13 March, 2010

What is the real intent of Voluntary Student Membership?

There is a bill before Select Committee at the moment – the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, sponsored by Roger Douglas of the ACT party - the same Roger Douglas who arseholed up the country in the 80's.

What ACT are trying to achieve, as laid out in the General Policy Statement of the Bill and according to the Hansard’s account of the debates, is freedom for students and the destruction of corrupt organisations.

But the cynic in me tell me to be wary of the intent of politicians – particularly those to the right of centre.

‘Freedom of Association’ is proudly flaunted in the title of this insidious piece of legislation. Who could deny anyone freedom? Freedom is such a good thing and is always worth fighting for, right?

Apparently, our rights are being denied by Universal Student Membership. Those who don’t want to join or can’t afford to, are forced to anyway and spend their hard-earned money on the Students’ Association when they enrol at their chosen institution.

This argument rests on a logical fallacy: Student’s already have the option to opt out either for reasons of financial hardship or conscientious objection. Also, if at least 10% of the student body call for one, a binding referendum is held to determine whether the association becomes voluntary. The students can democratically call for Voluntary Student Membership (VSM). This isn’t happening.

But, implies Roger Douglas, democracy represents the tyranny of the majority, as the minority of students who want VSM don’t have a loud enough voice. Before dismantling this point, let me first let my inner cynic speak: since when have ACT given a shit about the rights of minorities – they were recently the only party to vote against legislation that would see people who kill gays being convicted of murder; gays aren’t humans according to ACT.

The very construct of student associations gives those students who belong to minority groups a voice in their education and provides support structures for those who feel discriminated against. Queer students, Maori students, Pacific Island students. When VSM became law in Australia, the first things to go were the support for minorities. Women’s and queer spaces disappeared. With VSM, it’s the minorities who suffer the most; they lose the protection they fought hard for – and they did fight very hard for these protections.

On to corruption. In the debate, both ACT candidates mention the amount of fraud and thievery of students’ money that go on in students’ associations – listing several examples. But one thing that the examples have in common (aside from being mostly at Vic.) is that they all represent people who were caught, tried and received convictions, not people who skived money away publicly as nobody battered an eyelid. Fraud exists here not due to anything inherent in the associations, but simply because they are run by people. People are, by and large corrupt. Corruption happens everywhere, from small businesses to the stock market and, most significantly, in banks and parliament. By the same argument, we should shut down everything that we humans run.

The difference between students’ associations and other organisations is that student associations are directly responsible to their constituents and must be completely transparent in their spending. Other organisations don’t. It was this transparency that enabled the students to hold the fraudsters to account and achieve conviction to be written into the public record for ACT to bitch about. The whole process is self correcting. Roger Douglas’ privatisation campaign in the 80’s, however, destroyed the transparency of many of the countries largest companies, filling them with more corruption than students’ associations can ever hope to hold.

So what is the real issue here? This is the part where I let my cynic fully out of his box. Traditionally, students represent everything ACT hate: intelligent, free-thinking, liberal, socially-minded, financially poor, young people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and are deeply interested in politics. Students complain, students protest. Student’s across the word have been influential in every major push for human rights and civil liberties in the last century. From the emancipation of women, to the civil rights of blacks, to homosexual law reform, it’s been students at the forefront of the protests.

This bill is really about silencing ACTs loudest opponents. And what better way to silence your political opponents than by putting it behind the disguise of ‘Freedom.’