Wednesday, June 22, 2005

VSU Won't Kill Unions, But Futile Campaigns Will

The debate on asylum seekers and VSU shows something many Australians never expected. Despite the absence of significant opposition, a range of opinions is being expressed in the Coalition partyroom.

Laurie Ferguson’s lame-duck responses on asylum seekers have effectively made Petro Georgiou the Shadow Minister for Immigration. And with revelations that Barnaby Jones and Fiona Nash will oppose the VSU bill in its present form, yet another backbench revolt seems likely.

Conservative e-mail lists (including “ozlibs” which the writer moderates) were running hot over the debate on asylum seekers. Many grassroots Liberals, it seemed, agreed with the position of Georgiou and Baird. But when it comes to VSU, there is little debate within conservative circles or even in the NSW Liberal left faction known as “the Group”.

In the Year 2000, I left the NSW Young Liberals. Was it disgust at their policies? No. I had turned 30 and had to leave in accordance with Party rules. The Group were still in charge. They had some reservations about VSU, while their critics in the more conservative Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) were strongly supportive of the push. As were senior Coalition MP’s such as the PM, Messrs Abbott and Costello and Bronwyn Bishop.

VSU opponents in those days included South Australian "wet" Senators Amanda Vanstone and Robert Hill. Yet even the Group position involved support for a watered down version called “Voluntary Student Representation” or VSR. This enabled the service roles of student unions to remain compulsorily funded by students as a condition of enrolment, whilst ensuring the political and representative wings of student unionism (including the notoriously futile SRC’s) were subject to voluntary membership.

In principle, it seems hard to understand what all the fuss on VSU is about. Perhaps a comparison with another crucial element of tertiary studies – textbooks – would be warranted.

Say my lecturer strongly recommends I buy a textbook for my course. Chances are, the textbook has been written by the lecturer. Must I buy the book brand new? I may well decide to. But there are options.

I could borrow or share the textbook with someone. I could buy a second hand copy or an older edition. I could borrow the textbook from another university or local library. I could take a risk and go without that textbook by relying on recorded lecture notes and/or another textbook.

Of course, most students will end up buying the new edition from the lecturer. Why? Because they need the textbook. Because they regard the benefit of purchasing the textbook as self-evident.

If the benefits of student union membership were similarly self-evident, students would flock to join. If student unions and their funded SRC’s could convince students of the essential nature of their services, only a minority of students would give up the opportunity.

A kind of voluntary union membership exists in a number of professions. In NSW, it is no longer compulsory for lawyers to be members of the Law Society of NSW. But few lawyers would miss out on the added benefits that Law Society membership brings. And the Society has the advantage of having spent the previous decade selling itself to what were then its compulsory members.

The Society took advantage of its incumbency and convinced lawyers that they should join even when membership is not compulsory. Today, over 90% of solicitors in NSW are members of the Law Society.

Student unions share a similar incumbency. Yet instead of taking advantage of this incumbency, student unions and the National Union of Students are engaging in self-serving campaigns aimed at the votes of younger students.

The cost of a university education is increasing. Many undergraduate students are being forced to work in casual or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. Every dollar counts. Students are price conscious.

One of my young relatives recently started university. He told me of attending a lecture where the lecturer spent 10 minutes espousing the evils of VSU and telling them excitedly that Aussie rocker Peter Garrett would be addressing an anti-VSU rally. My relative’s response sums up the attitude of many students:

“Peter who? Peter Costello?”

Compulsory student unionism, like the former Midnight Oil lead singer, is fast becoming an ideological dinosaur. Many tertiary students are wondering what all the fuss is about. Many are cynical and see the anti-VSU campaign as an attempt by the fat-cat bourgeoisie of the campus Left to protect their livelihoods and traditional breeding grounds.

And many students grew up in an era of conservative political supremacy. They see union membership in the workforce declining. They grew up watching and listening to conservative politicians and commentators in the media. Student unions have an uphill battle if they wish to change the minds of this new generation.

Student union officials should perhaps concentrate their efforts less on campaigning against VSU and more on preparing students for the inevitable VSU era. How? By doing what professional bodies like the Law Society of NSW did. By selling their services to students and convincing them that they should voluntarily join.

VSU won’t kill unions. Futile campaigns will.

(The author is a Sydney employment and industrial relations lawyer. He was a councillor on the Macquarie University Student Council in 1993, and served as legal adviser and then as electoral arbiter to the Council. He was a delegate to the NSW Liberal Party state council during 1995-2000 and stood as endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal election.)