VSU: dead in the water?
By Cass Ilia
NEWCASTLE The passage of the federal government's "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation looks increasingly unlikely with Senator Mal Colston announcing last week that he will vote against it. Without Colston's support the government may lack the numbers in the senate to pass the bill.
The day before Colston made his position on VSU clear, the chairperson of the senate select committee on VSU, Liberal Senator John Tierney, debated students about the legislation at Newcastle University. Despite being organised by the campus Liberal Club, the meeting was dominated by opponents of VSU. Newcastle University vice-chancellor Roger Holmes also attended to argue against the legislation.
Although the meeting preceded Colston's announcement, Tierney was pessimistic about the bill passing the Senate. He claimed that Senator Brian Harradine would vote the legislation down. As things stand, the only chance the Liberals have of getting the legislation passed is if Harradine votes for it and Colston is either absent or abstains (a possibility he has not ruled out).
This news is a huge boost for students campaigning against VSU. Colston's decision to oppose the bill reflects his awareness of the extent of opposition to it in the general public. However, the battle is far from over.
Colston says that his main concern is about the impact of VSU on service provision. This means the door is probably open to a compromise along the lines of the Victorian model of VSU, in which the services remained but the political activities of the union were curtailed. Such a compromise would be supported by most vice-chancellors and could be accepted by any or all of Harradine, Colston or the Democrats when they hold the balance of power in the new Senate from July.
Tierney told the Newcastle meeting that if the current legislation fails to be passed the government will redraft, "possibly along Victorian lines".
During the debate at Newcastle University, Tierney was coy about the merits of the legislation for students. When questioned by the university's student association president Michael Kachel about the financial loss VSU would bring to regional areas, Tierney "reassured" him that any negative economic consequences of the package would be ironed out.
Union board representative and Resistance organiser Alison Dellit argued that VSU was an attempt by the government to suppress student dissent. Tierney responded by saying that it was illegitimate for students to spend money opposing the government. He made several alarmist references to terrorist organisations supposedly supported by student unions. The student association presented Tierney with 3000 signatures on an anti-VSU petition.
On the May 21, a debate on VSU was hosted by the Newcastle Liberal Club. Two-thirds of the more than 100 students who turned up voted against VSU.