Australian Senate agrees ban on tertiary-sector mandatory student unions

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Friday, December 9, 2005

The voluntary student unionism bills that have been proposed earlier in the year by the Australian government in the Australian House of Representatives has been passed by the Australian Senate December 9, without amendment, after an unexpected urgency motion that afternoon. The voluntary student unionism bills aim to stop the compulsory joining of university students into the student union and the consequential abolition of payment of the union fees, which sometimes go to certain amenities and services provided to university students. Many students, associations, and vice-chancellors of universities are opposed to the legislation, with rallies and days of action taking place earlier this year. In the process, Senator Steve Fielding of the Family First Party held the key vote who expressed his late decision to support the passage of the VSU legislation.

Entrance to the Senate

The VSU legislation was earlier anticipated to be debated at the next session -- that is, next year -- but appeared on the notice paper today in case the Senate had time to discuss the bill, however, at approximately 1.40pm an urgency motion was moved on a number of bills, including the voluntary student unionism (VSU) legislation which entered the Senate yesterday. The urgency motion allots time on the second reading to extend to 4.30pm and remaining stages of the bill to 5.00pm. The Senate was to adjourn at 3.30pm, but this was extended to approximately 5.15-5.30pm.


The guillotine was controversial and criticised by non-Government senators, who drew on the perceived three and a half hour "filibuster" from Government members over non-controversial bills earlier today, where all parties were in agreement, and over perceived trivial bills such as a bill on the European Bank in Mongolia. Earlier Senator Penny Wong of the Australian Labor Party suggested that back-room dealings were taking place to get key Australian National Party senator Barnaby Joyce on-side. Senator Joyce had expressed concerns over the VSU bills contrary to the Nationals' support on the bill, and had proposed to amend the bill. The other key senator Steve Fielding has expressed that he has said that an amenities fee is appropriate if set "at the right level". Senator Hill has "made no apology" about putting forward the Government program, and said that he would "do his best to implement the Government program".


A division on the urgency motion followed, which was passed from Government Senate majority.

In the second reading, Senator Wong had said that the Government had treated the Senate chamber like "an extension of their own party room", and that the Government were "drunk on power". She went on to speculate whether the Nationals had "rolled over" in regards to Senator Joyce, or whether the Australian Liberal Party (the other counterpart in the Liberal/National Government coalition) had done a deal with Senator Fielding, and drew attention to the potential effects of abolishing the fees. Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja from the Australian Democrats has expressed her opposition to the bill and the policy, terming the day "Freaky Friday" and went on to say "Democracy, in this place, is dead" due to the earlier events of the day, as non-Government senators did not know about possible deals that were made or the details of the amendment.


Senator Ron Boswell, leader of the Nationals, expressed his support of the abolition of the fees, and the procurement of a package of funding of 80 million dollars towards funding academic and non-union related services, which he said satisfied the National's policy stance on the issue, and warned implicitly against crossing the floor. Family First Senator Fielding has said that the argument can "run both ways" in his speech, and said he had a "great deal of trouble" making up his mind on the issue, but said that Family First will be voting for the bill. Senator Kerry Nettle, the next speaker, was incensed at this, and termed Senator Fielding "Senator Sellout" but was asked to withdraw that remark. She went on to state amongst her remarks that Fielding has "sold out" students.


Senator Joyce, the final speaker, has expressed his opposition to compulsory unionism, and has said he will put his amendment to abolish compulsory unionism but described his amendment which will ensure alternative funding for services (but not described whether it will be compulsory fees) at parity with funding received today. Some senators who wished to speak but could not due to time constraints had their speeches incorporated into Hansard by leave.


In committee, Senator Eric Abetz has stated the Government will be opposing the amendments proposed by Senator Wong, stating it "erodes the principle" of the legislation, saying it is "taxation without representation". Senator Wong responded by saying that Abetz "didn't have the bottle" to speak to the amendments, and noted the lack of details in the funding package proposed by Senator Boswell. Senator Bob Brown of the Australian Greens drew attention to Senator Fielding's stance, calling him a "failure" in regards to his Victorian state, criticising his position on the bill and his absence from the chamber, and praised Senator Joyce's commitment to his earlier word. Senator Stott-Despoja stated her support for the ALP amendments, but these failed due to Government numbers.

Senator Joyce's amendments were then put (as the time cutoff passed) which led to a division, and in the division he crossed the floor on the amendments, which the Opposition supported. Senator Joyce's amendments however were defeated 29 to 31 -- Fielding's choice was key in this vote. Senator Joyce however voted with the Government to have the bills stand as printed.


On the third reading, which support signifies final passage of the bill, the vote was 29 to 27, so the legislation did pass. Joyce crossed the floor again on this stage. The bill must re-enter the House of Representatives again for concurrence, which had already risen the day earlier, and sits again February 2006, next year.


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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
  • Australian House of Representatives Hansard (pdf), December 9, 2005.
  • ABC NewsRadio live broadcasting from the Senate, December 9, 2005.