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Arise, Sir Douglas

September 21, 2009

(The latest episode of my quixotic attempt to change the world through student magazine opinion articles, published 21/09/09)

Although I am as disgusted as anybody that the wrongheaded Roger Douglas was recognized by the Queen as one of our greatest citizens, his grandly titled “Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill”, recently drawn in the member’s ballot, is difficult to argue against. Since it was inherited from Heather Roy it makes sense that it contains none of the intense, possibly senile menace of the intermittent incantations that have followed Sir Roger’s election night reanimation. It is hard to make a convincing case for forcing association with anything, and the bill, together with the new services levy, provide a strong motive for reorganizing the UCSA and other student associations in a more logical way. But before laying out my grand plans, I would like to point out the failings of the arguments put forth by both sides.

Let us begin with Steve Jukes’ column in Canta in which he argued for the status quo, where all students are members unless they opt out. He points out that membership isn’t really compulsory since anybody can technically leave the association, but then turns to blackmail as he says that non-members won’t get to use the UCSA services. This would be reasonable if students who didn’t join saved money, but students now have to pay $533+GST to the University every year for services, of which a large fraction will go to the UCSA to run their side of the services. Thus to exercise a fundamental freedom of association students are forced to lay down a large wad of cash.

I agree with Jukes that free-market-inspired arguments about fraud and accountability are totally fallacious. To paraphrase a famous right-wing line, when I hear the word “accountability” I reach for Das Kapital. How are elected student reps going to be held accountable when they only stay for one term anyway? And expecting first years to rationally choose whether they will join the UCSA at the start of the year based on which new unknowns won the elections the year before is laughable. The only way this argument makes sense is if the bill is expected to bleed the associations until they have no money to fraudulently spend. However, in the case of the UCSA about $7 million out of a total of $8 million total income came from operations in 2008, with most of the remainder coming from the University. Since students don’t personally pay anything to join, having a smaller membership base is a very weak way to starve the UCSA beast.

ACT’s argues for the amendment by claiming that student politics are dominated by fringe groups which don’t represent students as a whole. Let us first note that ACT is a group of nutbars with 3.65% of the party vote whose supporters idolize the ‘philosophy’ of a cult leader who wrote a few terrible books about how great complete selfishness is. They are less ‘mainstream’ than the pseudo-Nazi British National Party, which received 6.26% of the British votes for the European Parliament and similar numbers in local body elections. Putting these interesting facts aside, ACT’s argument is again only sensible if the goal is make associations into shrivelled remnants. If a dedicated fringe is obsessed with getting into power a reduction of membership to those who can be bothered registering is hardly going to diminish the fringe’s influence. Only if the associations become small enough to be irrelevant will this supposed fringe lose its power. Furthermore, even the existence of a crazy fringe is debatable in the case of the UCSA, which generally elects totally mainstream people with narry a hint of radical ideology.

Next let us consider the implications of the amendment for the UCSA. According to its constitution, the purpose of the association is to represent students, organize services conducive to their welfare and well being, and enrich the student experience with services, facilities and “phenomenal events”. (Whoever added the p-word really should be held accountable) There are three major parts of the UCSA: representation/advocacy, commercial activities, and non-profit services. Last year’s president, Michael Goldstein, wrote in his end of year report that the UCSA should “delineate” the commercial activities of the UCSA from the “core service functions”. Why not break out the commercial activities from the association and consolidate all the services that will not be provided by a for-profit company into an organization funded and run by UC?

Non-profitable services (food bank, cheap gym, study spaces and so on) could be run by the University itself in the same way the UCSA runs them. Although it would be hard to trust UC not to drop such services to save cash given its current financial situation, if the new services levy is used properly it should be able to fund all of the non-commercial service activities of the UCSA, leaving the UCSA to be purely a representation and advocacy body. It makes sense for services to be run by dedicated employees rather than miscellaneous elected students, and the UC will pay the bills in either case. When the UCSA’s only function is to provide representation and advocacy students will be free to join if they want their opinions to be heard by politicians and chancellors, but will not lose the benefits their service fee entitles them to if they opt out.

Sir Roger’s bill and the services levy together suggest a new way to structure the University and the student’s association which is worth considering. The conflict between the fundamental freedom to choose to join the association and the compulsory services levy which will be administrated by the association to provide services for members only is serious and should be addressed regardless of the bill’s passage. Here I have suggested a radical way to resolve it which should help calibrate the range of possibilities unearthed by the mummified king of the New Zealand free market.

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