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NZUSA & ATSA support for Alliance

NZUSA & ATSA support for Alliance misrepresents students' views

By Clint Heine

When it comes to political opinions, New Zealand's 200,000 tertiary students do not all hold the same views. The political views of students are as diverse as the rest of the population. In this month's election tertiary students will vote for a broad range of parties from across the political spectrum.

However despite the diversity of students’ political opinions, the two student groups that claim to speak on behalf of all tertiary students regularly endorse the policies of the Alliance, and to a lesser extent, the Greens. The New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA) and the Aotearoa Tertiary Students Association (ATSA) are also critical of Labour and openly hostile to National and ACT.

Polling shows that NZUSA and ATSA are way out of touch with the opinions of students and the wider public. Currently the Alliance attracts support of around 0.5 percent. Surveys of younger voters fail to show substantial support for the Alliance. Bearing in mind that almost half of all tertiary students are defined as mature, a December 2001-March 2002 UMR survey (before the Alliance meltdown) indicates support for a wide range of parties among people aged 18-29: Labour had 42 percent of the party vote, National 33, the Greens 12, ACT six and the Alliance three. This mixed support also points to the absence of a consensus among tertiary students on education issues such as fees, loans and allowances. If 200,000 students support the Alliance, as NZUSA and ATSA claim, why does the party only have 0.5 percent support?

There is plenty of evidence of NZUSA's and ATSA's political sympathies:

- Students need the Alliance to strongly represent (student loan debt) to its coalition partner - ATSA, 20 February
- (National’s) economic package exemplifies the worst of the politics of meaness - NZUSA, 15 April
- Alliance policy sets standard for other parties - NZUSA, 20 June
- Alliance education policies on right track - ATSA, 21 June
- Labour’s tertiary education policy misleading - NZUSA, 1 July
- (National’s) policy reads like the ACT policy with its attacks on students and public education - NZUSA, 8 July

By repeatedly endorsing Alliance policies and attacking Labour, National and ACT, NZUSA and ATSA have allowed their view to be interpreted as that of all tertiary students. In doing so, NZUSA and ATSA deliberately misrepresent and distort the political views of the vast majority of tertiary students. Unfortunately, the media have not questioned the legitimacy of NZUSA and ATSA.

NZUSA and ATSA might argue that they do not support specific parties but instead support specific policies on education issues. However, NZUSA have clearly urged people to vote Alliance: "If voters support a universal allowance and fee reductions then they should vote for parties that are actually offering these as policy alternatives" (NZUSA, 27 July.)

The associations have also attempted to translate support for single issues into support for the Alliance. NZUSA recently claimed that 80% of New Zealanders support universal allowances. They failed to acknowledge that in the election over 80% of students, as well as 80% of voters, will vote for parties that don't support universal allowances.

The misrepresentation stems from compulsory membership of student associations. The vast majority of students are forced to join local student associations which then affiliate to either NZUSA or ATSA. No individual student is a member of NZUSA or ATSA, and individual students can't directly vote for the presidents of the two organisations. Compulsory membership means individual students can't withdraw from membership of local associations and can’t distance themselves from the statements illegitimately made on their behalf at a national level.

The misrepresentation of students views is driven by Alliance activists who hold office in various student associations. Compulsory membership and the absence of individual membership of NZUSA and ATSA means these activists are free to use the organisations to push their own agendas.

The links between the Alliance and NZUSA and ATSA are explained by the high importance the Alliance have placed on tertiary education in a play for the student vote. Its messages on fees, loans and particularly allowances neatly dovetail with the positions of NZUSA and ATSA. In addition, three student activists are among the top twenty names on the Alliance list.

Compulsory membership results in over $16 million a year being taken from tertiary students. This money goes to student groups that provide substantial political support to the Alliance and the Greens. Compulsory membership delivers a line of political party funding that is outside the scrutiny placed on other party campaign expenditure. It’s easy to see why both the Alliance and the Greens enthusiastically support continued compulsory membership and the cash it supplies.

The best way to solve the problem of misrepresentation would be to make membership of local student associations voluntary and to allow individual voluntary membership and funding of NZUSA and ATSA. The resulting numbers of students who might join would provide a clear indication of the popularity of the various organisations and their policies. However the current crop of student politicians do not support voluntary membership because they know it’d mean a grinding halt for the $16 million student association gravy train.

As long as compulsory membership of student associations remains, the majority of tertiary students will continue to have their political views misrepresented. This is entirely unacceptable in a country where a high values is supposedly placed on freedom of association and the right of citizens to have their political views accurately and legitimately represented.

894 words

Clint Heine is spokesman for Student Choice, a group that promotes voluntary membership of student associations.

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