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Roy: Free At Last

Free At Last
Hon Heather Roy Third Reading Speech; Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill; Parliament; Wednesday, September 28 2011.
Mr Speaker,

It gives me great pleasure to lead the debate on this third reading of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Voluntary Student Membership has been a test of patience and many thought this day might not come at all in this Parliamentary term.

Others hoped it would not and around 0.1 percent of New Zealand's 400,000 or so tertiary students protested against the bill earlier this week, along with a handful today on Parliament’s lawn. I encourage Kiwis to be actively involved in their democracy because freedom of speech and freedom of action are important rights that should not be denied. There is a certain irony that these rights have been used to oppose another fundamental civil right - freedom of association for students but none-the-less I staunchly defend these students’ right to do so.

Opposition to issues is frequently noisy, while support is often silent. This post of support from a Canterbury University student appeared on my Facebook page yesterday: "I feel strongly about the freedom to choose and I know many others that feel the same. Please also remember to hear the silent voices of those of us who do support you. We don't need to make a huge ruckus out of it because we're sensible people supporting a sensible bill".

Voluntary Student Membership means students, from 1 January 2012, will no longer be compelled to join a Student Union before they are allowed to study at a tertiary education institution. They will instead be free to choose whether or not they join an organization that as an Incorporated Society has the same legal status as the Automobile Association or the SPCA. We don't force motorists to join the AA before they can own a car or force pet owners to join the SPCA.

Student Unions were originally voluntary organisations and this bill returns student unionism to its roots. Over recent decades they have become increasingly politicised when their core functions are meant to be representation of their student body - not just a select few, advocacy and the provision of some services. The University and Polytechnic councils provide other services such as health and welfare services.

There has been much talk during the course of debate surrounding VSM about huge opposition from students with the figure of 98 percent frequently quoted by the Bill’s opponents. Let's be very clear about this figure. It refers to submissions opposing the Bill at Select Committee. This was essentially a copy and paste campaign, like a petition, conducted by student politicians en masse. By comparison a Stuff poll last October had almost 5,000 votes and showed 72 percent were in favour of voluntary membership.

Misappropriation of Students’ Association funds has become a significant problem in the past few decades. The fraud has ranged from the farcical $6,000 spent by a VUWSA executive member phoning a psychic hotline through to the large scale embezzlement on several occasions at Whitireia Polytechnic totalling around $750,000. These all too regular examples of fraud proved the need for action. Compulsory membership has created an environment conducive to financial mismanagement. Student Unions are governed and managed by young people who often lack the necessary management skills and experience to run a multi-million dollar business and a captive market of students who cannot vote with their feet if their funds are mismanaged.

Voluntary membership means associations will have to attract membership to gain funds then provide the representation and services students want in order to keep them.

There has been much talk in this debate about Australia’s experience of voluntary membership, or VSU as it’s known across the Tasman. Those opposing the Bill have conveniently ignored the Student Unions that have not only survived but thrived under Voluntary membership. The University of West Australia stands out as an example for the rest. Amid the doomsday predictions promulgated by the left, they retained 60 percent of their members under VSU and have continued to provide valued services to their members.

Looking to the future in New Zealand my intention was never to destroy Students’ Associations, but to give students free choice of belonging or not. I hope that associations will put as much effort into planning for the future as they have put into planning their protests. I hope to see Students’ Associations actively promote the benefits of membership by:

• Using quality communication with students to find out what they want, preferably using 21st century communications, as students do;

• Conducting quality market research on what services students actually value and are prepared to join to access;

• Affordable membership fees;

• Innovative incentives to join, such as discounts for members at student association bookshops and cafes and negotiated discounts with local retailers;

• Focussing advocacy on those issues which almost all students agree on such as increasing the quality of education and increasing accountability of tertiary institutions to students.

When students see an organisation providing representation and services they value they are much more likely to join.

There are many people to thank and acknowledge in this journey which spans at least 20 years. The battle started with the Freedom on Campus Network and has progressively been carried forward by Prebble's Rebels, ACT on Campus, the Young Nats, Student Choice and my ACT Party colleagues present and past. I would like to also thank the Select Committee members so ably chaired by Allan Peachy and the Select Committee staff who dealt with the large number of submissions and submitters. Thanks also to all submitters - both those supporting and those opposed to the bill. As a result of your contributions several changes were made to the Bill that have made it much better. To the officials from the Ministry of Education and PCO, my grateful thanks for your expertise, sage advice and most notably your cheerful patience to a process that ended up being much longer than was intended.

To Sir Roger Douglas, thanks for your Midas touch - I don't know anyone luckier at having bills drawn from the ballot and for shepherding VSM through the Select Committee process. And my grateful and sincere thanks to the staff in my office who have researched, advised, written, agonised and become very good at understanding parliamentary process because of their absolute belief in and commitment to freedom.

It is harder to say it any better than Andrew Little in his final address as President to the EPMU:

“I believe voluntary unionism - true freedom of association - gives the union movement much greater strength and a much greater moral authority.”

My final thanks to the National Party Caucus and United Future for their support of Voluntary Student Membership. Freedoms are hard won and so easily eroded. Parliament’s gift to students tonight is freedom of association. Please be sure to use it wisely.


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