Voluntary membership Bill passes; students not giving up

Student leaders were vowing to "fix" the new law on voluntary student association membership, minutes after it was passed under urgency in the House of Representatives last night.

The Act New Zealand-sponsored Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill's third reading was completed to cheers from its supporters yesterday evening. National and United Future also supported the Bill.

Labour has pledged to repeal it when it returns to government.

National co-president of the New Zealand Union of Students Associations Max Hardy said the association was extremely disappointed in the National Party for not seeing there could be a reasonable alternative to the Bill, instead opting for "political ping-pong".

The law was not enduring and would need to be changed.

The association would continue to engage with the National Party on the issue " if it is willing to talk to us about better alternatives".

It would support MPs offering private members' Bills opposing the new legislation and planned to be active in the forthcoming general election campaign on the issue.

Asked about the immediate impact of the law, Mr Hardy said it would vary from campus to campus and the association would be monitoring that, but he felt smaller polytechnic campuses' student associations could be the first to collapse.

Larger associations, such as that at the University of Otago, would probably continue, but their ability to have a recognised independent view would be threatened, he said.

Act MP Heather Roy said she was delighted at the Bill's passing. It restored a "fundamental civil right - freedom of association".

Before the Bill received its third reading about 100 students gathered on Parliament's forecourt in a last-minute display of opposition, calling on Prime Minister John Key to "Kick the Bill, don't pass it", The New Zealand Herald reported.

Labour MP Grant Robertson said student associations had been assured by National MPs the law would not be passed before the election and, therefore, would not take effect until next year.

Mr Robertson acknowledged that expectation was also probably fuelled by his party's delaying tactics as MPs spoke at great length and detail about the relatively inconsequential Royal Societies Bill, which preceded it on Parliament's order paper.

Mr Robertson's colleague and Labour tertiary education spokesman David Shearer said the Bill, advanced by "ideologues", would "crush" student associations and, to cheers from the protesters, said Labour would repeal it in the event it returned to government.

But any prospect of a last-minute change of mind by the Government was quickly quashed by Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce, who said his Government had "moved quite significantly" to counter concerns about the loss of services with compulsory student services levies arrangements.

That allowed universities and polytechnics to charge students for services which might otherwise have been provided by student associations, but limited the range of services they may provide.

Asked whether the Government was supporting the Bill to "stick it" to Labour, many of whose top-ranking MPs got their start in politics at student associations, Mr Joyce said he was unaware of that.

Labour had hoped to reach a compromise with National which would see students continue to be automatically enrolled as members of their associations but would allow them to opt out and have their fees refunded.

However, that had been rejected by National, with Mr Robertson putting that down to a "dodgy deal" between National and Act to "prop up an imploding and ineffective Act party".


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