have absolutely no doubt that is true.

Not one Australian – let alone Western Australian – vice-chancellor has ever spoken out against compulsory levying of students for campus unions, meaning vice-chancellors have nothing to be proud of.

All that said, what is the background to the Robinson-McCarthy clash over the latter appearing on Paul Murray’s program?

In a nutshell it is between those backing compelling – conscripting – fellow students to fund campus unions and those advocating freedom of choice.

Why has it resurfaced early in 2003? The answer lies in the first legislation passed by the Court Government in 1993.

That year (then) Education Minister Norman Moore outlawed compulsory student unionism at all WA’s campuses.

For several years he had watched how tens of thousands of WA tertiary students were being forced to finance, through compulsory annual levies, a range of objectionable campaigns.

Mr Moore’s 1993 legislation resulted in uproar from leftist students who demanded that all students should pay compulsory dues so guilds could use their money for what they like to call “services and amenities”.

But the meaning of “services and amenities” was stretched to include all sorts of political causes that many students found objectionable.

So Mr Moore scrapped the University Acts’ compulsory clauses. If student unions could not exist without compulsion they did not deserve to survive. He argued, and was proven correct, that campus trading ventures – cafeterias and bookshops – would survive on revenues generated.

But the compulsionists would not surrender. They resolved to resurrect campus compulsion and so went lobbying – quickly finding receptive ears in the Labor Party. So when Education Minister Alan Carpenter began his job in February 2001 one of the first things he said he would do was reintroduce campus com-pulsion for the unions. And now it is done.

But what does this mean in terms of hard cash? Enrolling at UWA this year costs a $110 annual due, collected by campus administration, with most of it going to the student union.

That means basic three-year degrees will cost $330 more and honours degrees $440 more. For postgraduates it is $110 per year for however many years they continue studying, so about $440 more for their degree, meaning nearly $900 all up for those undertaking a PhD. And all for what?

Backers of compulsion highlight all sorts of alleged needs for the money compulsorily taken from students, but never say that it will fund pet hobby-horse campaigns that most students do not back, since these crusades invariably appeal only to activist cliques that spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring apparatchiks control union bureaucracies.

Mr Carpenter has therefore returned WA tertiary students to the dark pre-Norman Moore days with people just out of school even having power to discipline fellow students for expressing their views.

Tertiary student life across WA’s campuses will not return to normal until the authoritarian compulsory Carpenter clauses are expunged from the statute books.


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