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Glenn Peoples: Greens Treat Students As Pawns

Greens Treat Students As Political Pawns


By Glenn Peoples

Green MP Nandor Tanczos (State of the (student) union, 13 April) is wide of the mark when he attempts to portray the movement for voluntary membership of student associations - which re-emerged in the mid-1990s - as a conspiracy to weaken student associations and make it easier for the then National government to implement its tertiary policies.

In fact, it is Mr Tanczos who wants to use students to advance the fortunes of a political party. He sees students as political pawns, and regards student associations as a vehicle for promoting policies supported by the Greens.

The argument from Mr Tanczos is pure fantasy. The students who argued in favour of voluntary membership were not attempting to clear the path for any party's political agenda. Instead they were trying to claim a fundamental civil right: freedom of association. They were simply saying that students should be able to decide on an individual basis whether or not they joined the organisations which claimed to speak on their behalf.

This is the same right that Mr Tanczos enjoys: he can decide for himself, on an individual basis without any sort of referendum, whether or not he joins the Green party, Norml, Greenpeace, Amnesty International or any other group. The ability to decide which groups you join is a key element of freedom of association. Mr Tanczos puts himself up as a champion of civil rights, so why should he oppose students' right to freedom of association?

The answer can be found in his view of the role of student associations.

Student associations are supposed to be representative bodies. In theory, they should reflect the range of opinion held by their members. In the rest of the country, where voluntary membership is the norm, people express their support for a group by first joining and then participating to ensure their views are heard and reflected by the group. If dissatisfied, people can leave the group and find other organisations which more closely reflect their views.

However in reality, compulsory associations end up being captured by students who see collectives as the best way to pursue their goals. Individually-focused students are more likely to shun collectives and concentrate on obtaining qualifications and getting out into the workforce. Collectivist students dominate association elections and a façade of representation is created when this class of people are voted into office, under the false claim that they speak for all students.

Inevitably collectivist student politicians push policies which closely resemble those of left wing parties such as the Greens. These policies include no tuition fees, universal student allowances and, of course, compulsory student association membership. Not coincidentally, these policies neatly match those of the Greens. Students who don't agree with these positions are misrepresented and ignored by compulsory associations.

A cynical and illegitimate piece of political machinery is created: most students are forced to join groups which claim to speak on behalf of all students, and these groups then push policies in line with parties like the Greens. Therefore it's no surprise that politicians like Mr Tanczos should support the continuation of a system which works to advance his party's political goals.

Mr Tanczos does not see representation as the primary objective of student associations. In his view associations' main role is to promote policies closely aligned to those of the Greens.

Support for compulsory membership boils down to support for a system which delivers huge amounts of money to associations. Without compulsory membership and the money it provides, associations could not exist in their current form. Mr Tanczos opposes voluntary membership because he sees it as an attack on the "foundations of student political power: the ability and resources to organise large numbers of students". Translated this means voluntary membership would remove associations' blank cheque - the ability of student groups to put their hands into students' pockets without ever having to prove their value to individual students.

Remove compulsory membership and you remove a significant support base for the Greens. Collectivist student politicians and student media provide a valuable foothold for the Greens, and allow the party to promote a student-friendly image.

Mr Tanczos' view of "student political power" is entirely bureaucratic. He thinks associations should be able to forcibly take money from every student and use these funds to set up large, well-funded organisations. He shows no faith in the ability of like-minded students to organise themselves without coercion.

So what about representation? What about the idea that an association should actually reflect the views of its members? And what about the students who don't agree with the views the association is promoting, ostensibly on their behalf? And what about the students who don't want to part of an organisation which is essentially pushing Green policy?

In the view of Mr Tanczos, these students don't matter. But he can't acknowledge the fact that some students might support tuition fees and loans, and may not believe in so-called free education. Nor can he acknowledge that some students vote for parties like National, Act, United Future, the Christian parties, Libertarianz or any (partially) pro-market parties. Even Labour-voting students are misrepresented as their party supports tuition fees and has failed to implement universal allowances.

Mr Tanczos must maintain the myth that associations represent all students and that all students are die-hard opponents of any form of market-based tertiary reform. To acknowledge the contrary would be to admit that the form of representation created by compulsory membership is fundamentally illegitimate and corrupt.

The "increase in both the level and the sophistication of student activism" observed by Mr Tanczos is also a myth. Some compulsory associations have become more efficient but this in no way reflects the emergence of a strong, grassroots student movement. Instead it is merely a bureaucratic response to protect associations' funding from the financial threat posed by voluntary membership. The internet has also required associations to be more transparent and the improved systems put in place by some associations are merely a response to this pressure.

Despite some improvements to their bureaucracies, compulsory associations are still disconnected from the vast majority of students. Most students are still compelled to belong, and levels of active participation are very low. For example, this year's president of the compulsory Waikato Students Union was elected in a vote which had a turnout of less than two percent of Waikato students. But 100 percent had to pay their compulsory association fee.

Supporters of voluntary membership acknowledge that students have differing interests and a wide range of political views. To the extent that student politics can be said to exist, it should primarily be concerned with creating a framework that allows the diverse political opinions held by individual students to be fairly and legitimately expressed. Any rhetoric which justifies compulsory membership on the grounds that all students have identical interests is simply a lie.

On the other hand, to Mr Tanczos students are means to an end, and student politics is about using compulsory membership to conscript students into a single grouping and then using students' money to advance the political agenda of the Greens.

The Greens have shown they're willing to compromise their principles for political gain. By supporting compulsory membership, a system which denies over 250,000 New Zealanders a fundamental political right, the Greens have seriously tarnished their self-created image as champions of civil rights.

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Glenn Peoples is spokesman for Student Choice, a group which upholds voluntary membership of student associations on the grounds of freedom of association. www.studentchoice.org.nz

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